On Thursday, representatives from Bolivia’s diverse social movements convened in downtown La Paz at a rally to mark the end of over two years of meetings, conflicts and mobilizations to, as President Evo Morales often says in speeches, "constitutionalize" much-needed changes. The following day, Morales nationalized the Chaco oil company.
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On Thursday, January 22, the last day of campaigning for the new constitution before the document is set to a vote on Sunday, January 25th, representatives from Bolivia’s diverse social movements convened in downtown La Paz. The rally, located in the Plaza Murillo, marked the end of over two years of meetings, conflicts and mobilizations to, as President Evo Morales often says in speeches, "constitutionalize" much-needed changes. The following day, Morales nationalized the Chaco oil company.
All of the previous weeks’ marches for the constitution seemed to gather in the plaza, along with a culmination of fireworks, cheers and music. At a central stage, acts alternated between speeches from representatives of the various social movements present and musical performances from groups from around the country, including Afro-Bolivian dances and political hip-hop from La Paz. Members of the Bartolina Sisa women’s organization spoke, along with miners, neighborhood council members, retirees, students, and campesino and indigenous leaders.
The presence of such diverse groups underscored the importance of Bolivian social movements’ participation in the process of change carried out in collaboration with the government. As Sacha Llorenti, the Vice Minister of the Coordination of Bolivian Social Movements told TeleSUR, "The structural transformations that the country is going through cannot be understood without recognizing [the role of] the social movements, the popular organizations of this country."
The plaza was packed. People were dancing in the streets, bands played around the area, both on and off stage, pounding drums and blowing into flutes. Just as the crowds and marches from around the city converged, so did the campaign literature – pamphlets, papers, calendars, posters – everything was being passed around, even tossed into the air like confetti. Though Bolivian flags were draped around the plaza, the majority of the flags were the rainbow checkered wiphalas of Bolivia’s indigenous majority. Beer was sold on the sidewalk – a reminder that this was the last legal day to drink alcohol before the vote; drinking, like campaigning for the constitution, was prohibited for the next three days to promote clear-headed voting on Sunday.
Bolivian President Evo Morales arrived around 8pm, after giving a speech in La Paz earlier that day, flying to Cochabamba to close the campaign there, and then returning to the Plaza Murillo for a final push for the constitution. When Morales arrived, someone from the stage began a chant that spread through the crowd: "Evo! Evo! Evo!" The President spoke of the diversity of the crowd, the music and culture present in the plaza. "This is plurinationalism," he said, referring to a key theme in the constitution. "But some [elite] families in Bolivia don’t believe in plurinationalism," he continued, pointing his finger in the air, condemning the new constitution’s critics. He went on to speak of the progressive gains in the new constitution, discussed the victory of his recall vote in August, and the regional support he’s received from other Latin American leaders: "happily, we aren’t alone." After touching on the standard themes from recent speeches, he closed with a "Patria o Muerte" cheer.
The applause that followed was quickly stifled by thundering explosions from fireworks set off in the middle of the plaza. The fireworks blasted off in random directions, dangerously close to the crowd, with bits and pieces of cardboard from the explosions flying everywhere. Besides the hope that many in the crowd were savoring for the moment, what was striking was that just over 50 years ago it was illegal for indigenous people to enter the Plaza Murillo. And on that night, a largely indigenous crowd was celebrating the imminent passage of a new constitution that would grant unprecedented rights to Bolivia’s indigenous majority.
The next day, Friday, January 23, Morales signed a decree nationalizing all of the shares of the Chaco Petrolera Ltd. Oil Company. The President said employees at the company would keep their jobs, but the directive board would be replaced. The company is managed by Anglo-Argentine Panamerican Energy, and is a subsidiary of the British company BP. Under Morales, the Bolivian government has previously taken over various gas, oil, mining and telecom companies.
After signing the decree in Entre Rios, Morales said, "Little by little, we are taking back our companies, our natural resources." He explained that "oil companies are not respecting Bolivian standards," but that the government "will respect private investment as long as they respect Bolivian norms We want partners, not bosses."
"The best homage to the country and for those who have given their lives in social struggles is this recuperation [of the gas industry] which belongs to us," Pedro Montes, the executive leader of the Bolivian Workers’ Center (COB), told the Agencia Boliviana de Información. "Evo Morales is not alone because we, the workers, are accompanying him."
Stay tuned for more reports and analysis on the upcoming vote and new constitution.
Benjamin Dangl is currently based in Bolivia, and is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com