It may not help a fraught relationship with Washington, but Bolivia’s new constitution is a victory to savour
Sunday’s referendum vote on a new constitution for Bolivia, which has led to a predicted victory for president Evo Morales and his Movement for Socialism party, will be welcomed by all those anxious for the country’s future, but it will not in itself lead to a healing of the country’s deep political and ethnic divisions. Yet it will certainly provide Morales with some breathing space as he contemplates the next steps to be taken towards a fairer society, to give the indigenous majority of the population the possibility of participating more comprehensively in Bolivian politics.
During the course of last year, the country was close to an undeclared civil war, with violence erupting in several cities, and rising to a violent crescendo in September. An opposition-inspired massacre of 18 people, mostly indigenous farmers, in the northern town of Pando led to political intervention by the newly-created Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The subsequent establishment of formal negotiations in October between government and opposition allowed the referendum to take place in relatively peaceful conditions.
Some have compared Morales’ strategy with that of Hugo Chávez, who organised the re-writing of the Venezuelan constitution shortly after his election in 1998, and used it as a springboard for reformist measures in many areas of national life. The reforms proposed by Morales are comparably radical, yet many people would argue that they are long overdue. Unlike Chávez, who seeks a constitutional reform in February that would permit a president to enjoy permanent re-election (if actually re-elected),
Morales agreed during October’s negotiations with the opposition that the constitution would require presidents to stand down after two terms. He will put his name forward again for re-election next year, and since he is an indigenous candidate representing the majority population, he will almost certainly win.
The problems in Bolivia are caused largely by the ethnic minority, mostly the descendants of white settlers, who live in the eastern provinces of the country that contain the chief engines of the economy – oil and gas. Many of these people have a racist and fascist mentality and, after centuries in control, dislike the prospect of their future being dominated by the formerly-suppressed indigenous majority.
Like so much else in the world, much will depend on the decisions taken by Obama’s team. The outgoing administration had long been opposed to Morales, even before he was first elected, regarding the former leader of the coca-growers’ union as a political firebrand and not much better than a drug baron. The Americans worked so openly with the opposition behind the scenes that Morales was obliged last year to expel the US ambassador, a gesture that was immediately imitated by Chávez. (Morales repaid the compliment this month by expelling the Israeli ambassador from La Paz, during the Israeli assault on Gaza, in the wake of the Venezuelan decision to do the same.)
Obama will certainly wish to distance himself from the legacy of George Bush, and the relative quiescence of the Bolivian opposition since the Pando massacre suggests that they are unsure what future assistance they will get from Washington. The traditional allies of Bolivia’s white minority have been their close Latin American neighbours, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, but these – on a leftist path – have all expressed their support and solidarity for Morales.
Whatever the eventual outcome of Morales’ reforms, the new approved constitution is a major landmark in Bolivian history, providing for the long-needed re-shaping of the judiciary (including the establishment of "community courts"), a revival of the land reform legislation of the 1950s (including a cap on the size of landholdings by an individual owner), and the safe-guarding of the oil and gas reserves for the benefit of the people. Yet more important – and at the heart of the new constitutional charter – are the clauses that strengthen the rights of the country’s indigenous peoples. Sunday’s victory is one to savour and ponder, and will create frissons of excitement throughout Latin America.