62% of Bolivians voted for the new document which promises greater freedoms for indigenous minorities, writes Andrew McKenzie
The recent ratification of a new constitution in the Latin American country of Bolivia may not strengthen Evo Morales and his country’s fraught relationship with the U.S.A, but there are reasons to persuade many his victory is one to savour.
The new constitution granted sweeping rights to the indigenous majority of the country as well as restructured the judiciary to ensure judges are elected rather than chosen. Government control of natural resources was reinforced and rules to prohibit discrimination were introduced. Limited autonomy was extended to state assemblies that control local issues and tribal punishments were allowed on tribal lands.
On referendum day, when the news spread that the constitution had been approved, fireworks, cheers and horns sounded off sporadically across La Paz, the capital. By evening, Morales was already giving his victory speech: “I want you to know something, the colonial state ends here. Internal colonialism and external colonialism ends here. Sisters and brothers, neoliberalism ends here too.”
While the new constitution is a move toward giving the indigenous majority of the population the ability to participate more comprehensively in Bolivian politics, it does not mark the healing of the country’s deep political and ethnic divisions. During the course of last year the country tumbled towards an undeclared civil war, with violence erupting in many cities and rising to a violent crescendo in September, when 18 people, mostly indigenous famers, were killed and many more wounded by opposition supporters in the northern town of Pando.
Many feel the attack led to Bolivia’s right wing losing legitimacy and support. Manfred Reyes Villa, an opponent of Morales and an ex-governor of Cochabamba, told the Washington Post: “Today, there is not a serious opposition in the country”, highlighting the impact the attack had on support. The opposition, led by state governors in the country’s more prosperous east, are concerned by Morales’ leftist ideals and fear he is taking Bolivia into the orbit of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president and vocal critic of the U.S.A.
Many of these people are descendants of white settlers to the country and have a racist and fascist mentality. After centuries in control they appear to dislike the prospect of their future being dominated by a formerly suppressed indigenous majority. Many others however just fear the further economic ruin of South America’s poorest state with inefficient state nationalizations.
Close ties with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez have strained relations with America. The Bush 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, but fears of a growing number of anti American Latin American leaders had led to American opposition increasing.
This came to a head last year when the Americans worked so openly with the opposition behind the scenes that Morales was obliged to expel the U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Agency officials, accusing them of espionage, a gesture that was immediately imitated by Chavez. Morales played the same card this year when he expelled the Israeli ambassador from La Paz during the Israeli assault on Gaza in the wake of a similar move by Venezuela.
Chavez organized 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 Chavez, who seeks a constitutional reform in February that would permit a president to enjoy permanent re-election (if actually re-elected), Morales agreed during negotiations with the opposition that the constitution would require presidents to stand down after two terms. Although as an indigenous candidate representing the majority population he will almost certainly win a second term in elections later this year, extending his rule to 2014.
American opinion has been harsh. USA Today likened Morales to a “cigar-chomping, camouflage-clad, Latin American dictator”. A hark back to Latin American caudillos or strongmen who seek to hold onto power for as long as possible. They point to Morales’ original intention to be eligible for permanent re-election, only changed on at the behest of opposition in negotiations following the massacre at Pando in October.
However, like the rest of America’s future foreign policy, everything rests on the decisions of Barack Obama will take as U.S. president. He may wish to distance himself from the legacy of George W. 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 – their close Latin American neighbours Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay– are on a leftist path and have all expressed their support and solidarity for Morales.
The new constitution allows even greater control of the economy, with articles that could forbid foreign firms from repatriating profits or resorting to international arbitration to resolve nationalization disputes. Bolivia’s economic outlook is dark. Mr Morales scared off investment by nationalising the natural-gas industry, telecoms and parts of mining.
That boosted government revenues in the short term, but is now jeopardising them. Miners are being laid off because of plunging mineral prices. The price of gas exports has fallen too, while Brazil (the main market) has cut imports by a third because of a slowing economy and plentiful rainfall for hydroelectricity. The public finances are set to go into deficit this year. Commodity prices that have been high since Morales took office have begun to fizzle. And to make matters worse, Bolivian migrants are returning from recession-hit Spain, cutting remittances. All of which will test Morales’ ability to maintain his popularity.
Some Catholic and evangelical clerics have also opposed the ratification of the new constitution. They fear that the articles prohibiting discrimination on sexual orientation and guaranteeing freedom of religion will pave the way for abortion rights and gay marriage.
The constitution also gives official recognition to “community justice” imparted by elders, and introduces the popular election of judges and members of a judicial council. These measures are intended to clean up a corrupt judiciary. However opponents say they will politicise justice, and legitimise mob justice in the form of lynchings and stonings, which have become more common over the past two years.
Whatever the eventual outcome of Morales’ reforms, the newly approved constitution is a major landmark in Bolivian history, providing for the long-needed re-shaping of the judiciary and more importantly the strengthening of the rights of the country’s indigenous peoples. The empowerment of a native people is not something to shrug at, but Morales must be wary that he does not set his country on a path of chaotic conflict, government paralysis and continuing economic backwardness.