The Rebirth of Bolivia in a Constituent Assembly: Is this what democracy looks like?


"First they came for our gold, then our black gold (oil), now they are coming for our blue gold (water)."

A Bolivian woman and water advocate said this during a three-day community water meeting held in June.

When a majority of Bolivians elected Evo Morales as president in December of 2005, they did so in hope that an indigenous Aymaran President could move the small Andean country beyond paralyzing street protests over critically unequal distribution of wealth and resources to government-led initiatives to achieve far-reaching change. Morales seemed to be off to a good start when on May 1st he made international news headlines by partially nationalizing the nation’s natural gas industry. This month, another campaign promise made by Morales and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) is being actualized as a newly elected constituent assembly convenes, for the sixth time in Bolivia’s history, to rewrite the country’s constitution.

On August 6, the 255 recently-elected assembly members congregated in the picturesque colonial city of Sucre to hack through a thicket of proposals regarding land distribution, natural resources (including bans on the privatization of water and gas), indigenous autonomy, the rights of women and youth, the judicial system, military service, the economy, the role of religion and the system of government itself. The assembly has a year to draft and agree upon a social pact aimed at establishing a more egalitarian and just society in a country where two-thirds of the population has indigenous ancestry, but has always been treated by the ruling elite as second class.

Many Bolivians view the constituent assembly as an opportunity to "create a new Bolivia." For MAS supporters, this means a country free of neoliberalism, the "free market" economic policies of privatization, deregulation and free trade mandated by Washington-based financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. During the past two-decades, Bolivia was pressured into selling off all of the nation’s key assets including railroads, mines, oil and gas companies, and telecommunications and water utilities. The new owners, mostly foreign investors, have failed to generate the prosperity and employment they promised the sales would bring.

Now Bolivians are clamouring for an alternative economic model – one based on cooperation, fair trade and support for small producers – rather than more corporate-led globalization. Many are hopeful that the new constitution will codify not just political rights, such as the right to vote and the right to freedom of speech, but economic rights guaranteeing all citizens the right to land, clean water, healthcare, housing, education and dignified livelihoods as well.

Lifelong Bolivian human rights activist Anna Laura Duran explained, "Economic, social and cultural rights need to be guaranteed by the state as a way to counter neoliberalism. We need a new Bolivia that is based in solidarity, community, more equality and justice."

These high expectations for the constituent assembly may very well crash into the hard right’s steadfast defense of the status quo and threaten to unleash a new round of instability. Already the country is deeply divided. Four of the country’s nine districts voted recently to require the assembly to draft a proposal for autonomy which will grant these natural resource-rich regions in the eastern part of the country greater administrative control and limit the national government’s involvement in what they view as "local matters."

Popular rhetoric from the business hub of Santa Cruz disturbingly echoes the "states’ rights" agenda advanced by private-property advocates in the U.S. who gained power by centralizing decision-making at the local level. The false sense of entitlement embodied by this conservative agenda ignores the fact that in Bolivia, much of this property was either handed out through illegitimate patronage or in the case of hydrocarbons, land and forest resources, is widely considered to be national patrimony belonging to all Bolivians. At the heart of all major protests in the last few years has been the demand that the benefits from the country’s natural wealth be shared more equally among all sectors of Bolivian society.

The issue of autonomy is further complicated by vastly different definitions emanating from divergent worldviews. Historically, in the Andean worldview shared by the country’s indigenous or "original" peoples, autonomy is based in the tenet of communal interdependence with each other and with nature. Human communities co-exist in a symbiotic relationship with the land, as opposed to owning it on an individual basis for private gain, a belief which is central to the dominant Western paradigm. The indigenous call for autonomy and the original proposal for a constituent assembly was propelled by social movements who have demanded – at the cost of lives lost during severe government repression (67 people were killed and 400 wounded during the October 2003 Gas War alone) – that their voices and views be soundly recognized in the formation of a new nation state.

Unfortunately, the process that Morales agreed to for the establishment of the constituent assembly may prove to be the most fatal mistake and lost opportunity of his presidency. Not only did Morales capitulate to the conservative demand for a district-by-district vote on autonomy, which now threatens to further polarize a deeply stratified country, but he also agreed to an electoral process in which assembly members were selected along political party, rather than actual constituency, lines. This in effect excluded many of the prominent voices which called for a constituent assembly to be established in the first place. Furthermore, MAS failed to garner the two-thirds of assembly seats required to pass changes to the constitution, thus making the process another effort in highly politicized deal-making.

"Yes, we will rewrite the constitution, but it won’t go far enough to actually solve the immediate yet structural problems of the country. Each article will be negotiated behind closed doors, and because MAS lacks a two-thirds majority, much will be compromised," explained Gustavo Luna, a senior analyst with CEDLA, (Centro de Estudio para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario) a progressive La Paz-based research organization. "Morales legitimatized an unfavourable process in exchange for social peace. He has shown that concrete changes in people’s lives will come from negotiating with power."

