Bolivia: new constitution approved

Bolivia’s new constitution was passed in a national referendum Jan. 25, as thousands gathered in La Paz to celebrate. Standing on the balcony of the presidential palace, President Evo Morales addressed a jubilant crowd: “Here begins a new Bolivia. Here we begin to reach true equality… The colonial state ends here. Internal colonialism and external colonialism ends here. Sisters and brothers, neoliberalism ends here too.” Polls conducted by TelevisiĂłn Boliviana determined that the document passed with 61.97% support from some 3.8 million voters. By region, the charter was voted up in La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, PotosĂ­, Tarija, and Pando; it was rejected in Santa Cruz, Beni, and Chuquisaca. (Upside Down World, Jan. 26)

Indigenous rights
The new Bolivian charter emphasizes indigenous rights, designating the state as “pluri-national” in recognition of the country’s 36 autochthonous ethnicities and Afro-Bolivians. Article 5 states: “The official languages of the State are Spanish and all the languages of the indigenous peoples and nations. The pluri-national Government and the departmental governments must use at least two official languages, one of which must be Spanish and the other will be chosen taking into account the use, convenience, circumstances, necessities and preferences of the population.”

The document also devolves political power to local indigenous communities, which will be allowed to pass their own laws as long as they do not violate national laws or the constitution; and to levy taxes. Article 289 stipulates: “Rural indigenous autonomy consists of self-government and the exercise of self-determination for rural indigenous nations and native peoples who share territory, culture, history, language, and unique forms of juridical, political, social, and economic organization.”

The text sets a quota of seats in Bolivia’s national Congress for minority indigenous groups—but not for the Aymara and Quechua, who together represent the majority in the country’s western highlands.

In a nod to the conservative opposition, which controls the eastern lowland departments where the constitution was voted down, the document also expands the powers of departmental governments, allowing them greater control over their budgets and administration. Departments will be empowered to create legislative assemblies for the first time—but the questions of land reform and control of subsoil resources remain the purview of the national government. The autonomous powers of indigenous communities and regional departments have “equal rank.”

New responsibilities of the state
The charter designates new guarantees to the Bolivian people, including the rights to water, food, education, health care, housing, retirement, electricity, telecommunications, and other basic services. The state will have the obligation to assure access to these basic services in an equitable manner. Education must be free and health insurance must be universal. Article 20 establishes access to water and sewage systems as a human right and bans the privatization of these services.

Article 41 states that access to drugs “cannot be restricted by intellectual property rights or commercialization,” while Article 42 states:, “It is the responsibility of the State to promote and guarantee the respect, use, research, and practice of traditional medicine.” It mandates creation of a register of natural medicines as the cultural patrimony of Bolivia’s indigenous people.

Sovereignty over strategic resources
Critically, the document establishes national sovereignty over strategic resources. Article 349 declares, “Natural resources are the inalienable and indivisible property and direct dominion of the Bolivian people and will be administrated, in the collective interest, by the State.” YPFB, the state oil and gas company, will be in charge of the entire productive chain (exploration, exploitation, commercialization), although it is authorized to enter into contracts with private companies. Both YPFB and Bolivia’s state mining company are barred from privatization.

Gender rights
The constitution mandates equal participation of women and men in Bolivia’s Congress. Article 14 prohibits discrimination based on sex, gender identity, or sexual preference, while Article 15 contains language against domestic violence. Article 48 guarantees equal pay for men and women. There are, however, no provisions on same-sex marriage or civil unions, or on abortion, which remains illegal in Bolivia. Article 53 defines marriage as “between a man and woman,” while assuring that they have equal rights before the law. Women are “guaranteed equal participation” in races for Congress, but are not explicitly guaranteed a quota of seats.

Workers’ rights
The new constitution recognizes the right to strike and form unions, as well as guaranteeing job security. Article 49 states, “The State will protect job stability. Unjustified firing and all forms of labor abuse are prohibited.” Article 54 establishes that workers in businesses that are going bankrupt or are abandoned in “an unjustified way” will be able to take over the firms, with state support, and turn them into “community or social” enterprises.

Environmental rights
The constitution states that “all forms of economic organization have the obligation to protect the environment,” and that the state conserve natural resources and protect biodiversity “in order to maintain equilibrium with the environment.”

Military issues
Following the example of Ecuador’s new constitution, Article 10 prohibits foreign military bases on Bolivian soil. This article states, “Bolivia is a pacifist state” that “promotes a culture of peace” and “cooperation between the peoples of the region and the world.” It states that the nation “rejects all wars of aggression as an instrument to solve differences and conflicts between states.”

Religion and press freedom
Both the Christian God and Pachamama, the Andean earth deity, are honored in the new constitution. Separation of church and state are affirmed and freedom of religion is guaranteed. In a departure from Bolivia’s previous constitutions, no mention is made of the Roman Catholic Church.

Freedom of the press and of expression are also guaranteed in principle—although it is established that the news media must “respect the principles of truth and responsibility.” (AP, Jan. 25; ALAI, Jan. 24; McClatchy Newspapers, Jan. 23; NACLA News, Jan. 21; Bolivian National Electoral Court website)

See our last posts on Bolivia and the world indigenous struggle.