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Bolivia Struggles With Proposed New Constitution

Bolivia Struggles with Its Proposed New Constitution

* Bolivarian authorities postpone May 4th referendum but PODEMOS refuses to agree

* Opposition PODEMOS Party seeks for autonomous status that could leave the nation half poor and half rich

* Wealthy eastern sector of the nation is risking internal strife and civil war

* PODEMOS leaders would be wise to recall the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), the most costly conflict in U.S. history

* Abraham Lincoln said that the U.S. couldn't exist half slave and half poor; PODEMOS says Bolivia is burdened with a severe economic gap

Bolivia's continuing political crisis which has brought expressions of concern from international and regional entities such as the Organization of American States (OAS), European Union (EU) and the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), follows months of political tension between Bolivia's leftist government and right-wing opposition. Sure to contribute to the mounting tension, it was recently reported that eleven people (including an Argentinean journalist) have disappeared in the region of Cordillera, as a result of a violent ambush set off by Bolivian landowners, possibly as means to express their anger over President Morales' recently proposed land reforms ( Amid ongoing disputes on a number of fronts, Morales's government has been very open and willing to allow mediators and members from international organizations to assess and aid in resolving Bolivia's multiple political struggles.

Bolivia's Rising Political Crisis

Bolivia is broken into nine administrative divisions, known as departments, which include Beni, Chuquisaca, Cochabamba, La Paz, Oruro, Pando, Potosi, Santa Cruz, and Tarija. According to the Angus Reid Global Monitor, which examines worldwide public opinion and democratic processes, in Bolivia's last election taken place on December 18, 2005, Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS) and Social and Democratic Power (PODEMOS) parties hold the greatest number of seats in the bicameral national congress--consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Currently the MAS control the Chamber of Deputies with 72 seats, PODEMOS with 43, and two other parties with the remainder of seats (130 representatives total). However, the PODEMOS party leads the Senate with 13 members, while MAS has 12, and two other parties each have one member, to equal the total 27 Senate seats ( With the Senate being the upper house, this essentially creates power struggles between the government's leading party MAS and the opposition group, PODEMOS, especially in terms of the new constitutional referendums and autonomy statutes.

On February 28, 2008, two months after unsuccessful negotiations between Evo Morales' Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS) and the opposition group PODEMOS (Social and Democratic Power), Bolivia's national congress approved the staging of two national referendums that were to be held on May 4, 2008. The opposition group, which still refuses to acknowledge a government proposed draft constitution, mainly comes from Bolivia's dissident-dominated eastern states, including the widely-known group--Media Luna. The political split has created turbulence and polarization throughout the country; there is escalating ten¬sion between the left-leaning Morales, and the country's conservative elite. Recently, according to the Bolivian Information Agency, the Church's strong credentials and its influence with both sides prompted Morales to visit Cardinal Julio Terrazas in Santa Cruz to ask his help in reestablishing a working relationship between the government and its opponents. The Catholic Church is apparently making an effort to ensure Bolivian unity. Morales was optimistic about the latest meeting between the Church and the opposition prefects when they met in Cochabamba to discuss the autonomous statute that tops their agenda. Promoted by the Media Luna prefectures, the referendum item called for autonomous provisions that violate Bolivia's current constitution. Even after meeting with the Catholic Church, mayors representing the Media Luna region insisted on holding the autonomous referendums that were rejected by the National Electoral Court because of issues of legality. Cardinal Terrazas reported that the opposition officials were not prepared to reject their position.

The new constitution proposed by Morales aims to vest more power and allocate greater resources to the country's indigenous majority. This is a vital step for Morales, the nation's first native president, as his most militant supporters came from the indigenous population. The new law called for the election of a special assem¬bly to rewrite the constitution in an effort to allow the indigenous population, who had been marginalized for centuries by Bolivia's European-descendants, to now have a chance to play a greater role in society and to be given political opportunities denied to them in the past. Morales' constitu¬tion would contain a detailed bill of rights and significant autonomy for the country's thirty-six indigenous groups (San Diego Union-Tribune).

