Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly: Decolonization or Disintegration?

She stood out at the table crowded in by journalists and onlookers who kept entering the school-like room. Her brilliant pink shawl and skirt illuminated the room with contrasting patterns of flowers, squares, circles in firework-like explosions. Her white hat with an intricate band of weaving shadowed her face, as she took her turn, looked down at her notes, and spoke out: "I will never forget how they killed our ancestors like Tupac Katari [an indigenous rebel leader], the way indigenous people have been treated like fleas, discriminated, excluded. That is why we are here to call for a profound change. We need a state that is plural, made up of many nations. But you, slaves of multinationals want no change at all." Her voice had become an indignant shout. The other mainly male constituents in the Commission for Vision of the Country looked passively on, with no sign of whether they were listening, assenting or blocking her out.

After the meeting, I slightly nervously asked Esperanza Huanca if I could speak to her. Her face softened with a smile as she invited us to sit down. She seemed to be taking to heart the slogan on the poster behind her, which featured the ever-present Che Guevara with the quote: "One has to toughen oneself, but never lose tenderness." But her face soon returned to one of gritty determination with a slight edge of desperation, which you started to understand as she detailed the responsibility she felt as an elected member of the Commission which has the responsibility for setting out a vision for Bolivia in the new Constitution which is due to be ready by August 2007 before it goes to a popular referendum.

When Esperanza described where she was from, I almost used up the first page of my notebook with the number of words. It seemed to emphasise the importance of place, but also reflected the fact she identified not just with a community but an ayllu, a pre-colonial and still existing form of Andean community that stretched across large distances and ecological zones. She came from a community in North Potosí that had no running water, electricity or even a road to it, but had been given the responsibility by her community to help forge a new Bolivia that included them. She didn’t just feel their expectation on her shoulders but also a history of indigenous struggle, like the figure of Tupac Katari who led a rebellion against the Spanish in 1781 before he was finally caught and brutally killed by being divided into four pieces.

Clash of cultures

She explained the shock of coming to the assembly: her first time spending time in a city where she felt a "big hole, a lack of solidarity where people without food can actually die because the community doesn’t care for them", missing her husband "who is a part of me" who she used to act as a co-leader within her community, the debates even within her own party, the now-governing Movimiento al Socialism (MAS) between indigenous people who were used to organising like sindicatos (labour unions) and her form of organising as ayllus. "We have fully functioning economic, political social systems that work and which we practiced," she said her eyes penetrating, as if to see if I really understood. "Our grandparents used these systems. They are perfect, correct. We have always had our way of organizing ourselves collectively. Now the laws don’t permit this. There is a choque: [shock, clash] that’s why we are calling for profound change from the reality that recognises these different forms of organisation."

Esperanza (which suitably means hope in English) didn’t hesitate when I asked if she really thought it could happen. "The Constituent Assembly was a dream, now its fact. We have direct representation in the government." She went onto say this was an "unprecedented chance to change as we long as we fight with humility, patience and unity." She concluded quietly saying "I might have to give my life for this, for my people." As we left, she insisted on me taking her mobile number and said we should accompany her and visit her community the next time we visit.

Clash of ideologies

Downstairs, in the big wide open courtyard of the old school that functions as the hub for the 21 commissions responsible for agreeing a new Constitution, we got talking to Juan Carlos Verlade a very youthful man in his 20s in a short-sleeved shirt and trousers. He turned out to be from the opposition party, PODEMOS from the department of Beni, in the North of Bolivia. As we sat in the sunshine, he amiably told us about how his commission on borders and international relations was advancing, how it was looking to include human rights, and about his views as a trained constitutional lawyer. "What we need as goals are plans, projects, working together to end poverty, looking at what works. The trouble with MAS though is that they are driven by ideology."

His eyes flickered over my shoulder as he caught sight of someone: "Hey Juan, come over here" and he introduced his "very good friend", a MAS delegate and coca-grower. They joked like old school-friends, and I found myself thinking that perhaps it was possible to find a meeting point between different perspectives. As we left he said that as a democrat that the "debate was important" but that he wished the Constituent Assembly had been a meeting place to listen to each other. Instead it had become a plan by MAS to impose their Marxist and indigenous model. The next day, there was a news story about Juan Carlos Verlade, as having participated in an opposition march that started within the Assembly, headed for the Commission on Vision of the Country and ended up breaking windows and a computer and throwing racist insults.

