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Bolivia sets new global high mark for indigenous rights

A new constitution approved handily Sunday also risks dividing the nation.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 2009

BOWLERS IN BOLIVA: Aymara women went to the polls to vote on a new constitution Sunday. It passed.

Enrique Castro-Mendivil/ Reuters

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La Paz, Bolivia

Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, easily won his campaign for a new constitution Sunday – promising vast new powers to the country's indigenous majority and bolstering his political clout.

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Critics say Mr. Morales is dangerously dividing the nation and merely following in the footsteps of populist leftist allies Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, who have also rewritten their constitutions to invest the executive branch with more power.

True or not, something more is happening: This is a victory for Latin American indigenous groups marginalized since the Spanish conquest 500 years ago, say analysts, and some see it as a global human rights and racial-equity landmark.

"Bolivia's successful referendum process is precedent-setting with respect to indigenous empowerment worldwide," says Robert Albro, an expert on social and indigenous movements in Latin America at American University in Washington.

Exit polls show that almost 60 percent of Bolivians voted in favor of a new magna carta that recognizes 36 different indigenous groups and secures a place for them in Congress.

"It is really an unbelievable moment in Bolivian history," says Mr. Albro.

He attributes Morales's success in Bolivia, starting with his election in 2005 and capped by this referendum, to the urbanization of Bolivian society and the growing political clout of the indigenous, which has created an indigenous elite.

The obligatory vote on Sunday was peaceful, free of the sometimes deadly confrontation that has marked other moments leading up to constitutional reform in Bolivia – with Morales and his opposition, mainly based in the mineral-rich, tropical lowlands, locked in battles over regional autonomy and control over gas reserves.

The new constitution contains over 400 articles but its centerpiece is the effort to "decolonize" Bolivian society.

The indigenous comprise the majority of the poor, in the poorest nation in South America, and were only granted the right to vote less than 60 years ago.

The new constitution reserves seats in Congress and in the Constitutional Court for smaller indigenous groups, and grants all of them autonomy that will, among other things, allow them to practice community justice, according to their own customs.

In one of the more controversial articles, Bolivia now guarantees freedom of religion, extending the same recognition to the Andean god Pachamama, the Earth god of the Andes, as it does to the Christian God.

The current Constitution "recognizes and supports" the Roman Catholic church.

Sunday's vote included another referendum that asked Bolivians if they wanted limit the size of land holdings to no more than 5,000 or 10,000 hectares – in a government effort to more equitably distribute land. Official polling results aren't expected until Feb. 4.

Still, Morales supporters expressed jubilation at the outcome. "We are getting back everything we lost: money and culture," says Paulina Quiñonez, an Aymaran street vendor in La Paz. "They have robbed so much from us."

This vote comes as other nations in Latin America have moved, since the 1990s, toward constitutional revisions that recognize "plurinational" states, beginning with Colombia in 1991, says Albro.