The Return of Pachamama
by Charles Lemos, Sat Jan 24, 2009 at 09:41:52 PM EST
Bolivians head to the polls on Sunday in a referendum on a new Constitution the drafting of which took over two years and was marked by an ever deepening conflict between Evo Morales' leftist government and the traditional parties that have dominated Bolivian politics for half a century. The conflict has led many observers to believe that the territorial integrity of Bolivia may be increasingly at stake. The heated debate that has on several occasions erupted into violence has exposed Bolivia as a fragile and cleft state splitting the country in two on north-east to south-west axis. Of Bolivia's nine provinces, five are likely to vote against the new Constitution and four in favour but its passage seems likely because the more heavily populated areas are likely to overwhelming back the new charter. The more populous but poor and heavily indigenous western provinces will vote for the Constitution but in the wealthier, natural gas rich and mestizo north-eastern provinces, support for the new Constitution is minimal.
The new Constitution is many things. Above all, it is a rejection of neo-liberalism, an economic ideology that in Latin America reaches the status of a pejorative. Under the new charter, the state will control all mineral and oil and gas reserves. Indigenous groups would get control of all renewable resources on their land. Water is recognized as a fundamental human right that cannot be controlled by private companies. The definition of water as a fundamental human right is noteworthy for it bears reminding that the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in 2000 became the epicenter of the battle against the excesses of neo-liberal privatization. Then an international consortium (US Bechtel Corporation along with Italy's Edison and Spain's Abengoa) won the rights to the Cochabamba water public utility and then hiked water rates by as much as 200% after winning a 40-year concession in closed-door negotiations. After privatization, water bills amounted to 20% to 30% of the income of poor households that constituted over 60% of the residents of the city. Families earning as little as $80 to $100 dollars a month began to be charged $20 dollars a month for water. Not surprisingly, full-scale protests ensued. In retrospect, the Cochabamba water wars, as the episode came to be known, marked one of the tipping points in Latin America's rejection of neo-liberalism. The door on privatization, especially of public utilities, was closed. This Constitution locks that door and throws away the key.
Approval of the charter would also allow Bolivia's President, Evo Morales, to run for re-election and remain in power through 2014. The current Constitution permits two terms, but not consecutively. It's also likely that passage will lead to a consolidation of power by forces allied with Morales. At present, the Congress has a slight pro-Morales majority but if the Constitution is approved, a new general election will take place in December of 2009 that is likely to boost the number of pro-Morales forces.
This Constitution also builds on a trend in other recent Latin American charters, the recognition that these societies are multi-cultural and that indigenous rights require guarantees. The new Constitution would also boost indigenous rights by promoting tribal "community justice" to replace traditional courts, and by recognizing the rights of 36 ethnic groups, which total 62% of the population, to control their land and claim royalties on natural resources. The Constitution recognizes self-determination of these 36 distinct Indian "nations" and sets aside seats in Congress for minority indigenous groups though not for the Aymara and Quechua communities, who together comprise the majority in Bolivia's western highlands. The charter recognizes broad new rights for Bolivia's Andean peoples termed "original indigenous peasant peoples" and demands "decolonization" of all aspects of Bolivian society. Remarkably, the new Constitution even recognizes Pachamama, the Andean Earth deity, on an equal footing with Judeo-Christian tradition.
While Pachamama's return seems certain, the return of US ambassador to La Paz seems less likely. From the Los Angeles Times.
The vote comes as relations between Bolivia and the United States are fraying. The top U.S. diplomat in La Paz, Krishna Urs, walked out of Morales' state of the union speech Thursday after he alleged that the United States was interfering in Bolivian affairs. Urs has been in charge of the embassy since Morales expelled Ambassador Philip Goldberg in September, alleging that a plot was in the works to overthrow him.
Morales has also ordered the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to get out by the end of this month, as international counter-narcotics officials say coca cultivation, cocaine production and illicit exports are on the rise. The coca plant is recognized in the new constitution as part of Bolivia's "cultural patrimony."
The Bush administration retaliated last year by expelling Bolivia's ambassador and ending trade preferences offered to Andean nations for fighting the drug trade. That has cost Bolivian textile manufacturers millions of dollars.
The Peace Corps last year removed 130 volunteers from Bolivia, and the embassy reduced nonessential staff.
Pity because there is no need for this impasse to occur. But I do recall then Senator Clinton back on the campaign trail saying this:
I understand the pent up desire of the people of Bolivia, especially the indigenous people, to finally have a say in their country and in their future...and I think that the United States has made a series of miscalculations. Granted they go back decades but they've been a particular problem in this [the Bush] administration. I believe we should have done much more to support Morales. He has done what is understandable, as a populist leader, he has turned to those like Chavez who have offered to help him...so I will try to create a new relationship with Latin America and that certainly includes Bolivia.
It's solid advice that she should recite again to President Obama. Morales is not Chávez and Morales' Bolivia is not seeking to create a one-party state but rather to undo centuries of exploitation.