The incident seemed to capture both the complexity and the rising tensions over the Constituent Assembly in Bolivia. On the one hand, you have indigenous groups using a party-political instrument and institutions that they question to try and remodel a State, and on the other you have individuals seemingly passionate about democracy and against ideology who seem to find it impossible to accept a different view or model of democracy and express it in very ideological terms. The clash is not just in words, but also increasingly threats of violence. Up until the day of the computer-smashing incident, one of the security guards told us it had all been "very tranquil." But as the week went on, you could feel the tension brimming up through the courtyard. The roads were occasionally blocked off to the Assembly by rows of riot police as students and miners marched angrily to push for their distinctive demands, adding to the tension by occasionally lobbying sticks of dynamite whose explosive booms would shudder through your body.

Colonialism under the microscope

As a relatively-recent foreign observer in Bolivia, I felt like a momentary observer of a complex and contradictory colonial legacy that is unravelling through the Constituent Assembly process. Watching the Assembly unfold was like unpicking an intricate origami to colonialism – seeing how colonialism is still intensely folded into every aspect of Bolivian society – generating the call for a widespread process of "decolonization" by indigenous people. Sucre was a rather apt location as it is one of Bolivia’s most colonial cities, filled with cobbled streets, whitewashed walls, ornate churches and pretty courtyards. Time and again, indigenous representatives would cite the motivation for their proposals for the new constitution as decolonising the State and society. Felix Cardenas, President of the Commission for Vision of the Country said: "Every act of my life has been assigned by history, and by the struggles of my ancestors…We should not follow those that read books from Europe and try to divide the country by trying to apply that model to our country." Esperanza Huanca talked of a "true history of Bolivia dominated by the cross and sword." The constant talk of the past in an assembly dedicated to the future reflects an indigenous world-view where the past is bound up with the present and future in a way that is difficult to understand for a Westerner.

The indigenous constituents’ passionate anger conveyed the truth that indigenous people have never fully been part of a State that cut their peoples in half by artificial State boundaries, imposed political and economic structures that reflected alien values, and attempted to destroy their culture in order to control and loot their natural resources – gold, silver, tin, timber, water, land and now biodiversity itself from which most new pharmaceuticals and bio-technology are derived. In the words of writer Rafael Bautista, "The indigenous nations were violently incorporated into this entity called Bolivia, were real victims of a process of political subordination to the centres of power, were never consulted but always the most affected."

Yet indigenous people managed, due to the inherent force of their culture, to hold onto their cosmo-vision, societal structures and culture – values and forms of organising that constantly clashed with the modern nation State. This "choque" as Esperanza described it has come to a head at various times in Bolivia’s history, but most recently since 2000 when indigenous movements mobilised around a sense of collective control of Bolivia’s natural resources. Amongst those demands was a reconstruction of the State with a call for a Constituent Assembly, a demand that was first made by indigenous peoples of the East of Bolivia in 1992 in a march for land redistribution.

Initially the traditional parties ignored the demand, with ex-President Sanchez de Lozada saying in 2002 election that "this will never happen." Yet the repeated cycle of crises and the constant pressure of social movements eventually led even the Right to admit that a Constituent Assembly would be needed to rebuild a social pact between State and Society. However the social movements and the parties of the Right had very different ideas of what it should do as is becoming increasingly clear.

Social movements, largely rural set the agenda

By all accounts, social movements have set the agenda and pace in this Constituent Assembly. Initially in 2006 when the MAS government passed the law that paved the way for elections, there were bitter recriminations from some social movements. They felt the original idea had been betrayed of an assembly with direct participation of social movements and at least some representatives elected according to community rules rather than direct vote. But as long-term observer, Harold from Indymedia Sucre explained they soon decided that they could not let the historic opportunity pass and organised, first to get themselves onto party lists (including apparently in one case two members of indigenous federation, CONAMAQ getting on opposition PODEMOS’s lists). Then they started to pull together proposals for the constitution that had been discussed and debated over several years.

I can testify from my own experience to the huge amount of groundwork that has been done on this and the commitment of social movements to the hard work of constructing proposals and alternatives to current institutions and practices. In June 2005, soon after I arrived in Bolivia, I remember sitting on a bench in a freezing cold church hall as a room full of packed indigenous people from a neighbourhood in El Alto talked animatedly about how to develop mechanisms in a new Constitution to keep politicians more accountable. Over two years, I have attended countless workshops of the Bolivian Trade Justice Movement who developed proposals for the Constitution to enforce just trading agreements that are now a firm part of discussions in the Commission on International Relations and Borders. The movement of women’s networks, Women present in History, whom we met with in Sucre had held 710 meetings over two years to devise proposals such as ensuring that domestic work is recognised with pensions from the state.

