Bolivia: End of the New Social Pact?

Bolivian opposition legislators occupy the dais of the lower chamber Aug. 22 in La Paz after fighting with lawmakers supporting the government. (Photo: Aizar Raldes / AFP-Getty Images)

Having come out of an intense period of political confrontation, including the biggest mobilization in Bolivia's history, this landlocked country situated in the heart of rebellious South America seems on the verge of plunging into a new phase of open conflict. At the center of this is the country's Constituent Assembly—a central plank of Bolivia's cultural and democratic revolution, led by the country's first indigenous president, Evo Morales—which was convened over a year ago with the goal of achieving a new social pact between Bolivia's conflicting sectors and drafting a new constitution that would for the first time include the country's indigenous majority.

Both sides of politics now openly talk about the possibility of the closure of the assembly, which has already passed its initial Aug. 6 deadline to present a new draft constitution without a single article having been approved. Outside the assembly, in the streets of Sucre, the number of pickets and people on hunger strike continues to grow. Protests by locals in Sucre continue to radicalize, angered by the assembly's vote to leave out any debate over where the capital of Bolivia should be.

On Aug. 22, the ABI news service reported that "mobilizations in Sucre, spilled over this Wednesday into acts of vandalism, persecution of constituent delegates, attacks against houses, looting of union headquarters, destruction of media installations, and physical aggressions against journalists." The assembly indefinitely suspended its sessions due to the lack of any guarantees for the safety of delegates. While Sucre is the historic capital of Bolivia, ever since the 1899 civil war La Paz has been the country's political capital. The cries for the return of the capital to Sucre, stoked by the right-wing opposition to the Morales government, have raised tensions across Bolivia and revived fears of another "civil war."

The previous day, brawling broke out in Bolivia's congress following moves by Morales's party, the Movement Toward Socialism (M.A.S.), to elect new members to the Constitutional Tribune and replace the current judges—aligned with the neoliberal right—who had suspended four members of the Supreme Court legally appointed by Morales at the end of last year. Shifting the vote to another area of the congress, without the presence of the opposition, M.A.S. pushed through its agenda in the chamber of deputies. The vote now must go to the opposition-controlled senate.

Responding to the increased threats to the process of change the country is undergoing, Maximo Romero, a cocalero (coca-grower) leader from the Chapare region, was quoted by ABI on Aug. 20, warning that "If some sectors, political parties and others, do not allow the Constituent Assembly to advance, it will be necessary for the social organizations to organize ourselves, and we will respond to the provocations by surrounding Sucre" in order to "defend the continuity of the assembly."

Romero's comments came as the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba — Bolivia's chief cocalero organization and where, in the 80's, Morales began his political activity (he is still the elected president of the federation)—began to mobilize 7000 cocaleros to march on Sucre. Other campesino groups, including the Union Confederation of Campesinos of Bolivia (C.S.C.B.), will join them. The ABI article quoted C.S.C.B. relations secretary Rosendo Mita declaring that "whether they [the opposition] want it or not, the assembly will continue its work until December."

"They [the right-wing opposition] are calling for violence. If we don't resolve this via consensus, it has to be resolved via violence," said Bolivia's Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera. "Those that don't want the assembly are proposing violence." Warning of the impact of the impending mobilizations of the cocaleros and campesinos, first vice president of the Constituent Assembly Roberto Aguilar said, "We are searching for channels of dialogue to impede confrontation."

On Aug. 22 Garcia Linera was quoted by ABI as saying: "To wear down the old powers will cost a lot, it will be conflictive, the population needs to be conscious of this, and the best way to defend the continuity of the process of change is through democratic mobilization to back this transformation and to put an end to the history of these old elites, of their old privileges, of their old shameful quotas, so that they never return to the country."

