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Bolivia's Constitutional Challenge | The Nation

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Bolivia's Constitutional Challenge

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About the Author

Annie Murphy
Annie Murphy is a freelance journalist currently based in La Paz, Bolivia.

Mariano Aguilera is driving fast down a country road in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, heading towards his sugar cane fields. He coaxes the red Mercedes over ninety and passes a truck full of peasants, regarding them in his rearview mirror.

"I bet they're headed to La Paz to take over the Congress or something," he says. "A new constitution is going to bring nothing but more problems."

From August 2006 to December 2007, Aguilera was actually part of an assembly that rewrote Bolivia's constitution. The draft will be approved or rejected by a highly anticipated referendum here on January 25.

Aguilera now says he is against the charter he was supposed to have co-authored. Nonetheless, it's expected to win the 50+1 percent support needed to make it official, setting up the likely re-election of President Evo Morales at the end of this year. But the process has caused many to ask if a new constitution can establish common ground in this divergent nation of 9 million.

Carved out between the Andes and the Amazon Basin, Bolivia is home to thirty-six indigenous groups, mestizos of partly European descent, whites, foreigners and a small group of Afro-Bolivians. Until recently those indigenous groups, as well as Afro-Bolivians, had little political power.

"These are problems that were 500 years in the making," says sociologist Oscar Vega.

"They didn't start two years ago, or even twenty years ago. And we're not going to solve them tomorrow."

When the first Spanish settlers arrived here, most of Bolivia's indigenous populations lost their land and were put to work in agriculture and mining. Although the country won independence in 1825, indigenous people were left out of the constitutional process, and didn't win suffrage or property rights until the 1950s. Today they remain an impoverished majority.

But times are changing. In December 2005, protests by Bolivia's increasingly powerful social movements culminated in the election of Aymara coca farmer Evo Morales. Aware that his supporters had thrown out two presidents in as many years when they failed to meet demands for gas nationalization and a new constitution, Morales moved quickly.

The president nationalized gas reserves in May 2006, and by that August, a motley assembly of 255 elected delegates--everyone from tenant farmers to political scientists--convened in the sleepy colonial city of Sucre. Their task: rewrite the constitution.

Their other, unofficial mandate was even more ambitious: resolve 500 years of ethnic strife. Several weeks later the historic assembly began to fall apart.

The exact moment may have been on August 24, when indigenous delegate Isabel Dominguez addressed the assembly in Quechua.

Dominguez, who comes from a small community where she farms potatoes, corn and wheat on rented land, says, "When I spoke, other delegates began to yell, 'Indian, go home and learn to speak Spanish!' "

Afterwards, insults became commonplace, and escalated into skirmishes, one of which left another pro-government delegate in a coma. Then came hunger strikes and walkouts and, finally, armed conflict. In late 2007, opposition riots turned tranquil Sucre into a conflict zone, leaving dozens injured and three civilians dead. Indigenous and pro-government delegates couldn't walk the streets without police escorts. The assembly had to be evacuated, and the final draft was approved by over two-thirds in an all-night session in the mining city of Oruro. Opposition boycotted the vote.

The process came to resemble the civil rights era South. And in some ways, the stakes were higher in Sucre than they had been in Selma or Montgomery. In addition to granting the indigenous population equal rights, the new constitution also seeks to redress past inequalities by touching a topic the United States has never dared to: land.

"Having land in Bolivia gives you a lot of power, especially economic and political power," says Miguel Urioste of Bolivian nongovermental organization Fundación Tierra.

Sociologist Oscar Vega says the most important part of the new constitution are articles that recognize indigenous cultural, political, and ownership systems alongside Western models. "This sets the framework for a more equitable distribution of land and natural resources, opening the opportunity for indigenous people to gain more power."

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