Bolivia to go to referendum, but on what Constitution?

On October 21 hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants cheered enthusiastically in the Bolivian capital La Paz on hearing the news that the calling of the long awaited referendum on a new constitution had been agreed. But while the masses mobilised on the streets, the leadership of the MAS had been negotiating behind closed doors with the oligarchy, changing key aspects of the CPE which fundamentally change its character.

While the masses mobilised in the streets, the leadership of the MAS had been negotiating behind closed doors with the oligarchy, changing key aspects of the CPE which fundamentally change its characterOn Monday, October 20th, tens of thousands of people, peasants, workers, students, women and men, young and old, arrived in the Bolivian capital La Paz, having marched for nearly ten days, from Caracollo, Oruro, 200 kms away. The march had been called by the National Coordination for Change (Conalcam) and the COB trade union confederation to demand that the new Political Constitution of the State (CPE) be put to a referendum for approval.

A massive crowd of hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants received the marchers and they stayed overnight, putting pressure on the national congress to pass the referendum law. Early in the afternoon of the following day, October 21, Evo Morales announced that the calling of the referendum had been agreed. The masses cheered wildly, their aim having been achieved. However, while the masses mobilised in the streets, the leadership of the MAS had been negotiating behind closed doors with the oligarchy, changing key aspects of the CPE which fundamentally change its character.

The CPE was the result of nearly 18 months of discussions and struggles in the Constituent Assembly. The electoral system which the MAS leaders had agreed for the CA elections created an impossible situation: the MAS supporters did not have the necessary 2/3 majority required to pass the new constitution. The revolutionary energy of the masses, shown in the October 2003 and May-June 2005 revolutionary uprisings, had been diverted into the parliamentary swamp of the Constituent Assembly.

Two fundamentally irreconcilable positions (that of the oligarchy and that of the workers and peasants) clashed at the Constituent Assembly. The workers and peasants wanted the implementation of the “October Agenda” (named after the October 2003 uprising): land reform, state ownership of hydrocarbons and natural resources and workers’ rights.

Knowing that their real position could never get any significant base of support within society, the oligarchy tried to divert attention towards other issues. One of these was whether the capital of the country should be Sucre or La Paz. Another was the issue of regional autonomy (behind which lay the idea that the different Departments would have power over such questions as land reform and natural resources).

The oligarchy used these issues to mobilise against the Constituent Assembly. MAS constituents were surrounded and attacked by reactionary mobs in Sucre. The stalemate was finally resolved by moving the sessions of the CA to Oruro. In a session which was boycotted by the opposition members, the CA finally passed a proposal for a new CPE.

The draft Oruro Constitution

This draft CPE (known as the Oruro CPE) had the merit of including some of the elements of the October Agenda, among which state ownership of natural resources and, above all, wide-ranging land reform. This was the main reason why the oligarchy could never accept it. In Santa Cruz, 15 families control over half a million hectares of land, in Pando 8 families own another half a million hectares , and in Beni just 10 families run a further half a million hectares. One hundred families in the Eastern provinces own the majority of the best fertile land, with links to export markets, interests in banking and industry and have had for decades control over political power in these regions and in the country as a whole, in connivance with the military dictators. Large swathes of land were given away for free by the military dictators to these 100 clans.

Faced with the prospect of losing the source of their political and economic power, the oligarchy started to organise. Using the issue of “Departmental autonomy”, fomenting racism, with the help of the mass media they control, and skilfully using the vacillations of the Evo Morales government they managed to build a certain base of support in the Eastern Departments of Beni, Pando, Tarija, Santa Cruz, and later on Chuquisaca as well.

They held illegal referendums on “autonomy, attempting to give themselves legitimacy to rule over issues like land reform, natural resources, etc. Seeing state power slip from their hands, they attempted to at least keep it in part of the country.

However, they were met with fierce resistance by workers and peasants. Despite the fact that the leadership of the MAS did nothing to organise the movement against them, the “autonomy” referendums were a failure, registering widespread fraud and massive abstention rates. Furthermore, the workers and peasants in the Santa Cruz Department started to get organised and to fight back against the fascist gangs, through which the oligarchy wanted to consolidate their support.

The recall referendum on August 10 was a show of strength on the part of the workers and peasants. The oligarchy was soundly defeated and Evo Morales was ratified with 67% of the votes. Now the masses felt it was their turn and they put the pressure on for the new CPE to be finally put to the vote. At the end of August, Evo Morales announced a decree calling a referendum and this was the signal for the oligarchy to speed up preparations for a coup.

Attempted September coup

On September 11 the spiral of violence of the oligarchy and its fascist gangs reached its peak. They took over government building, airports, silenced the pro-MAS media outlets, intimidated workers and peasant leaders, firebombed the offices of peasant organisations, etc. This was a coup in the making. What they did not expect was the heroic resistance of the masses. Armed with little more than sticks and stones they fought back against the fascist gangs. In San Julian, Santa Cruz, in Plan 3000, Santa Cruz, in Tarija, etc., the masses defeated the fascist thugs of the Union Juvenil Cruceñista and started to organise.

The situation was in the balance. The army and police high command were discussing whether the balance of forces was favourable in order for them to join the coup. Venezuelan president Chavez issued a strong warning to the effect that a coup against Morales in Bolivia would free his hand to support any armed movement to restore the people back in power.

