Clash of visions

An indigenous woman indignantly stands up and lashes out at a nearby suited man with her whip. Others in the theatre bang the benches and ignore the chair pleading for calm. A renowned campesino leader wanders from the stage and falls into the orchestra pit ending up in a coma.

It does sound like an overdramatic  soap opera (which Latin America is rather good at ), but the theatre which featured these events is now hosting the Constituent Assembly in Sucre whose job is to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution.

This has been the political context since I have got back to Bolivia with positions polarising dramatically only one month into the life of the Constituent Assembly. And it’s difficult to see a resolution or at least one that will last….

In the immediate term, the crisis has been caused by the failure of the parties to agree to some of the basics on how the Assembly will be run and set-up.

The governing and majority party in the Assembly, MAS, are saying the assembly must be "originario" (ie the assembly has overarching powers and can start a new constitution from scratch) and can approve proposals by a majority vote whilst agreeing that the final constitution would need to be approved by two-thirds of the Assembly as well as a popular referendum.

The right have hysterically thrown out accusations that MAS is trying to get rid of all government except the executive branch and that MAS is effectively engineering a coup d’etat. They have mobilised the four provinces (Tarija, Beni, Pando and Santa Cruz) where they have a parliamentary majority to threaten strikes and mobilisations against MAS which will start on Friday.

But to really understand what is happening now, it is important to look beyond the parties and the colourful rhetoric and even the whips flying back and forth to what lay behind the demands for a new Constitution. For in my view the Assembly emerged from two key trends in Bolivia in the last five years: a collapse of faith in the existing State and a growing confidence and articulation by the indigenous majority who demanded a Constitution that reflected and included them.

In many ways the protests that have periodically paralysed the country since 2000 were not just about the failures of neo-liberal economic policies to deliver for the poor, but also a profound disillusion in the traditional political system which seemed to serve a self-interested elite.

From my first days here in Bolivia, I have repeatedly heard criticism, not so much of specific policies, but of "traditional politicians who continue to rob us." Indigenous leaders would point back much further than 2000 saying that no Constitution since Bolivia’s independence in 1825 had ever really included or been written by the indigenous majority.

The social contract which exists in every State whereby Government can rely on basic support from the population in exchange for periodic elections seemed to have completely broken down – something I reflected on this blog during protests in 2005. It had led to what Alvaro Garcia Linera, current Vice-President, had called a "catastrophic stalemate" whereby social movements were able to frequently overthrow Governments but not strong enough against powerful political and economic interests to articulate and manage an alternative vision.

For Alvaro Garcia Linera, the answer was in seeking the election of MAS, but for social movements who had lost faith to a certain extent in all parties within the current system, the answer lay in demands for a Constituent Assembly which soon became a central banner to indigenous and social movements.

When proposals were first made by indigenous groups for a Constitution Assembly in the early 1990s, it was dismissed by the Right but the demands gathered pace during protests in 2003 where it became a central part of the so-called "October agenda" (nationalisation, constituent assembly, agrarian reform) which was agreed with then-President Carlos Mesa. The crisis of governance had become so great that even the Right eventually agreed to a Constitutional Assembly seeing it as a potential safety-valve against the complete collapse of the State.

It is often forgotten that protests last year in 2005, which I witnessed, never called for elections, but demanded nationalisation and a date for a constituent assembly that would refound the State.  Protests were brought to an end, when both General Elections and most significantly elections for the Constituent Assembly were timetabled.

And the demand for a Constituent Assembly is no mere banner for the social movements. It has been the focal point of a huge amount of work and energy. I have personally been enormously inspired by the amount of work that social movements have spent in debating and putting forward proposals for a new Constitution. I feel that British people could have a huge amount to learn from these processes which involve a creative rethinking of democracy.

In July 2005 I sat on hard plastic seats in a bitterly-cold church hall in District Four of El Alto listening to a talk by a politics student followed by an intense debate on possible new mechanisms to ensure that politicians remain accountable and truly representative of their constituents. I sat next to two construction workers who barely get by financially, yet who spent three hours that night joining in the passionate debate on how to re-organise Bolivia for the benefit of all. For me it put value into the words democracy that have been so misused by Bush, Blair and the neo-cons crowd.

The Bolivian Trade Justice Movement (now snappily called the Bolivian Movement for Sovereignty and Solidarity-based Integration of the Peoples) over the last year have held three national meetings and six regional meetings to put together concrete proposals for the Constituent Assembly. Across the country countless social movements and organisation have been meeting at local, regional and national level to discuss what kind of country they want to live in. Many have descended on Sucre to make their proposals heard.

Which brings us to where we are today: huge expectations and demands on one side for a fundamental re-ordering of political and economic relations, and a political elite that is determined to prevent any significant change. In this fight, MAS representatives are in some ways caught in the middle between the Right on one side and the social movements that are inside and outside the MAS party on the other.

