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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Latin America & Caribbean > Andes > Bolivia > Bolivia's New Constitution: Avoiding Violent Confrontation

Bolivia's New Constitution: Avoiding Violent Confrontation

Latin America Report N°23 31 Aug 2007


Bolivia is moving dangerously toward renewed confrontation and violence as the government of President Evo Morales and his Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party seek to embed sweeping state reforms in a new constitution. Their proposals are being sharply criticised in the Constituent Assembly (CA) by opposition leaders representing the eastern lowlands and the urban middle classes, and the dispute is widening the breach in an already polarised country. The CA’s life has been extended to 14 December 2007 but time is not on delegates’ side. In the next four months, Bolivia's political leaders need to engage in a wide-ranging dialogue to reach national consensus on fundamental issues.

The issues at stake include the very nature of the state, whether unitary or decentralised with strong federal elements; significant shifts in the balance among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government; and a new territorial order, with emotionally driven, competing demands for regional, indigenous and local autonomies and each side equating victory or defeat with political and economic survival. The MAS and its allied parties and social movements are pushing for a “plurinational, communitarian, unitary state” (Estado unitario plurinacional comunitario) that, in their view, would compensate for centuries of exclusion of the indigenous peoples. The proposal would cut across traditional regional borders and economic redlines and is meeting tough resistance from affected social and political sectors, who assert ethnic political divisions would be the prelude to Bolivia’s Balkanisation.

The CA had a one-year term to resolve these and other issues in a new constitution but the bulk of the time was squandered in zero-sum battles over voting procedures and how to deal with opposition proposals. The fiercest opposition to Morales, including sporadic violence, has come from prefects and civic committees in Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando departments. Conflicts have also emerged between urban and rural populations.

On 3 August 2007, MAS and the opposition parties brokered an eleventh-hour agreement in Congress that authorized a four-month extension of the CA, until 14 December. That agreement also addressed a series of issues, including respect for minority proposals; implementation of departmental autonomy in the eastern region in accordance with the July 2006 referendum; and creation of a high-level “political commission” outside the CA to help build consensus – a difficult task considering the intransigent stances of government and opposition delegates for twelve months.

Morales’s management of the government also has fuelled opposition charges that political uncertainty is holding back much needed foreign and private investment. Though public revenue has increased thanks to high commodity prices, pro-government elements are fighting each other for control of the oil, gas and mining money. Land tenure policy causes discontent not only among large estate owners and agribusinesses, but also among landless peasants, a core part of Morales’s constituency, who are angered over collective land titles that benefit indigenous peoples exclusively.

If President Morales does not lead the new dialogue in a manner that defuses tensions and achieves consensus, he risks new violence and, ultimately, the failure of his project of near-revolutionary change.


To the Government of Bolivia:

1.  Maximise prospects for the Constituent Assembly (CA) to reach agreement on the constitutional text or texts to be submitted for ratification to popular referendum by conducting negotiations, led by President Morales, with all political forces to produce a statement signed by all CA delegates that commits their parties and movements to:

a) reach such agreement by 14 December 2007;

b) reject violence and punish militants from any political or social movement involved in or inciting it;

c) end the use of marches and strikes to pressure the CA; and

d) find mechanisms to incorporate compatibly core elements of departmental autonomy for Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija, as described in the July 2006 referendum, and indigenous autonomy.

2.  Give the high-level political commission all resources it needs to accomplish its consensus-building task.

3.  President Morales and the nine elected departmental prefects should reiterate mutual respect and promote permanent dialogue between the political and civil society representatives of the eastern lowlands and the western highlands.

4.  The departmental-level presidential delegates should be selected on a non-partisan basis and act as anti-corruption monitors under clear statutory authority until department assemblies are elected and can assume that oversight function.

5.  The government should communicate better with private sector representatives and foreign investors, so that the nationalisation process is conducted transparently, without surprises and in accordance with international standards.

6.  The government should order the security forces and the attorney general’s office to disband extremist groups on both ends of the political spectrum, arrest and prosecute members considered to have incited or engaged in violence and seize and destroy their weapons.

To the Bolivian Congress:

7.  Work with the government to promote integration of the indigenous populations in national life in compliance with Convention no.169 of the International Labour Organization.

To the Directive Board of the Constituent Assembly:

8.  Prepare a new voting mechanism by the beginning of September 2007 that provides for:

a) immediate plenary voting on all articles of the new constitution that achieve consensus in the thematic committees;

b) plenary consideration of and voting on minority proposals with respect to articles that remain contentious, as envisaged in the amendment to the CA law that extended the life of that assembly; and

c) submission of articles that achieve a simple but not two-thirds majority to a national referendum.

9.  Discuss contentious issues openly and disseminate information widely through public forums and the media, including the possibility of radio/tv broadcasts of plenary sessions.

10.  Conduct permanent dialogue with the high-level political commission so that agreements reached by it are swiftly and precisely communicated to CA delegates.

To the Political Parties and Social Movements:

11.  Engage in modernisation processes that allow more direct participation of grassroots organisations in the political debate and open civic committees to broader sectors of the population, including election of their leadership by all members.

12.  Stimulate dialogue between the government and MAS and opposition prefects and eastern lowland civic committees about how best to implement policies of social inclusion and economic development of eastern lowland indigenous peoples, landless peasants and western highland migrants.

Bogotá/Brussels, 31 August 2007

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