After months of street battles and political meetings, a new draft of the Bolivian constitution was ratified by Congress on October 21. A national referendum on whether or not to make the document official is scheduled for January 25, 2009.
“Now we have made history,” President Evo Morales told supporters in La Paz. “This process of change cannot be turned back . . . neoliberalism will never return to Bolivia.”
If the constitution is approved in the January referendum, a new general election will take place in December of 2009.
Leading up to Congress’s approval, Morales participated in sections of a march from Caracollo in Oruro to La Paz, a distance of over 100 miles and involving an estimated 100,000 union members, activists, students, farmers, and miners.
The march took place to pressure opposition members in Congress into backing the constitution and referendum. When marchers arrived in La Paz they packed the center of the city to historic levels. Some media outlets said the march, which stretched 15 kilometers, was the longest one ever in the capital.
“Those who have been kicked out to the chicken coop, those who have been hidden in the basement, are jailed no more,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said of the approval of the constitution, according to the Associated Press.
The road to this new constitution has been a long, complicated, and often violent one. One key event in this process was the July 2, 2006 election of assembly members to the constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. Later, in December of 2007, the new constitution was passed in an assembly meeting in Oruro which was boycotted by opposition members.
Given Morales’ support across the country, this new constitution is expected to pass in the January 2009 referendum. “The public support expressed for [Morales] Monday, coming on top of the 67 percent vote of confidence he was given in the Aug. 10 recall referendum, make it clear that he is the most popular president in the last 26 years of democracy in Bolivia,” Franz Chavez reported in IPS News.
The draft constitution includes, among other things, changes to allow the redistribution of land and gas wealth to benefit the majority of the country and give increased rights to indigenous people. Questions still exist regarding what was fully changed in this version of the constitution which led to opposition politicians supporting it. For example, it’s still unclear to what extent eastern provinces will be granted autonomy.
However, in what was perhaps Morales’ biggest concession to the opposition, a change was made to the constitution which prevents him from running for two additional terms, as an earlier draft of the constitution allowed. Under the new changes — if the constitution is approved in the referendum — Morales will run for his last consecutive term in general elections in December of 2009.
This move indicates that the opposition got at least some of what they wanted in negotiations, and that the Movement Toward Socialism, Morales’ political party, may have plans to diversify its central leadership.
Morales commented on these changes in a 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.”
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007). He edits TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website covering activism and politics in Latin America.