Troubles in the Constituent Assembly

Since convening on Aug. 6, 2005, the Constituent Assembly has been plagued by confrontations as a re-emergent opposition—organized out of the city of Santa Cruz in the east of Bolivia and which has at its core the Santa Cruz elite, gas transnationals, large agribusiness, and the United States embassy—has attempted to derail the process of change.

Aiming to mobilize the white, middle-class sectors in opposition to Morales's indigenous revolution and defend their economic power, these elites have raised the banner of departmental (state) autonomy as a way of shielding themselves from the measures taken by Morales's government.

By blocking any steps forward by the national government, particularly in the Constituent Assembly, they hope to sow disillusion in the assembly and Morales and pave the way for their return to government. These same interests, which never wanted the Constituent Assembly, have been working from within it and from without to ensure it fails.

For the first eight months, the assembly was deadlocked over rules of procedure and debate, with the opposition demanding a two-thirds majority for all votes as a way to prevent the possibility of any radical measures being introduced into the new constitution.

Once over this hurdle, a combination of factors soon acted to again stall this process. Firstly, when voting began within the assembly's 21 commissions over what report to present to the assembly as a whole, M.A.S. maneuvered in a few of the key commissions so that, in alliance with some smaller parties, it could essentially present both the majority and minority report and lock out the right.

Threatening to walk out of the assembly, the right wing retreated to its trenches in Bolivia's east. On July 2, the anniversary of a national referendum on departmental autonomy, the opposition in Santa Cruz launched its proposed statutes for autonomy, warning that the eastern half of the country would reject any constitution that did not incorporate its proposals.

At the same time, almost out of nowhere, the demand for the return of the capital to Sucre emerged. The protests, which began in Sucre, were supported by the opposition so as to create a fake debate and heighten tensions. It also saw it in its interest to have the capital closer to the east and away from the combative social movements predominately based in the country's west. In response, around 1.5 million people mobilized in La Paz on July 20 to defend its position as the capital.

As the Aug. 6 deadline continued to draw closer, a debate opened up as to who had the power to extend the assembly's mandate. Given the opposition's majority in the senate, allowing it to block any extension, the ultra-right separatist wing of the Santa Cruz elite began to raise fears of M.A.S. imposing its own constitution against the will of the "half moon" (Bolivia's four eastern states—Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija) and forcing the country into a "civil war."

The specter of an indigenous-military parade scheduled to occur in Santa Cruz the day after the assembly's deadline, with the legendary "Red Ponchos" (militant Aymara people with a long history of armed resistance) marching side by side with the military in heart of the east, was used to conjure up the threat of "indigenous revenge" against the east. Meanwhile, more and more evidence emerged of the movement of illegal arms into the hands of right-wing militias in the east.

From One Challenge to the Next

Only at the last minute did the Bolivian congress vote to extend the Constituent Assembly deadline until Dec. 14. Then, on Aug. 7, rather than the prophesied "racial revenge" and threats of clashes, thousands flocked to view the indigenous-military parade.

Venezuela's El Nacional reported the following day that during his speech at the parade, Morales stated: "The presence of the armed forces and indigenous peoples is in no way a provocation against anyone, it is so that all of us can get to know each other. We are united with the social movements to take forward the cultural revolution and the process of change within democracy."

Sending a clear message to Santa Cruz's ultra-right separatists, Gen. Wilfredo Vargas, chief of the armed forces, was quoted as saying, "Today the institutionality of the country is threatened by abominable enemies who are not in agreement with our development and independence." The general added that Bolivia's armed forces "are always alert in order to confront the enemies of the homeland."

However, protests continued over the issue of the capital, and the east continued to maintain the threat to boycott the assembly and reject any constitution that does not enshrine the version of departmental autonomy pushed by the elite.

The threat from the Santa Cruz elite is far from gone; the groundwork for a future confrontation has already been laid.

