Between Electoral Theater and Revolution

by Ben Dangl, Upside Down World

Before Evo Morales won a landslide victory in the Bolivian presidential election on December 18, 2005, one of his key campaign promises was to organize a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. The election for representatives to that assembly took place on July 2 in tandem with a referendum on autonomy for all provinces. The election, and its results, revealed significant aspects of the relationship between the Morales administration and the social movements that helped put him in power.

For years, Bolivian social movements have been demanding that a constituent assembly be organized to rewrite the constitution, in part to create a more egalitarian society. The constituent assembly which will take place in Sucre on August 6 was supposed to be by and for the people, and was presented that way throughout the presidential election. As the July 2 Election Day approached, more criticisms emerged about the organization of the race and the assembly itself. Though Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) had support in its policies and candidates for the assembly, many people in Bolivia said the way in which the elections and assembly were organized excluded the country’s social movements. As Jim Shultz in Cochabamba wrote on the Democracy Center’s website, in order to qualify to run a candidate in the election, “Unions, indigenous groups, and other social movements had to hit the streets and gather 15,000 signatures each–complete with fingerprints and identification card numbers–in a few weeks.”

As a result, many powerful social and labor organizations outside of political parties were blocked from participating in the election. Many argue that this will make the assembly less democratic. In an article on the constituent assembly for IRC Americas, Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar and Dunia Mokrani Chavez explained that the assembly will not be an “ample space for political deliberation and direct intervention about public issues,” but instead “has been converted into a well known electoral theater.” The authors argue that the MAS leaders want to be the only actors for social change and want to use the assembly as a way to increase their own power.

However, as MAS militants are quick to point out, many social and labor groups are operating within their party. Of the 50 MAS representatives for La Paz, 18 are leaders of labor and social organizations. Many of the MAS belong to unions, indigenous groups and neighborhood councils. Some of them are leaders of coca farmer, miner and student organizations. This type of participation, which was similar in races around the country, could help the assembly communicate with a broader range of citizens and social movements.

The referendum on whether or not provinces should have autonomy from the central government has been another divisive issue. For one thing, vast differences in opinion exist about what autonomy means. This will be up for discussion at the constituent assembly in August. In Santa Cruz and other provinces, autonomy will probably signify more power within the province to manage the economy, taxes, education, gas and other natural resources without the omnipresence of the central government in La Paz.

Marielle Cauthin, a former journalist at the Bolivian paper La Prensa and currently an employee at the Ministry of Education, said: “The autonomy has been discussed for twenty years in Santa Cruz. Bolivia has always been centralized. Many cities and provinces can’t do what they want because the political power is so centralized.” In the case of Santa Cruz, she explained, “they could change the flag, or the money or the religion of the province. They might even require that people use passports to enter the province. This is all up for discussion now. At the end of the day, it will probably have more to do with the redistribution of funding from the state.” She said the MAS is against autonomy in Santa Cruz because it’s a proposal of the elite business class there and could mean more harmful neoliberal economic policies and exploitation of natural resources.

The question of autonomy created divisions throughout the country in the run up to elections. Business owners, labor sectors and citizens of Cochabamba marched for autonomy in that province days before Election Day. Protestors said they were organizing a front against a centralized, vertical government run by the MAS. They went to the main plaza where MAS had set up a permanent and open office for the public to discuss and campaign for the election and referendum. The two groups confronted, and eventually came to blows. The police had to intervene.

From the Streets to the Assembly

Raul Prada is a well-known academic, sociologist and writer in La Paz who currently works as a foreign relations advisor in the government. He ran as a representative in the MAS for the constituent assembly and won. I talked with him in his office about the election, autonomy and the upcoming assembly.

“We can’t understand what’s happening now with this constituent assembly without looking back at the last six years,” he explained, squinting at me through his glasses and picking leaves of coca out of a bag on the desk. “Many of the demands for a constituent assembly began with the water war in Cochabamba in 2000 and came to a head in the 2005 gas war. The social movements opened up this space for the assembly.”

