Protests Rock Bolivia, Again

(International Relations and Security Network, 29/08/2007)


The colonial city of Sucre, Bolivia was once the country's capital and is again at the center of attention. Since the initiation of the country's Constituent Assembly (CA), formed in July 2006 to rewrite the Bolivian constitution, the city has been the focus of protests, hunger strikes, bar-room brawls inside hallowed halls and general civil unrest. At stake is Bolivia's future and President Evo Morales, governing from La Paz, maintains control of the Assembly through the majority position of his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) political party.


He has called for no presidential term limits, land redistribution, some autonomy for indigenous groups and other progressive reforms that reflect greater participation of Bolivia's poor and indigenous groups in the country's future. Blocking him seemingly at every step of the way is the opposition, led by one-time Bolivian president, Jorge Quiroga, and represented by his political party, PODEMOS.


These conflicting positions however have extended well beyond political debate. Now fueled by emotions and often personal stakes, the political debates over Bolivia's future have spilled out into the streets. Some see Morales as a liberator, others a dictator. The ongoing protests are slowly polarizing the country and at the very least reduce Morales' governing ability to reactionary crisis management until the new constitution is finally ratified and put into effect. The constitutional debate is currently scheduled to come to a close on 14 December, an extension granted in early August by the Bolivian Congress.


The Constituent Assembly, however, is currently paralyzed by the most recent string of protests and debates that began when the delegates from the Chuquisaca department, of which Sucre is the capital, forwarded a proposal to move the political and legislative capital from La Paz to Sucre, which is also the judicial capital of Bolivia. Such a move would shower the sleepy colonial town in Bolivia's low lands with investment and a renewed international focus. It would also represent a defeat for Morales, whose power center remains in the Bolivian highlands surrounding La Paz.


Reacting to the proposal, a massive gathering of Morales' supporters staged a protest on 20 July. The president declared at the time that such legal considerations were not under the jurisdiction of the CA. Soon after, on 15 August, CA members rejected the proposal to consolidate the country's capital in Sucre. But rather than stop the protests, it appears to have add fuel to the flames. By 23 August, the CA was officially suspended.


Since 16 August, Sucre has remained under intense social and political pressure from the two halves of the Bolivian voting public, each staking a claim for or against moving the capital from La Paz to Sucre. Half of the protesting public supports Quiroga and his political aspirations to create an autonomous zone of Bolivia's eastern low land departments – Tarija, Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando – often referred to as the "half-moon departments." These departments are also Bolivia's most resource-rich lands and the cradle of Bolivia's revenue-generating natural gas deposits. The other half supports Morales and a very progressive new constitution that according to Morales supporters wrests power from the hands of Bolivia's traditional political elite, represented by Quiroga and enshrined in the country's current constitution.


Some observers agree the proposal to consolidate the capital in Sucre was an attempt to derail the CA. So far it appears to have worked. Adding further pressure on Morales, a general strike across the expanse of Bolivia's "half-moon" region was called for 28 August. It is likely a litmus test for the amount of social currency Quiroga and PODEMOS have earned since Quiroga lost to Morales in the 2005 presidential elections.


For all the social tension outside observers have noted, at least one Bolivian analyst regards the current situation as a necessary part of change. "We have the uncanny ability to go to the edge and not fall off," Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian political scientist told the LA Times in a 5 August article. He believes there will be compromise, eventually.


Many articles will be included in the final version of the Constitution, to be ratified by Bolivian voters after the CA comes to a close in December. Yet according to an agreement between MAS and PODEMOS, among other representatives, a prior referendum will be held to vote on the inclusion or exclusion of those articles not approved by the CA with a two-thirds quorum. Many of these articles are the most contentious subjects of land distribution and autonomy for the half-moon region.


In the end, despite all the protests and some violence, it will be the Bolivian voting public that decides the fate of its future, enshrined in a new constitution that it alone ratifies.