Bolivia's Revolutionary New Charter

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Juan Karita / AP

Pro-government demonstrators gather in La Paz, Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009.

If President Barack Obama were to decide that "change" includes rewriting the United States constitution, he would probably find himself on the curb of Pennsylvania Avenue quicker than you can say Bill of Rights. But for left-wing Latin American Presidents, redoing national charters has become a norm. On Sunday, Bolivia became the most recent nation to be reborn. (See pictures of people around the world watching Obama's Inauguration.)

"I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge all my brothers and sisters who have used their democratic participation to re-found Bolivia," President Evo Morales said on Sunday night in front of thousands of exhilarated supporters after more than 60% of his nation had voted in favor of a new constitution. "Internal and external colonialism have come to an end."

It isn't all that novel a move: the new constitution is Bolivia's 17th. But it's the first to be written via a specially elected delegate assembly and the first to undergo a national vote. (The last constitution was written and enacted by Parliament in 1967 without the participation of a single indigenous person). An elaborate document, it expands the rights of the indigenous majority. Bolivia's 36 native tongues are now all official languages, along with Spanish, and Parliament will include ethnic group representation. Also, the text solidifies state control over natural resources and makes access to water a basic human right.

The win was widely expected, as was the strong showing in support of the constitution by rural and highland voters. But like Bolivia's recall vote last August, in which Morales won 67% national approval, Sunday showed that Bolivia's east/west regional divide that brought the country to the brink of civil war last September remains. The constitution was heavily rejected in the eastern lowlands of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija where wealthy land and business owners dominate local politics. Criticism ranged from the constitution's elimination of Catholicism's privileged position as official religion to worry about "extreme indigenous power."

But for many, the document's specifics were only a part of Sunday's contest. Five year-old Joaquin Claros, who was hanging onto his mom's arm outside a La Paz polling station on Sunday, knew what was at stake. Mom and dad, he exclaimed excitedly, had voted "for Evo!"

"Evo," of course, wasn't a ballot option (it was either Yes or No on various categories). But Sunday's vote was considered just as much a referendum on the President as it was on the text. Government officials therefore interpret the 20-plus point victory as a solid win. Opposition leaders say that the document's rejection in the eastern part of the country means that there must be some move toward compromise.

Compromise may in fact have already been key in the constitution's passage. An earlier version allowed for expropriation of large estates — a hot button issue in a country where less than one percent of the population owns more than two thirds of the land. But negotiations resulted in leaving the current holdings as is and limiting future landownership. On Sunday voters had a choice between limiting ownership to 10,000 or 25,000 acres per person limit. They voted 75% in favor of the former.

An agreement before the referendum avoided a battle over re-election. Sometime after Morales' ally Venezuela President Hugo Chavez failed in his bid at ending presidential term limits, Morales agreed to keep Bolivia's re-election laws as is. He is therefore able to compete in this December's Presidential elections for one more five-year term — but no more. That doesn't mean he wont try "to pull a Chavez," noted Santa Cruz resident Alberto Montero last week, referring to the Venezuelan's attempt to pass a separate referendum on indefinite re-election after Venezuela's new constitution was approved.

But there will be more wrangling down the line. "A constitution is only a foundation," says Carlos Alarcon, a constitutional lawyer and Vice Minister of Justice under former President Carlos Mesa. There is likely to be debate about any new legislation based on the language of the new charter. "Bolivia is going to have to strengthen its institutions — both state and judicial — if this new constitution and the new laws are going be implemented."

In Washington, the Obama Administration responded positively to Bolivia's vote. Responding to a reporter's question, acting State Department Spokesman Robert Wood said, "we congratulate the Bolivian people on the referendum... we look forward to working with the Bolivian Government in ways we can to further democracy and prosperity in the hemisphere." Says Mark Weisbrot, director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research: "it's a hopeful sign" for the future of relations between the two countries. The previous U.S. administration would most likely have remained silent on Bolivia's electoral processes.

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