Bolivia’s constitution – civil conflict and social progress

A new constitution will go to the people of Bolivia on 25 January 2009. If passed, the constitution will represent the most significant advancement of economic, social and cultural rights the country has seen in many decades. In the past few years, Bolivia has seen uprising after uprising amongst the country’s poor and excluded – particularly in 2000 when people opposed the privatisation of water and in 2003 against the export of the country’s gas. Roadblocks and mass mobilizations, often erupting into violence as the Bolivian army clashed with demonstrators, forced changes in the country’s leadership as well as its government’s plans. Then, in 2005, Evo Morales was elected president. Bolivia ‘s indigenous population has only had the vote since 1952 and the election of Morales – of Aymara descent himself – changed the balance of power in the country. Evo Morales was elected President as the leader of the Movement towards Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS), which had been involved in the recent protests. He also became the first indigenous person to become head of the Bolivian state in over four centuries, since the Spanish conquest, despite the indigenous population representing the majority of the population. Morales’ election raised the hopes and aspirations of many of the same poor and excluded people who had blockaded the roads around La Paz over the years. The draft constitution includes the right to water; food security; health; education; housing; basic services; a just wage; and the right to strike and form a union. It is innovative in several key areas, notably in its recognition of Bolivia ‘s indigenous population, the ‘plurinational’ nature of the state, the assertion of collective rights, a stronger role for the state in economic policies and prioritization of collective interest over private interests. If approved, the proposed constitution would prohibit the privatisation of water or the inclusion of water in trade agreements. It would also ban private, for-profit control of basic services, energy companies and social security. In September this year, conflict erupted on the streets in response to the government’s plans. Opposition groups’ reactions demonstrated the entrenched racism and discrimination in Bolivian society. Morales’ election and his government represent the empowerment of the traditionally marginalised sectors of Bolivian society. This has triggered hostile opposition from powerful landowning families and the business elite, who are fearful of losing long-held privileges. In September, civilians linked to some regional authorities opposed to President Morales blocked roads, and forcibly seized airports and local branches of state offices. They also attacked media outlets and offices of several NGOs working with indigenous and peasant communities. On 9 September 2008, in the eastern city of Santa Cruz, university students and members of the oppositionist Union of Santa Cruz Youth (Unión Juvenil Cruceñista) seized and looted local branches of government offices including the local land reform office as well as two media outlets. Over three days , three NGOs promoting the rights of indigenous and peasant communities were also attacked. Their offices were broken into, with equipment and furniture destroyed and documentation burnt. One of the NGOs, Centre of Legal Studies and Social Investigation (Centro de Estudios Jurídicos e Investigación Social, CEJIS) works to secure the land rights of indigenous and peasant farmers.   CEJIS director, Leonardo Tamburini, said of the attack: “They came in three four-wheel drive vehicles, around 50 people, young thugs, some of them drunk. They rammed the front door with a vehicle. They came in, looted all the documentation they could find and set fire to it. They broke all the glass in the office, destroyed desks, cabinets and stole books – almost a third of our library which consists of thousands of volumes. They took them all out into the street and set fire to them. Piles of documents telling the history of CEJIS, the history of its support to the land entitlement process, its support to the Constituent Assembly. The 30 years of CEJIS history was all looted and burnt.” These attacks are the latest in the escalation of violence that has been seen in Bolivia over recent years. At least 18 people – mainly indigenous and peasant farmers, as well as three students – were killed on 11 September when a group of indigenous and peasant farmers were ambushed in the northern department of Pando. According to eyewitnesses, attackers arrived in official vehicles belonging to opposition authorities. The National Ombudsman’s office, which carried out an initial investigation into the incident, stated that the deaths were the result of a planned massacre. The Bolivian government has consistently called for dialogue. However, it was only after the recent escalation of violence and after the outrage it engendered from those inside and outside of Bolivia (including the newly created Union of South American Nations – UNASUR, and the EU) that formal negotiations between the pro-autonomy opposition and the government managed to reach an agreement on the constitutional text. The main issues under discussion included revenues from the taxation of oil and gas, departmental autonomy, landownership and the designation of authorities in the National Congress. A final decision was reached by Congress on 21 October after over a month of dialogue. It was decided that the new proposed constitution would go to referendum on 25 January 2009.

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