PODEMOS, which represents around one third of the electorate, consistently has resisted the national referendum, which would allow the electorate to determine the future of the document drafted by the elected constituent assembly, as well as to vote upon placing a cap on the maximum amount of prop¬erty an individual can own. At the end of February, the Morales-dominated legislative assembly aroused a good deal of controversy due to the fact that only a few opposition lawmakers were present. Allegedly, hundreds of pro-Morales demonstrators physically prevented opposition backers from attending.

Constitutional Context

Bolivia's current constitution was adopted in 1967 under President René Barrientos Ortuño. In the July 2006 election, most Bolivians voted for the National Assembly to revise the constitution, which would allow Morales to secure a series of leftist reforms and provide the country's indigenous majority greater power. The President wanted Bolivia's new constitution to achieve the end of dis¬crimination, exploitation, marginalization, and class hatred. The issue of giving economic and politi¬cal autonomy to Bolivia's wealthy, eastern region was simultaneously being relentlessly pressed by PODEMOS. Having taken more than a year to rewrite the constitution, the changes now must be approved by two-thirds of the body and be endorsed in a nationwide referendum. The new draft was then approved by the assembly on December 9, 2007, but not without resis¬tance; in fact, there were repeated boycotts and violent protests.

Oxford University's Centre for Latin Amer¬ican Studies Research Associate, John Crab¬tree, listed in his article, "Bolivia's Contro¬versial Constitution," some key elements of Bolivia's newly drafted constitution. Reaffirming the previous constitution's acknowledgement of Bolivia's "multi-ethnic" nation, one of the new provisions describe, "Bolivia as a unitary but plurinational state." Another provision calls for "state ownership of natural resources," including the oil, gas and mining sectors--industries that had been privatized by previous governments. The "constitutional approval," provision states that once the constitution is approved by referendum, it would not need to be ratified by two-thirds of elected members, but rather by only two-thirds of those mem¬bers present. Such a provision was bound to cause controversy as it would provide a loophole for the passage of the new document which would not have existed under the former arrangement. Other key provisions included, "changing the composition of congress, a mixed economy," which discusses agrarian reform and putting a cap on the amount of hectares of land which can be privately owned. Other provisions regard, "presidential reelection policies, recall of electoral mandates, reorganization of the judiciary, and the capital compromise," which currently deals with the administrative capital that is now located at La Paz, with Sucre being the constitutional capital. The provision on "local autonomies,"--of utmost importance to the Santa Cruz-led middle-class opposition--inevitably would lead to a degree of decentralization and bring in territorial, as well as municipal, regional, and indigenous levels of autonomy.

Robin Hood of the South?

Elected in December of 2005, Morales pledged during his presidential campaign to reform the constitution so that indig¬enous people would be granted more rights. Opposition leaders refuse to recognize the proposed charter, charging it to be undemo¬cratic and illegal because it was approved by a constitutional assembly without the opposition's participation: many of the latter's lawmakers were prevented from entering the building where Congress was approving the referendum on the new constitution. Senate President Oscar Ortiz, from the conservative PODEMOS Party, stated, "This referendum will not pass. The people will neither allow totalitarianism nor an illegal constitution".

Though the newly drafted constitution is strongly supported by the indigenous popula¬tion, the referendum proposal is fiercely opposed by its rivals on the right because it would threaten the minority's wealthy enclaves in the eastern lowlands of the country, where the bulk of Bolivia's oil and natural gas deposits are to be found. Manuel Rozental, a Colombian activist, in his article "Bolivia on the Brink" writes, "less than two dozen families own half a million of the most fertile hectares in Bolivia. They have power and they're very aggressive." According to, the Larsen family alone owns 57,144 hectares of land in Santa Cruz.

Morales' new constitution would have the effect of granting greater political and eco¬nomic power to the indigenous population of the country by redistributing assets from the less populated, rich northern and eastern low¬lands, to the poorest region of Bolivia--the country's impoverished western highlands. PODEMOS argues that the new charter favors the Indian population and disregards the demands for autonomy by the eastern part of the country. Most certainly, the eastern states want to protect their economic interests and are not ready to applaud Morales' plan to redis¬tribute control of resources and wealth.

