Bolivians set to vote on new constitution

Bolivians head to the polls Sunday to vote on a controversial new charter that boosts rights for indigenous people and nationalizes gas reserves.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    New charter? President Evo Morales showed a copy of the proposed constitution to a crowd on Tuesday.
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    Bad for my business: Nicolas Noa, a shopkeeper in La Paz, Bolivia, says that on Sunday he will vote against the new constitution that President Morales is proposing.
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The word "No" papers the prosperous, tropical city of Santa Cruz, the cradle of opposition to Bolivia's President Evo Morales. Posters, bumper stickers, and even billboards urge residents to reject a new constitution to be voted on Sunday.

Yet the first placard one sees upon entering the city's Plan 3,000 indigenous neighborhood is in support of the president, urging a "Yes" vote. "We feel divided here from the rest of Santa Cruz," says resident Benjamin Penaranda. "Here we support the constitution. It will give us rights we never had."

It's just one example of the class, cultural, and geographical divisions that have roiled Bolivia since Mr. Morales, the country's first indigenous president, came into office three years ago promising to "refound" the nation.

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The centerpiece of his mission is a new constitution that he says would reverse decades of discrimination against the indigenous majority – his critics claim it's just a power ploy.

In 2-1/2 years of legal and political wrangling leading up to this vote, dozens of people have been killed, buildings have been ransacked, and highways have been blocked as Morales supporters and opponents battled over what the future of the country should look like.

Now that the much-delayed referendum, which most pollsters predict will pass, is on the table, the question remains: Will this be the final act, putting an end to the violent chapter in the nation's transformation? Or will divisions – between the eastern lowlands and the western highlands, indigenous and not, rich and poor – remain? The most explosive flash points might be over for now, but most agree that conflict will simmer long into the future.

"In theory, a constitution is a pact between all of society," says Carlos Toranzo, a political analyst at the Latin America Institute of Social Research in La Paz. "There was no agreement. After Jan. 25, we will have more violence."

A new constitution would be a major victory for Morales and fellow indigenous Bolivians who, for decades, have sought to rewrite the nation's rule book. It includes over 400 articles that run the gamut from changing legislative structures to nationalizing the country's gas reserves, but the most overreaching theme is to empower the nation's indigenous. It will, for example, recognize that there are 36 different ethnic groups. That means that a person can introduce a complaint to a government office in his or her native language; it will now be the government's responsibility to understand. It also gives them greater representation in Congress and a new degree of autonomy, including the right to implement their own community justice.

But battles raged over the economic and political issues in the charter, including more state control over natural resources, limits on how much land one can own, regional autonomy, and how many terms a president is allowed to serve. More than 40 people have been killed because of political conflict since Morales took office, according to the Human Rights Foundation in New York.

In order to draw up the final version, the government compromised with the opposition on key points. Voters Sunday could choose to limit land holdings to 5,000 hectares, but the rule will not be retroactive as long as owners prove their land is not idle. And Morales will only be able to run for office one more time – an important victory for critics who say Morales, a strong ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, is simply seeking to consolidate his power.

The government hopes that the new charter, if passed, will be a tool to heal divides. "There will be more peace afterwards," says Jose Pimentel, a congressman from Morales's party. First, he says, the concessions made should appease the opposition. Its passage also takes away the object of dissent. "They have been able to use the constitution as a space to express opposition to Evo Morales. It is a political strategy that they will no longer have," he says.

Although opposition legislators compromised, many in society have dropped their hostility toward the changes, especially those seeking autonomy in the wealthier provinces, such as Santa Cruz, where many are of European descent. Sergio Mendoza, a lifelong resident of Santa Cruz, says he believes the constitution is the wrong direction for the country and hopes that his regional representatives find ways to push back. "Morales is just governing for the indigenous. A president must govern for all," he says.

Given the tensions in Bolivia, it was a significant breakthrough when politicians were able to come together this fall to agree on a final version.

Previous drafts were boycotted outright. Opposition governors held their own referendums on autonomy last summer, declared illegal by the central government, to reject the constitutional process.

But it was precisely because the situation deteriorated so rapidly – with some 20 killed in protests in September alone – that rivals came together, says Jim Shultz, executive director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia and co-editor of Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization. "There was an enormous amount of pressure from various sides, including internationally, to cut a deal that would bring Bolivia back from the brink of widespread violence," he says.

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