Codifying a Revolution in Bolivia

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While the eyes of the hemisphere were fixed on Mexico's hotly contested presidential election this week, another critical Latin American vote was being carried out in Bolivia — a national referendum in which President Evo Morales hoped to consolidate a leftist revolution that has turned South America's poorest nation into a regional player. And while Morales' forces won for the most part, the results also deepened the sense of showdown between Bolivia's poor, indigenous western highlands and a small but powerful affluent white elite in the eastern lowlands

Morales' party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), won 139 of the 255 delegates elected to rewrite Bolivia's Constitution this year, starting in August. That process, said Morales, an Aymara Indian and Bolivia's first indigenous President, "will finally put an end to the discrimination, exploitation and economic inequality that has plagued this country since its founding." But Morales fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to control that assembly, something he had practically guaranteed he'd get. Instead, he'll now find himself having to make deals with parties like the main conservative opposition group, Podemos. To the surprise of many, the rewrite "is going to be a process of negotiation," says political analyst Jose Mirtenbaum of the Autonomous University of Gabriel Moreno in Santa Cruz, where Morales' eastern opposition is focused.

What's more, in Santa Cruz and three other eastern states, voters approved a call to have the new constitution give their state governments greater independence from the central government in the capital, La Paz. Lowlanders like Daniel Castro, spokesman for the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, insist the autonomy drive reflects the need for "a new system in which each state has control over their own economic resources. If I want to change a lightbulb in a public office here I have to send away to La Paz for the funds to do it."

But in La Paz and the four other western states that voted against the autonomy item, highlanders like Patricio Mamani of the working-class El Alto community note that regions like Santa Cruz are where most of Bolivia's prodigious natural gas is located — reserves that Morales nationalized earlier this year as part of his government's reversal of recent Washington-backed free-market reforms in the country. "The elite in Santa Cruz want autonomy in order to control the wealth there," said Mamani during the vote on July 2. "They want to live off those riches and not share with the rest of the country."

State autonomy is perhaps the most contentious issue the constituent assembly will have to tackle as it cobbles together Bolivia's new Magna Carta (which begins August 6 and will last one year). It points up the seemingly intractable east-west dispute that erupted in violence two days after the July 2 vote, when members of the Santa Cruz Youth League attacked a meeting of the mostly indigenous Regional Worker Union in Santa Cruz, injuring dozens, while local police stood by. The commanding police officer was later fired but claims that he was only following the orders of the state's governor and autonomy advocate Ruben Costas not to intervene.

But the assembly will face other hot-button issues that Morales hopes will solidify his leftist reforms and reflect the fact that Bolivia is 70% indigenous. "The point is to establish societal rules that reflect the traditions and realities of the people of Bolivia," said El Alto city councilman Wilson Soria. "For centuries, many of our cultural values have been unrecognized because we've been ruled by a Constitution that responds to the needs of foreigners." The proposals include constitutionalizing traditional forms of indigenous community justice as well as the national "recuperation" of natural resources like lumber, silver, water, gas and oil.

Morales' hope is that Bolivia's new charter will serve as a model for the ascendant new left in Latin America, a chance to "redefine the rules of the game" in a region where the gap between rich and poor is the widest in the world. But the July 2 vote was also a reminder that even Morales' revolution is subject to checks and balances — and that changing the rules will require the age-old game of political horse trading.