Bolivia: Reform and Reaction in the Hemisphere, Part II

November 6, 2008

After the November/December edition of the NACLA Report went to press, political developments in Bolivia continued to unfold rapidly and with unexpected results. In the aftermath of the Pando massacre, talks in Cochabamba in late September between the MAS government and the opposition prefects made more progress than any previous round of negotiations. These talks set the stage for Congress to revise the draft constitution approved by the Constituent Assembly in December 2007, with more than a quarter of its articles rewritten to achieve a consensus between the MAS and the opposition parties. On October 21, Congress ratified a national referendum on the new constitutional document to be held on January 25.

A major concession by the MAS, and an important gain for lowland elites, limits agrarian reform. The new constitution would still make large-scale landed property (the latifundio) illegal, but would not apply retroactively to already existing estates. The final concession by the MAS—which the government and opposition fought over until the last minute—is Morales’s reelection. He can run again in the elections now scheduled for December 2009, but if victorious, would be ineligible to seek another term in 2014.

Who benefits from this unexpected settlement? If a historic new charter is established during its government, the MAS will claim it has fulfilled the popular mandate—set by social movements during the insurrection of October 2003—for a constitutional “refounding” of the country. Some radical Indianist voices and the Bolivian Workers Central (the trade-union umbrella COB) denounced the MAS concessions as a betrayal of indigenous and popular interests. Yet the bulk of the social movements, which converged on La Paz en masse to pressure Congress into ratifying the referendum, celebrated the outcome as a popular victory. This constitutional agreement, in the end, grants the MAS a legitimacy that the right had sought to prevent at all cost.

Although the opposition was forced into the agreement, the proposed constitution does not threaten dominant class interests (especially agrarian property) and it legalizes departmental autonomy, which the right has fought for aggressively in recent years. The right, in other words, has been able to fend off potential challenges and to consolidate long-standing demands of its own.

If the antagonistic forces in the country were unable to achieve a constitutional agreement for more than two years, what explains the breakthrough now? The willingness of the MAS to compromise in order to reach a settlement certainly made it possible. Building pressure from the social movements also contributed to the outcome. But the opposition had consistently undermined such negotiations in the past. The decisive factor in forcing the opposition into a settlement was international intervention. The right-wing campaign of violence in the lowlands—video uploaded to YouTube showed images of peasants in Pando fleeing under gunfire into the Tahuamanu river—triggered widespread domestic as well as international repudiation. International observers, including the Organization of American States, UNASUR, and the European Union, oversaw the Cochabamba negotiations and monitored those in Congress, thereby preventing the opposition, now on the defensive, from scuttling the dialogue. Meanwhile the United States—the right-wing opposition’s only source of backing—once again found itself politically isolated in the new hemispheric context.

Seemin Qayum is a member of the NACLA editorial committee, a scholar of Bolivia, and co-author, with Raka Ray, of Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India (forthcoming, Stanford University Press). Sinclair Thomson teaches Latin American history at New York University and is co-author, with Forrest Hylton, of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007).

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