The constitution, which was championed by Bolivian President Evo Morales (a former Aymara peasant activist and leader of the left nationalist Movimiento al Socialismo/MAS), was the culmination of nearly two decades of struggle by the indigenous majority to wrest back control of their lands from the blanco elites and their friends the foreign multinationals. During the 1990s Bolivia saw a succession of governments embark on an unprecedented campaign of privatisation including the full or partial sale of the state-owned oil, gas, electricity and telecommunications industries. In 2000 the then-President (and former military dictator) Hugo Banzer signed a contract with a consortium led by US company Bechtel to give it exclusive rights over the supply of water and sanitation services in the city of Cochabamba, with local residents forbidden from collecting their own water through rainwater tanks or other natural methods.
Popular victory and legislative compromise
Under the new constitution approved on January 25 however state ownership of natural resources is guaranteed along with the right of all people to be involved in decisions about their use. This law is designed as a protection not just against moves to privatisation but also to ensure that the profits from the exploitation of resources such as oil and gas is shared equitably by all Bolivians – instead of being monopolised by the (comparatively) wealthy, eastern provinces of the country where most of the white minority lives.
Nevertheless, the conservative opposition (which controls the four eastern provinces of the media luna– Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija) have not given up the fight and through their majority in the Senate managed to make a number of compromising amendments to the draft of the new constitution before it was presented to the voters.
Key among these compromises was the decision that the proposal to limit private individual land holdings to no more 5 000 hectares should not be applied retrospectively – ensuring that the interests of the existing big landowners are unaffected. This was a clear act of sabotage against the popular will, given that over 80% voted for the inclusion of the 5 000 hectare limit (as opposed to the alternative of a 10 000 hectare limit).
Under the new constitution, private corporations are also permitted to continue their involvement in industries such as hydrocarbon extraction as “partners” with the Bolivian state. This partnership model has been used by Morales and his administration to placate international investors alarmed by his gradual re-nationalisation over the past few years of the key oil and gas industries.
Parallels with Venezuela
In many ways the contradiction between popular victory and legislative compromise that characterises the new Bolivian constitution resembles the situation unfolding currently in Venezuela, where this February self-proclaimed “Bolivarian socialist” President Hugo Chávez won a referendum allowing him to stand for a third term in office by over 1 million votes yet is still forced to deal with a right-wing opposition which controls a number of key states and routinely uses armed police to attack trade unionists and community organisers.
In Bolivia President Morales has recently ordered the arrest of the former prefect of Pando province Leopoldo Fernández for ordering the massacre of 16 peasants during a protest last September against his authoritarian policies. Like Chávez, Morales is strongly supported by the leaders of the indigenous and urban social movements as well as the campesino unions. However the main Bolivian trade union federation, the COB (Central Obrera Boliviana) – despite calling for a ‘YES’ vote in the recent referendum – has often opposed him for not going far enough – in July 2008 calling a general strike over Morales’ failure to meet their demand for universal pensions.
Morales and Chávez have both won landslide victories in recall referendums initiated by opposition supporters – in August 2008 Morales and his vice-president Álvaro Garcia Linera won the backing of 67% of voters while opposition prefects in two key states had their mandates recalled. Still, both leaders face major challenges with corrupt pro-capitalist elements within their own administrations. On February 11 the president of the Bolivian state oil company YPFB Santos Ramírez (like Morales a former peasant activist) was arrested for taking bribes in return for the granting of lucrative government contracts (the scandal only came to light after one prospective ‘donor’ was murdered by Ramírez’ own brothers-in-law).
Whether these contradictions – like those in the new Bolivian constitution – can be overcome will depend ultimately on the level of militancy and self-confidence among the Bolivian peasants and workers themselves. While the government of Evo Morales has delivered many positive reforms, whether or not these reforms will actually be implemented – and by whom – is still to be determined.