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BOLIVIA
Evo fulfills campaign promise
Martin Garat
1/29/2009
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New constitution gives greater power to country´s long-marginalized populations.

Supporters of Bolivia´s new constitution flooded the streets and plazas around the country on the night of Jan. 25, to celebrate the 61.5 percent-approval of the new charter that President Evo Morales had promised citizens here since he was on the campaign trail.

Morales, who was elected in late 2005 had said that Bolivia was long-overdue for a new constitution, one that, in part, guaranteed the rights of the country´s indigenous majority.

The Constituent Assembly first met in 2006, but a tense political standoff between Morales supporters and the opposition derailed the constitution´s drafting several times.

Assembly members belonging to Morales´ Movement to Socialism, or MAS, and their political allies wrote the first draft of the constitution, which was modified last October before it went to a national referendum, as a means to reach a consensus with a violent political standoff between Morales´ supporters and the opposition that brought some parts of the country to a standstill.

This constitution “is very legitimate,” said MAS Dep. César Navarro. “It was born out of a great social movement, it was discussed by the representatives elected by the people and ratified by popular vote. The previous constitution was written in 1967, during a pseudo-democratic government that came to power through a military coup.”

A pro-indigenous text
The new constitution, for the first time, recognizes Bolivia´s 36 “native indigenous campesino peoples” as nations and that their own social organizations will be respected by the central government.

Indigenous groups can now constitutionally practice community justice on their lands, although it can only be applied to conflicts within indigenous communities, and measures are provided for indigenous to elect government representatives, according to their own cultural processes, known as “uses and customs.”

In order to maintain a plurinational Constitutional Court and some other state bodies, a quota system will be implemented for indigenous Bolivians.

The 36 indigenous languages spoken here will be recognized as official languages alongside Spanish. In order to become a public servant, both elected and nonelected, candidates must speak two official languages, although more legislation is required to implement this step.

“This is a constitution that doesn´t exclude,” Navarro said. “It creates a state based on the socio-territorial, socio-political and socio-cultural reality of our country. The constitution recognizes the coexistence between the Western liberal model and the community model of our indigenous nations.”

The constitution also gives the state a greater role in the economy.

“Before, the government could only invest in infrastructure, health care and education, but not in production. That was left to private companies. Now, the government can invest in economic activities that generate earnings that will be redistributed equally,” Navarro said.

Eastern Bolivia, a stronghold of opposition to Morales and his party, where pro-autonomy governors rule the departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija, voted as much as 67 percent against the constitution.

Analyst Reymi Ferreira divides opposition to Morales in two categories: economic and cultural.

“One part of the opposition opposes the statist model of the new constitution and believes in a mixed economy, which provides opportunities to private business. But in the East, the rejection of the constitution is stronger for cultural reasons,” he said. “Bolivia is a very diverse country. Nevertheless, the constitution gives priority to the Quechua, Aymara and other indigenous peoples. It changes citizenship for ethnicity as the basis for rights and guarantees. In the East many people feel that their cultural identity is being ignored to benefit the Andean [identity].”

Immediate presidential reelection
Presidential reelection was another contentious issue in this constitution, which allows a president to run for one consecutive term. In the previous constitution, consecutive reelection was not allowed, though reelection was.

Under the new charter, Morales could run for general elections scheduled for next December, but not in 2014.

Ferreira said immediate reelection was a priority of Morales´ party, who see his presidency as necessary to push forward his reforms.

“Reelection was an important reason for calling the Constituent Assembly,” he said. “You can change the country without touching the constitution. In 1952, the revolutionary government made radical changes without substituting the constitution. In 1985, neoliberal [policies] were implemented through a presidential decree.” “The reelection and the indigenous electoral districts, which will give some 30 deputies to MAS, ensure Morales´s continuance in power”, he added.

Ferreira said that the opposition should admit defeat and rebuild itself, and draws comparisons between the opposition to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

“They held strikes for three months against Chávez and they tried to get him out of power,” he said. “Right when the opposition understood that the struggle was democratic and peaceful, they were able to defeat him in a referendum, and they were able to win over several governors´ offices. The same thing has to happen here. The opposition has to abandon its weapons and distance itself from the fascist and ultra-right-wing groups that contaminate their legitimate demands. Bolivia lacks a democratic opposition as a counterweight to Morales´ authoritarian government.”

New concepts
During the weeks before the referendum, Bolivians were bombarded with television and radio advertisements both for and against the constitution´s approval. But rarely did the advertisements make any serious arguments. One of the groups against the constitution tried to link gay marriage, abortion and even the banning of religion to the new charter. One of the most frequently played spots said: “They Want To Kick God Out of Bolivia. Vote No.”

Nevertheless, the text approved could scarcely be considered “radical.” In fact, it prohibits gay marriage and specifies that marriage is only recognized when it is between a man and a woman. It guarantees the right to life but its provisions about when begins life are not clear. It also includes only vague language on sexual and reproductive rights.

Many Latin American have constitutional separations of religion and the state. In Bolivia, this is a new concept, because the previous charter required the state to maintain and promote the Catholic faith. But it does guarantee freedom of religion.

The constitution approved on Jan. 25 uses inclusive language. In Spanish, which contains both masculine and feminine subjects, this charter uses both, stating, for example, the “Presidenta or Presidente.”
—Latinamerica Press.


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