Bolivia’s constitutional crisis: rival “decentralizations”

Bolivia’s new constitution, which is being attacked by the lowland oligarchs as centralizing too much power in the hands of President Evo Morales, actually devolves many powers to “indigenous nations and peoples,” recognizing their right to “free determination and territoriality.” It states that indigenous institutions will be “part of the general structure of the State.” It officially identifies 36 indigenous peoples, stating that “their traditional knowledge and wisdom, their traditional medicines, their languages, their rituals and their symbols and dress will be valued, respected and promoted.” These 36 ethnicities are also guaranteed “collective title to their territories.” The document recognizes Bolivia as a “Unitary Social State of Plurethnic Communitarian Legal Character [Derecho], free, autonomous and decentralized; independent, sovereign, democratic and multicultural [intercultural].” It calls for “political, economic, juridical, cultural and linguistic pluralism.” (EFE, Nov. 27)

While both the constitution and the declarations of autonomy by the lowland departments that refuse to recognize it have yet to be approved by referendum, Bolivia appears on a course towards confrontation. Coverage of the crisis in The Economist, Dec. 13 appears to have got a rather critical detail wrong. Emphasis added:

At a marathon 16-hour session held at a university in the highland city of Oruro on December 9th, a rump of the constituent assembly (164 of its 255 members, most supporters of Mr Morales) rubber-stamped all of the 411 clauses of the new charter (bar one on landholding). But the opposition boycotted the session; it claims the document is illegal, since it was not approved by the required two-thirds majority of the assembly. Legal or not, the government’s plan is to submit the document to a referendum next year.

Contrast this Dec. 17 report from the conservative MexiData—certainly no friends of Morales. It notes that the final article-by-article vote took place after supporters of the ruling Movement to Socialism (MAS) in the Constituent Assembly were forced by protests to flee the city of Sucre, where the sessions were being held. Again, emphasis added:

The assembly members then found themselves unable to return in safety to Sucre, and reconvened finally in the city of Oruro on 8 December to approve the new text item by item. The approved text was – with some minor last-minute changes – that drawn up by the MAS bloc in the assembly. Podemos, the main opposition party, again absented itself (apart from a brief incursion to register its protest), although the smaller Unidad Nacional (UN) did attend. The fact that the number of delegates present from the MAS and its allies was well in excess of the two-thirds required meant that the new constitution was summarily approved with little debate on the substance of the details.

The Economist report does mention an incident that reveals the degree of paranoia in the lowlands about a Venezuelan military presence in Bolivia: “On December 6th a mob stoned a Venezuelan aircraft which landed at Riberalta, in the northern jungle.”

A more complete account was provided by AFP, Dec. 6:

An angry mob of Bolivian civilians threw rocks at a Venezuelan military plane refueling at an airport in northeastern Bolivia, forcing the unwelcome aircraft to fly out of town, according to a Dec. 6 report.

The leader of a local civic group opposed to President Evo Morales, who is a top ally of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said no Venezuelan military planes would be allowed to land in Riberalta, especially if they are carrying weapons.

“We have to defend our people,” Riberalta Civic Committee President Marcos Jauregui was quoted as saying by the Catholic news agency Erbol. “Why wasn’t there a press conference to disclose what they are bringing to the country? We must be vigilant because we will not allow Venezuelan planes to come,” he said.

A Bolivian aviation source, who requested anonymity, confirmed that the plane was a Hercules airplane belonging to the Venezuelan air force. The source said the plane landed in Riberalta after it was not allowed to refuel at its original destination, the Brazilian city of Rio Branco, for unknown reasons.

Up to 200 people with signs saying “Enough interference!” threw stones at the plane, which left to an unknown destination amid rumors it was carrying weapons.

See our last post on Bolivia.