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From Bolivia’s Streets: What Voters Think about the New Constitution

25 January 2009

Today’s referendum on Bolivia’s new constitution took place on a rare sunny day for this time of year in La Paz.  Since traffic is prohibited on voting day, families taking advantage of the abnormally quiet streets walked their dogs, ate ice cream, and strolled into the local schools to vote.

Across the country, 3.8 million voters went to the polls.  While the prefects of eastern departments including Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija have been vocal opponents of President Evo Morales and the new constitution, the western department of La Paz is seen as a stronghold for the Movement Toward Socialism, Morales’ political party.

Throughout the day of voting, we walked around to various neighborhoods in the city to interview people about their thoughts on the new constitution. Opinion was mixed in all areas of the city, but divisions of class and ethnicity were clear among the voters we talked to.  We found that residents of wealthier central neighborhoods were more likely to be voting “No” for a variety of reasons, while residents of more peripheral, working-class neighborhoods in the city hills were more vocal in their support for the new constitution and the government itself.

What follows is a series of observations and interviews from various polling places in La Paz.

San Pedro

Maria Sales participated in the electoral process by selling tucumanas, deep fried meat and potato dumplings, outside one polling station in La Paz.  Even though her parents are Bolivian and she is of age, she can’t vote, as she was born in Argentina and hasn’t done the paperwork to get her identity card.  “I would vote yes, though,” she says.  “I like what the government is doing.”

Sandra Escobar, a fashionably dressed young woman who works in communication, is outraged about organization of the voting in central La Paz.  “There is no press here, and no judicial representative.  Everyone running the voting is from the Movimiento Sin Miedo [Fearless Movement, which supports the new constitution], and if you talk about voting ‘No,’ they hit you.   The vote should be secret, but you have to give your name.  Everyone here is for the ‘No,’ but they are all afraid.  If the ‘Yes’ wins, it will be a fraud.  This is a dictatorship.”

Escobar doesn’t support the Constitution because she “can’t support such an ignoble thing.  [Vice president] Garcia Linera is from the Shining Path, he’s a terrorist, and Evo makes people think he’s indigenous, but he can’t even speak [the indigenous language] Quechua.”  When asked about who might succeed Morales, she says, “They’ve killed people who were capable.  This is the worst kind of dictatorship.”

Walter Suarez studies information technology at the University.  “I think that what they’re [the government] doing is just.  I support the new constitution because I think that the old one was antiquated in terms of social and cultural justice, and included a lot of discrimination.”  Suarez doesn’t believe that Morales could win again in elections held this December.  “It would be very hard for him to win — people here get tired of leaders quickly, but I don’t know who could succeed him.”

Inside the walls of the school, youth and adults played soccer and basketball on a field and court while others dawdled on their way out of the polls to enjoy the sunny morning, and vendors took advantage of the heat to hawk soda and ice cream.

Juan Carlos Vega, owner of a private business, blue shirt, sunglasses, went to vote along with his son and dog, and said, “As a Bolivian and a worker, I support the new constitution because, like all Bolivians, I am concerned about the welfare of everyone in the country.  We need change for our children.  They will see the results of the vote we are casting today.”

Roberto Calane, who works at an insurance company in La Paz, said, “I voted for the ‘No’ because the new constitution is very ambiguous.  Therefore, whoever is in charge of the government can take advantage of this ambiguity, and manipulate, interpret the constitution to benefit their interests.  Another problem is that the leaders of the social organizations have a big role in making the decisions, but the people don’t.  The process of the constituent assembly was very politicized, and didn’t consider the opinions of the Bolivian people.  The constitution should have been discussed more, but it was not.”

Silvia Machicado, an architect, wearing black sunglasses with thick lenses, a winter coat trimmed with fake black fur, said she voted for the new constitution, but lamented “the lack of awareness among many Bolivians about what is in the new constitution because they haven’t taken the time to read it.  There is a lack of information, and so people believe the lies in the media.  Many people didn’t theorize, didn’t discuss the contents of the constitution.  I, however, support the new constitution, though it’s not perfect, and I believe we all need to work hard to make sure the changes in the constitution come to have an impact in society.”

Ivan Murillo, still sweating from a recent run, is an engineer, and was wearing a blue shirt and sunglasses before heading in to vote.  He said, “There are going to be a lot of people who don’t support the constitution, partly because of the process in which it was written.  It was written too fast, and without enough preparation.  There was also a lot of tension, and opposition from people who didn’t want a new constitution, and so the people that wrote it were under too much pressure from the opposition.  And when you’re under pressure you don’t do things that well.  There is still a lot of work to be done here in Bolivia.  Democracy isn’t mature enough here.”

