Bolivia’s compromised constitution

November 10, 2008

Sarah Hines looks at the compromises with the right that shaped a proposed new constitution in Bolivia.

AS MANY as 100,000 supporters of Bolivian President Evo Morales joined the president in a march October 20 in the capital city of La Paz to demand that the Bolivian Congress ratify a new constitution.

Miners, peasants, petroleum workers, students and other activists marched more than 100 miles across the chilly Bolivian altiplano in support of a proposed constitution that promised to re-found the country in the interests of the country's indigenous majority.

But meanwhile, behind closed doors in Congress, Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party was engaged in negotiations with the parties of the oligarchy that would fundamentally change the constitution's character.

The following day, Congress ratified a new draft of the constitution, and Morales signed a measure that will put the proposal to a vote in a popular referendum January 25. The 100,000 to 200,000 MAS supporters who packed into Plaza Murillo to watch Morales approve the measure were told that the new draft contained only small formal changes.

Bolivian President Evo Morales
Bolivian President Evo Morales (Joel Alvarez)

While the Morales government is hailing the revised constitution as "greatly improved," it, in fact, represents yet another hollow victory for the MAS--like Morales' success in a recall referendum in August. In that vote, Morales won the support of two-thirds of voters and kept his office, plus two right-wing governors were ousted. Yet the right-wing leaders in the violently secessionist eastern departments, or states, of Bolivia were also returned to office.

In the wake of the recall referendum, the clash between Morales and the right returned to the proposed constitution.

It is telling that the new draft constitution is being hailed as a victory not only by Morales and his governing party, but also by the country's right-wing opposition parties and governors. The constitution does inscribe some of the reforms that Morales instituted over his two-and-half-years in office, but it falls far short of the demands of the social movements that put him there.

THE CONSTITUTION proposal is the result of a long and complicated process that began with the July 2006 election of a constituent assembly empowered to rewrite the document. After a process fraught with conflict and violence, a constitution draft was passed in December 2007 in a meeting in Oruro boycotted by the right-wing opposition.

Election of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution was one of the central demands of the social movements that ousted neoliberal former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003, in a confrontation where approximately 80 protesters were killed by government forces. When Morales was elected president in December 2005--the first indigenous person to hold that office--he was obliged to call an assembly.

In addition, the "October Agenda"--as the movement's demands came to be known--called for land reform, nationalization of natural gas and other natural resources, guarantees of workers' rights, and a trial of Sanchez de Lozada and his ministers.

The draft constitution passed by the constituent assembly had to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in Congress. To win this vote, the MAS made huge concessions to the right opposition parties, blunting the already relatively moderate reforms enshrined in the document. Of the 400 articles in the constitution written and approved by the constituent assembly, close to 150 were changed in negotiations.

The draft constitution still proclaims the nationalization of hydrocarbons (natural gas) and water, agrarian reform, and indigenous autonomy. But the changed language will ensure that no landholdings or private property will be touched and indigenous autonomy will be cultural at best, and not territorial.

As Bolivian author and activist Pablo Mamani explained, "The indigenous appears as a mainstay of the new plurinational state, but in practice is reduced to a few representatives in the four branches of government."

The biggest retreat was around the question of land. The constitution draft passed at Oruro would have required the expropriation and redistribution of landholdings above 5,000 or 10,000 hectares (the size to be determined by another question in the popular referendum).

In the revised draft, this limit will only apply to newly acquired land. Thus, so long as the land is deemed socially and economically productive, the enormous latifundios of the eastern states, known as departments, will remain untouched.

The Bolivian research group Econoticias reports that the 100 largest landowners (known in Bolivia as the "100 clans") own five times as much territory as the country's 2 million poorest farmers--more than 25 million hectares (62 million acres).

Even though much of this land was acquired fraudulently under dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s and the neoliberal governments of the 1980s and 1990s, the constitutional language was changed so that previously acquired property will be protected, no matter what circumstances it was obtained by.

In the same vein, the constitution explicitly protects transnational corporations' ownership of previously state-owned enterprises and resources handed to them in the heyday of neoliberalism in the 1990s. The constituent assembly version of the constitution had already made this concession. Now, though, there's an additional clause stipulating that the reform "in no cases supposes the non-recognition of acquired rights," thereby eliminating the government's ability to nullify concessions acquired illegally.

This language has significant consequences for the question of hydrocarbons. Morales' nationalization decree of May 2006 only recognized contracts with private companies for obtaining services--the state maintained ownership and control of natural gas reserves. But this precept was undermined by contracts signed with foreign oil companies in October 2006 that allow the transnationals to own a substantial measure of oil reserves.

The protection of "acquired rights" in the new constitution means that the concessions gained by the foreign oil companies in 2006 will be protected, despite their violation of the terms of nationalization spelled out elsewhere in the constitution.

The draft constitution also opens the door to greater department autonomy. That's the main demand of the right wing based in Bolivia's gas-producing eastern departments, known as the media luna (half moon). For the right, autonomy doesn't mean greater popular participation in decision-making, but rather control by local political and economic elites over the profits from the gas industry.

Finally, instead of reelection for two more terms of office, as originally proposed, the new proposal limits Morales to running for just one more five-year term and moves the next election date from December 2010 to December 2009, thus cutting his current term to four years from five.

