Bolivia: Government calls constitutional referendum - the movement goes on to the offensive

After Evo Morales' massive victory in the recall referendum in August, the pressure has been building up from below to move against the oligarchy. Now Morales has called a referendum on a new Constitution and for elections of the regional governors of Cochabamba and La Paz, steps in the right direction, but in and of themselves not enough to break the deadlock between the classes.

On Thursday August 28, Bolivian president Evo Morales issued two presidential decrees calling for a referendum on the new Political Constitution of the State (CPE) and for elections for the prefectos (regional governors) of Cochabamba and La Paz and subprefectos and departmental councillors throughout the country's nine regions on December 7th.

Evo Morales
Evo Morales

This decision was the result of the pressure from the mass movement of workers and peasants after the victory of Evo Morales in the recall referendum on August 10th, in which he received 67.41% of the votes. Even after this massive victory, sections of the government, and to a certain extent Evo Morales himself, continued to appeal to the right wing for negotiations and conciliation.

As we warned (see Bolivia’s recall referendum, massive support for change – time to move forward!), the oligarchy responded by stepping up their campaign of sabotage, organising road blockades, economic sabotage, defying the authority of the state institutions in the regions where they control the prefects, using the fascist gangs of the Union Juvenil Cruceñista (UJC) to intimidate supporters of Evo Morales' MAS, etc. This campaign culminated in a call for a national stoppage on August 19th.

This provoked a reaction on the part of the masses. In the Plan 3000 neighbourhood of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (one of the regions dominated by the oligarchy), the people faced the fascist gangs of the UJC and chased them off the streets. In Chuquisaca, the peasant organisations blockaded the capital Sucre to put pressure on the opposition prefecto.

This reaction of the masses (see Bolivia: a new offensive of the oligarchy, the masses respond in the streets), threw the oligarchy into disarray. The national stoppage was a failure and the road blockades only really affected the Chaco region, in the East of the country. It also created divisions amongst the opposition governors and their "Civic Committees", between those who think it is the time to launch an all out offensive against the national government and those who realise that they do not have the necessary forces for this.

The mood of confidence amongst the masses was crystallised at a national plenary meeting of the Coordination of Organisations for Change, which took place on Saturday, August 23rd in Cochabamba. Hundreds of delegates from peasant and indigenous organisations, but also from trade unions and workers' organisations, met with Evo Morales and demanded that no more concessions be made to the opposition and that, on the basis of the victory in the recall referendum, the government should move forward and call a referendum to approve the new Constitution (CPE).

It was as a result of this renewed pressure from the rank and file organisations that support the MAS government that Evo Morales took the decision to issue a presidential decree to call the constitutional referendum on December 7th.

The new Constitution

The CPE is the result of months of discussions in the Constituent Assembly (CA) last year. From the very beginning we warned that the Constituent Assembly would be a trap for the mass movement of workers and peasants, aimed at diverting their struggle into the web of bourgeois parliamentarism, amendments, endless discussions and compromises. This was particularly the case since the rules of the CA demanded a 2/3 majority to pass each article of the constitution. Since the MAS did not have such a majority in the CA, this meant that on all crucial points concessions had to be made to the oligarchy and the representatives of the ruling class.

Departments of Bolivia
Departments of Bolivia

Finally, a year ago, after months and months of deadlock, MAS representatives, under pressure from the rank and file, attempted to change the rules of the CA. This led to a physical confrontation, and the blockading of the CA by the right wing in Sucre. After a few more months of negotiations, conciliation, concessions and counter-offensive, finally a draft Constitution was approved at a session of the CA held in Oruro, a MAS stronghold, without the participation of the opposition members of the CA. It was agreed that the most contentious point, that of Agrarian Reform, was to be put to a separate referendum, to decide whether the limit for land ownership would be 5,000 or 10,000 hectares.

The proposed CPE contains many progressive points, amongst which the right to universal and free education, health care and pensions, the recognition of indigenous rights in a country where racism is still a powerful tool of the ruling class. It also talks of the nationalised character of natural resources and how these cannot be privatised. It also includes a wide-ranging Agrarian Reform which would endanger the latifundia, which are one of the main pillars of economic power of the Bolivian ruling class. Clearly, from the point of view of the interests of the masses, the constitution also has serious limitations, above all its recognition of private property rights.

