Bolivians Ratify New Constitution aimed at empowerin g Bolivia ’s Indians

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jan 26 15:25:40 UTC 2009

January 26, 2009

Bolivians Ratify New Constitution


EL ALTO, Bolivia — President Evo Morales seemed assured of an easy
victory in a referendum on Sunday over a sweeping new Constitution
aimed at empowering Bolivia's Indians. The vote capped three years of
conflict-ridden efforts by Mr. Morales to overhaul a political system
he had associated with centuries of indigenous subjugation. Citing
preliminary vote counts, reports on national television said about 60
percent of voters had approved the new Constitution. If that margin
holds or goes higher, it would strengthen Mr. Morales's mandate,
political analysts here said.

Still, regional conflict over the results may loom in the months
ahead. Citing the same counts, both state and private news media said
at least four departments, or provinces, in Bolivia's rebellious
eastern lowlands had rejected the charter by wide margins. Vaguely
worded items among the new Constitution's 411 articles would broaden
definitions of property to include communal ownership; allow Indians
to mete out corporal punishment under their own legal systems; extend
limited autonomy to regional prefects; and reaffirm state control over
Bolivia's ample natural gas reserves.

It is up to Congress to draft regulations for many of these articles,
but the legislature also is an institution in flux, with Indians
guaranteed new representation in its chambers. "With my humble vote, I
am creating a little bit of hope for my children," said Ismael
Pocoaca, 42, a construction worker who voted Sunday morning at the
Chuquiago Marka School here in this city of slums on the windswept
plain overlooking the capital, La Paz. After the vote, Mr. Pocoaca and
other Aymara Indians gathered in front of the school, where vendors
sold fried-pork sandwiches and posters of Mr. Morales, a former llama
herder. "We are finally recapturing our dignity," said Maria Laure,
38, a soap saleswoman who voted for the new Constitution.

But while Indians across the country celebrated the vote, the
Constitution opens a new stage of uncertainty in fractious Bolivia.
Few people claim to know precisely how the laws will function under
the new Constitution, in what way they will undergo substantial
revision in Congress or how they will affect a nation facing a sharp
economic slowdown this year. Officials in the lowlands, where most of
Bolivia's food and petroleum are produced, ridiculed the new charter.
"No constitution can be implemented if it has not been approved in all
of the departments," said Carlos Dabdoub, a political leader in Santa
Cruz, an eastern department that rejected the Constitution.

Given the festering resistance in Santa Cruz and elsewhere, it was
notable that the Constitution came to a vote. Violence over the
proposed charter reached a head in September when more than a dozen
peasants, mostly supporters of Mr. Morales, were killed in a clash in
the Amazonian department of Pando. Talks between Mr. Morales's
supporters in Congress and the splintered opposition produced a
compromise from earlier versions of the charter. One of the most
polemical articles in the final draft reversed a plan to allow Mr.
Morales to indefinitely run for re-election, limiting him to one
five-year term if he wins a new election later this year.

But other articles reflect the influence wielded by Mr. Morales, 49,
an Indian who lacks fluency in Aymara and Quechua, Bolivia's main
indigenous languages. Communicating with audiences in the colonialist
language, Spanish, he has nevertheless forged a political movement
imbued with nationalism and has heightened ethnic awareness. "After
500 years, we have retaken the Plaza Murillo!" Mr. Morales told
followers last week in a speech at the end of the campaign in La Paz's
central square, which until the 1950s Indians were prohibited from

The new Constitution would allow Mr. Morales, whose government is
supported financially by Venezuela, to assert even greater state
control of the economy, with articles that could forbid foreign
companies from repatriating profits or resorting to international
arbitration to resolve nationalization disputes. Indeed, Mr. Morales
seems undaunted by a dearth of investment and a slowing economy as
prices decline for Bolivia's natural gas and neighboring Brazil lowers
imports of the fuel.

On the eve of the vote, he announced the nationalization of a Bolivian
unit of the British oil giant BP, and created a new daily newspaper,
Cambio, controlled by his government. And after his recent expulsion
of the American ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration agents,
whom he accuses of espionage, he repeated his criticism of the United

"Bolivia, little by little, is shutting itself off from the world,"
said Gonzalo Chávez, a Harvard-educated economist at the Catholic
University of La Paz, who sees economic growth falling to 2 percent
this year from about 6 percent in 2008.

But others say the new Constitution addresses underrepresentation of
Indians, pointing to articles that would reserve seats for them in
Congress and in other areas of the fast-growing bureaucracy. Even Mr.
Morales's cabinet has just two Indian ministers; his top aides, the
vice president (a former guerrilla) and the chief of staff (a former
military officer), are light-skinned intellectuals.

In symbolic importance, said Xavier Albó, a Jesuit scholar and
linguist, the new Constitution may be the equivalent of Spain's
Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors in 1492. But
instead of the blood spilled in that process, Mr. Albó said, Bolivia
is "advancing in a democratic process that does not exclude or
subjugate anyone."  Some Bolivians who read the entire Constitution
came away with other impressions. Edmundo Paz Soldán, a writer who
teaches at Cornell University, said it reminded him of an essay by
Jorge Luis Borges that describes a Chinese encyclopedia's attempt to
divide fauna into myriad nonsensical categories. For instance, Mr. Paz
Soldán said that the Constitution recognized 36 different indigenous
groups in Bolivia, some with fewer than 100 people, but that it was
unclear how precisely each group would be enfranchised in a country
where three main indigenous groups — the Quechua, Aymara and Guaraní —
wield much larger influence.

"The mind-boggling text may have the ratification of the majority,"
Mr. Paz Soldán said, "but it might not be the recipe for a viable


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at


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