In spite of the MAS victory in December, the assembly and elections haven’t turned out as people had hoped, Prada said. The fact that the referendum happened with the assembly election complicated things. “It also all happened too fast, there was not enough debate… The social instruments [unions, social organizations] that could have participated in the election were not utilized enough…”

“No one is against the decentralization of the government,” he said, referring to the autonomy proposals. “But they are against the way it was proposed by Santa Cruz. The referendum on indigenous autonomy was excluded… MAS made a mistake in allowing the exclusion of indigenous groups.” Before the election, major indigenous organizations and groups mobilized to demand a referendum on their own autonomy, outside that of the provinces.

As a representative in the assembly, Prada said he will work to correct the mistakes made in the election and plans for assembly. He said there needs to be more popular participation among the base groups of the MAS.

“This is a mandate we [the MAS] have to defend. Various indigenous leaders are pushing for something pluri-national. They are fighting for more space to discuss the proposals and communicate with representatives in the assembly. This is the work we have to do, this is an obligation… It will also be important that different groups mobilize and communicate with those in the assembly. This is not going to work without a fight. The traditional parties will pose a challenge. Social organizations also need to control their representatives in the MAS.”

He said that many MAS representatives are not closely connected to their base and that there were many mistakes made in the selection of candidates within the party. I asked him why he ran if he was so critical of the whole process. “I didn’t want to run but the people asked me to run, so I did.”

Prada explained that some people in the MAS want to co-opt the social movements. “MAS has had some problems with social movements. The party has been de-mobilizing social movements for some time. The MAS left the social movements to become an electoral force. It became more of an electoral instrument. There are social movements in the MAS and strong groups at the base. But there are sectors within MAS that want to co-opt these groups.”

Many critics contended that only a small part of the constitution can be changed. Prada disagreed. “We are not going to revise the constitution, we are going to change the institution,” he explained. “This is a colonial institution, a mechanism of domination. We need to work toward de-colonization.” He spoke of a pluri-nation that respects the rights of indigenous autonomy. “According to the law, only 20% of the constitution can change in this assembly. But in the assembly we can change this law and so change the entire constitution. Alvaro [Garcia Linera, the vice president] said only 20% could change because he believes in reform, not revolution. I don’t share this view. We need to guarantee the constituent characteristic of this assembly.” He said some representatives in the MAS believe in this 20% idea but the bases want it all to change. “It is going to be a difficult fight to change the whole constitution.”

The Great Divide

A few days before the election was to take place, the MAS party closed its campaign in the main plaza in La Paz. Music, lofty speeches and cold wind marked the rally against autonomy and for the MAS representatives to the constituent assembly. A banner hung behind the main stage with the words “Bolivia changes its history: democratic and cultural revolution.” Below this phrase a hand clutched a pencil colored like the Bolivian flag. A giant portrait of a smiling Evo Morales with an indigenous flag behind him was hanging next to the stage. As the event began with Andean music and speeches about coca leaves and revolution, the plaza filled with people carrying banners against autonomy and for a MAS victory. One sign simply said, “Autonomy—destruction of Bolivia.”

The gathering was a convergence of revolutionary fervor and elements of daily life in La Paz. Large advertisements for a lottery company, construction materials and car oil lube were the plastered on buildings behind the stage. The smell of burning meat was everywhere; vendors selling shish kabobs, steaks and potatoes were lined up along the streets. Their grills sputtered with flames and spewed smoke throughout the crowd. A girl around 8 years old walked past selling cigarettes and candy. At one point I counted more child workers than adults. In Bolivia, child labor is rampant. The presence of these kids in the crowd made the event’s speeches of development and new opportunities sound ironic. A finger-nail clipper salesman sat next to me and propped up his cardboard display on the sidewalk. People were more interested in chanting and eating shish kabobs than buying his nail clippers. Another man walked by with a green hat and a star on it that said, “Dallas Sucks.” Fireworks cracked feebly in the air while a cameraman from the Venezuelan TV program Telesur asked a shoe shiner boy to back up a bit so he could get a better shot.

The crowd was decidedly pro-MAS. “We have had enough exploitation in this country,” a woman next to me yelled over the speakers. She assured me MAS was going to win in La Paz. “The transnational companies have taken everything. I’ll vote for MAS because we need change, it’s long overdue.”

