Bolivian Social Movements Mobilize for Constitutional Referendum

An elderly woman and executive leader in the women’s division of the Six Federations tilted a gigantic vat of communal stew over, filling a long line of plastic containers for those at the blockade in La Paz’s Plaza Murillo. She predicts that Bolivia’s trajectory towards political change will be lengthy and arduous. "But," she said, "We have been struggling for years, and will not stop now."

La Paz, Bolivia – As traffic lights changed from green to red, no cars, buses or pedestrians passed through usually busy intersections in central La Paz, Bolivia. Beginning Tuesday, February 26, social movements from across the country flooded Plaza Murillo to demand the new constitution be approved for a national referendum.

"We are going to be here until the new political constitution of the state is approved once and for all," said Isidro Arequipa as the first wave of people marched into the plaza holding high wiphalas (colourful flags representing the many indigenous groups in Bolivia), Bolivian flags, and hand-painted banners. He spoke as a representative from the Federation of Urban and Sub-Urban Unions of Agricultural Communities throughout El Alto.

"We, the marginalized people of El Alto, have never benefited from government projects like those in the Eastern regions. We support the Morales administration because we are starting to see changes," Arequipa explained.

The proposed new political constitution of Bolivia was drafted by an assembly comprised of a wide cross-section of Bolivian society. The constitution was passed in December at a session opposition groups boycotted, and thus, the decision has since been deemed illegal by Bolivian courts. Among other things, the new constitution seeks to increase rights for indigenous peoples, establishing a legally binding framework for basic human rights.

The new constitution is intended to promote decentralization by giving more power to departmental governments and indigenous communities. It will also give the state more control over natural resources, which have traditionally been highly profitable for foreign companies and a handful of Bolivian elites. The constitutional proposal has been met with strong resistance by right-wing leaders in Bolivia’s eastern regions, who have threatened to secede from the central government and set a proposed referendum date for autonomy on May 4th.


Since January 7, 2008 dialogue on the new constitution in the senate has been ongoing but without any new developments or agreements between opposing political factions. Citizens and media outlets commonly refer to this polarization as a "political crisis."

The widespread social movements that support the new constitution and form the base of Evo Morales’ popular support got tired of waiting for compatibility between Morales’ party, the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism), and opposition groups so decided to increase pressure with the recent mass mobilization.

Before the 1952 revolution, indigenous peoples were not even permitted in the central Plaza Murillo, but on February 26, they decided who could come and go through makeshift fences of wiphalas and roughly hewn sticks.

The mobilization amassed over three days, becoming a several-thousand strong melee of textile workers, farmers, mothers, and unionists from across Bolivia. By Thursday, February 28, miners’ unions from the Potosí region had arrived, intensifying the tense atmosphere with bone-shaking dynamite explosions. Late that afternoon, senators began to enter the congress, and two parliamentarians were pushed and shoved by the masses outside, their entry to the senate impeded.

As night fell, demonstrators sat huddled in blankets, chewing coca and listening to updates on the radio calling the mobilization violent. Maria Eugenia, a thirty year old coca farmer and activist from the Six Federations of Coca Unions shrugged at the news. "We have suffered violence from past governments, from the United States, and from the Drug Enforcement Agency for years," she said. "Those people don’t know what violence is. Maybe if they know what it feels like, they won’t act the way they do."


A month ago, when I was visiting Eugenia in the Chapare, a tropical coca-growing region in the steamy Bolivian lowlands, she explained that coca growers have been struggling for years against oppression characterized by anti-drug policies of foreign governments who equate coca – a sacred, beneficial leaf in the Andes – with cocaine. She said now that the right is beginning to see changes in the Chapare, they will not back down.

"We have experienced extreme racism – those from the media luna [the wealthier, eastern region of Bolivia] would drive by and spit on us, call us names, treat us like garbage," she said. "Since the election of our brother, Evo Morales, things have started to improve for us."

As the senators met inside the congress, we walked to gather blankets and food from a vast, free space for the demonstrators provided by the Law and Political Science department of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. To increase pressure on the congress, demonstrators planned to maintain the blockade throughout the night.

An elderly woman and executive leader in the women’s division of the Six Federations tilted a gigantic vat of communal stew over, filling a long line of plastic containers for those at the blockade. She predicts that Bolivia’s trajectory towards political change will be lengthy and arduous. "But," she said, "We have been struggling for years, and will not stop now."

Just after 8 pm on Thursday, February 28, the senate approved a referendum for the new constitution, and the date was set for May 4th.  Additionally, the senate deemed the planned autonomy referendums for departments (jurisdictions equivalent to states or provinces) unconstitutional, according to state law 2769 on referendums.

The proposal was passed amidst shouts of "dictator, dictator" ringing throughout the senate. Guillermo Ritcher, of the Nationalist Revolutionary Party, declared that this decision was "a fateful moment for Bolivia´s democratic institutions." Ritcher said that this was a "unilateral" decision by the MAS because some opposition representatives were prevented entry to congress by the thousands outside.

Óscar Ortíz, senate president and opposition figurehead in the rightwing PODEMOS, the Party for Democratic and Social Power, said that with this vote "the MAS is looking towards a time of confrontation and poverty."


PODEMOS representatives have been trying to reinitiate a dialogue around a US-Bolivia free trade agreement; they have also accused the MAS of spending too much on social programs and allowing the economy to falter.

Eugenia however, already knows what poverty feels like. She is a single mother with an eleven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter at home. She and her family subsist on agricultural production of coca, bananas, and papaya on her modest piece of land, like many inhabitants of the Chapare.

While jubilant demonstrators celebrated in the streets and made their way home, those who don’t support Morales administration or the new constitution upped their criticisms of the government, plastering local media with complaints and deepening the cleavage in this polarized political climate.

A week later, on March 7th, when La Paz’s steep streets were clear of coca farmers and dynamite blasts were replaced by diesel fumes, all of the referendum dates were rescinded by the National Electoral Court (CNE). Due to an alleged lack of time between the approbation and the referendum, the February 28th victory has been deflated, once again leaving constitutional reform stalled amidst Bolivia’s turbulent political climate.


All photos of Plaza Murillo demonstration by Angela Day.