The critics of MAS’, of which there are a growing number among the country’s progressive left, claim the decision to elect assembly members along political party lines was an intentional move orchestrated by party leaders to consolidate power and position themselves as the sole arbiter of social movement interests. It is not surprising then that vocal opponents such as Oscar Olivera were conspicuously absent from the ballot. Olivera is widely recognized for his role in coordinating in the April 2000 Water War, a revolt against a water privatization scheme carried out by the Bechtel Corporation in the city of Cochabamba. Many Bolivians see the Water War as a key event, one that helped fuel the populist momentum that led to Evo’s electoral victory last December. Olivera maintains that real progressive change comes from the constant mobilisation of an independent civil society.

As MAS manoeuvres among global powerhouses such as the Bush Administration, the European Union and multinational corporations in a game of political chess, the strategy of consolidating their political base of support may also prove to be an essential, albeit conflicting, step in rebuilding a sovereign country. The legacy left by two decades of neoliberal policies has essentially stripped Latin American nation states of their power to govern themselves. For democracy to really exist, it will need to be reconstructed from the bottom up. This presents an opportunity to build a truly inclusive, participatory democracy. If the indigenous views on autonomy and direct decision making flourish, they might someday put Western democracy, where citizenship tends to be limited to voting in occasional elections, out of business all together.

As explained by Gustavo Esteva, an independent activist and intellectual from Oaxaca, Mexico, autonomy in many indigenous communities is a manifestation of "radical democracy". It is based on a government which functions within its own limits and is practiced by its participants. Under this framework, power is not delegated to representatives who become independent from the electorate during the period of their administration. Instead, the representatives are responsible for all the specific functions which are entrusted to them, but can be replaced at any time if they fail to follow the mandates of the community. [1]

Esteva’s account of the Zapatista struggle for autonomy in Mexico also captures what’s at stake in the indigenous struggle in Bolivia today among groups such as the indigenous federation of CONAMAQ (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu):

"The Indian peoples’ demand for autonomy implies, above all, respect and recognition for what they already have…They are demanding what they practice every day—with practices that have allowed them to survive despite everything that works against them… But they are also transforming their resistance into a struggle of liberation… With open eyes, they now resist a neoliberal dream that has become a nightmare for them and for those who offer them solidarity. They have seen that formal democracy is used to numb people and keep them trapped in that illusion. As the Zapatistas warn, they know well that "things will change only if there are also changes up on top". They believe that the promised state reforms will not modify its basic structure. "The leaves on the tree are changing, but the roots are also damaged", they point out." [2]

Unfortunately, the voices of the indigenous leaders in Bolivia that could have made the strongest case for transforming society along these lines have already been marginalized. These include the representatives of CONAMAQ, whose proposal to send representatives elected by their own norms and customs to the Constituent Assembly was rejected by MAS. However, far from being silenced, they have pledged to continue pressing for full recognition of their worldview and autonomy, and hopefully, this time, the assembly members will listen and vote in their favour. Eventually, the final draft of the constitution will also have to win approval from fifty percent of the voting populace when the new document is put forth in a nationwide referendum.

A number of political experts, such as Jubenal Quispe, professor of law, diplomacy and theology at the Catholic University in Cochabamba, have noted that the constituent assembly is really just the beginning of a comprehensive, long-term process to decolonize a society that has been controlled by outside forces since the arrival of the Spanish colonists in the 15th century. "We can change the laws, but until we transform ourselves and emerge as new political subjects of a pluri-cultural society, nothing will change," said Quispe.

Duran adds, "After 500 years of colonization, in which indigenous people were thrown aside and not even allowed to enter the plazas of the towns they live in, and [where] we were told that only white, educated people could govern, Bolivian society needs to go through a process of transforming discriminatory beliefs and practices. We have to show that indigenous people can govern so that we can truly live as equals…[W]e are trying to do this in a peaceful way that doesn’t shed more blood. It will be a long process, [and] it will be uniquely Bolivian… we don’t want a civil war of brothers fighting brothers.  We don’t want another Colombia here."

Juliette Beck is a freelance journalist and member of the Bolivia Solidarity Network. The views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Bolivia Solidarity Network, which is a group of independent activists working to build bridges of mutual solidarity with Bolivian social movements:


1. Presentation given to the Latin American Studies Association in 1997

2. Autonomedia, 1995, p.299.

Photo from

Many of the participants at the meeting had been on the front lines of "water wars," fighting in the streets against the privatization of their water systems by multinational corporations. Similar to myriad social movement groups throughout the country, these women had gathered not only to share stories and lessons learned in their ongoing local battles, but to craft a concrete proposal for the right to water to be included in Bolivia’s new constitution.