The audience grew to include around 15,000 people. A man on stage dressed in a Bolivian flag jumped around in between sets from Andean folk and rock bands. Images of Che Guevara bobbed on placards in the crowd as the moderator on stage yelled, “Vote for MAS. Vote for a new Bolivia!” A number of candidates to the assembly sat on stage, buried in flower necklaces and confetti, and nodding their heads on cue. Arturo Rojas, an 11-year-old boy, stepped up to the microphone and gave a rousing speech that could’ve come from the mouth of a 40-year-old man. It included such phrases as “A thousand times no to the exploitation of our country!” and “The people are in power to construct a new country!” At the end of his speech the moderator shook his fist in the air and asked the audience if they wanted coca. Thousands responded with cheers and bags of the green leaf were tossed into the crowd.

I retreated from the audience to a street vendor under a blue tarp with bottles of shampoo and skin lotion piled up next to her. The outposts of vendors exhaled shish kabob smoke as waves of applause swept through the crowd. A street band responded to each rally cry from the stage with an explosion of flute music and pounding drums. The president and vice president were ushered onto the stage at a jogging speed by their security officials. The wrinkles on a giant screen broadcasting their images made the politicians look like they were underwater.

The following day I went up to El Alto, a poor city outside of La Paz where key street mobilizations in October 2003 ousted President Sanchez de Lozada during a conflict over the exportation of the country’s gas. I met up with Julio Mamani, a journalist in the city with his finger on the pulse of its politics and daily life. His thoughts on the election echoed others I heard.

“The constitutional assembly is happening without the participation of the indigenous groups and social organizations,” he said. “Only political parties are participating. Many people are angry about this. The result is that people are not excited about it. Only just recently are the parties putting up signs and campaigning and debating. Only recently people have begun talking about the autonomy question. There hasn’t been a lot of debate or discussion.”

Julio said everyone in his extended family has been in touch with each other about how they would vote. They decided to vote no for autonomy, but would vote in blank for representatives; they were angry about how it was all organized. “There are no proposals for the constitutions, just fights between parties. Because of this, MAS lacks support in El Alto. I will not vote for people that I don’t believe in.” He said he was invited to a meeting with Evo in March 2006 regarding the constitutional assembly. Various representatives of social organizations were there that support the MAS. According to Julio, Evo told them, “There will be no discussion. You will support what the MAS decides.”

In the days leading up to the election, there was a lot of confusion and vagueness surrounding what autonomy would mean and little discussion of proposals for the constituent assembly from any party. There were attacks from both sides of the political spectrum. PODEMOS, (Poder Democratica y Social), the leading right-wing party of Jorge Quiroga, a former president and second-place finisher in the December elections, said that Venezuela’s Chavez had impacted the electoral race, and that a vote for MAS would be a vote for Chavez.

Sylvia, a woman who works in the government and didn’t want her last name used, echoed this sentiment. She voted for Evo Morales in the last election but decided to support autonomy and right-wing candidates from PODEMOS in this election. Throughout our conversation Sylvia referred to herself as white and middle class. “We, the middle class, are now suffering in the same way poorer people have been for years,” she said, explaining her shift in support. Much of her argument was based on the idea that there needed to be a strong party to confront MAS. “Now there is no opposition,” she said. Silvia’s explanation was peppered with words like “authoritarian” and “dictatorial.” She regularly compared the political divide in Bolivia to that in Venezuela.

Sylvia’s opinion reflected the war of insults and accusations between the two leading parties, MAS and PODEMOS. The Bolivian newspaper El Diario announced that the campaigns were “full of insults, without debate” and that the confrontations between parties were more ideological than strategic. Jorge Quiroga of PODEMOS said MAS was misusing the state funds to help his own campaign and traffic his supporters around the country to campaign for the election. PODEMOS also said that Chavez impacted the discourse of MAS and, that MAS wants to “Cubanize” the country and make it atheist. Evo, in turn, said PODEMOS was focused on the exploitation of the nation’s natural resources and continuing harmful economic policies which have left the country impoverished. Such infighting distracted people from the key issues up for discussion in the assembly.