The constitution was initially in a stalemate for more than six months just deciding rules for approving the new constitution. When a compromise deal was eventually agreed, the assembly was up against time to produce results. But the social movements were already fully prepared so when MAS met up in May 2007 to agree a final platform, it was based almost word-for-word on the three hundred articles drawn up by Pacto de Unidad, a coalition of key indigenous, afro-bolivian and campesino (agricultural) networks. The Pacto was backed by an alliance of NGOs such as CENDA and CEJIS who provided much of the technical support.

What is striking is firstly how the force for change has been led by largely rural networks in a population that is majority-urban, and (given the coalition of groups) how clear and coherent their plans are for transformation. "Traditionally, miners and urban workers in the Bolivian Workers Union (COB) led struggles for change in Bolivia," said Harold from Indymedia, "But this was a largely campesino-led push, because COB dismissed the constituent assembly as a reformist measure and therefore did not get involved." The initial start of the Assembly based on parties and compromises certainly gave ammunition to those who saw it as "reformist distraction." Harold explained that as the 21 commissions toured the country collecting proposals, they strengthened the proposals from the Pacto de Unidad taking on more urban themes, touching on urban forms of autonomy, vindicating rights such as freedom for discrimination for sexual preference, and emphasising gender and labour issues. Yet the emphasis on indigenous territories and rural issues such as organic agriculture, outlawing of GMOs, support for small producers in both the Pacto and MAS’s proposal continue to show a strong rural bias.

Profound proposals for change

The core proposals that MAS is putting forward are profound. Instead of a western unitary Nation-State based on individual human rights and a liberal State they are proposing a "Communitarian, Plurinational, Unitary State" which means that each indigenous group would be recognised as a nation with a certain administrative control of resources and autonomy over areas of health, law and education. "What are nations?," argued Pedro Alvarez, technical advisor to campesino federation CSUTCB, "but groups of peoples based on territory, culture, language and distinct values. So this State would recognise us for who we are." The communitarian aspect is recognised in the advocation of collective rights of peoples over resources, and to govern using collective and participative forms of democracy, known as "uses and customs."

In a talk in March 2007 to the left-intellectual group, Comuna, an exhausted looking but still lucid Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera explained this would bisect the nation-state with an "axis of collectivity… a sense of collective action and organisation" for the first time, bringing indigenous forms of associating into a modern nation-State which normally assumes a relationship of only individuals and State. On top of this, MAS assembly delegates are pushing for a fourth power, called Social Control Power to be made up of social movements and citizens to monitor and control the other traditional organs of power, the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.

These proposals are rooted in cultural values that both representatives of the Pacto de Unidad and MAS emphasised came from an indigenous cosmovision. Pedro Alvaraz of CSUTCB argued that: "Indigenous people are not poor. We have our own cosmos, language, culture, technology, capacity to adapt plants and to foster genetic diversity. They started measuring us with other indicators: poverty, literacy, productivity." He emphasised that Bolivia needed to be built on different values that included equilibrium between man and plants, promotion of ecological products through organic agriculture, self-sufficiency rather than competition. The values have been given voice in MAS´s fiercely fought proposal for Vision of the Country which says that the country is to be built on the ethical moral Andean principles which includes nitaq sapa (don’t be individualist), sumaj Qamaña (live well) and Ñandereko (harmonious life).

Right resistance

The indigenous discourse that lies behind the proposals is anathema to the Right in Bolivia. The papers have recently been full of dark threats of huge mobilisations by the so called Autonomy Junta in four departments of Bolivia to reject the idea of a plurinational state built on indigenous values. Carlos Dabdoub, secretary-general of the Santa Cruz prefecture in a barely-veiled suggestion of violence said: "No-one is thinking of an armed confrontation, but we will continue until the end." Jorge Lazarte of the party Unidad Nacional added: "Most Bolivians will not recognise themselves in this constitution."

Yet in Sucre, despite the rising rhetoric, their leaders seemed surprisingly very calm, confident and coherent rather than angry and defensive. It suggested that they didn’t yet feel at threat. Ruben Dario Cuellar, head of the PODEMOS constituents was typical. We found him in a restaurant in the centre of Sucre, joking with his colleagues, juggling two mobile phones. He looked, according to my North American partner, like an American football lineback, his bulky figure in a pink shirt spilling out over his trousers. He launched happily into a history of Bolivia whose message was clear: Bolivia wasn’t working because it has never decentralised power to the people. His examples of bureaucratic centralism, of bridges built by central government in the wrong place, a friend who has to ring central government to get permission to hire teachers, were evidence of a government system that doesn’t function well. "The main flaw in Bolivia is centralism," he concluded. He also painted a picture of a harmonious society, in the village he came from where he gets on with indigenous people, where class and race aren’t issues. He explained that decentralisation was not a political project because a local government could be from the left or the right.