At stake with the question of the extension of the assembly's deadline was the possibility that, needing to produce a constitution in a few days, the assembly would end up with a majority report from M.A.S. and supported by the indigenous and social movements and a minority report from the opposition. The aim of the opposition would then have been to get a majority for its draft in the east and demonstrate in practice the "validity" of the concept of "two Bolivias," triggering a possible disintegration of the country.

While that threat was averted, the pact agreed to by all the parties—including M.A.S. and the opposition—in order to facilitate the extension may have created a minefield for assembly delegates. According to the agreement, once the deadline is over, the assembly will first present those articles where a two-thirds majority could not be reached in the assembly in a national referendum. Those that are supported by voters in the referendum will then go back to the assembly and be incorporated into the draft constitution, which would then go to a national referendum.

This could create a number of future problems for M.A.S. Firstly, the whole process could take up to the end of next year, increasing the possibility of general discontent with the whole process. While the polls still show a large majority support the assembly, the opposition's campaign of stalling has had an impact.

Secondly, the opposition may be able to present its "alternative" constitution, in the form of numerous key articles that will go to the first referendum. It will undoubtedly be aiming to win a majority in the east for these articles. In fact, the process may act as an incentive for the right to not seek any consensus and instead to test the strength of the two camps in the referendum.

Bolivia's Future

Lastly, as M.A.S. constituent delegate Raul Prada pointed out to Erbol radio station on Aug. 4, the law to extend the deadline means that "the Constituent Assembly has been converted into an appendix of the congress and lost all its originario character." This pact has demonstrated in practice that the Constituent Assembly, irrespective of all the discussion over its character and whether it was originario—that is, above the current constituted state bodies—is for now subordinated to the constituted powers. This is undoubtedly part of the reason why M.A.S. is intent on electing new judges to the Constitutional Tribunal.

Bolivia's mainstream media, in its attempt to split the social movements, has marked this decision as a decisive step by M.A.S. toward the center of politics and away from the radical left and indigenous movements, playing on divisions that have begun to emerge.

However, faced with a growing polarization, an emergent right with a real base in the east, transnationals that continue to oppose nationalization of the country's significant gas reserves, the presence of American troops over the border in Paraguay and the very real threat of the disintegration of Bolivia, attempting to reach pacts in order to buy time and build up forces for future confrontations may be a sensible move by M.A.S.

Moreover, it is necessary for M.A.S. to avoid unnecessary and premature confrontation. Part of the political struggle is projecting a viable and convincing course to defend the territorial integrity of Bolivia and overall social stability. These issues weigh heavily on the minds of middle-class elements and on important sections of the armed forces. They add weight to the need to concentrate on widening the scope of political struggle against the right.

The right, well aware of this, seeks to avoid political struggle through provocations, street violence and threats to defy constitutional authority wherever it senses it has the strength to do so.

This is why the government has been quick to point out to the people of Santa Cruz that those who are in favor of closing the assembly are in favor of violence and are acting against the call for autonomy—because departmental autonomy can only be agreed to within the framework of the assembly.

Nevertheless, Argentine journalist Pablo Stefanoni, a former adviser to Morales, warned in an article in Pulso of a current policy of "unfocused pactism" being pushed by M.A.S.—seeking pacts at all cost—which could send the Constituent Assembly to "the cemetery," or produce a constitution that suits neither the social movements nor the Santa Cruz elite.

For Prada, it seems that only two exits to the current situation exist: conclude working in an honorable way within the rules of the game, or definitively kick over the table and search for new conditions, breaking with the constituted powers. Either way, M.A.S. will need to continue to mobilize Bolivia's poor majority, centered around the country's powerful indigenous and campesino movements, behind a firm defense of indigenous self-determination and national integrity against imperialism, and against the separatist Santa Cruz oligarchy. The actions of M.A.S. and the social movements up until now, and the renewed calls for mobilization emanating from the heart of M.A.S.—the cocaleros—are, on the whole, signs for optimism in this dangerous battle for Bolivia's future.

From Green Left Weekly.