People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 5

February 08, 2009


Bolivia: Another Victory, Another Step Forward

R Arun Kumar

“PATRIOTS, we are not visiting the palace, we are here to stay for life”, Morales told cheering crowds after the news of victory in the referendum to the constitution came through. “Millions of Bolivians guarantee the approval of the new constitution to refound Bolivia as a new state with equal opportunities, a new state where everyone will have the same rights and duties”, he declared.

Evo Morales won a crucial victory in the referendum held on January 25, 2009. Nearly 62 per cent of Bolivians had voted 'yes' to ratify a new constitution. This constitution empowers the indigenous majority and promises to roll back half a millennium of colonialism, discrimination and humiliation. This victory also demonstrates the sustained support enjoyed by Morales and his party Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). The significance of this victory can be understood when we note the circumstances under which the vote was held.

Bolivia is the second poorest country after Guyana in the entire Latin American region. It is also the country with the largest land concentration in the world. 0.63 per cent of landholders account for two-thirds of all agricultural land; 86 per cent of farms account for just 2.4 per cent of agricultural land. Just 100 families own 25 million hectares, while two million campesinos (peasants) have access to only five million hectares, according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Thus, most of the land is in the hands of the rich latifundas whereas majority of the people are landless and are suffering from perennial poverty. Indigenous people make up 62 percent of the population; those living in poverty, over 60 percent.

It is these inequalities existing in the Bolivian society that Morales had promised to eliminate and he took upon this task with right earnest. On May 1, 2006 he passed a decree nationalising oil and gas reserves and followed it up with many acts to ensure that all the people of Bolivia have an equal say over the natural resources of the country. Due to the diligent efforts of his government, Bolivia had become only the third country in the entire Latin American continent to achieve complete literacy. The opposition in Bolivia consisting mainly of the rich landlords and oligarchs are thwarting all these pro-poor measures of the Morales administration.

The opposition parties catering to the interests of the monied classes, from the day one, started to obstruct the policies of redistribution. They had called for a recall referendum against president Morales. Unfortunately for them, Morales was able to defeat their designs when nearly 67 per cent voted against the recall.

The opposition resorted to violent means and sabotage as they failed to defeat him democratically. Most of the protests they organised in the states where they are in power resulted in the deaths of the supporters of MAS who basically belong to poor and indigenous communities. In September, they had killed more than 20 peasants in a brutal assault in Pando, a province under their rule. When the government decided to go ahead with the land reform legislation and ensure that land is distributed among the landless of the country they had opposed this move as this strikes at the root of their power. They refused to allow the national assembly to discuss any of the related issues and tried to stall the functioning of the government. They even went to the extent of threatening to declare autonomy of the provinces where they are in power.

In all their efforts, they had the support of the thoroughly class-biased media. Above all, they were guided by the ambassador of the United States, Philip Goldberg, who openly sided with the opposition parties and incited them in their demonstrations against the government. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), which is part of the US State Department, provided $89 million in funds to various opposition groups in Bolivia (in 2007) to destabilise the country. All these compelling evidences forced the government to expel the ambassador from the country.

MAS decided to go to the people and expose the opposition's tactics of disruption that is hindering the implementation of the promises made to the people. Thus, the constitution and its 411 articles were put before the people for their acceptance.

The opposition not only campaigned against the constitution but went on spreading canards among the people. In this endeavour, they were ably aided by the media that flooded people’s consciousness with falsities. The Church also joined chorus.

The opposition campaigned that the new constitution restricts freedom of religion while the truth is that it guarantees everybody freedom of all religious practices. They appealed to the Catholic heritage of middle and upper class people and stated that it would denigrate and threaten Christianity.

They had spread a rumour stating that all private property like houses and businesses would be nationalised. One of the important provisions in the constitution was that which deals with land reform. It states that land reform would not be retroactive, but will only apply to pending land sales and all future sales. This means that current estates will not be divided and redistributed, as many opposition leaders and lowland elite had feared. This is, in fact, a huge tactical concession that the government had given to the opposition and in fact many in the MAS too were disappointed with it. In spite of this concession, they continued with their false propaganda.

This referendum in fact also allowed voters to decide whether private property should be capped at 5,000 or 10,000 hectares. Thus, in a separate vote, 70 per cent voted for the cap of 5,000 acres and 77 per cent granted the state constitutional authority to appropriate up to 12,500 acres of idle land.

The opposition parties had also campaigned stating that the new constitution is an attempt to ensure that the indigenous communities retain their state power forever. In an important concession, Morales had promised that he would not rerun for the post of president if he wins again in 2009. The opposition also propagated that the government would eliminate all private schools and indoctrinate all the children. Another of their canards is that public lynchings would take place if the community justice mentioned in the constitution is accepted. This denigration of the judicial system of the indigenous communities speaks of the racial bias that exists in the Bolivian society. It is against such powerful tides of reaction that Morales and his party MAS were able to swim successfully against.

The constitution accepted in this referendum ensures that the Congressional deputies do not have the immunity from prosecution in criminal cases, paves way for the election of judges hitherto appointed by 2/3 majority in the Congress, institutionalises state control over hydrocarbons, minerals and water. It establishes a “unitary, pluri-national, multi-cultural” state, with official status for 36 indigenous languages. Indigenous people, municipalities and, crucially, departments gain elements of autonomy. US bases in Bolivia are prohibited. The constitution calls for religious freedom and church-state separation. It codifies individual rights to education, social security and land.

The people of Bolivia have decisively accepted the arguments of MAS and Morales and rejected the lies propagated by the opposition in this referendum. In spite of this fact, the opposition is not ready to accept the verdict and are playing truant. They are arguing that the new constitution should be implemented only in those provinces where the majority had voted for it. All this shows that the coming days would be even more difficult and it does not become easy for the progressive forces with this victory.

Morales himself had acknowledged this and had appealed to the opposition forces to respect the verdict. He himself had stated that there is so much legislative work that needs to be done as a follow up, “at least 100 laws have to be enacted in this year”. Moreover there are elections due at the end of this year in which the opposition had vowed to defeat Morales. Gearing up for these challenges, the supporters of MAS stated “We are indigenous people that for the first time in history are in power. We will fight to keep this constitution, we will fight hard to make it work and be respected.” A long road of struggle lies ahead for the Bolivians.