There was significant anger from both within MAS and social movements outside the party at the law that led to the creation of the Constituent Assembly that allowed a referendum on autonomy to be binding on the new Constitution, that didn’t allow representatives to be voted based on indigenous customs and uses, and for effectively excluding candidates from social movements that were independent of MAS. The Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera’s comments that it would only be possible to change between 10-20% of the Constitution confirmed many fears that MAS were not committed to social movements’ demands for real change.

However, despite initial threats of a parallel assembly most social movements said they would seek to pressurise MAS and the Assembly to deliver a profoundly new, originario assembly. Which is why MAS will find it extremely difficult to back down. It is hard enough to see how they will get two-thirds majority for the overall new Constitution, let alone for every proposal. As MAS quite rightly point out, this would mean that every proposal would get completely bogged down or watered down to be meaningless. However they also can not afford to compromise further and face opposition from the social movements that form the base of their support.

Yet the reality is that the opposition parties still make up just over 40% of the Assembly delegates and are in a strong position in what is known as the half-moon of Bolivia (the arc of provinces from the North to the East to the South of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija). To them the Constitutional Assembly is about massaging a few chapters in a Constitution that has served them very well and not allowing anything that could threaten their regional power bases. They argue with some validity but clear self-interest that any constitutional change obviously needs two-thirds support knowing full-well that this gives them blocking power.

Maybe the parties will temporarily cobble together a compromise, but I fear that sooner or later we will be back to the "catastrophic stalemate" that Alvaro Garcia Linera attributed to the protests of the last six years.  The alternative is that one of these two visions and forces comes out on top but it is sometimes hard to imagine that happening peacefully. It raises questions about how to deliver radical economic/social justice in a democratic framework when powerful economic and political elites are determined to avoid any change. Will democracy stand the test? Will social movements be able to confront elites and deliver a constitution that they have been fighting for? Will Bolivia confound expectations and manage to deliver radical change democratically and peacefully?



  1. eduardo September 6, 2006 at 7:21 am - Reply

    “The right have hysterically thrown out accusations that MAS is trying to get rid of all government except the executive branch and that MAS is effectively engineering a coup d’etat.” is much more than the “right” that is worried about the actions by this current government. Even those that voted for MAS in December are concerned about the attempt to control everything with no input from minority groups. Please don’t paint any criticism of the government as coming from only the right. It is much more complex than that and once again, the silent majority have no voice in the matter.

  2. Nick Buxton September 7, 2006 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    Eduardo, Thanks for your comment and your thoughts.
    I too have concerns about the internal democracy within the MAS Government and their fear of allowing independent voices and initiatives – and feel their attempts to channel everything will discourage the necessary creativity and independence of thinking needed to build an inspiring and progressive Constitution (something I have written about before on this blog – see “reform or revolution”). I worry that this tendency to control will create even greater problems in the future.
    At the same time I think that accusations that MAS are trying to get rid of all Government except the Executive and do an effective coup d’etat have no basis in evidence. The reality is that behind the scenes in MAS there is a huge amount of consultation with social movements. Compare that with my country where the centralist control of Tony Blair in the Labour Party is hardly balanced by anything.
    Consequently my assessment of the dividing lines that have opened up recently are that they arise above all as a result of pressure from social movements who have pushed MAS to take a more dogmatic position on the Constitution being “originario” and “refundacional”.
    Ironically I think the reaction against these proposals by the Right in the “media luna” is likely to push the critical and independent left closer to the Government giving them a greater monopoly of voice as people on the Left will see a need to defend the idea of a refoundational Assembly.
    Having said that, I do think there is an issue of how to take things forward without dividing the country or creating a situation of “crisis” that leaves everyone unnerved. Certainly Evo and some MAS leaders’ tactics and language sometimes unnecessarily make this difficult. However I also think sometimes that powerful interest groups need to be challenged in order to make change. Yet if that change results in a division of a country or a constant state of conflict than no-one benefits. So I don’t pretend to have the answers, but Bolivia is a country that continues to teach and inspire me so I expect if they are anywhere they are out there in the streets and rural lands of this beautiful country.

  3. Earl M. March 30, 2007 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    Nick, I realize you have a lot of material here, and I needed an appropriate place to say some things about the political climate. I hope it is perfectly appropriate to suggest there is very ancient roots of civilization all around us, but especially around you, and we live everyday in the shadow of greatness. I prefer to be optomistic, but I don’t have a lot of hope for man if he continues to ignore the voices from other times, whether from the past or the future.
    One of the things I find so apalling is that we think somehow that solutions are going to be political. I do not see it this way. The ancients recognised that there are four separate types of law. I express this idea this way. 1, the Laws of Power.2, the Laws of Labor. 3, the Laws of Equitable Distribution. 4, the Laws of Love. Of course, from this, you can see that without this last one, the others are rendered moot, so it is the most important of them all!
    I have a lot more on the subject, but I am not going to do any grandstanding. I would like to find out that some of your friends in Bolivia who are actually trying to reinvent democracy and such,have some similiar insights.
    And, speaking of Insights, are the people familiar with the book “Celestine Prophecy” by James Redfield. I do know some background info for that too, and I would like these concepts to not be forgotten. We all need to keep the flame of knowledge burning in our hearts!

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