"The trouble, Nick, is that these indigenous proposals of MAS are a political project about division," he said like we were old friends. "Being indigenous is a political identity, one that is self imposed. It doesn’t give right to special privileges. We have to find a point of union not based on our differences, but on being equal." He lamented that MAS´s proposals were creating unnecessary divisions. Unlike some individuals reported in Santa Cruz, his language was all about being Bolivian rather than from Santa Cruz. "The goal of the Constituent Assembly should be to reconstruct a social pact that is inclusive, that ensures that people feel Bolivian first. A society that is inclusive and does not divide. Do we construct a country of Bolivians or indigenous and non-indigenous?"

Where his apparently progressive and liberal discourse started to unravel is when he strayed into analysis of indigenous cultures in an attempt to show that indigenous discourse was not real. He said the idea of "living well" trapped people in a state of underdevelopment and that "living better" should be the goal of society, that "Andean cosmovision says you have to destroy in order to construct, there is no linear idea of progress." Worse, he cited what he admitted was a "crude" example of what would happen if his daughter was raped in a village with indigenous autonomy and a community justice system. "Where would my guarantee be that my rights will be protected?" His attitudes suggested that his picture of a harmonious society of indigenous and non-indigenous didn’t extend to an openness to learning and appreciating indigenous values as equal to his.

Single against plural visions

What emerged from the discussions with people from the opposition is that they are happy to talk about ending discrimination and racism, creating a multicultural society, but within their idea of what a State and society should look like– one that is based on a modern western state and western values. They were not prepared to accept that the fact that a modern State built in a form that systematically excluded and oppressed indigenous people required radical systematic change; or that indigenous communities might have different ways of organising and sets of values that should be integrated into the very structures of the State. They refused to accept the idea that Bolivia’s reality may need a plural State rather than an homogenous one.

This was most evident in the discussion of autonomy. Because despite Ruben Dario Cuellar’s adamant stance that autonomy was the answer to Bolivia’s proposal, he has vehemently opposed attempts to extend autonomy to include indigenous autonomy. The social movements’ proposal accepts departmental autonomy but proposes autonomy for indigenous territories too. PODEMOS and other parties on the right, who ironically have been part of an autonomy movement that at times expresses calls for separatism, said this will divide the country into 39 regions and lead to the disintegration of Bolivia. Jorge Lazarte, from the party Unidad Nacional, said "this has never been done anywhere in the world. It is a total experiment."

In the words of indigenous writer Rafael Bautista, the Right believes "we were good for dancing tinku [an indigenous dance] but not for proposing a State…[they continue to believe] as a dogma of faith that only the European race, in its cultural form, is capable of universality in the form of the Nation-State. A theoretical invention that was never a choice, but an imposition. A plurinational State opens up the possibility of thinking for ourselves, for the first time, of unity within diversity. Something western modernity has not considered, because its hegemony only thinks about reproducing itself, without choice, or without liberty and real emancipation."

Fight over power

Behind the clash of values, also lies of course a confrontation of power. It is quite clear that the move for autonomy by business elites in Santa Cruz to assert autonomy in the last few years has been a response against losing power and hegemony at national level. The election of social movement leader Evo Morales only intensified demands by elites in what is the four eastern states of Bolivia (known as the "half moon") to get executive and legislative autonomy. Amongst their proposals have been demands that up to 70% of hydrocarbons resources go to the Department in which they are extracted which would overwhelmingly benefit Tarija and Santa Cruz where most of these resources are found. Similarly some social movement leaders and MAS representatives were equally honest that indigenous autonomy arose in part as a reaction against departmental autonomy.

When you read the Pacto de Unidad’s proposals for competencies in indigenous autonomy, you can see though why it makes the Right so nervous. Because it lists a whole range of competencies for indigenous communities from control and management of economic resources from the State, approval for any projects that take place in the communities, the right to their own systems of law, health and education. But most significantly of all, it states that indigenous communities would have joint control with the State over non-renewable resources and complete control over renewable resources. Given that much of Bolivia’s natural resource wealth of gas, oil and minerals lies in areas of indigenous peoples, this could have a profound effect on the wealth of Bolivia’s business elites. Pablo Alvaraz of CSUTCB put it bluntly: "They oppose this because of their fear this will affect their privileges." President Adolfo Chavez of the eastern indigenous federation, CIDOB, not surprisingly was equally intransigent about giving up this demand: "we will never renounce indigenous territorial autonomy, because it our very essence, at the heart of our hope to live well with future generations… we will fight for this tooth and nail."