However, the most important thing in relation to the CPE is not so much what is actually written down, but how the contending classes regard it. For the masses, the constitution is the expression of their ages-old aspirations to deal a decisive blow to the mainly white oligarchy which has ruled the country since the times of the Spanish colony. For the workers and peasants it represents their will to reverse 20 years of anti-working class policies which decimated the Bolivian labour movement and the rights it had won in struggle. The ruling class, the landowners, the bankers and imperialism also see this constitution as a fundamental threat to their interests, to their economic and political power.

For these reasons Marxists give support to the new CPE and will call for a yes vote in the referendum. On the question of the land reform, we obviously support the principle of "more land to distribute, less power for the oligarchy". At the same time, we warn that a constitution will not in itself solve the problems of the workers and peasants, and that the oligarchy will not submit to a democratic referendum or election if their interests are challenged. For this reason it is necessary to prepare the massive mobilisation of the workers and peasants, through action committees, in order to carry out their programme in practice.

The conspiracy of the oligarchy

Fascists attacking a person of indigenous origin
Fascists attacking a person of indigenous origin

As was to be expected, as soon as president Morales announced the calling of the referendum, a campaign was launched by the ruling class and imperialism against it. They know very well that if the matter is put to the vote, they will be soundly defeated, as proven by the results of the August 10th referendum.

The governors of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Chuquisaca announced that the referendum would not be organised in their regions and threatened to step up the ongoing campaign of road blockades and economic sabotage. On Friday, August 29th, a march of the Departmental Workers' Union (COD) in Santa Cruz, in support of the constitutional referendum was attacked by armed thugs of the UJC, which then went on to organise a racist pogrom, attacking every single person of indigenous origin they found on the streets (see more pictures here and a video below).

And then the National Electoral Court intervened on Monday September 1st with a ruling saying that the president has no authority to call a referendum, and that such a decision needs to be taken at Congress, where the MAS does not have a sufficient majority. They also ruled that there was not enough time to call elections (120 days are needed) and that the electoral roll should be subject to a full review.

This time, even vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera, usually a representative of the most conciliatory wing of the MAS and the government, declared that "whatever happens, the referendum is going ahead", and called on Bolivians to "defend their democratic rights in a militant way, through mobilisation".

The mass organisations are holding a meeting today, September 3rd, in the Plan 3000 neighbourhood of Santa Cruz (a symbolic gesture of support to the workers and neighbours of Plan 3000 who defied the UJC fascists on August 19th) to decide what measures of mobilisation should be taken to guarantee the taking place of the constitutional referendum. They have threatened that they will surround the Parliament building next Tuesday, when it meets to analyse the calling of the referendum.

The president of the Indigenous Confederation of the Bolivian East (CIDOB), Adolfo Chávez, has said that they will take matters into their own hands and organise a march on Santa Cruz. The executive secretary of the El Alto Regional Workers' Union (COR) Edgar Patana has declared that they would not accept the suspension of the decree and warned that they "would guarantee its application on the streets". Peasant and trade union organisations in the Chaco region have declared that they have been gathering their forces in order to disband the opposition road blockades which have already been affecting the supply of food and fuel to several parts of the country.

The National Coordination of Organisations for Change (Conalcam) has also made an appeal to the powerful Bolivian Workers' Union (COB) to unite with them in this campaign. The COB has therefore another opportunity to play its rightful role in this struggle. The calling of a general strike on the part of the COB leadership against the Morales government just days before the August 10th referendum (in the middle of a massive campaign by the oligarchy and imperialism) was a serious mistake. Solares and Montes have paid for it by being censured and removed from their positions by a mass meeting of the Huanuni miners.

The working class must put itself at the head of the nation in the struggle against imperialism and the local ruling class. It cannot be set against the masses of workers and peasants who support the MAS government, but on the contrary, it must form a united front against the ruling class, and in the process of struggle show that the only way forward is to expropriate the capitalists, the landowners and the multinationals.

As we have said all along, the conflict between the classes in Bolivia is not just about a constitution or democratic rights. It is a fundamental struggle between opposing class interests. The oligarchy has recognised this quite clearly and are using all means at their disposal (legal and illegal) to defend their economic and political power. The Bolivian workers and peasants need to recognise this and wrest political and economic power from them.

See also:

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.