Among forty-two people interviewed about the election by the Bolivian paper La Prensa, the majority voiced complaints about the lack of proposals from any party and the fighting between groups. Some suggested it was just the same old electoral game with a lot of promises and no specific proposals. Many said they didn’t understand the question of autonomy or the election issues in part because of a lack of information and discussion among candidates.

On June 27, the Bolivian newspaper La Razon published in interesting list of platforms pushed by candidates from various parties in La Paz. Freddy Roncal Daza of the Unidad Civica Solidaridad said he was not of the right or left but in the center and would work for a mixed economy with private investment as well as state involvement. Roberto Aguilar Gomez, of the MAS said, “All of the expressions of the original [indigenous] peoples should be recognized in the new constitution.” Samuel Medina, of the Unidad Nacional party who finished third place in the last presidential elections and is the owner of Bolivia’s Burger King chain, said the state should participate in the exploitation of raw materials but not discard the participation of the private sector. He believed the constitution should help to produce more prosperity and employment. A candidate from PODEMOS supported autonomy and less centralization in the government. Victor Hugo Canelas Zannier, of the Agrupacion Ciudadana Ayra, said the constitutional assembly should work to “go beyond the traditional government which was left in [the revolts of] October 2003, toward a state that promotes development and recuperates the raw materials…” Estefa Alarcon, of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, wanted to promote women in the new constitution, as they are the “axis of the economy and society.”

When I met Yoni Bautista, a MAS representative for a working-class part of the city, his right hand was in a bandage so he motioned for me to shake his arm instead. Bautista was wearing a blue MAS hat and smiled often. I asked him about his plans for the assembly. Regarding corruption, he said, “we need to moralize the public departments and put trustworthy people in public positions.” Like the rest of his party, he said the natural resources such as land, water and gas should go into the hands of the state and shouldn’t be privatized. He said in essence, that autonomy is a good thing. “We want something more decentralized.” Yet he didn’t support the kind of autonomy being pushed by civic groups in Santa Cruz. “Santa Cruz wants to take control of natural resources… We want uniform development for the country.”

Election Day

On Election Day the voting areas were full of life. Kids were playing among the ballot boxes, kicking soccer balls and chasing pigeons. Traffic was limited to only government and election official vehicles in order to prevent masses of voters from being transported to different voting places to vote twice. As a result, the air in La Paz was very clean and fresh, the streets were quiet and full of pedestrians instead of traffic jams. Most voting areas looked like a family picnic; a celebration between neighbors and friends. It was very loose and informal. Outside of voting booths people cooked steak and sausages. Most of the voting areas were in schoolyards where there were soccer goals and basketball courts, so games went on among neighbors while the voting happened. Throughout the day I ran around the city interviewing voters to get a feel for public opinion regarding the candidates and autonomy question.

Humberto Herbas, an older family man and business-owner with strong convictions who was perhaps the most enthusiastic MAS supporter I spoke with, said: “With the MAS we are in a time of transformation, things are changing. This party represents the majority of the country. No one has ever done what this party has done. For example, the nationalization of the gas; this goes beyond good intentions.” I asked what he thought about the election and the way in which representatives were chosen. He said: “We need to have professionals rewriting the constitution, not just any person. The assembly isn’t for everyone.” He didn’t think the various social organizations of the country needed to be directly included. “There are certain people that should do this, lawyers and professionals.” Herbas was against the autonomy question in the way that Santa Cruz proposed it, but supported the idea of a less centralized government. As for the criticism about the lack of debate and information during the campaign, he said, “People aren’t patient enough to discuss these issues and look into all of the information.”

Dora Araya Castro, a retired woman, spoke with me on the sidewalk as people were meandering in the empty streets toward their voting places. She wore a green shawl and gloves and peered at me through eyes surrounded by vast wrinkles. Each moment before speaking she looked around to make sure no one was listening; she was afraid to be chastised for being so supportive of right-wing parties. She shook her finger at me while she talked and said it was “a shame that I have the same last name as that bastard Fidel Castro.”

“I do not support this government,” she said. “It is full of terrorists. I never voted for this campesino [rural worker] president Evo. He doesn’t even know how to speak. He repeats things over and over again. MNR, Quiroga, Medina, these are ones that I support. The majority of the people in this government are just campesinos. They say all the traditional parties are bad and they did all of this propaganda to put themselves in power… These campesinos want to knock us all down… The US should cut all ties and stop the financial help to Bolivia.”