On the other side, the so-called Junta Autonomica (made up of mainly political and business elites) in the "media luna" of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando have announced formation of "autonomous circles" to mobilise and defend departmental autonomy. Violence that took place between largely middle-class city residents and campesinos in Cochabamba in January 2007 and left three people dead could be a precursor to what is to come. At that time, the clashes in part lay with very different ideas of democracy, with one group of city residents defending their vote which secured a majority for the Governor, Manfred Reyes Villa and another group of campesinos demanding his dismissal on the grounds of the fact that he was exclusive and had lost legitimacy by siding with the Right in calling for autonomy. The elements of different ideas of democracy, participation and autonomy which led to violence in one department then are more potently and explosively present in the debate over the Constituent Assembly now. The frightening words "civil war" are not far from many friends’ lips.

Where is it all heading?

I must admit that initially I was sceptical about the Constituent Assembly. A fight over a piece of paper seemed to me a distraction from the challenges of changing power structures and values. It appeared very far removed from a focus on building change from grassroots communities up. It also seemed a strange very western instrument for indigenous movements to use to change power relations. Moreover as both the elections and the 7-month stalemate caused disappointment and disillusion, I expected to find a Constituent Assembly that had lost direction and lacked purpose.

Yet it is clear from my visit to Sucre that the Constituent Assembly has become the focus for intense struggle in Bolivia and could have profound consequences. As my North American friend and long-term Bolivia resident Tom says "social change takes place where there is struggle even if that happens to be a piece of paper." The debates within the Constituent Assembly is opening up in a way I didn’t expect the divisions and distortions caused by centuries of colonialism and more recently neo-liberalism. In the words of Jorge Lazarte from the centre-right National Unity party, it is "opening up a Pandora’s box that we won’t be able to control."

I certainly worry that it will lead to violence. Structures of power doesn’t give up without a fight, and the rhetoric of the political and business elite and the social movements doesn’t suggest they will give up even if that leads to violence. The elites have too much to lose and the social movements to much to gain. The question raises itself again about whether profound change, particularly change that threatens economic power, can happen without violence.

I also find myself thinking the Right may be correct when they say that many, especially mestizo (mixed race), Bolivians will not identify with the new Constitution, and are therefore likely to be easily manipulated into believing it is about imposition of values and division. After all a neo-colonial state has already had centuries of acculturating people into believing that there is only one model for organising society and a State.

As I listened to an overly-made up woman assembly delegate from Beni shouting that "I will defend autonomy to the death" and talking about indigenous fundamentalism, I could not imagine some Bolivians ever accepting a State built on indigenous and plural values. Similarly, comments by a Bolivian artist from a rural community in Cochabamba, that there have been no efforts in our community to build this up from grassroots suggests that it may not even have the understanding and active support of many indigenous people.

Constant repetitions by people such as Lazarte that this will create division and conflict can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Threats of violence and increased media hysteria might reasonably persuade many people who don’t feel involved to decide that "experimenting" with the constitution is not worth the aggravated tension. An act of profound justice and addressing of a colonial legacy could be put off because of fear of violence.

Even if it is somehow agreed, huge questions still linger. Will it actually really be put into effect? Will it start to enable indigenous communities to regenerate their cultures and traditions? Will it have the effect of changing power relations? Will it enable the development of a plural society more at ease with itself and able to redress its colonial history?

Yet, perhaps the result is not as important as the process. The assembly reminded me yet again of the resilience of indigenous communities who have survived centuries of exclusion and imposition with a culture that has its contradictions but is still vibrant. It would also seem that the process of the constituent assembly has been a profound opportunity for indigenous movements to recover the values that they hold to be important – values of solidarity, complementarity, living in equilibrium with nature, putting community above individualism, importance of plurality. I know from experience that these are easily romanticised and are not consistently practised, but the mere fact that they are being constantly repeated means they are having fresh air breathed into them, being re-embedded in different communities and organisations. They are also values that the West could learn a great deal from.

One of the words that kept cropping up at the assembly was decolonisation. In Andean thinking that involves connecting ourselves to the past in order to re-imagine our future. Esperanza put it this way: "We need to ask where we are, where we come from, and where we are going. It is a task for everyone." As we can see from Bolivia, decolonisation is a highly complex and possibly dangerous process. It is clear that many people in Bolivia are going to need to go through that process or at least accept its importance if the constitution that indigenous people have fought for is to come into fruition. Whether Bolivians do that in the face of a wave of hostility and opposition from powerful interests both inside and outside the country remains to be seen. Given that we all could benefit from the process of decolonisation that Esperanza describes, the consequences of what happens in Bolivia could be profound for us all.