The Complex Process of Designing a New State

The Complex Process of Designing a New State

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March 21, 2007

Bolivia: The Complex Process of Designing a New State
By Franz Chávez,
March 21, 2007

A unified but decentralised state that recognises Bolivia’s cultural and ethnic diversity is the vision that is gradually gaining broad support in the constituent assembly currently rewriting the country’s constitution.

Eight months into their job, with just four months to go, the assembly’s 255 members are working in committees, drawing up the proposals to be considered by a plenary session.

It took the assembly a full six months, until Feb. 7, simply to agree on voting rules: only a simple majority will be required to approve constitutional reforms at the committee and plenary levels, although a two-thirds majority will be required for approval of the final proposal to come out of the assembly.

This question was key to the entire process, as leftist President Evo Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) holds a majority of seats in the assembly (137).

Any proposed articles not approved by the Jul. 2 deadline will become part of a list of questions to be decided directly by voters in a constitutional referendum.

The assembly began to hold public hearings again this week to hear the proposals of civil society and local councils on Bolivia’s social and economic future and on the new constitution.

The governing MAS wants the new constitution to reflect a “plurinational” state and to recognise a certain level of autonomy for the country’s indigenous people, who make up around 65 percent of the population and have historically been excluded from political power.

Indigenous demands for state recognition of their Andean and Amazon cultures and customs, and criticism of the forms of government inherited from Spanish colonial times, began to be voiced in 1990, in a 700-km march by indigenous protesters calling for respect for their right to their ancestral territory.

The traditional rural and business elites, meanwhile, are represented by opposition parties, especially the rightwing Podemos coalition, having lost their grip on power when Morales — himself an Aymara Indian — won a landslide victory in December 2005.

Bolivia, a country of 9.2 million people, is divided between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the relatively wealthy eastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product (GDP). Much of the population of eastern Bolivia is made up of people of European (mainly Spanish) descent.

Bolivia’s 48 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, worth an estimated 100 billion dollars — the second-largest in South America after Venezuela’s — are concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of the country.

Civic leaders in the eastern provinces want greater local control over the administration of natural resources and the taxies levied on them. In a July 2006 referendum, voters in the eastern, northeastern and southeastern departments (provinces) of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija came out in favour of regional autonomy.

Indigenous communities and other groups represented by MAS, such as trade unions and social organisations, are calling for greater recognition, participation and autonomy. But they run up against territorial divisions established when Bolivia became an independent republic in 1825.

MAS sees the eastern departments’ call for autonomous regional governments and local control over natural resources as secessionist and lacking in solidarity.

Samuel Doria Medina, a member of the constituent assembly and head of the centre-left National Unity (UN) party, says the demands for territorial independence are “dangerous.”

The UN party proposes “unity within regional, cultural, political, economic and social diversity, which would reflect a basic consensus among Bolivians to build a different country, leaving behind a ‘higher’ legacy marked by development, equality and justice” and the elimination of racial, ethnic, cultural or regional discrimination.

The rightwing Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), meanwhile, wants a single unified state in which five departments under a model of administrative decentralisation would coexist with the four that voted for political and administrative autonomy.

>From a weakened position, the rightist Podemos coalition is calling for respect for the autonomy wishes expressed by the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, and in the medium-term, greater administrative independence for the country’s 327 municipalities.

The conflicting indigenous and regional demands for autonomy are a central focus of the debates in the constituent assembly. However, the political parties holding the largest number of seats in the assembly have agreed, in a diplomatic and conciliatory tone, to preserve Bolivia’s territorial unity.

“The existence of an initial agreement to maintain Bolivia as a unified state is implicitly clear,” Professor Joaquín Saravia, a sociologist, told IPS.

But the next phase of the assembly discussions will be more complex, he said, because each group will propose its own particular way of incorporating itself into the new vision of Bolivia, from its specific cultural, economic, regional and ethnic standpoint.

Former congressman Germán Gutiérrez Gantier said the social demands with a strong influence on the assembly include those put forward in the month-long popular uprising in El Alto, a giant working-class suburb of La Paz, and other parts of western Bolivia, in defence of the country’s energy resources, which toppled president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-1997 and 2002-2003) in October 2003.

The political consultant said other demands influencing the process are voiced mainly by business leaders and large landowners in the department of Santa Cruz, in the east, who want total provincial control over natural resources and revenues in that region.

Voters chose the route of the constituent assembly as a peaceful way of working out these differences, but “if this process fails, democracy would be hurt, and we could have complicated moments,” said Gutiérrez Gantier.

The analyst said Bolivia — which is South America’s poorest country — is going through a difficult phase, in which the old state dominated by free-market “neoliberal” policies has not completely died and the new economic and political model has not yet emerged. (END/2007)


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