Bolivia's New Hope?

“Case Closed: The Constituent Assembly Will Only Be A Reform”, blares the headline. “It will change, at most, 20% of the existing Constitution.” The past few months, walking through the streets of downtown La Paz, the headlines of the newspapers hung by clothespins on the sides of the newspaper kiosks which dot the sidewalks of the city have consistently been about political maneuvering in the process of convening the Constituent Assembly. La Constituyente, as Bolivians refer to it, is where many have placed their hopes for resolving Bolivia s ongoing social issues by re-writing the rules of the game.

A new Constitution created by and for the majority of the population has been a uniting demand of social movements since 2000, and a key election promise of Evo Morales. But now it appears that it will be little more than a second Parliament, convoked via existing systems of representational democracy. The goal is to reform the constitution while respecting the existing structures of the state, the market, and private ownership.

In the words of Miguel Lora, “The popular mobilizations of the last five years demanded the total reconstruction of the excluding state and of the economy at the service of the rich and transnationals. They demanded direct deliberation by the people and recognization of organizative forms different from liberal models imposed by the West, including conceptions of private property. The gas wars and the water wars were characterized by a direct confrontation with big private property to replace it with public and communal property, especially in the case of natural resourses like water and gas.”

The Constituyente was originally envisioned as a radically democratic means by which to re-create the country. As Raul Prada writes in El Jugete Rabioso, a La Paz periodical, indigenous organizations conceived of the Constituyente “as an act of constitution…the instrument par excellence with which to begin a process of radical decolonization.” “When the Constituyente is revoked, it signifies the end of the established constitutional order. The existing cycle of power is finished. It is necessary to begin a new form of designing the State, the nation, and society. This is why they say that the power of the Constituyente is unlimited.” The Constityente is of an absolute nature, designed for the act of creation, refounding.

It is, of course, precisely for these reasons that social movements will not see the constituyente they envision – directly democratic and with unlimited power to rewrite the rules that government and the economy are run by. It is too dangerous, too radical. It would be, essentially, revolution carried out through legal channels.

Evo Morales is between a rock and a hard place, and will be for the rest of his term. He was elected by a population that wants deeper changes then the existing system can handle without unleashing a full-on class war. This would most likely happen by provoking armed insurrection by elites desperate to maintain their power and priviledge, economic warfare carried out by the international financial community, and/or intervention by the United States government. Simultaneously, Morales has the job-description of trying not to get the people who elected him killed or plunged into an economic crisis. Keeping the powerful happy does not exactly go hand in hand with real change.

However, it must be noted that sending in the marines is defiantly not en vogue in the way it used to be, at least in Latin America. Indirect use of violence or the threat of violence is preferable. So instead the United States pushes through a free-trade agreement with Columbia -Bolivia’s single most important buyer of soy beans, Bolivia s single most important export – which effectively commits Columbia to purchasing US grown soybeans despite a pre-existing trade agreement with Bolivia. When objections are raised from Bolivia, the Columbian government demurely replies that the question of modifying the treaty to allow for continued Bolivian imports is up to the US. At this point, in the resulting furor with soy farmers threatening “to take this government down with us if we go under”, George Bush generously offers “to be Bolivia s best friend”. Give this impudent little country a reminder of who is really in control.

It should be noted that most of the country would barely be touched if the soy sector went under – the money goes straight to the agricultural elite of Santa Cruz, to be spent on imported goods and new dresses for the sugar queen. The simplest solution might be to let them go bankrupt and then redistribute the land to small farmers – thus actually dealing with problems of poverty and providing people with the means to support themselves. But, back to the issue of violence – threatening the livelihood of the soy barons is effective because they are powerful, and they are part of an elite which already does not like Evo Morales very much — an elite allegedly engaging in a campaign of smuggling in arms and organizing a paramilitary. They are an elite which only supports democracy to the extent that it doesn t threaten what they consider “theirs”.

This is usually the point at which a very Trotskyist compañero of mine in Santa Cruz bursts out “…which is exactly why class war and armed revolution is the only way that the changes that need to happen will happen!!” And then we d argue revolutionary tactics. But where we do agree, I suppose, is on the reality of force. Change comes by force. Change comes when those from below force the hand of the powerful, or seize power themselves. People, especially people conditioned to think of themselves as intrinsically better then other human beings based on the colour of their skin and their social class, do not give up priviledge out of the goodness of their hearts, at least not frequently enough to make waiting for it a very effective strategy. They give up priviledge when they no longer have the ability to force the rest of society to play by the rules they created, and usually they fight it till the bitter end and stay resentful for the rest of their lives. (If you´ve ever talked to any of the ex-landowning Cubans who fled Castro you´ll know what I mean.)

The two major achievements of the revolution that happened here in 1952, agrarian reform and mine nationalization, only happened because those “governing” the revolution had no choice but to pass the legislation or to be thrown out. Once the general population was armed – the strategy of the revolution of being essentially to open the nation´s armories to a citizenry seething with the ferment of 20 years of successful radical organizing, and watch the army and police disintegrate after three days of intense fighting – indigenous peasants didn´t lose any time in returning to their communities and taking over haciendas, organizing peasant unions, and forming militias. The laws caught up with reality about a year later. Miners, “the most powerful and revolutionary vanguard” of the working class and also quite comfortable with dynamite, forced the reluctant government to commit to nationalization, with the government mining corporation being administered under worker co-government.

The “revolutionary” regime was forced to enact these laws by popular pressure, and once that pressure had abated (once they had land, indigenous communities largely turned inward for the next 20 years), the government began to first restrain and then dismantle the revolution in return for US aid (highest per capita in the world throughout the 50 s and early 60s – in 1958, one third of the budget was directly paid for by US funds.) From this, one could deduce that a revolution is not a bad way of getting a better deal for playing by the rules.

As Sergio Caceres writes of Evo’s frequent dinners at the embassy, “Were you really that hungry, che? Is the food good at the embassy? Does Greenlee (the ambassador) cook like he represses? What do you eat at his house? C
ocaleros sautéed in mustard gas?” Initially dubbed the State Departments “worst nightmare”, Evo is beginning to look more and more like someone the US government can work with. Many Bolivians think they know what Evo, faced with the choice between the old game on better terms and starting a new game, will choose. The question is, what will Bolivia choose?

Quotations from “De la Constituyente a la Deconstituyente”, Raul Prada, El Jugete Rabioso, March 19th 2006, and “El Pueblo Bien Vestido, Jamas Sera Vencido”, Sergio Caceres, El Jugete Rabioso, March 19th 2006.

An excellent history of the revolution can be found in “Bolivia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society” by Herbert S. Klein.