Oscar Luizaga, a member of the Fearless Movement party, wore a neon green (the colors of his party) hat and armband.  He said, “I support the new constitution within this process of change from the traditional political parties that caused many problems for the population, looting our natural resources and centralizing power in just a few hands.  But now we are at an important point of departure from this way of governing, and can now transform the country.  Of the new constitution, I consider the key changed points to be regarding equality among all people, selling our raw materials for just prices, improving the management of our natural resources, decentralizing the power and improving education, healthcare and government administration.”  He continued, “It will be hard for the ‘Yes’ to win here in the center of La Paz.  This is going to be won in the peripheries of the city, but we members of the party are committed to promoting the ‘Yes’ vote today.”

Plaza Sucre

Victor Cardenas sells soda and candy in a small hexagonal kiosk on the corner of the Plaza Sucre.  Like all Sundays, today the plaza is surrounded by vendors selling grilled meat, fried pork, ice cream, and knickknacks.  At noon, Cardenas hasn’t voted yet, but he plans to vote blank.  “They’re all the same to me,” he says, “all businessmen and politicians.”  Registered voters who don’t vote are fined in Bolivia, so those who don’t want to exercise their right to vote can simply turn in a black ballot at the polls.”  Cardenas doesn’t believe that a new constitution could change his life.  “It won’t change anything for me,” he says, “some people, like the police or taxi drivers could be inconvenienced by new laws, so they’ll vote ‘No.’  It seems like the ‘No’ will win, I guess.”

Luz Barrientos, retired teacher, in front of juice stand: “We are also not in agreement with the distance established in the constitution between the Catholic Church and the government.  They speak of their ancestors, but our ancestors brought Catholicism to Bolivia.  What’s more, all of the assembly members in the constituent assembly were paid off, and organized like animals, like sheep, to do what their leader told them to do.”  Regarding the autonomy likely to be granted to indigenous communities, Luz said, “If one region where indigenous communities exist has oil, the people there can decide how it’s used.  But this isn’t right — everyone should be able to benefit from this oil, not just the campesinos.”

She continued, “We are from the middle class, and as members of this class we have suffered.  Indigenous people discriminate against us, they hate all people with white faces.”

Xiomara Santa Cruz, a student of architecture in a bright pink shirt, said, “For me, the new constitution needs to be revised, it is too long and the vocabulary is too hard to understand, so a lot of people don’t understand what it says.  Also, not everyone had a chance to participate in the constituent assembly, and those who did, did it only for their own interests.  So the constitution is representative of only a few people.”

Waldo Valle, an engineer, said, “The constitution was poorly written, incoherent, and simply brought over and copied from another country — Venezuela.  There haven’t been any good changes with this government made up of ignorant campesinos and indians.”

Max Paredes

Max Paredes is a bustling market neighborhood in the northern hills above the city center.  Mary sells wallets and plastic slips for voter IDs outside a Max Paredes precinct.  She said people had been voting all day, and that the ‘No’ would win in the center, but in this neighborhood the ‘Yes’ would win.  We asked why this difference existed, and she said, “Because of our indigenous background, our race, that’s why we support this government.”

Juan Jose Arce and Manual Huayao Yumani stand in a busy market intersection wearing yellow vests that identify them as purveyors of public cell phones for calls made in the street.   They aren’t party members of the MAS, but say that they “support change,” and feel included in the government.  “We are going to win!  100 percent!” jokes Yumani.  Juan Jose Arce said, “We support the new constitution and the change it will bring.  We are poor people, and we hope the new constitution will be in favor of all poor people.  We also think that everyone should have a right to land and a house, and that the government should help all people, not just a few.”

Juan Carlos Flores, a shoe shiner with a mask over his face, said, “I support the government and the new constitution because it’s not the earlier ones.  Now we have change for everyone, not just for the rich.”

Lydia Poma, who owns her own shop selling kitchenware, voted for the new constitution.  She pulled out an earphone to talk to us about her view.  “I like the new constitution because it allows the indigenous people of this country to rise up.  I also like the fact that we are being asked about the new limit to land ownership.  I don’t like the autonomy that would be given to civic groups in Santa Cruz and other departments, because, for them, autonomy means the same old thing all over again — meaning more wealth for them and not for anyone else.  We want autonomy, too, but not in the same way.”

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“Referendo Constitucional en Bolivia: El Alto, La Paz, Bolivia” ANMCLA (Asociación Nacional de Medios Comunitarios, Libres y Alternativos), 25 January 2009

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Stay tuned for more reports and analysis on the new constitution.


April Howard is an instructor of Latin American Studies at SUNY-Plattsburgh University, and an editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America.  Email: April.M.Howard(at)gmail(dot)com.  Benjamin Dangl, currently based in Bolivia, is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press).  He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org.  Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.


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