Evo Morales gives peace a chance in Bolivia
December 7, 2008 - TribuneMagazine.co.uk

Enrico Tortolano reports on the momentous events that form the background to the efforts of Bolivia's president to transform his country

AFTER months of bloody battles, massacres and political manoeuvring, Bolivian leader Evo Morales can now start to organise for a constitutional referendum, to be held on January 25 2009. A new draft of the Bolivian constitution was ratified by the congress on October 21, following a historic deal with the majority of the right-wing congressional opposition. "Now we have made history", Morales told supporters in La Paz. "This process of change cannot be turned back… neo-liberalism will never return to Bolivia."

The agreement was reached after a week-long march to La Paz by tens of thousands of Bolivians calling for congressional approval of the constitution. Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, joined the marchers who had walked for days across the inhospitable Altiplano. He has pledged that the constitution will allow for significant wealth redistribution. The congress voted to accept the compromise deal on its own terms, but the presence of so many vocal activists may have sharpened focus.

The promise of a new constitution was at the centre of Morales' presidential campaign in 2005, so the deal with the opposition is a significant victory for him. Importantly, a majority of the articles agreed on in the original draft constitution remain. All 36 peoples, cultures, languages have the same rights and opportunities and are recognised equally before the law, institutions and society. Also agreed is the right to free healthcare and education in equal conditions; a plurinational parliament with only one chamber; and a plurinational public administration which will require all public functionaries to know the dominant indigenous language of the region where they work. Ownership of the economy will be public, private and communitarian.

Morales also managed to engineer a division in the opposition, separating its more moderate members in congress from the more extreme leaders in the departments of the east. Indeed, members of the civic committees in the wealthy lowland media luna area are now attacking their political allies in congress.

The balance of power between Morales and the opposition leaders has changed in three crucial ways. First, in a recall referendum in August 2008, almost 70 per cent of the electorate voted for Morales to continue in office. This level of support took even his staunchest supporters by surprise. It greatly exceeded his presidential victory in 2005, which itself was historic with 54 per cent of the vote. Even in large parts of the media luna, the majority of people voted for Morales, thus exploding the myth that support for the government and opposition was split between east and west.

Second, the civic coup that shook Bolivia in September had a profound impact. There was the seizure and ransacking of government offices, the blocking of highways, attacks on gas installations and the widespread violence that erupted in the eastern provinces of Pando and Santa Cruz.

In Pando, a massacre was perpetrated as unarmed peasants on their way to a meeting were ambushed by paramilitaries and mercenaries, allegedly organised by the prefect, Leopoldo Fernandez. Roads were blocked and passage rendered impossible as gunmen opened fire on men, women and children. Eyewitness accounts indicate that there was a clear intent, not only to kill, but also to inflict pain and terror. Internet footage shows how those who tried to escape by jumping into the river were chased and killed from the water's edge. Some were imprisoned and tortured before being executed. These atrocities were reminiscent of tactics used in the 1970s by right-wing death squads during Operation Condor. The scale of the crisis made talks with the Podemos opposition grouping easier to negotiate.

Third, the threat to democracy in Bolivia and its independence as a country were deemed important enough for international intervention. The UNASUR grouping of South American leaders meeting in Chile in September pledged its unequivocal support to Morales. It offered its services -- alongside those of the Organisation of American States, the United Nations, and the European Union -- to help broker an agreement designed to restore peace. These pledges played an important part behind the scenes in helping to stage a process of dialogue between the government, the opposition local prefects and the civic committees.

There were a number of concessions Morales had to make in order to win the necessary two-thirds majority in congress. Around 135 articles of the original draft constitution agreed by the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and its allies in December 2007 were changed. Some of the changes were minor, but many were substantive.

In particular, they involved meeting the opposition half way on the issue of departmental autonomy -- the most contentious area of disagreement, since the opposition decided to boycott the constituent assembly. Four of Bolivia's nine departments -- all in the media luna -- rejected the draft constitution as it stood, and proceeded to issue what they called "statutes of autonomy". These were de facto declarations of quasi-independence, subsequently approved in unofficial referendums in the four departments concerned (Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando).

However, in order to secure a deal, concessions on autonomy were not enough. Morales had to take three further steps. First, he agreed not to make limits on agricultural landholding in eastern Bolivia retroactive. A parallel referendum will now be held on January 25 on this issue; but even if voters agree to a 5,000-hectare limit on landed estates, existing landowners, many of whom have landholdings far in excess of the limit, can avoid it by proving that the land they hold is not idle and fulfils a "social" and "economic" purpose.

Second, Morales agreed to limit his ability to stand again as president to one more term. So, if he wins in 2009, he cannot stay beyond 2014. However, Morales downplayed this change in his recent speech in La Paz. "Here we have new leaders who are rising up -- new men and women leaders who are coming up like mushrooms to continue this process of change."

Third, the government has accepted that any changes to the new constitution must have the support of at least two-thirds of the congress.

Morales should win a clear "Yes" vote in the January 2009 referendum -- a victory that would be the launch pad to his probable re-election as president in December next year. In his La Paz speech, he said: " I wish to tell you my brothers, that the 500-year indigenous and popular campaign of resistance has not been in vain. We're going to put an end to injustice, to inequality". Nevertheless, the road ahead will not be easy, as the political differences between the government and the dissident civic committees will not simply disappear. The Comite Pro-Santa Cruz, which is the most powerful of the civic organisations in eastern Bolivia, has already started rallying for a "No" vote. And even with a legally-enacted constitution, a delaying tactic could be eastern prefects' intention to focus on the concept of departmental autonomy and what that actually means in practice.

However, having emerged from years of unrelenting state and economic terror, the indigenous communities, trade unions and social movements of Bolivia know there is one power stronger than the power of money: the power of the people.

Indigenous insurgents of previous centuries proclaimed: "Ya es otro tiempo el presente" -- the present is a new time. Morales echoed this when he said: "I am convinced the power of the people is increasing and strengthening and changing economic models and politics."

Bolivia seems set for another year of political crossfire.