Dueling referendums on Bolivia’s future

On Dec. 15, tens of thousands took to the streets of La Paz to cheer President Evo Morales and celebrate Bolivia’s new constitution. Simultaneously, tens of thousands took to the streets of the eastern lowland cities Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando to celebrate declarations of local autonomy—in defiance of Morales. These departments announced signature drives to get the legal 8% quorum to approve referendums on the local rule. The governors of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca have also announced such proposals. Bolivia’s three remaining western highland departments—La Paz, Oruro and Potosi—stand firmly behind Morales. In La Paz, Morales warned that “the armed forces…are here to make sure that the country never disintegrates.”

On Dec. 17, Morales called the nation’s nine governors to La Paz for talks this week in the presence of European Union ambassadors and possibly OAS representatives. Netherlands Ambassador Martin de la Bey is to act as mediator. So far, only La Paz and Cochabamba have agreed to the talks. (AFP, Dec. 17)

Both the draft constitution and the autonomy statutes declared by the four departments are to be put to referendums. Morales’ land reform law will also be put to a popular vote. Additionally, Morales has called for recall referendums on all nine department governors and himself to resolve the crisis. (BBC World Service, Dec. 15)

The New York Times report from Santa Cruz Dec. 15 included the following frightening text:

“Against narco-communism,” reads one line of graffiti in this city in the lowlands of Bolivia. “To arms, Cruceños,” reads another, calling on residents to fight the government of President Evo Morales, who put the armed forces on alert this week as four eastern provinces move toward greater autonomy…

“They call us reactionaries, but we have a lot to react against,” said Wilson Salas Pinto, 43, a director of the Bolivian Socialist Falange, a right-wing group here whose members wear black berets and parade with their hands in the air Ă  la Mussolini. “Evo wants to transplant Cuban Communism to Bolivia. We’re prepared to resist that project.”

Upon first glance at the ethnic tensions here, it is easy to focus on increasingly vocal fringe groups like the Falange. A counterpart on the left is the Ponchos Rojos, or Red Ponchos, indigenous activists from the high plains who recently slit the throats of two dogs before television cameras as a warning to those who resist Mr. Morales’s plans.

The conservative MexiData provides a breakdown of Bolivia’s new draft constitutional text Dec. 17:

•Bolivia as a unitary but plurinational state. This provision is designed to reaffirm the significance of ethnicity in the country’s make-up. In practice, however, it does not involve any major change; the previous constitution also acknowledged Bolivia to be “multi-ethnic” and “plurinational.”

• State ownership of natural resources. This is designed to underpin government policies to reaffirm state control over sectors like oil and gas, privatized by previous governments. It would also affect the mining industry, which the government wants to bring under tighter state control.

• Constitutional approval. Once it has been approved by referendum, the constitution will only need to be ratified by two-thirds of those present, not two thirds of the elected members.

• Changing the composition of congress. The numbers in the chamber of deputies will be reduced, while the number of senators will be increased. All deputies are to be elected on a system of uninominal constituencies, replacing the previous mixed system. A proposal to scrap the senate (where the opposition has a majority) was abandoned at the last moment.

• A mixed economy. This is designed to reassure business interests. Ownership in the economy will be public, private and communitarian. A referendum would be held prior to the constitutional referendum on whether private land of up to 10,000 hectares will be allowed. The 1953 agrarian reform, which limited landholding in the highlands, was never applied in the lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando.

• Local autonomies. The constitution will bring in a system of territorial autonomies that involve a degree of decentralization. These will include not only departmental autonomies (one of the principal demands of the opposition) but also municipal, regional and indigenous autonomies. These would act as a check on the powers of departmental governments, of which six out of nine are opposition-controlled.

• Presidential reelection. Elections would be held for public office, including the presidency, once the new constitution is finally approved. The existing bar on immediate reelection for president and vice-president would be removed. Evo Morales’s present term would not be included, and he would therefore be able to stand for office for two more successive terms (i.e. ten years). The new constitution would introduce a second round in presidential voting where no candidate reaches 50% of the vote, ending a system by which the newly elected congress chooses the president in such circumstances.

• Recall of electoral mandates. The new constitution would provide mechanisms by which all elected officials (from the president downwards) could have their terms revoked in certain circumstances. This would include departmental prefects. These, elected only since 2005, have become a strategic bastion for the opposition.

• Reorganization of the judiciary. The indigenous systems of justice would be given the same standing in the official hierarchy as the existing system. The constitutional tribunal would have parity representation between indigenous and non-indigenous members. Judges would be elected, not appointed by congress as at present.

• The capital compromise. Sucre is to be acknowledged as Bolivia’s official capital, but the constitutional text does not mention where the various institutions and powers will be based. The presupposition here is that the executive and legislature will remain in La Paz, while the judiciary continues to be based in Sucre. The electoral authorities are to be upgraded to a fourth power, which will also be located in Sucre.

Meanwhile, Morales has been very busy lining up international investment—while conspicuously steering clear of the gringos. On Dec. 17 at the presidential Quemado Palace in La Paz, the governments of Bolivia, Brazil and Chile signed an agreement to build a new corridor linking the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America.

The Bolivia stretch of the road totals 1,600 kilometers, and is 75% ready for use. The unfinished parts will link Santa Cruz to Puerto Suarez, Oruro to Pisiga, and Santa Matias to Concepcion. Brazil will also mostly be expanding existing roads. Chile would build a 200-kilometer stretch linking the port of Iquique to the Bolivian border. (Xinhua, Dec. 17) This could the first step towards a compromise in Bolivia’s longstanding border dispute with Chile.

Brazil’s state energy firm Petrobras also announced plans to invest up to $1 billion to expand production in Bolivia’s natural gas fields and explore for new sources. (Reuters, Dec. 17)

The following day, Bolivia announced a deal with South Korea to jointly develop a copper mine at Corocoro, some 50 kilometers southwest of La Paz. The Corocoro mine would be developed jointly by the Korea Resources Corporation (KORES) and its Bolivian counterpart COMIBOL. (Korea Times, Dec. 18)

See our last post on Bolivia

  1. NYT needs Bolivia civics lesson
    We have already noted the common English-language media error of referring to Bolivia’s departments as “provinces” or “states.” On Dec. 20, the New York Times actually couldn’t make up its mind and used both terms. We reiterate:

    This isn’t hairsplitting—it is precisely what the conflict is all about. “States” only exist in federal systems, such as the USA. States have their own constitutions, legislatures, courts and police. “Departments” in traditionally centralized systems such as Bolivia’s have none of those things—something the parvenu petro-elites of the country’s Amazon east want to change.

    The article did include the following enlightening quote on the roots of the conflict:

    Wearing a tailored suit with an indigenous motif (tie-less, as is the custom in his government), Mr. Morales began the interview at 6 a.m. Sitting in an ornate receiving room in the presidential palace, he discussed the resonances of being president of Bolivia, where more than 60 percent of the population is indigenous.

    “Before, this palace was a place of business for the oligarchies,” said Mr. Morales, 48, who was a leader of coca growers in the tropical Chapare region before his election as president two years ago. “Now that they don’t have the central government at their disposal, they want something else.”