Fearing an open civil war, the neighbouring countries intervened and a hastily convened meeting of UNASUR (Union of the Nations of South America) in Chile and issued a statement recognising the legitimacy of the Evo Morales government and appealing for it to negotiate with the opposition which was carrying out the coup d’etat. This is as if a murdering arsonist has started to burn your house down and then a powerful neighbour comes and says that this is your house, but that you should negotiate with the arsonist that had just tried to kill you.

Negotiations with the oligarchy

The terms of the new constitution were not put to the masses assembled in the capital but were deliberately hidden from them.Even as the oligarchy was carrying out the massacre of Pando (where up to 30 peasant supporters of the MAS were killed by heavily armed thugs at the service of the regional governor), the government of Evo Morales was opening up talks with the opposition prefectos that had attempted to overthrow it by violent and illegal means.

Meanwhile, the mass organisations of peasants and workers had already started to march on the capital of the Santa Cruz department. Tens of thousands organised a blockade of the city demanding the resignation of the regional governor for his involvement in the attempted coup and fascist violence. The MAS leaders called the blockade off and opened formal talks with the opposition leaders in Cochabamba. Once again, peasants and workers, some armed with sticks of dynamite, went to Cochabamba to watch over the negotiations.

Finally, the march from Caracollo to La Paz, which had originally been called with the stated aim of surrounding Congress to force it to call a referendum on the CPE or close it down by force, was then toned down into just a peaceful demonstration.

Meanwhile, as it has now been revealed, the leaders of the MAS were busy trying to reach an agreement with opposition members of parliament, which would give them the necessary 2/3 majority to call the referendum. How was this achieved? The masses of hundreds of thousands (possibly 200,000) who gathered in Plaza Murillo, outside Congress, were told that only small formal changes were being made to the Oruro CPE.

A watered down Constitution

The government of Evo Morales have watered down the proposal for a constitution in negotiations with the oligarchy.However, as details of the agreement became known, the truth was revealed. Significant changes had been made to nearly 100 articles of the 400 that the Oruro CPE contained. And these affected three main issues: land reform, hydrocarbons and the political system. Significant concessions had been made to the oligarchy.

Regarding the question of natural resources, the new version of the CPE still talks of the state-owned character of these, but a new additional article has been included which clarifies that the migration from the current concessions to the new regime will be done “without in any case ignoring acquired rights”, which basically means that the rights of the multinationals (even though in many cases these concessions were illegal) will be respected.

Regarding the political system, the changes are also important. The Oruro CPE established the need for a simple 50+1 majority in Congress in order to change the constitution (based on the disastrous experience of the Constituent Assembly); the revised version of the CPE establishes the need for a 2/3 majority. Most importantly, the negotiated version of the CPE maintains the current electoral system of constituencies, which is heavily weighted in favour of rural constituencies where the oligarchy has had political control for decades. Thus, in order to elect a congress representative 70,000 votes are needed in the working class city of El Alto, while only 4,000 are needed in the rural, land-owner dominated area of Cobija.

But were the changes are most significant is in the field of land reform. The Oruro Constitution declared that land holdings over 5,000 or 10,000 hectares (the exact amount to be settled in another question in the constitutional referendum) would be expropriated and distributed. Now this article will only be implemented for new land holdings and only if the land does not fulfil the social and economic function. This means that the massive landed states, many of which were acquired by dubious means during the military dictatorships will not be touched. Furthermore, who is to say that a particular landed estate fulfils or not the “social and economic function”? This is an extremely vague concept that the landlords will use to their advantage. Furthermore, the way the new articles are worded mean that if 5 individuals get together and form a society or company, the maximum extension of land will be multiplied by the number of individuals involved. This means that if 10 landlords create a society they could legally own up to 50,000 or 100,000 hectares of land. What all this means is that under this new proposed constitution there will be no meaningful agrarian reform in Bolivia.

What the oligarchy did not achieve at the Constituent Assembly or through the attempted coup in September, they have now achieved at the negotiation table: respect for their private property of land, the main source of their power.

Furthermore, this agreement between the MAS leaders and a section of the opposition members of parliament was negotiated and signed behind the backs of the masses that were mobilising at that time. The terms were not put to the masses assembled in Plaza Murillo, in fact they were deliberately hidden from them. Their leaders, like Pedro Montes of the COB and Fidel Surco of the Conalcam, knew the details, but they did not tell the angry workers and peasants in the square.

Already leaders like Ramon Loayza (the head of the MAS group in the Constituent Assembly who has always been closer to the peasant rank and file of the party) and Oscar Olivera (leading trade unionist of the factory workers from Cochabamba) have expressed their opposition to this agreement.

The Bolivian Marxists of El Militante have adopted a clear position: no support for this agreement, and for its terms to be put to the mass movement to decide. At the same time they are emphasising the need to give the movement a genuine socialist leadership.

It is difficult to know what will happen between now and January, when the referendum is supposed to take place. A section of the oligarchy, which bet its political fortunes on the overthrow of Morales, is still in opposition to even this watered down CPE.

One thing is clear: no amount of negotiations and constitutional trickery will conciliate the interests of workers and peasants and those of the oligarchy and imperialism. Those who organised and carried out the coup in September are still at large (with very few exceptions) and their fascist gangs (though demoralised and beaten by the failure of the coup) are still armed.

Bolivia is being hit hard by the crisis of capitalism worldwide, particularly by falling commodity prices. These are not conditions for class compromise. The most advanced elements among the Bolivian workers, peasants and youth, must use this temporary breathing space to draw the necessary conclusions from the events of the last few months and start to build a leadership worthy of their revolutionary movement.


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