<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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The Struggle for a “Constituents’ Assembly”

Bolivian Social Movements Promote a New Model of Democracy: Popular Participation in the Government


By Alex Contreras Baspineiro
Narco News South American Bureau Chief

April 10, 2004

Cochabamba, Bolivia, April 9: A recent conference of social movements in the city of Cochabamba has determined that a Constituents’ Assembly – to be held before this December’s municipal elections – is a priority for those working for peace and for solutions to the political, economic and social problems facing Bolivia.


Bolivian popular leaders meet in Cochabamba to discuss the formation of a “Constituents’ Assembly”
Photo: Alex Contreras Baspineiro D.R. 2004
The so-called “Constituents’ Popular Assembly” would be a new governmental authority rising from political organization of civil society, through which men and women from both the countryside and the city could reclaim their ability to participate, debate and decide on issues collectively.

The citizen representatives to such an assembly must be chosen by their own popular organizations, without interference from political parties or the government. From April 2-3, representatives of different organizations from the urban and rural social movements met in this city to develolp joint strategies for the future. The event could turn out to be a milestone in the history of both Bolivian and Latin American social struggle.

Speaking at the event, Oscar Olivera, a workers’ spokesman from the Gas and Natural Resources Coordinating Committee, remarked that the Constituent’s Assembly must have the people’s participation as a base, to decide in what kind of country Bolivians wish to live.

Indigenous leader Marisol Solano, researcher Alejandro Almaraz and political analyst Roger Cortez all spoke at the Cochabamba conference, as did Bolivian government representative Ricardo Paz.

Cortez and Paz were questioned about their past and present. Once members of the left and popular movements, they are now defenders of neoliberalism.

René Alarcón, representative of several popular organizations in El Alto (a city near the capital of La Paz), said that while, at the moment, there are many rumors circulating, even some about a possible coup d’état, most of the people from the impoverished areas of El Alto have lost their fear and are determined to reach their objectives.

In the “Gas War” of last October, in which the Bolivian people overthrew President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada – a tyrant nicknamed “Goni” and “The Gringo” – one of the messages expressed by the people was the need to convene a Constituents’ Assembly.

According to Ricardo Paz, the government’s representative, this institution must be formed when the people are informed and empowered in the ways of peaceful and democratic deliberation. In other words, it will not happen this year.

In Boliva, three major issues face the public right now: a referendum on the privatization and exportation of Bolivia’s largely untapped natural gas, municipal elections, and the Constituents’ Assembly.

The government has decided to hold the referendum on the gas question elections in the middle of this year, the municipal elections at the end of this year, and to convoke the Constituents’ Assembly at the end of next year. Maybe.

However, for the traditional political parties, transnational corporations, and the US embassy, the municipal elections are no big priority, due to the rise of coca grower Evo Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism, or MAS, party. Neither is the proposed Hydrocarbons Law -– which would put Bolivia’s natural resources back to work for the Bolivian people – and least of all a Constituents’ Assembly. These powerful sectors, which the popular movement trounced during the “Gas War,” now work silently in an attempt to stop social progress in the country.

An End to Social Exclusion

A Constituents’ Assembly is becoming the only way to peacefully and democratically address the problems facing Bolivia, said political analyst Roger Cortez. He warned that if this process does not go forward “the greatest violence will appear, with truly cataclysmic characteristics.”

Many representatives of the popular organizations agreed that if the government does not listen to the population’s demands through dialogue, the people will find a more forceful way to press for their demands.

It must be remembered that on October 17, 2003, just after he assumed the presidency, Carlos Mesa gave a speech in which he promised to make the Constituents’ Assembly a reality. This new authority must be made up of representatives from all parts of this multicultural and multilingual society. It will face the task of “re-founding” Bolivia, with the ability to revoke and write new laws, decrees and reforms based on the constitution.

The social movements have yet to decide exactly whom these representatives will be and how they will be chosen, as well as where and how many of these assemblies will be held. But they hope for active participation from all sides in the discussion.

Marisol Solano, indigenous leader from eastern Bolivia, said that the Constituents’ Assembly must eliminate social exclusion. She explained that the indigenous support the direct, active and united participation of the different social sectors, and oppose the mediation of the political parties.

“What the indigenous hope for is an independent, sovereign, multilingual and multicultural Bolivia,” she explained. “Although the Constitution currently establishes these principals, they are not brought into practice.”

It is estimated that 37 indigenous nationalities and groups exist in the eastern regions and northern Amazonian region of Bolivia. These include the Guarayos, Guaraníes, Chácobos, Matacos, Yukis, Yuracarés, Sirionós, Trinitarios, Chimanes, Matacos, and others. Aymaras and Quechuas, Bolivia’s two largest indigenous groups, populate most the western highlands and valleys, although the Urus, Muratos and other peoples are also present. These groups’ representatives demand direct participation in the Constituents’ Assembly, as do the other organizations of Bolivian Civil Society.

The demand for a Constituents’ Assembly is not new. It is a product of the “Water War” of 2000, when massive demonstrations blocked the privatization of Bolivia’s public water system. During and after that struggle, the Bolivian people demanded political change and active participation in national decisions.

That important page in Bolivian history marked not only the expulsion of US corporate giant Betchel and other transnational corporations, not only a break in the neoliberal model, but the beginning of a grassroots unification of all the popular movements.

From Below

The Bolivian government – with support from local businessmen, transnational corporations and the political class, and under pressure from the US Embassy – is trying to consolidate a “social pact,” to avoid future conflicts but also major reforms.

The social movements have so far refused to participate. In contrast to the weak reforms proposed by the Mesa administration, they demand structural changes. These include not only the Constituents’ Assembly but the Hydrocarbons Law – which would reclaim the natural resources currently in the hands of the transnationals, and the revocation of recent neoliberal pension reforms, among other proposals.

For the Bolivian masses, any meaningful “social pact” must mean the creation of a Constituents’ Assembly.

A few weeks ago, leaders of all the traditional political parties met in the US Embassy, where they were instructed to support Mesa for the remainder of his term as he continues to carry out the program of deposed president Sánchez de Lozada, at the expense of the Bolivian masses.

In response to this authoritarianism, as well as an attempt to export Bolvian gas to Chile, via Argentina, the social movements have declared a state of emergency. The Committee for the Defense of Gas and Natural Resources has called a national mobilization for April 15, and the Bolivian Labor Federation has called for an indefinite general strike and road blockades beginning May 1.

Fredy Huayata, leader of the Coordinating Committee of Neighborhood Organizations of Oruro (a city in western Bolivia), said that the upcoming municipal elections will not solve the country’s structural problems, but will rather deepen the economic crisis.

“The only solution,” said Huayta, “is a Constituents’ Assembly.” He added that the assembly must be formed from below, not by the corrupt political class, or by the current government, which only listens to plans coming from the US Embassy.

The popular movements are now working on outreach campaigns, organizing the support they will need to ensure that, when formed, the assembly will not be appropriated by the upper classes now in control of the country and backed by the commercial media.

Towards that end, movement leaders have formed the Constituents’ Assembly Promotion Committee. The committee comprises three subcommittees – one devoted to drafting proposals, one to publicity and one to organization. These three groups work together to organize local meetings and generate grassroots support for the assembly.

In this country, located in the heart of the American continent, the people understand very well the current situation. This year, whether through cooperation or pressure from below, Bolivia’s structural problems will begin to be solved.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America