Bolivians back new, pro-indigenous constitution
AP, January 25, 2009
LA PAZ, Bolivia – Bolivian voters embraced a new constitution Sunday that promises more power for the poor indigenous majority and grants leftist President Evo Morales a shot at remaining in office through 2014.
But the charter's low support in Bolivia's lowland east — which controls much of the nation's wealth and fiercely opposes Morales' plans to empower long-suffering highland Indians — leaves the racially torn country as divided as ever.
Its passage nevertheless marked a historic transition in a nation where the oldest voters can still recall when Indians were forbidden to vote.
"Brothers and sisters, the colonial state ends here," President Evo Morales, 49, told a huge crowd in front of the presidential palace after the results of Sunday's referendum were announced. "Here we begin to reach true equality for all Bolivians."
The central reform of Morales' three-year administration won 59 percent to 41 percent, according to an unofficial quick count by television network ATB, with a three-percentage point margin of error. A final tally will be announced in 10 days.
Morales, an Aymara Indian and Bolivia's first indigenous president, says the charter will "decolonize" South America's poorest country by recovering indigenous values lost since the Spanish conquest.
Bolivia's Aymara, Quechua, Guarani and dozens of other indigenous groups only won the right to vote in 1952, when a revolution broke up the large haciendas on which they had lived as peons for generations.
"The poorest people are the majority. The people with money are only a tiny few," said voter Eloy Huanca at a polling place in El Alto outside the capital of La Paz. "They ran things before, and now it's our turn."
But opposition leaders object that the constitution does not reflect Bolivia's growing urban population, which mixes both Indian blood and tradition with a new Western identity, and could leave non-Indians out of the picture. They also oppose Morales' vision of greater state control of the economy.
The constitution's rejection by the nation's mestizo and European-descended minority foreshadows a political battle over how to interpret vague clauses outlining hotly contested eastern autonomies.
The constitution's 59 percent support in some ways is a setback for Morales, who polled 67 percent support in an August recall election.
On Sunday, opposition leaders celebrated as well as five of nine states rejected the constitution.
"In five states we have another vision of the country," said Moises Shiriqui, the cowboy-hatted mayor of the eastern provincial capital of Trinidad. "We're asking government to listen to the regions for the first time, and to govern for all."
Morales has allied himself closely with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in what they call "21st century socialism," sharing his anti-American rhetoric.
Last year, Morales booted out Bolivia's U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration agents after claiming they had conspired against his government last year.
The constitution will create a new Congress with seats reserved for Bolivia's smaller indigenous groups and eliminates any mention of The Roman Catholic Church, instead recognizing and honoring the Andean earth deity Pachamama.
The charter calls for a general election in December in which Morales could run for a second, consecutive five-year term. The current constitution permits two terms, but not consecutively.
At the heart of the constitution is a provision granting autonomy for 36 indigenous "nations" and several opposition-controlled eastern states. But both are given a vaguely defined "equal rank" that fails to resolve their rival claims over open land in Bolivia's fertile eastern lowlands, whose large agribusiness interests and valuable gas reserves drive much of the country's economy.
With an eye to redistributing territory in the region, the constitution also limits future land holdings to either 12,000 or 24,000 acres (5,000 or 10,000 hectares), depending which voters choose. Current landholders are exempt from the cap — a nod to the east's powerful cattle and soy industries, which fiercely oppose the proposal.
Sunday's vote went peacefully, a relief for a nation where political tensions have recently turned deadly. In 2007, three college students were killed in anti-government riots, and 13 mostly indigenous Morales supporters died in September when rioters seized government buildings to block a vote on the proposed constitution.
Elected in 2005 on a promise to nationalize Bolivia's natural gas industry, Morales has increased the state's presence throughout the economy and expanded benefits for the poor.
Morales' constitutional reform nearly failed in 2006, when an assembly convened to rewrite the constitution broke apart along largely racial lines.
In an October deal, Congress approved holding the referendum only after Morales agreed to seek one more term instead of two. instead of two.