I have had the following piece published for TNI on the approval of Bolivia's new constitution. The photo is by Ben Dangl of upsidedownworld which has some good coverage of the build-up to and the day of the referendum.
On 25 January, three days before the world’s business and political elites gathered for the World Economic Forum in Davos, a very different crowd was forming in the Andean capital of Bolivia. Whilst Davos’ leaders appeared bereft and lost at the failure of their prized economic model, Bolivians danced to mark its defeat. The occasion was the celebration of the country’s new constitution, which in its opening words “puts behind us the colonial, republican and neoliberal state” and which commits itself to building a state “based on principles of sovereignty, dignity, complementarity, solidarity, harmony and equal distribution and redistribution of social goods.”
Against a barrage of opposition media propaganda funded by Bolivia’s elites, the new constitution was approved with 61% of the popular vote. Given the extent of the financial crisis in the US and Europe, the clear lack of popular confidence in Bolivia in the free market model is unlikely to have ruffled many feathers, but it is none the less very significant. Bolivia was once the prized pupil for its wholesale application of policies encouraged by the IMF and the World Bank. Now it is one of the countries articulating an alternative.
Post neoliberal constitution
This is evident in the 100-page document which rejects the dominance of private capital and reasserts the role of the state in the economy. All of Bolivia’s natural resources such as gas and oil are declared the patrimony of the state, with the state given the unique right to administer strategic resources and to run basic services such as electricity and water. Private monopolies of goods and services are forbidden, and the state is required instead to develop policies directed towards reducing social inequalities, focused on the domestic market and favouring small-scale farmers and micro-industries.
At a time when monolithic systems (whether US empire or capitalism) are under increasing challenge, and in recognition of a re-assertive indigenous identity in the Americas, the constitution also declares Bolivia a pluri-national state. This means it recognises the 36 indigenous nations and languages that make up Bolivia, and the right of indigenous communities in their territories to run their own judicial, health, educational and communication systems and to exercise distinct forms of communitarian democracy. Moreover, the constitution commits to making key indigenous values such as “living well” (idea of living justly with neighbours and in harmony with the planet) integral to the country’s identity and therefore promoted in all its institutions and policies.
In addition, the constitution picks up on many demands at the forefront of social movement campaigning in the last decade: the prohibition of foreign military bases on Bolivian soil, the recognition of household work as an economic activity, the wide and full recognition of political, social, economic and cultural rights, the rejection of trade agreements that endanger peasant producers or small businesses.
Nevertheless, the struggle that Bolivia’s social movements have been through to get to this stage has been very costly. It was in 1990, that a group of indigenous marchers from the east of the country first put forward the demand for a new constitution that would properly recognise Bolivia’s ethnic and cultural diversity. It took many years of persistent protest and enduring brutal repression, and then the hard graft of debating and discussing proposals in countless meetings, for the new constitution to take shape. Morales’ successful election in December 2005 was strongly tied to his firm commitment to facilitate a constituent assembly that would reshape Bolivia.
Morales’ victory gave new energy to social movements, but sparked even fiercer resistance. The last three years have witnessed a constant barrage of attacks led by a landowning and business elite who are mainly based in the eastern lowland regions of Bolivia. Manipulating regional sentiment, racism and fear of centralised government (along with the usual bogeymen of communism and Venezuelan interference), they have created enough popular support to stall any government attempts at structural reform. They have backed this up with the use of ‘shock’ troops of young men who have attacked the constitutional assembly itself, government institutions, social movement leaders, and indigenous people in general. In one such attack, during September 2008, a group of henchmen linked to the governor of the northern province of Pando killed more than 30 campesino farmers.
Whilst the MAS government has frequently shown that it has popular backing at the ballot box (winning four electoral victories so far), the Right’s attacks have been sufficiently destabilising to make it very difficult for the government to advance its agenda. It proved impossible for some of the ministries, in particular the vice-ministry of land, to do their work in some regions of the country. Legislation was constantly blocked in the opposition-controlled senate. At times the threat of civil war seemed a frightening possibility to many Bolivians.
Against this background, in October 2008, the government agreed to over 100 changes to the constitutional document to enable it to pass the Senate. This included changes such as agreeing that land size restrictions would not be applied retroactively, the dropping of an overall prohibition on genetically modified organisms, allowing mixed public-private companies to be involved in service provision, and weakening the rights of indigenous communities to completely block exploitation of resources within their territories.
This angered many on the radical and indigenous left. “This constitution is the definition of vagueness and surrender,” said Pedro Portugal of the newspaper Pukara. Social movements, including those supportive of MAS, expressed concern that the government’s negotiated compromises with the opposition had made land reform proposals meaningless. The government’s valiant efforts to avoid violence and negotiate compromises can be seen by their bases as betrayal of their promise to deliver radical change.
Yet even the watered down constitution proved too much for many of Bolivia’s elites, who continued to campaign against it. Even after the vote, Ruben Costas, the governor of Santa Cruz is calling the results a “draw” as four out of Bolivia’s nine provinces had voted against the constitution. He warned of “unyielding resistance”. Branco Marinkovich, a food industry tsar and implacable opponent of Evo Morales, blamed the results on fraud and Venezuelan interference and said that the country needed a two-state solution, rather like the Hong Kong-China arrangement. The opposition still has plenty of tools for disruption.
Building a new hegemony
Against this bitter opposition, Bolivia’s government now has to develop the laws, and entrench the authority of the constitution – in other words create a hegemony for the ideas, visions and principles within the constitution. This will be a struggle that will take place in congress, in the courts, on the media waves and on the streets. Leny Olivera, a student activist in Cochabamba, says: “We have learnt that changing laws is not enough, we need to change people’s minds and attitudes and this is a long process.”
For the MAS government, it will be critical to start to winning this battle in the four regions (Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni and Tarija) where the majority voted against the constitution. This will be difficult as these regions are tightly controlled by the opposition. Whilst opposition leaders are unable to articulate an alternative national vision, they are clearly determined, at least, to ensure that the new constitution is not applied within their regions.
Yet the fact that more than 30% of citizens in these regions have consistently voted for the process of change, in an atmosphere of fear and intolerance, suggests that the Right’s support is not as solid as they purport. In addition, the 80% of the population who voted in favour of restricting land ownership to a maximum of 5000 hectares (50 square kilometres) shows that, aside from party polarisations, that there is a broad spread support across the whole country for redistribution of land and wealth.
Ultimately, the lesson of the constitutional vote is that documents and institutions alone won’t bring about lasting change. A stalwart leader of social movements, like Evo Morales, knows that, as do many in the social movements that back him, frequently referring to the more than five hundred years of struggle that still inspire today’s struggles.
Oscar Olivera, who helped lead the water war in Cochabamba that threw out multinational Bechtel and a strong critic of the government from the left, says: “The yes vote won, which could have been predicted, but this doesn’t mean that there is one box in which we can find the solutions to our sufferings and therefore create wellbeing. The YES must be understood as the possibility, still, of using this space as a way of continuing to reflect, to think, to struggle, to continue hoping, believing, living in order to create by our own means the life we want, that we have longed for with such passion, as we marched to La Paz, or from San Sebastian, or when we took over factories, and led strikes.” In Bolivia, the struggle for economic and social justice is far from over.