As Econoticias summarizes, "The new constitutional text leaves the largest landholdings untouched, preserves private property and foreign investment, and in effect maintains almost all of the privileges of the large landholders and oligarchs that exploit our natural resources without limit. This is why its approval has been deemed traitorous by the radical sectors of the indigenous movement and the revolutionary unions."

Given that the changes were dictated by the parties of the rich and powerful, which presided over the near wholesale transfer of Bolivia's public industries and natural resources to private interests in the last several decades, it is hard to understand how Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera justifies his view that the new draft is "substantially improved."

Because of the media luna leaders' differences with the La Paz-based right-wing parties, it was initially unclear whether the separatist opposition would support the amended constitution. But the media luna elite, too, is declaring victory.

"We have won; it is not a tie," said Rubén Costas, the governor, or prefect, of the Santa Cruz department and spokesman for the fascistic media luna right. Costas claims that the constitution will grant his department control over gas profits, natural resources and laws pertaining to land and natural resources.

This doesn't mean, however, that the right will now quit its attempts to destabilize the government or its violent attacks on indigenous groups.

The media luna right is still holding out on endorsing a yes vote in the constitutional referendum and threatening to stop the vote from going forward if the government doesn't lift the state of emergency in the state of Pando, where a violent attack on unarmed indigenous MAS supporters--coordinated by the department's prefect, Leopold Fernández--left 18 dead.

It is very likely that the right-wing prefects and civic committees in the media luna--and the fascist youth groups who answer to them--will continue to agitate to ensure that indigenous autonomy amounts to little and departmental autonomy amounts to a lot. And they will continue to take violent measures against those who try to stand in their way.

GIVEN THE balance of forces in Bolivia, there was no need for the MAS to make such extreme concessions.

Morales won an impressive two-thirds of the vote in last August's recall referendum, which kept him in office and removed two opposition prefects. The right subsequently discredited itself by launching a series of violent attacks in September widely feared to be the springboard for a coup attempt. The violence culminated in the September 11 massacre of 18 peasants in Pando.

The newly formed Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) rallied to Morales' defense, affirming their support for his democratically elected government against the would-be coup-makers.

But rather than use the momentum to confront the right, the MAS went into negotiations with opposition governors. It called off a mass march of tens of thousands who had organized a blockade of Santa Cruz to demand the resignation of Rubén Costas for his role in orchestrating the wave violence that targeted indigenous organizations, and gas installations, government buildings and airports.

Moreover, Morales also showed that he is no longer willing to tolerate the open collusion by the U.S. with the media luna right. He expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg in September for supporting the violent destabilization campaign of the opposition governors, a move that contributed to an almost total breakdown of relations between the two countries.

The U.S. responded by withdrawing Peace Corps volunteers from Bolivia, expelling Bolivia's ambassador to the U.S. and unilaterally canceling the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), a preferential trade deal between the U.S. and Bolivia--on the grounds that Bolivia was supposedly failing to meet quotas on coca eradication. It is worth noting that while coca production has grown by 5 percent in Bolivia from 2006 to 2007, there was a 27 percent jump in coca production in Colombia, a staunch U.S. ally.

Bolivia recently announced that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is no longer welcome in the country. The suspension of the ATPDEA will put 20,000 to 30,000 Bolivians out of work.

The increasingly combative relationship with the U.S. makes Bolivia even more dependent on its regional allies, especially Argentina and Brazil, the main purchasers of Bolivia's gas exports. And UNASUR expects Morales to negotiate with the media luna, not confront it.

This is in line with the politics of the Morales government itself, which hopes to create favorable conditions for the development of "Andean capitalism," which is seen as a necessary precondition for a fight for genuine socialism. This perspective means that Morales has been consistently hesitant to mobilize his base and eager to compromise with the right.

WHILE IT is widely predicted that the constitution will be approved in the popular referendum, the social movements that worked long and hard to influence its content are unlikely to roll over.

Raquel Gutiérrez reported in Programa de las Americas in September that the social movements are showing a "new margin of recuperated political autonomy" in their relationship to the MAS government.

The agricultural workers' union of the department of Pando, for example, released a communiqué in September that declared it would not accept any changes to the constitution approved by the constituent assembly in Oruro. "You cannot, hermano Presidente, conclude this the name of pacification of the country by liquidating our demands achieved with the blood of our brave comrades," the statement read.

Many movement leaders are speaking out against the new constitution proposal, including the leader of the MAS group in the Constituent Assembly, Ramon Loayza, and trade union leader Oscar Olivera, known for leading the struggle against water privatization in Cochabamba in 2000.

It is unclear how the tens of thousands who fought for genuine land reform, nationalization of natural resources and indigenous autonomy will respond to this hollowed-out constitution proposal. What is clear is that the constitution will do precious little to improve the lives of the Bolivian popular classes.

The international economic crisis, particularly the drop in gas and mineral prices, is already hitting Bolivia hard, and will make already precarious conditions even more so.

It will take a renewed struggle of Bolivian peasants, workers and indigenous movements to challenge the concessionary policies of the Morales government, stop the fascistic (and still armed) right wing, and ensure that the economic crisis is not resolved at their expense.

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