Bolivia's Evo Morales wins referendum on a new leftist constitution
Monday, January 26, 2009
"The indigenous farmers, the most marginalized sector throughout the history of the republic, are now recognized as people with the same rights as any citizen. Here begins the new Bolivia. Here we begin to reach true equality," Morales told a crowd in front of the flag-draped balcony of Palacio Quemado in La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia.
Ratified with about 60 percent support in a referendum on Sunday based on exit polls, the new constitution lets Morales run for re-election later this year and grants him tighter control over the economy. An official vote count of some 3.8 million registered voters who cast their ballots will be announced February 4.
With the new Magna Carta, South America's second poorest country after Guyana becomes a leader in the regional "pink tide" of left-wing governments that have ousted traditional elites and challenged American influence. The new constitution's elements include recognition of 36 distinct Indian "nations", increasing the autonomy of Bolivia's nine regions, establishing state control over key natural resources such as gas, and setting limits on land ownership.
Morales has also promised Bolivia’s native groups that the constitution will keep the white "oligarchs" who ruled the country for 183 years from returning to power. The leftist constitution empowers the government to distribute land to indigenous communities and apportion ethnic quotas for state jobs, including congress seats. "After 500 years, we have retaken the Plaza Murillo! Internal colonialism and external colonialism end here too. Sisters and brothers, neo-liberalism ends here too!" said Morales.
Vice-President Álvaro MarceloGarcía Linera, a principal author of the draft constitution, hailed Sunday's referendum results, saying, "this will be an egalitarian Bolivia, a Bolivia that leaves behind a dark, colonial, racist past." Linera, however, has acknowledged that the government has provoked deep divisions and faces vehement oppositions from many of the traditional elite, coming from many mixed-race people in the fertile eastern lowlands which rejected the draft charter.
"I am not saying there will be no more conflict, there will be tensions for a while, I say a decade ... but we will have built a state on three principles: the economy under state control, equality, and the territorial decentralization of power," he said. The new constitution was rejected in four opposition-controlled regions: the tropical lowlands of Pando, Santa Cruz, Tarija and Beni, which contain most of Bolivia's natural gas production and are responsible for most of its agricultural output.
|There will be tensions for a while, I say a decade... but we will have built a state on three principles: the economy under state control, equality, and the territorial decentralization of power.|
—Bolivian Vice-President Álvaro MarceloGarcía Linera, on reactions to the new constitution.
With the split vote, Oscar Ortiz, the president of the opposition-controlled Senate, has voiced concerns that the charter has become a war of ideas. "The result [of the vote] ... will show deep divisions between regions and between Bolivians in each region. A confrontation between ideas and visions about how this country will build its common future will continue," he said ahead of the referendum.
Former president Carlos Mesa has predicted that the constitution is unlikely to pave the way for real social change amid continuing political struggles. "We will have so many legal battles to go through that I fear that last year's belligerent climate will continue this year. President Morales is not coming at this with open hands, he has built trenches and dug in," Mr. Mesa said.
Morales has dismissed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, accusing both of conspiracy with the opposition to overthrow his government. The U.S. Embassy in La Paz has called the accusations "false and absurd." Morales has been very popular among the poor and among Aymara, Quechua and Guarani.
The new constitution's 411 articles address underrepresentation of indigenous peoples. "It may be the equivalent of Spain’s Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors in 1492. But instead of the blood spilled in that process, Bolivia is advancing in a democratic process that does not exclude or subjugate anyone," said Xavier Albó, a Jesuit scholar and linguist.
"Finally we have a constitution that leaves racism and hatred aside, because indigenous people are included," said Adolfo Chavez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous people of Bolivia (CIDOB).
Morales' ascent to presidency
In March 2005, then-President Mesa resigned. The President of Senate Hormando Vaca Díez assumed office as the country's temporary President. Mesa resigned because of the announcement of highway blockages by Evo Morales and leaders of both the coca growers and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). The blockages were meant to pressure the Legislative so that the Hydrocarbons Law, which would raise taxes levied on hydrocarbon extraction from 18% to 50%, could be approved.
The MAS is a political party formed basically by coca-growing campesinos (farmers or farmworkers), communists, admirers of Fidel Castro and indigenous people. The party is against the U.S. government and the alleged American influence in the region, neoliberalism and globalization.
In December 2005, Morales won the presidential election in Bolivia to serve a five-year term. In the 2005 election, his victory marked the country's first election of an indigenous head of state, but this claim gendered controversy due to the number of mestizo presidents who were elected or appointed before him. He was openly criticized by such figures as Mario Vargas Llosa, who accuses the President of fomenting racial divisions in an increasingly mestizo Latin America.
Morales ran on a campaign of restoring coca farming in Bolivia, in spite of the U.S. program aimed at reducing the ability to grow coca to curb the cocaine industry. Morales is an Aymara Indian and former coca farmer himself, and has described his victory as a signal that "a new history of Bolivia begins, a history where we search for equality, justice and peace with social justice."
Morales is an admirer of Fidel Castro and he says he is also inspired by the President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Morales supports the creation of an anti-imperialist block formed by Latin-American and Arabian countries against the U.S., which is being organized by the Brazilian President.
2008 unrest in Bolivia
In August 2008, Bolivian unrest began against Morales and calls for greater autonomy for the country's eastern departments grew. Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija and Chuquisaca called strikes and protests to oppose the central government's plan to divert part of the national direct tax on hydrocarbons in favor of its Renta Dignidad pension plan. Brief clashes occurred in the Santa Cruz de la Sierra between police and armed youths enforcing the strike. Violence between Morales' supporters and opponents resulted in at least 30 deaths.
In September 2008, Bolivian authorities declared a state of emergency in Pando, where Bolivian troops took control of the airport in the region's capital, Cobija. Amid preparations to retake the city, 20 people were killed. In October 2008, the government and the opposition held talks following which resulted in the signing of a compromise agreement which set the referendum on 25 January 2009 and early elections on December 6, 2009.
Morales in turn promised that he would not run again in 2014 after his likely reelection in 2009, despite the fact that he would be allowed to do so under the new constitution. The new constitution was drafted by the Constituent Assembly in 2007. The referendum set forth two questions: whether to approve the new constitution and whether to limit private estates to 1,000 or 5,000 hectares.
- "Evo Morales wins presidential elections in Bolivia" — Wikinews, December 19, 2005
- "The President of Bolivia resigns" — Wikinews, March 8, 2005
- Terry Wade. "Bolivia's Morales wins referendum, faces long fight" — , January 26, 2009
- Dan Keane. "Bolivian voters back pro-indigenous constitution" — , January 26, 2009
- Simon Romero. "Bolivians Ratify New Constitution" — , January 25, 2009
- "Bolivia, opposition agree on referendum, Morales term limit" — , October 20, 2008