A Strange Campaign Over an Uncertain Constitution
written by Jim Schultz, Democracy Center
Bolivia is ten days away from a national vote that by all measures ought to be a historic watershed – to approve or not a sweeping new national constitution.Yet the streets are quiet. Neither here in urban Cochabamba where I work nor in rural Tiquipaya where I live, have I seen anyone handing out leaflets. There are no auto caravans roaming the streets with loudspeakers. There are no armies of campaigners wearing Si! or No! t-shirts. I've seen no announcements for big rallies in the stadium. All of the usual trappings of popular Bolivian election campaigning seem to be hiding in hibernation somewhere, as if everyone just sort of forgot.How would Jesus Vote?The airwaves however are a different story. My television watching friends (since television is the devil I don't own one) tell me it is wall-to-wall propaganda by both sides, most of it so over the top that facts aren't even a light consideration.One ad, seeking a No vote, touts a bloody fetus and declares that the new constitution would legalize abortion. It doesn't, nor does it come close to doing so. Another ad shows two men kissing, beckons voters to "not be a part of the sin" and urges a No vote. The new constitution includes vague language about discriminatation based on sexual orientation. The best ad of the bunch features side-by-side images of President Evo Morales, the constitution's main promoter, with Jesus Christ (who to my knowledge has remained neutral so far). Declaring that the new constitution eliminates religious rights (another, 'it doesn't') the ad asks voters, "Whose side are you on?"Jesus, who has not run for public office in Bolivia, is a popular figure here.Morales and his MAS party aren't staying out of the exaggeration Olympics in all this either. Their ads proudly proclaim that the new constitution would put the nation's natural resources into the hands of the people. But the actual articles, especially after the huge compromises made in October, leave things a good deal mushier than that.A Long Way from the Original VisionThe Bolivian demand for a new constitution did not begin this month or with the election of Evo Morales in 2005. It has been a demand for decades from the nation's long-marginalized indigenous majority, who see in the current constitution the vestiges of legally-enforced privilege and of old colonialism.Their vision of how a new constitution would come about is almost tragically different than what has transpired. Their dream was of a process outside of politics, a Constituent Assembly of citizens from their communities that would mirror the communitarian decision-making process of their pueblos. In the end they got their constituent assembly, though one so dominated by political parties that you had to be a member of one to be a delegate. Then even that went out the door as political parties met behind closed doors in Cochabamba and adopted 100 amendments, as part of a desperate reach for a compromise that would pave the way for the January 25th vote and steer the nation past the bloody conflicts that broke out over the constitution and other issues in September.As many critics have noted: If this was government of the people, by the people and for the people, it was a really small number of people who made the decisions.What would the New Constitution Really Mean?With 411 separate articles, stretching across a range of issues as wide as the imagination, the number of people who genuinely understand the real implications can probably be counted on two hands. I am not among them, nor have I ever had any desire to be. Nevertheless, if one listens to the various proponents and critics, and talks to any of the genuine experts, the big issues seem to come to this:Political ReformsYou want my opinion? I think it really all came down to this, issues of how the political playing field would be laid out that will affect the fortunes of politicians and their constituencies for decades to come.Evo wanted unlimited opportunities for reelection, or at least two (the current constitution forbids back-to-back terms for President). The opposition wanted none. They compromised on one reelection term, in a vote that would take place next December.MAS wanted to abolish the Senate, the opposition strong hold, and have a unicameral Congress. The opposition likes the status quo. They compromised on increasing the Senate by nine seats and establishing, for the lower house, that a certain undetermined number of districts will be reserved for indigenous community representatives, elected in a manner to be chosen by those communities according custom.Land ReformThis was going to be the 'big enchilada' of constitutional reform, or one of them. The large land tracks of the wealthy were going to be divided up and handed out to campesinos who had none. If Morales and MAS had redistribution of wealth on their minds when elected, this was going to be where it really happened, which is, of course, why so many wealthy landowners in places like Santa Cruz went so utterly bananas.How does it look now? Under the compromise amendments approved in October, if you have huge tracts of land and you are using them in some form of production (which could be just chasing one small herd of cattle around to its various corners), you are in the clear. Productive land got 'grandfathered' in, meaning it is exempt from any changes. If some of that big land is just sitting around drying out, it will be in the government's sights, and the policy on compensation is as vague as Cochabamba street directions.Anybody who buys land in the future will be limited by the new constitution, if it is approved. Whether the cap is 5,000 hectares of 10,000 hectares will be decided by a parallel vote on the 25th.Gas and OilBack in the people's hands? Well, not quite. The Morales approach to gas and oil has never been confiscatory, despite silly claims otherwise. It has been 'renegotiation,' not 'nationalization' and the new constitution does little to alter that course. The pre-compromise version said that the government could contract with private oil and gas companies to perform certain services. The language won by Morales adversaries amended that to let oil firms join in 'risk sharing' arrangements with the government. That is also called co-ownership and is a far cry from, "It was your gas, now it's our gas, thanks."National Health Care ServicesCalled 'Social Security" here, this is an issue which has drawn criticism from the left (which is ample). The pre-compromise version of the new constitution declared that these services would be free to all. The new version only guarantees "access". Any good policy student worth her salt knows the difference here. Guaranteed access means you can have it if you pay, and how much is unclear.Will it Make a Difference?There are certainly, amidst 411 articles, many other issues – from education to indigenous and regional autonomy – and many points of view on them (though not from Jesus, to my knowledge). There are also other criticisms. I spoke about the new constitution recently with former President Eduardo Rodriguez, as legitimate a constitutional scholar as the nation has (he was also formerly President of the Supreme Court). He pointed out some simple problems of consistency. In one article the new draft guarantees the right to declare oneself a conscientious objector and in another declares military service to be obligatory. How conflicts like that one will get worked out is anyone's guess.Amidst all the unknowns and the vagaries of the constitution being put before the people in ten days, one thing is quite crystal clear. For the vast majority of the people the vote on January 25th will not be about the specifics contained in 411 articles but how they identify with the process of 'change' represented by Morales.It will be an emotional vote. If it passes, as expected, some opponents will weep that the end of the world is at hand. Perhaps the U.S. Embassy will see a spike in applications for visas, as it did after Morales' 2005 election. Supporters of the new constitution will similarly weep with joy, and will proclaim the vote as a clear mandate for a break with the past and a move forward to a Morales-dominated political future.But the fact is that a new constitution will likely change little here. It will not make the buses less crowded. It will not create better paying markets for the corn crops growing in my neighbors' fields. It will not improve the quality of the teaching or the learning at the public schools set to start up again next month. It will not give people yearning for opportunity much new chance of employment.These things will depend on what they have always depended. Will Bolivia's economy take a huge hit as the global economy festers? Will Bolivia have the public resources to meet the desperate needs for investment in education, health, and infrastructure? Will the government, at every level, break through the poly-partisan habits of public corruption and inefficiency that siphon off those resources before they do the people any good?Why haven't I dedicated hours developing detailed analyses of the 411 articles (other than my natural laziness and that weeklong bout with 90,000 hiccups)? Because after 11 years in Bolivia (and seven governments) I know enough to know that what counts is people's day-to-day lives and I know the difference between what effects them and what doesn't.On January 25th Bolivians will go to the polls with great hope and great emotions. But a lot of them will be a lot more concerned that the rains keep falling and that someone will buy their corn at a good price.
6 years ago