Historic referendum passes in Bolivia, Pt. 1
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries. I’m in New York City. Today we’re joined by Sinclair Thomson, who is the author of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics. Sinclair is also a professor at New York University in Latin American studies. Welcome, Sinclair.
SINCLAIR THOMSON: Thank you very much. Good to be with you.
PERIES: Good to be with you on such an auspicious occasion, which is the passing of the referendum and a new constitution in Bolivia. Can you tell us what it’s all about?
THOMSON: So the results are still trickling in, but it looks like about a 20 percent margin of victory for Evo Morales, the MAS government, and the Constitution, which has been under negotiation for about a year and a half in Bolivia. So it looks like 60 percent of Bolivian voters voted for it. And there was a very, very high—about 90 percent—turnout for this. What’s also interesting is, this is the first time Bolivia’s ever had a popular democratic vote on a constitution. Bolivia’s had 17 constitutions in its republican history. This is the first time the populists had a chance to vote on it. Huge amount of popular engagement with the issues. It was a very intensely fought over campaign over this referendum on the Constitution and very polarized, and yet in the end it’s a very solid victory for the MAS government.
PERIES: Why is this constitutional change so significant?
THOMSON: It really is a very different kind of constitution from anything Bolivia’s had before. There are—I think the two most important things about the Constitution are, first of all, it’s going to reconsolidate state control over strategic natural resources in the country. So this is coming after a neoliberal period in which foreign transnational firms could come in and exploit hydrocarbons. Bolivia has the second-largest natural gas reserves in South America, and there had been demands for greater national sovereignty over these very valuable natural resources. This Constitution is reconsolidating state control over those resources.
PERIES: To some great extent, these would seem to be sort of obvious things that would be contained in a constitution, the protection of its natural resources. Why has Bolivia—why is it necessary? Why has it become necessary to have these changes instituted in the Constitution?
THOMSON: Well, that takes us a little bit into the recent history in Bolivia. But this Constitution came about as the result of a wave of popular uprisings against neoliberal government and against the presence of transnational firms who were coming in to exploit natural gas resources at giveaway prices. The revenue from natural gas that these companies were making was on the order of about 82 percent, with only about 18 percent of royalties remaining in the hands of Bolivia. So this is something that provoked a great deal of outrage, and protesters were calling for some kind of new system for hydrocarbons development. And that makes this really one of the key features of this new Constitution. It’s part of a general wave, too, for greater national control and a kind of pendulum swing away from completely unregulated market control of the natural resources in the region.
PERIES: What else is contained in this Constitution?
THOMSON: I think that the second important thing about this Constitution is that it recognizes indigenous rights and indigenous demands in a much more dramatic way than any previous Bolivian Constitution and, I suspect, any constitution in the history of the Americas. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a kind of document which is taking up the issues and demands of indigenous peoples the way this one does. So what does that mean concretely?
THOMSON: It must be said, first of all, that a lot of this is symbolic. There are some concrete institutional gains, but much of the document is symbolic. First of all, there’s a recognition that Bolivia is a pluri-national country, meaning there’s not just a Bolivian nation with Bolivian citizens, but you have a series of peoples who themselves are recognized as having a national standing. So this was something that was fought over, but it eventually was incorporated into the Constitution. Throughout the Constitution, there’s a recognition of indigenous questions of territory, questions of indigenous political representation. Indigenous religion, for example, would be another symbolic area. The Constitution recognizes different world views, or what they call "cosmovisions." The Catholic Church is no longer going to be an official religion in Bolivia. There’s a separation between church and state. And so indigenous culture and religion would be recognized. Probably the most important concrete thing for indigenous peoples institutionally is a recognition of indigenous autonomy. And the indigenous autonomy is something that remains to be worked out in detail in Congress.
PERIES: And it’s different than self-determination of the indigenous people?
PERIES: How so?
THOMSON: Indigenous autonomy is a new legal concept that’s been worked out in this context in these negotiations. It means that indigenous groups can declare their own territory. If there is a demographic majority which is indigenous, they can declare their own territory, which will be recognized by the state. They will be able to govern themselves within that territory, to have traditional judicial practices, for example, within that territory, and they would not be subject to the control of regional authorities or departmental authorities. They are not subordinated administratively to the departmental jurisdiction, which is important. What this will look like in practice remains to be seen. This is the way constitutions are. The interpretation of the Constitution will be fought over in the courts, perhaps, in Congress, but there is at least a legal space now for indigenous territory and self-government. This is primarily going to be at the local and municipal level initially. It may expand beyond that eventually.
PERIES: What other features are in the Constitution that you think is important?
THOMSON: Well, for indigenous people, the question of political representation beyond the local level is important. One of the new innovations is that the departments in Bolivia, of which there are a total of nine, will now have a kind of congressional assembly, and within that congressional assembly there will be indigenous representation, which is a significant advance. At the national level, there are not major breakthroughs. There will be national representation in Congress for minority Indian groups, primarily from the lowland regions. But I think that the Constitution is disappointing in some ways, from the perspective of indigenous peoples, in that there’s not a larger, national-level political representation in Congress, for example. A few other things that are worth noting: indigenous peoples will have to be consulted for any kind of development work or exploitation of natural resources within their own territory, which is significant. It opens up some space for negotiation over development.
PERIES: That’s a great segue, Sinclair. Let’s continue this discussion in Part 2.
PERIES: Let’s dig in deeper in terms of what is the actual content of the Constitution, as well as give us some context as to what led to the new referendum and the constitutional changes and why it was necessary. Thank you for joining us. Please join us again for Part 2 with Sinclair Thomson on Bolivia.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.