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

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    BOWLERS IN BOLIVA: Aymara women went to the polls to vote on a new constitution Sunday. It passed.
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    CHÁVEZ, CASTRO, AND MORALES: A Bolivian woman walks past an Evo Morales campaign poster that includes the leftist leaders of Venezuela and Cuba. Morales denies any financial support from Venezuela.
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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.

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.

Recommended: How socially inclusive is Latin America?

"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.

The Zapatista movement in Mexico, which emerged in 1994, gave rise to a transnational movement, and presidential candidates Ollanta Humala in Peru and Rigoberta Menchu in Guatemala have also given the movement a boost.

Around the globe, countries such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have also gone a long way toward recognizing the "cultural rights" of native peoples. But Albro says that Bolivia's new constitution sets a precedent because of its degree of detail to guarantee the political, cultural, and economic rights of the majority indigenous population by a president of indigenous descent. "Usually such constitutional reforms have been carried out to better 'recognize' indigenous peoples but by largely nonindigenous governments," he says.

It was a goal that teetered on the brink of failure.

At one point, Bolivian opposition groups boycotted the process and protests turned deadly. In the end, a final draft constitution was only made possible via a series of negotiations and concessions made on the part of Morales and his political party (MAS). Of more than 400 articles, more than a quarter of them were modified.

Morales remains widely popular despite a strong opposition. He won 67 percent of support in a recall referendum in August, higher than the passage of the constitution. But the new constitution allows him to run for another consecutive term, which would end in 2014.

Some worry that the changes are simply a tool to hold onto power. Critics compare Morales to Mr. Chávez in Venezuela, who is holding a referendum next month to allow indefinite reelection for heads of state. "This is a clear victory for the poor," says Hugo Campos, a retired businessman in El Paz. "But this is too much like Chávez. They are just trying to dominate, and create divisions between [Bolivian] society and even with the US so they can dominate more."

Opposition forces say that the new constitution is further dividing Bolivian society. "This creates two types of citizens, one that is of [indigenous] origin and one that is not," says Luis Eduardo Siles, a former congressman and fierce Morales critic. "There was not this hatred in our society before."

And he says battles are bound to continue. For starters, it is unclear how the constitution, which leaves vast space for more protest and wrangling, will be implemented. "This doesn't solve any of the real problems. It will just create more fights," says Mr. Siles.

Indeed, to impliment the reforms outlined by the new constitution will require the passage of dozens of new laws. To get those through Congress, Morales will have to work with the oppostion.

Miguel Centellas, an assistant political science professor at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland who writes a blog on Bolivian politics, says that not only will the sides dig in their heels, but new factions have arisen out of the process.

The opposition parties have splintered over negotiations over the constitution.

Some Morales supporters are angered by the concessions.

"I see this as yet another crisis in a series of crises," Mr. Centellas says. "I don't think the referendum will solve anything. … The country will remain just as polarized."

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