In the morning on Sunday, January 18, after a heavy rain fell on La Paz, Bolivia, the sun came out, drying the umbrellas of thousands of marchers winding through the city streets. The mobilization was in support of a new constitution which is to be voted on this January 25.
Eddie Mamani, a resident of La Paz with an indigenous wiphala flag draped around his neck, spoke loudly to be heard over the brass band playing behind him. "For too many years we have been exploited by right wing politicians who do not govern for all Bolivians. We are marching today for our children and our grandchildren."
The march, which stretched for some five blocks, was filled with the white, blue and black flags of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), the party of President Evo Morales. The sound of fireworks mixed with honking horns from cars and buses waiting for the march to pass. While posters of Morales bobbed up and down in the crowd, and copies of the new constitution were handed out to onlookers, marchers yelled "Sí, Sí, Sí! Vamos por el Sí," urging voters to cast a "Yes" ballot in the upcoming vote. Polls indicate that the constitution will be approved.
Along with the nationalization of Bolivia’s gas reserves, rewriting the constitution was a major promise of Morales during his 2005 presidential campaign. The road to this new constitution has been a long, complicated and often violent one. One key event in this process was the July 2, 2006 election of assembly members to the constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. Later, in December of 2007, the new constitution was passed in an assembly meeting in Oruro which was boycotted by opposition members. After months of street battles and political meetings, the Bolivian congress ratified a new draft of the constitution last October 21. In many ways, these various steps will culminate in the January 25th vote.
Among other significant changes, the new constitution allows for a broader involvement of the state in the Bolivian economy, including the state’s participation in the gas and oil industry. It establishes the Bolivian state as plurinacional to reflect the diversity of indigenous and Afro-Bolivian groups in the country. It formally promotes the official use of the country’s 36 indigenous languages. The new constitution also grants autonomy to indigenous groups across the nation, enabling them to govern their own communities. This autonomy for indigenous communities may undermine the power of right wing prefects in opposition-led departments. The current constitution also expands the number of seats in the recently opposition-controlled Senate, and other seats are reserved specifically for Senators elected from indigenous communities.
Like many of the constitution’s critics, Rolando, a thirty something resident of La Paz, was not enthusiastic about the extended rights granted to indigenous people. Rolando, sporting a beard and baseball cap, said he wouldn’t be voting in support of the new constitution because "it was not written for all Bolivians. It just takes into account the rights of rural and indigenous communities." This is an often-heard critique of the constitution. Yet it doesn’t fully take into account that 62% of the population self-identify as indigenous, and about the same percentage live under the poverty line. Many who support the new constitution are doing so because the document grants long overdue rights to the "originarios," indigenous Bolivians who have been marginalized for centuries.
Another point of contention is the way the constitution deals with religion. The current constitution says, "The State recognizes and upholds the apostolic Roman Catholic religion. [It] guarantees the exercise of every other cult." The new constitution says, "The State respects and guarantees the liberty of religion and spiritual beliefs, in accord with one’s cosmovisiones. The State is independent of religion." Many critics, besides fearing the separation of church and state, say this change opens the window for the government to allow gay marriage and legalize abortion. Unfortunately, nothing indicates that pushing for such much-needed policy changes is on the current government’s agenda.
Under the new constitution, land deemed productive will not be broken up by the government, but unproductive land will be redistributed, and a cap on new land purchases – set either at 5,000 or 10,000 hectares – will be voted on separately. Land reform is an area of the constitution which has been highly criticized from the Bolivian left. Critics say the constitution should go further in addressing the fact that most of Bolivia’s land is in the hands of just a few wealthy families. These weak land reforms are considered a major concession to the right wing; much of Bolivia’s fertile land is in the eastern departments, currently controlled by opposition prefects.
In what appears to have been another concession to the opposition, the draft constitution was also changed to prevent Morales from running for two additional terms, as an earlier draft of the constitution allowed. If the new constitution is approved, Morales will run for his last consecutive term in general elections in December of 2009.
The coming days will be full of marches across the country for and against the new constitution. Sunday’s mobilization was a preview of things to come. Max, a participant in the march waving a MAS flag, and who described himself as "just another Bolivian citizen," said that he is supporting the new constitution because of the many constitutions which Bolivia has had throughout its history, "this is the best one." He also approved of the way the constitution was developed in the constituent assembly and believed it was "written for all Bolivians" and will "help keep our leaders honest."
One section of this march ended up in a park with a giant blown-up balloon figure of Evo Morales in the middle of it, and dozens of people handing out pamphlets on the new constitution and MAS calendars for the new year. While one group of people slapped "Sí" bumper stickers on cars in the area, another woman methodically peeled the same stickers off the guard rail of a nearby bridge.
Lourdes Calla, a brown-haired activist in the MAS, wove a wiphala flag and jumped to the rhythm of a nearby chant. "I am voting in support of the constitution for the equality of all Bolivians – there should be no upper and lower economic class, we’re all Bolivians," she said. "This new constitution has been created through a historically democratic process, and defends the rights of indigenous and rural communities. Now is the time to put these rights into practice."
Stay tuned for more reports and analysis on the upcoming vote and new constitution.
Benjamin Dangl is currently based in Bolivia, and is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com