A Two-Way Street with Cars Going in Both Directions: Thoughts on the Bolivian Constitution

This is the first feature in a new series of Sunday essays on topics from the week that was in Latin America. I am developing a podcast, which will hopefully debut sometime this week (tomorrow?) with news, history and an oral review of the features that will be displayed in text on this site.


For those who love Latin America, we have watched the internal struggles of Bolivia in drafting their new constitution, such as right-wing violence in Pando in September that left 20 people dead, with apprehension. With this violence we read, quoting George Gray Molina, an ex-United Nations official in Bolivia, “I think they [the right] lost authority and legitimacy [after Pando] even among their grassroots.” As we all know, the grassroots are now the most important democratic tool on the planet. What Molina predicted came to fruition on Sunday as Bolivia threw off its 1967 constitution, which, as of tomorrow, Feb. 2, would have celebrated its 42nd anniversary. But this election is proof in many things. The people of Bolivia desired autonomy, desired economic and ecological justice, desired equality. But, mostly, they desired change. But, oddly, I come to this moment with caution. Let me explain.

It was this summer that, amidst walkouts and violence in regions of the country, some brave men (and women) came together to draft a document that was finally ratified by the people for whom it was written. The issues arise, possibly from even the way I just described it. The sense of community, the coming together despite the heat of the summer. To a mind from the United States one can see, as US citizens, all constitutional episodes across history to reflect our own. The problem is that no document means anything without the will of its people. As recent scholarship shows, including the fantastic Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, by Virginian Woody Holton, the Constitution, even in the US, was an elusive document thrust upon a population with only palpable protections (our Bill of Rights) that were there to appease the populace. [1] But the twists of history proved otherwise. It is often the smallest aspects, the least understood, that prove to hold the most worth to a people. Our Constitution is sacred, in some circles; despised by others; and, often, celebrated by public officials who will subvert it for their own needs if it comes to it. In short, it is only a document. A document that must have meaning behind it in order to achieve its desired consequences.

Bolivia, we should not overstate, was not on the cusp of history. It was not looking into an abyss. If, like many in Santa Cruz or Pando would have hoped, the referendum failed, life would continue. But it never came to that. The referendum passed, according to Ben Dangl at Upsidedownworld.org, with 61.9% of the vote of 3.8 million voters. 36.52% of voters voted against the constitution, and 1.51% cast blank, null votes. It passed in some departments (La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosí, Tarija, and even Pando) and rejected in those predicted (Santa Cruz, Beni, and Chuquisaca). [2] For some, it may be similar to how some Americans feel about Barack Obama – euphoria, something they never thought they’d feel in their lifetimes. It is not up to us to judge their emotions, but to evaluate the future. As Nick Buxton put it best,

On the one hand, you have indigenous groups using a party-political instrument and institutions that they question to try and remodel a State, and on the other you have individuals seemingly passionate about democracy and against ideology who seem to find it impossible to accept a different view or model of democracy and express it in very ideological terms.[3]

Where do we go from now?

Backward. We must find out why this constitution is celebrated despite the whispers of condemnation in the West, the subtle hints from university professors, the looks from government officials. Evo Morales, after passage of the constitution, spoke to his supporters. “ I would like to take this opportunity to recognize all of the brothers and sisters of Bolivia, all of the compañeros and compañeras, all of the citizens that through their vote, through their democratic participation, decided to refound Bolivia.” He went on, “From 2005 to 2009 we have gone from triumph to triumph, while the neoliberals, the traitors have been constantly broken down thanks to the consciousness of the Bolivian people.” His language is not mere rhetoric, but something more taxing, something deeper. “And I want you to know something, the colonial state ends here. Internal colonialism and external colonialism ends here.” [4]

Morales is speaking from somewhere different than us. He is speaking to someone different. Those things one cannot ignore. Bolivia did not wake up one morning, elect Morales and MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) and throw its hands in the air in indignation. Events have been brewing since 1967 to make this week that much sweeter for those in Bolivia who felt like they needed this and hell for those who benefited from the same. These two poles have become endemic to the country. It largely falls on class lines – hence Morales thanking the compañeros and compañeras for his win. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 100 Bolivian families own 25 million hectares of land, while the two million compañeros Morales thanked had access to only 5 million hectares of land (with the referendum, the voters agreed to cap the size of latifundia’s to 5,000 hectares. [5] If we’re to understand Morales, how did these two classes stray in this way?

