Bolivia Votes to End ‘Colonial State’
Published: January 27, 2009 (Issue # 1443)
Bolivian President Evo Morales (c) at an event marking the result of a constitutional referendum in La Paz on Sunday.
LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivians easily approved a new constitution granting more power to the indigenous majority, but its weak support in the opposition-controlled lowland east leaves the racially torn country divided as ever.
The constitution also gives its prime backer, leftist President Evo Morales, the opportunity to run for re-election and remain in power until 2014.
Bolivia’s first Indian president hailed the charter’s passage in Sunday’s peaceful referendum as the end of the “colonial state” in South America’s poorest country.
“Here begins the new Bolivia. Here we begin to reach true equality,” Morales told crowds packing the plaza in front of the presidential palace after an unofficial quick count of the vote showed the charter passing 59 percent to 41 percent.
The victory was historic in a nation where the oldest voters could still recall a time when Indians were forbidden to vote. But its rejection by the mestizo and European-descended minority foreshadows a political battle over vague clauses that seem to outline overlapping autonomous regions for both indigenous groups and eastern states.
Morales says the charter will “decolonize” Bolivia by championing indigenous values lost since the Spanish conquest. It also has clauses on land restribution and sets aside seats in Congress for minority indigenous groups.
Bolivia’s Aymara, Quechua, Guarani and dozens of other indigenous groups only won the right to vote in 1952, when a revolution broke up the large haciendas on which they had lived as peons for generations.
But even as Morales’ supporters joyously cheered the constitution’s passage, opposition leaders celebrated as well.
Although a majority of voters backed the charter nationwide, drawing high margins in the pro-Morales highlands, the ‘no’ vote won greater support in five of Bolivia’s nine states.
They say Morales’ focus on indigenous communitarism ignores the freewheeling capitalism that drives the eastern flats’ huge cattle ranches and powerful soy industry.
“In five states, we’re rejecting the constitution. In five states we have another vision of the country,” said Moises Shiriqui, the cowboy-hatted mayor of the eastern provincial capital Trinidad.
An unofficial tally by the Bolivian television network ATB showed the constitution winning with 59 percent of the vote. The quick count had a three-percentage point margin of error. The result was mirrored by two private exit polls. An official vote count will be announced Feb. 4.
The comfortable 18-point margin of victory is nonetheless a setback for Morales, who polled 67 percent support in an August recall election.
He will likely take his chances again in December, when the new constitution allows him to run for re-election. That vote will also fill a newly reorganized Congress with seats set aside for minority indigenous groups.
At the heart of the constitution is a provision granting autonomy for 36 indigenous “nations” and four opposition-controlled eastern states. But both groups are given a vaguely defined “equal rank,” likely creating a checkerboard of rival claims to open land in Bolivia’s fertile east, home to the large agribusiness interests and valuable gas reserves that drive much of the country’s economy.
With an eye to redistributing territory in the region, the constitution limits future land holdings to either 12,000 or 24,000 acres. Current landholders are exempt from the cap — a nod to the east’s powerful cattle and soy industries, which fiercely oppose the proposal.
Morales, an Aymara Indian, has allied himself closely with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in what the two leaders call “21st century socialism.” Elected in 2005 on a promise to nationalize Bolivia’s natural gas industry, he has increased the state’s presence throughout the economy and expanded benefits for the poor.
Sharing Chavez’s anti-U.S. rhetoric, he has also booted Bolivia’s U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration agents after claiming they had conspired against his government last year. Washington has denied those allegations.
Morales’ reform project nearly failed in 2006, when an assembly convened to rewrite the constitution broke apart along largely racial lines.
In 2007, three college students were killed in anti-government riots and 13 mostly indigenous Morales supporters died in September when protesters seized government buildings to block a vote on the proposed constitution.
In an October deal, Congress approved holding the referendum only after Morales agreed to seek one more term instead of two. That compromise seems a distant memory now as the two sides prepare for battle over the charter’s new autonomies.
“This constitution was supposed to be an agreement,” sighed Mario Duran Chuquimia, a mestizo blogger who covers Bolivian politics. “But it’s turned out to be anything but.”