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A new dawn for Bolivia?

The proposed Bolivian constitution grants rights to children, the disabled, migrants, and universall

On Sunday, voters in Bolivia backed a new constitution recognising indigenous rights and expanding public control over natural resources.

It follows a year in which the left further established itself as the dominant political force in Latin America.

The proposed Bolivian constitution grants rights to children, the disabled, migrants, and universally extends the rights to water, food, health and education.

It took a year and a half to finally arrive at a document. The majority of the democratic assembly, from all walks of Bolivian life, was broadly in support of Morales’ left-leaning and pro-indigenous agenda. Perhaps inevitably, a draft based on these principles quickly ran into committed opposition.

Some feared a loss of property or a radical version of socialism - Morales is one of the region’s most leftist leaders, a close ally of Cuba and Venezuela.

Some opposed what they saw as an impending dissolution of cultural unity. And some questioned the rights or ability of the indigenous to even participate in crafting the document.

Former foreign minister Manfredo Kempff asked, "What could a collection of sheep-herders, coca farmers and road-blockers, suckled by the NGOs, have to offer the country?...The Constituent Assembly has been very democratic, agreed. But it verges on irresponsibility to claim that illiterates can legislate."

The country's indigenous majority did not receive voting or property rights until the 1950s, and still have less than half the labour income and 40 per cent less schooling than the country's "white" population, often a mix of European and native descent. Some indigenous people live in slave-like conditions.

The constitutional process was hijacked both by boycotts of the assemblies and a large movement for regional autonomy spearheaded by governments of the richer Eastern regions last year.
And throughout, the country was marred by political violence. There were massacres of indigenous farmers and there were rallies where swastikas emerged.

But last August Morales was ratified as president in a recall referendum by 67 per cent of the population, and in October a heavily redrafted version of the constitution made it through congress.

Commenting on the document, visiting research scholar Devin Beaulieu says that it "frames Bolivian society within a traditional Republican structure while granting extensive indigenous rights." But it is lengthy, endlessly contested and worded awkwardly in ways that may provide many loopholes.

As it stands, the constitution would put the country's valuable natural resources in public hands, making future privatisation difficult.

It would cap land ownership at either 5,000 or 10,000 hectares, depending on a separate vote. Under one per cent of landowners in Bolivia have two-thirds of the country's farm land. But this land reform clause only applies to future land purchases, and it is ambiguous if or when it can be retroactively applied to holdings which may never have been properly certified.

It would build upon growing official opposition to the influence of the US by explicitly banning foreign bases on Bolivian soil. Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador last year, accusing him of trying to take down his government. Bolivia was also one of very few countries, with Venezuela, to expel the Israeli ambassador during the fighting in Gaza.

The constitution would officially separate Church and State, in contrast to the current official place for the Catholic Church. This has been a particularly sore spot for the opposition. A TV ad for the referendum vote showed a photo of President Morales, then one of Christ, and asks, "Who will you choose?"

But probably the most controversial clauses are those which officially recognize the country's indigenous groups, their right to native lands and their 26 languages. The groups would enjoy regional autonomy, even to dispense their "traditional" forms of justice. Opposition groups say this emphasis on indigenous rights amounts to support for "lynching," might lead to the racial "balkanization" of the country, or may even be racist itself.

The outspoken mayor of opposition stronghold Santa Cruz asked "How are we going to vote for those who don't want us?" “Those who vote ‘yes’ have the souls of slaves."

This kind of rhetoric is not rare for this conflict. The issues are big. The sizable European population fears a society based on resentment for them and which may threaten their way of life. And the indigenous feel their place in official society is long overdue.

Ariel Zeballos was one of few students in his private school with indigenous features. He says he felt completely rejected. "I hated myself then," he says.

"Evo Morales' figure and possible new constitution gave a bit of a new meaning to my colour of skin," he says. "He has been a bridge and he has brought many of our fears to the surface."

"It is divisive and unifying at the same time," he said.

The new constitution's long and contradictory phrasing, ambiguous enforceability and the scuffles which accompanied it stand testament to the enduring conflicts, poverty and contradictions that will likely haunt Bolivian politics in the near future.

Some of the very vocal opposition fear that their way of life is at risk, either to cultural opposition or to a Venezuelan or Cuban-style radical socialist project. Conversely, many of Morales' supporters and leftist activists thought too many concessions were given, such as on the crucial issue of land reform, largely as a result of fear of violence or secession from the right.

"I think the constitution is an attempt to affirm with the law that we must respect those who have had no respect," Zeballos said.