One cannot discount the Administrative Decentralization Law of 1995 that increased autonomy for each of the nine departments. Or the moves in December 2005, as Morales was ushered into office, when autonomy was increased again, although in a negative sense of the word. At this point, the divide is quite clear. Autonomy, something this new constitution enshrines (even to its detriment), is a two way street with parts of Bolivia headed in opposite directions. Both sides would characterize their plight as “one segment of society trying to gain rights, the other trying to take them away.” The reality is that the eastern half of the country, the oil- and resource-rich half, has been trying to pull away for some time. The Indian population had done the same for centuries, but that’s because they were never wanted. It’s a push and pull that still exists in this next millennium. Autonomy was never meant to be a polarizing factor, yet, ironically, the greater the freedom and the less pressure on the different ethnic and economic classes in Bolivia, the worse situations have become. This referendum has illustrated that quite clearly.

si-bolivia-constitution-2But it is not too late to change. It is time for the country to accept the majority and attempt honest dialogue. Bolivia is now a unitary but plurinational state. Bolivia now has ownership of its natural resources. Bolivia will governmentally look different – in terms of ideology and color. Bolivia will now be a mixed economy – private, public, and communitarian. Bolivia will set into its character a system of decentralized, territorial autonomies that can check the powers of every departmental government. Bolivia will be the first country in the world to protect gender-identity and reproductive rights (Article 14, paragraph II states: “The State prohibts and punishes all forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation [and] gender identity” and in Article 66: “Men and women are guaranteed the exercise of their sexual and reproductive rights.”). [6] Bolivia will now allow re-elections for all public offices, including the president, and will now hold a second-round of voting if a candidate fails to get 50% of the vote, effectively abolishing the 1967 system that allowed the newly elected congress choose the president (a disaster Americans can sympathize with). Bolivia will change – from its electoral politics (revocation of officials for not carrying out promises) to a reorganization of the judiciary (which holds indigenous courts in the same regard as state courts) to its capital (Sucre will be incorporated into Bolivia’s future to a greater extent after the abrupt relocation to La Paz in 1899) to the role of religion (the 1967 constitution allowed “cult” freedom but Catholicism was the official religion; the new constitution is secular while still granting religious freedom).[7]

Many in the opposition view the constitution as written by Indians, for Indians. Luz Barrientos, a retired teacher, told April Howard and Ben Dangl:

“If one region where indigenous communities exist has oil, the people there can decide how it’s used. But this isn’t right – everyone should be able to benefit from this oil, not just the campesinos.” She continued, “We are from the middle class, and as members of this class we have suffered. Indigenous people discriminate against us, they hate all people with white faces.” [8]

The questions of ethnicity and identity are strong all across the world, including here in the United States. But falling into camps over these constructs created in our tiny heads is a dangerous precept. One should also, when thinking about Bolivia, view the indigenous struggle not as an evolution from Túpac Katari. It is not. Societies and cultures change. Historical determinism is dangerous and can lead down opposing streets, streets that the people of Bolivia currently trot. Does this excuse indigenous violence and hatred over the last 500 years in the Americas? No. Is this constitution a step forward? Yes. It takes someone who is confident in themselves to admit that, especially someone with a “white face” that Luz spoke of. Her problems are real, but how she comes toward the situation will always provide her, and everyone like her across the world, with the same answers. If nothing else, the Constitution is a way for Bolivia to look inward and reconcile.

[1] Woody Holton, Unruly Americans: The Origins of the Constitution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008).

[2] Benjamin Dangl, “Bolivia Looking Forward: New Constitution Passed, Celebrations Hit the Streets” [http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1683/1/].

[3] Nick Buxton, “Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly: Decolonization or Disintegration?” [http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/795/31/].

[4] Benjamin Dangl, “Bolivia Looking Forward: New Constitution Passed, Celebrations Hit the Streets.”

[5] “IPS Q&A: Bolivia Limits Size of Estates in Land Reform Struggle” [http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=45574].

[6] Joey Nelson, “Praise for Bolivian Constitution Anti-Discrimination Protections for LGBT people,” [http://queer-justice-league.blogspot.com/2007/12/proposed-bolivia-consittution-prohibits.html].

[7] John Crabtree, “Bolivia’s Controversial Constitution,” [http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/democracy_power/politics_protest/bolivia_constitution].

[8] Benjamin Dangl and April Howard, “From Bolivia’s Streets: What Voters Think About the New Constitution,” [http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1682/1/].[digg


~ by Daniel on February 1, 2009.

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