Bolivia Votes Sunday on a New Constitution that Affirms Indigenous Rights
Approval Would Create New Autonomies but Social Movements Say It Doesn’t Go Far Enough to Nationalize Water and Other Resources
By Erin Rosa
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
January 24, 2009
Cochabamba, Bolivia; January 24, 2009: Tomorrow Bolivians will go to the polls to decide whether to approve a new constitution that will permit and recognize greater rights for indigenous groups, which make up a 60 percent majority of the Andean nation’s population. If approved by voters, the new text will replace a current constitution that dates back nearly two centuries to Spanish colonialism.
Unlike the colonialist text, the new constitution officially recognizes the existence of the indigenous, and gives indigenous municipalities greater autonomy to govern the lands where they live, allowing a say in the management of natural resources and permitting a level of communal justice that can be decided on by the municipalities. These groups will also be permitted to form regional alliances with other municipalities to democratically govern the country’s rural areas and zones where many indigenous people live.
Under the new constitution, Catholicism will no longer be the official religion of the country. Instead, the national government will not be tied to any official religion and at the same time recognizes the diversity of religious beliefs—indigenous and non-indigenous—throughout the country. In the text, water, health care and telephone access are declared to be human rights, and new purchases of land in the nation will be regulated by the government and limited to 5,000 or 10,000 hectares, depending on an additional ballot question on Sunday in which the voters will also decide how much land property owners will be allowed to purchase.
The constitution, projected by most polls to pass, is the result of a drafting process that lasted over a period of two years. In 2006, a Constitutional Assembly was created to solicit input from lawmakers and social movements about how the constitution would be created. Such assemblies have also been used recently in countries like Ecuador and Venezuela to compose new constitutional texts. The creation of the Constitutional Assembly has been demanded by indigenous groups in Bolivia for decades, and its creation was also one of the major issues President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, championed before we was elected in December 2005.
But the path to getting the new constitution ratified was through the Bolivian congress was arduous. During the meetings of the Constitutional Assembly, conservative lawmakers boycotted the sessions, and when the text was sent to congress to be ratified, opposition lawmakers balked at approving it. The final draft was actually ratified on Oct. 2nd as part of a set of compromises between legislative supporters of the constitution and those opposing it.
The compromises in the final draft of the new constitution are not without criticism from the country’s social movements. Initially, health care was supposed to be a free human right, but that did not make it into the proposed document. Public services and natural resources, in the original draft, would be administered directly through public or communal entities. But in the final test, “mixed-companies,” private business entities with the participation of the government, are also allowed to manage resources and services, including water. Large tracts of land owned and utilized by private property owners will not be seized by the government and redistributed as some social groups had initially hoped.
Historically, the “mixed-companies” have been a means for private businesses to move money out of the country and away from investment in the local communities. Before the final draft of the constitution, the involvement of private entities with water was strictly prohibited. But now “mixed-companies” can participate in the distribution of water, and such a fact has drawn criticisms from social movements in Cochabamba, a city where, in 2000, residents successfully organized against the privatization of water by the Bechtel corporation, which had dramatically raised the price of water, making it unaffordable to countless citizens. Now in the city, a state agency manages the resource.
“While water is guaranteed as a human right, the issue is the mixed companies. Originally water was to be administered through community and public entities,” says Carlos Crespo with the Greater University of San Simón in Cochabamba, a professor who has studied water issues in the region for more than a decade. “But that part was put out of the constitution. Now it is permitted to be for-profit. The struggle and the conflicts will still continue.”
Crespo is also quick to point out the issue of water is a matter of life and death for campesinos in rural areas who depend on resource to grow crops and support their families.
Around Cochabamba, a city that continues to remember the struggles over water in 2000 that ended with five people dead and countless injuries after confrontations between government forces and residents, stickers that read “We are critics, not assholes. We are voting yes.” have managed to circulate around the population.
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