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January 26th, 2009
Bolivian Constitution Approved, but Nation Still Divided

Jeff Seelbach

Bolivia approved a new constitution on Sunday, the result of a long struggle by President Evo Morales to advance the standing of indigenous Bolivians. Unofficial results show that about 60 percent of voters approved the document, which expands rights for indigenous groups, strengthens the government’s role in the economy, allows Morales to run for another term in office, and maintains relative autonomy for the resource-rich eastern lowlands.

Many Bolivians see the vote as a watershed moment for a country that remains deeply divided by resource distribution and demographics. In the words of Vice President Alvaro García, ”There will still be conflict and tension…but from here on out, this country will be governed by three principles: equality, autonomy and a strong state presence in the economy.”

But a strong and vocal minority, based in the eastern lowlands and largely descended from Europeans, opposes both Morales and the new constitution. Violent clashes broke out this past September, when seven peasant farmers were shot and killed by members of the opposition. The U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia was expelled for allegedly inciting the opposition to violence; the U.S. government responded by expelling the Bolivian ambassador. Since then, relations between Bolivia and the U.S. have been tense. Last week, the chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy, Krishna Urs, walked out of a speech by Morales when the President repeated his accusations that the Ambassador and DEA officials were inappropriately meddling in domestic Bolivian affairs.

Mark Weisbrot, an economist who studies Bolivian economics and politics closely, sees the U.S. relationship with Bolivia as critical to healing some of Bolivia’s domestic divisions.

“The bigger question is political–how the Obama Administration responds to the new constitution,” he said. While Morales has successfully negotiated with opposition members of the Bolivian Congress, the vocal minority in the eastern lowlands doesn’t even think that the Morales government is legitimate. They may be looking to the U.S. for tacit support of their opposition to the new constitution.

“If President Obama issues a clear statement indicating support for the constitutional process – as governments in the region undoubtedly will – this will send a message that Washington no longer supports extra-legal or anti-democratic actions against the Bolivian government,” said Weisbrot.

“If not, opposition governors and groups who have vowed to defy the new constitution will likely read Washington’s silence as continued support for their cause,” he said.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have indicated at least one shift in direction for Latin America policy: a focus on energy to counter the “free-trade and anti-drug fatigue” in the region. But it remains to be seen where Bolivia’s cranky politics (and deposits of natural gas) will fit into those priorities.

Before Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia, WIDE ANGLE reported on his activities as an organizer of coca growers in Coca and the Congressman.

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