Estella Bare, a clean-cut doctor in a pink outfit, said she was unsure about who to vote for but that she was not going to support autonomy because it would divide the country. Part of the reason why she was undecided was because she believed the parties running “don’t represent the people. It was organized way too quickly.”

Rosa Salgado, a mother dressed in a typical campesina outfit with a hat and wide skirt, held her small child while she spoke to me. “Ever since Evo entered he has been fulfilling his promises in ways that affect us all.” Though she supported Evo wholeheartedly, she voted for autonomy. “Some said it was a good idea, others no. It was confusing and there was a lack of information about it.”

Two giggling women walked out of the voting area wearing hats from the right-wing party Unidad Nacional (UN). One of them was Mirian Castellon, a retired teacher. She described herself as a “militant UN supporter” and said the key proposals of her party included “more work, education, healthcare and an end to the poverty.” She supported autonomy because it was “good for the country.” Castellon explained that there should have been more time during the elections to spread more information and discuss more issues. She admitted she didn’t know exactly what autonomy meant.

Luis Garcia, a student who also works at a job in La Paz, said “I don’t support any candidates. They are the same as always. Only the faces have changed. The same party politics continue. I voted in blank because I didn’t agree with the way it was organized.” He said there hasn’t been that much discussion or debate about the proposals or the candidates. “Much less so than in other elections,” he said. “In other elections there was more participation, more knowledge about proposals and the issues and so on.”

A young student named Laura Batista also criticized the amount of fighting between parties and lack of discussion. For the constitutional assembly, she hoped to see things change that “would help isolated communities in the country in health care and education.”

A public employee, Consuela Torico, also said there was a lack of information and specific proposals and “too much dirty war. Only the parties are involved so they don’t lose their power.” Torico said the way the parties have talked about autonomy has divided the country between the west and the east.

In general most people didn’t seem that excited about the election. The momentum of the popular, participatory social movements and the landslide MAS victory didn’t seem to carry over into this election.

Few people were surprised when the election results were announced in the evening of July 2. MAS won 135 seats in the assembly, PODEMOS won 60, and Unidad Nacional won 11. MAS didn’t get all they’d hoped for; two thirds of the seats (170 out of 255) were needed to control the assembly. In the referendum on autonomy for provinces, the NO to autonomy won 54% and the YES won 46% nationally. Departments that voted for autonomy were Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija. Those that voted against included La Paz, Oruro, Potosi, Cochabamba and Chuquisaca. When the results came in, huge marches and rallies in Santa Cruz celebrated their victory for autonomy.

Few incidents of fraud or conflicts at the voting booths were reported. However, in Pando, indigenous organizations said that PODEMOS handed out radios and food in exchange for votes for their own party and for autonomy. In Puerto Suarez, someone was attacked for putting a sticker in favor of autonomy near where people were voting. La Prensa reported that on Election Day, 800 indigenous people from the province marched and took over streets in Sucre demanding an indigenous constituent assembly. They were dispersed by the police with teargas. The protestors declared they had been excluded from the assembly by the political parties. They demanded an assembly that was in accord with their customs and way of life.

Without two thirds of the seats, MAS won’t be able to easily push its agenda at the assembly. The event will involve a lot of negotiation between feuding factions and parties, and the issue of autonomy will likely continue to be a divisive one. Nonetheless, the MAS mandate is still very large and many are hopeful that the party can push for a progressive constitution. The elections and the planning for the constituent assembly illustrate the country’s tension between state power and the social movements. How this divide is addressed will make or break the Morales administration. For the streets and the state, much still depends on the assembly in August.


Benjamin Dangl is the editor of, an online magazine uncovering activism and politics in Latin America and, a progressive perspective on world events. He is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, forthcoming from AK Press in March 2007, and a recipient of a 2007 Project Censored Award for his coverage of US military operations in Paraguay.

This story first appeared July 6 in Toward Freedom

See also:

“The Wealth Underground: Evo Seizes the Gas,” by Ben Dangl
WW4 REPORT #122, June 2006


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Aug. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution