Southern Exposure

Desde as Entranhas dos Labirintos Latinos.

Friday, December 19, 2003

One of the demands from Bolivia's October protests was a constituent assembly to re-found the country and, essentially, rewrite the rules of the democratic game. It's now clear a constituent assembly will happen, though its format's still undecided. But it's important to note that this demand — fervently launched by Mallku, Evo, Solares, and their lot in October — has been picked up by very different quarters — namely, the comites civicos of Santa Cruz & Tarija (along w/ other similar groups). So. What does this mean?

While I agree that a constituent assembly, while a messy/complicated proposal, is not inherently a bad thing, I'm not sure that Mallku et al realize exactly what they're proposing. In a rush to change the constitutional balance of power in Bolivia, they may've written their own doom.

The current constitution, despite several progressive amendments from 1994, is still essentially centralist. National political power rests in La Paz, w/ little room for departmental autonomy (Bolivia has nine departments, or states) — department prefects are appointed by the president, not elected. This means that national decision-making is highly centered in La Paz, from where funds for the nation's interior are dispersed (the Bolivian political world is divided into the exterior [foreign countries], the capital [La Paz], and the interior [w/ somewhat the same meaning as "frontier" or "hinterlands"]).

Of course, the 1994 Law of Popular Participation (passed under Goni's first administration) changed that. It broke up the country in 311 municipalities (now 315), allowed citizens to vote for their local government, and distributed 20% of the national budget to the municipal governments on a per capita basis. This reform, internationally hailed, meant to foster local democratization. In some measure it failed (local governments became ensnared in party politics); in some measure it didn't go far enough (still no departmental or provincial self-government).

And this is where the constituent assembly comes in. After October, civil society in Tarija & Santa Cruz joined the crusade to re-found the country w/ a new democratic system. While Mallku et all want a more participative democracy, they're likely also to see a new state structure that gives greater autonomy to departments. There's too much pressure from too many sectors to avoid a sort of "federalization" of Bolivia (which is not necessarily a bad thing, either). But what does this mean?

Santa Cruz & Tarija keep Bolivia's economy afloat. And the economic discrepancy between these departments and La Paz grows as businesses relocate after October's violence. Not to mention that departments like Potosэ & Oruro are in worse shape than La Paz. And it goes beyond gas & oil. Santa Cruz & Beni (another camba department) have higher agriculture production than the kolla regions.

A new constitution will most likely give greater autonomy — including decision-making control over local resources — to the departments. Whereas Santa Cruz once fought a bitter, and still-remembered struggle to retain 11% of the profits from its oil wells in the department, it probably won't accept much less than full control in the future. Neither chapacos nor cambas believe that their gas & oil belongs to "the nation" — they believe it belongs to them. Look at it this way: Should politicians in Washington decide the fate of Texas' oil wells? Or Texans?

And what this finally means, is that the new Bolivian constitution might actually heighten national socioeconomic inequalities. If the benefits of economic growth are limited to the east, and if the benefits of that growth stay in the east, then the economic hardship of campesinos in La Paz, Oruro, Potosэ will increase. They may win the right to participate all they want, but they'll have fewer economic resources to decide about.


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