The CIA World Factbook notes that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, with sixty percent of its population living below the poverty line. According to PBS, in 1985, inflation topped 24,000 percent. Additionally, BBC News reported that with recent heavy rainfalls resulting in destruc¬tive floods, almost 100,000 people have been affected, further adding to the nation's woes. Moreover, crops have been destroyed, caus¬ing more hunger and the spread of disease. President Morales, a self professed socialist, has reacted to the country's harsh situation, and has attempted to author a series of agrarian reforms aimed at redis¬tributing land to the poor. The proposed consti¬tution also has a clause that needs to be voted upon by congress that would cap land owner¬ship at a specific number of hect¬ares. Seeing that Bolivia does not presently have such a limit, such a cut-off is producing great anger among the opposition, who claim that the proposed charter fails to address the autonomy demands of the eastern states.

Given that they currently reside in the area that contains most of Bolivia's natural resources, oppo¬sition leaders have declared that they will fight to keep what they believe is fairly theirs. According to the associated press from, "about 35 percent of Bolivia's 9.5 million people live in [the four wealthiest regions of Bolivia]." These regions, as the country's four highest natural gas-producers, had declared autonomy from the cen¬tral government in December of 2007, and called for autonomy ref¬erendums to be decided on May 4. Known as the "Media Luna" (half moon), the prefectures of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando are out to protect their economic interests under the novel thesis that autonomy is justifiable because the resources happen to lie adjacent to their land. Their attempts at secession appear almost as hair-brained exercises doomed to failure. This is because the President, who controls the mili¬tary and the armed forces, would surely pre¬vent them from taking such action. As one military source put it, they "will not hesitate to enforce the law for the preserva¬tion of national unity."

Referendum Halt

On March 7, 2008, however, the National Electoral Court (CNE), Bolivia's top elec¬toral authority, who suspended the constitutional referendum, as well as the referendum pro¬posed by the opposition--Eastern States for Greater Autonomy--reasoned that there would not be enough time for electoral preparations. As of now, the previous scheduled May 4th referen¬dum has been indefinitely postponed. The CNE ruled that it would be impossible to ensure the "legal guarantees, sufficient time and adequate electoral envi¬ronment" so quickly. According to the BBC, Jose Luis Exeni, the head of CNE, further stated, "No technical, operative, legal or political conditions exist to allow it [the vote] to go forward." Exeni also added that the constitutional requirement of having the referendum held at least 90 days after the approval of congress has not been met.

According to the Prensa Latina, a government official said the country's new constitution guarantees native Bolivians the right to free determination, self-governance, and the management of their own financial resources in compliance with a ruling made in November 2007 and by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Unlike autonomy for the indigenous, which according to Vice President Alvaro Garcia does not require a proposed referendum because this already is legal and their statute only needs implementation for prefectures, their referendum must be legally voted by the people. Consequently, there has been much criticism towards Santa Cruz authorities who have been accused of launching a campaign that threaten to jail citizens who refuse to vote in the upcoming May 4th elections. Prensa Latina also has reported that on April 22nd, the Confederation of Indigenous People of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB) will march to Santa Cruz in defense of land and to express their rejection of the Media Luna's referendum on autonomy.

Preventing War

Arguing that Bolivia could be on the verge of a civil conflict, many specialists maintain that Evo Morales must start acting as a dynamic force while the poli¬ticians are squabbling over the ratification of the new constitution and the opposition lead¬ers are protesting for their natural rights, including ownership of resources. As of now, very little of Bolivia's energy bounty has been effectively exploited and the poor have yet to receive many benefits of its largesse. Even the international community is concerned about Bolivia's ongoing political tension, which triggered a visit by a delegation from the OAS on March 13. A month later, on April 14th, Dante Caputo, the Secretary of Political Affairs for the OAS met with the governors of the four provinces of Media Luna, in a mission to help Bolivia find an outlet to end its political crisis. While Caputo's mission promotes peace and democracy and the use of nonviolent solutions, an official from Tarija claimed that he would use any means to hold the autonomy referendum scheduled for May 4th.

The Bolivian Ambassador to the OAS affirmed, "Our biggest obstacle is the landlords, but we should be building bridges." While Morales intends to reallocate power and resources to the nation's marginalized indigenous group, he cannot easily ignore the minority of the popula¬tion's needs either. If Bolivia's political crisis escalates further--the country will likely be incapable of handling the heavy stress of a path that could lead to active conflict.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Monica Shah

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at


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