Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BOLIVIA: New Constitution Marks Break with the Past

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jan 26 2009 (IPS) - Bolivia’s voters approved a new constitution in Sunday’s referendum with around 60 percent support, ushering in further social changes under President Evo Morales, who will now be able to run for reelection in December, to a single consecutive term.

The new constitution recognises the cultural values, languages, territory and right to govern themselves with autonomy of the 36 indigenous groups who make up a majority of the population of Bolivia. It also gives them greater participation in decision-making, and creates a strong but decentralised state.

According to its proponents, the new constitution marks a break with the past, and with hundreds of years of domination by an economic and political elite whose interests are bound up in mining, agribusiness and the financial system.

Claiming victory Sunday night, Morales said that under the new constitution, the country was being “refounded” based on equality for all Bolivians and respect for indigenous people, who have historically been discriminated against and humiliated. He also said “internal and external colonialism” was coming to an end, and that the country’s natural resources would no longer be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

“This is the end of the latifundio (large landed estate) and large landowners,” said Morales, the leader of the Movement to Socialism (MAS) and the country’s first indigenous president, referring to the new size limit set on privately owned rural estates.

In a parallel vote Sunday, 70 percent of voters decided that landed estates should be no larger than 5,000 hectares (the other choice given was 10,000 hectares).

Voters thus supported the leftist government’s land reform programme, which stipulates that the authorities can expropriate – with fair economic compensation – unproductive land that is serving no social purpose, for redistribution to indigenous people and landless farmers.

Land ownership is heavily concentrated in Bolivia. According to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), just 100 families own 25 million hectares, while two million small farmers have access to only five million hectares.

Morales is set to sign the new constitution into law in February, after the results of the referendum are approved by Congress.

Some 300 international observers were sent by the Organisation of American States, European Union, Union of South American Nations, Andean Community, Southern Common Market (Mercosur) and Carter Centre of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, which all reported that the vote had gone smoothly.

The president of the National Electoral Court, José Luis Exeni, said the elections had “the greatest presence of international observers in Bolivia’s democratic history.”

One of the few isolated cases of violence was reported by a team of journalists for the Red Uno TV station, who said they were shot at in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, although they were not injured.

“This is our third triumph. We are going from victory to victory; the neoliberal ‘fatherland sellouts’ are being constantly defeated thanks to the awareness and consciousness of Bolivians,” a visibly moved Morales told a cheering crowd outside the government palace in La Paz Sunday night.

The first triumph Morales was referring to was on Dec. 18, 2005, when he took 53.7 percent of the vote in the presidential elections.

The president, an Aymara Indian who forged his political career as leader of the coca farmers in the central coca-growing region of Chapare, had his second moment of glory on Aug. 10, 2008, when an overwhelming 67 percent of voters confirmed him in office in a national recall referendum organised in response to a challenge by the right-wing opposition.

However, a majority of voters in the provinces of Santa Cruz in the east, Pando in the north, Beni in the northeast and Tarija in the south voted against the new constitution on Sunday.

These provinces, where the population is more ethnically mixed in comparison with the predominantly indigenous western highlands, make up the so-called “eastern crescent”, and account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and gross domestic product.

“The country’s natural resources are being recovered by the state forever, and no government will be able to auction them off to transnational corporations,” said Morales, referring to article 349 of the new constitution, which declares resources like natural gas the direct property of the Bolivian people.

In his first year in office, Morales renegotiated the terms of the contracts under which foreign oil companies exploit the country’s natural gas reserves, which are the second-largest in South America after Venezuela’s.

Since the renationalisation of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, the energy revenues taken in by the state have increased fourfold. The windfall revenues have been partly distributed to provincial governments and have also been used to pay a universal monthly pension to the elderly and a stipend to poor families to keep their children in school.

Natural gas represents 50 percent of Bolivia’s exports, which brought in a record total of six billion dollars last year.

Taking a conciliatory stance, Morales promised to start working on his next goal: the creation of an “autonomy council” to negotiate with the opposition governors of Santa Cruz, Beni and Tarija a degree of decentralisation of the state, in line with the new constitution.

In the city of Santa Cruz, 900 km east of La Paz, provincial Governor Rubén Costas claimed that 60 percent support for the new constitution reflected a “technical tie.”

Although international observers reported that the election was clean, several opposition leaders in eastern Bolivia alleged fraud.

Analyst Gonzalo Mendieta warned that a decision to challenge the results of the referendum could give rise to violent right-wing protests like the one in which at least 15 Morales administration supporters were killed and central government offices were destroyed in the province of Pando in September.

Refusal by opposition lawmakers to recognise the new constitution would be “suicidal” and would run counter to the “sovereign decision adopted by the Bolivian people,” said Mendieta.

Carlos Arce, a researcher at the Centre of Studies for Labour and Agricultural Development, told IPS that “the country is in a profound systemic crisis. Some sectors of the dominant class are attempting to hold on to privileges and positions of power.”

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