Indigenous Bolivians, despite their majority status, historically held little political power. But in 2006, they showed up to claim how they wanted to be governed, and after three years of ugly battles, a people's constitution was ratified.
From poor and from rich, it came. From dozens
of Indigenous tribes and descendants of
Spanish conquistadors, it came. From the high
mountain villages and lush tropic cities, it
came. From men and from women, it came. In
Bolivia during 2006 and 2007, as the country prepared to
be revolutionized through the peaceful creation of a new
constitution, the officials elected to create this document
did something truly democratic: They traveled all over
the country to ask the people of Bolivia what they wanted
the law to be. And where they asked for the will of the
people, it came.
For months, suggestion boxes were posted in cities and towns, meetings were held with government representatives, and every Bolivian was asked to submit his or her ideas about how the country should be run. These ideas were collected, aggregated and ultimately considered and debated by the 255 members of the Constituent Assembly, a democratically elected body composed of people from every corner of the country who would craft the constitution. Along with input of constitutional experts from around the world and representatives of countries with young constitutions, these suggestions led directly to the words and concepts of the new Bolivian Constitution.
Ratified on Jan. 25, 2009, the new constitution was a groundbreaking attempt to heal a land scarred by globalization and to empower the previously disenfranchised Indigenous majority. Its creation also reflected the inherent messiness of democracy. The process was drawn out, frequently frustrating and sometimes ugly. But it succeeded in laying the groundwork for Indigenous empowerment through a new understanding of land ownership and a greater inclusion of Indigenous peoples.
Origins of the assembly
The law that convened the Constituent Assembly states that forming a such an assembly has been a promise of every ruling party since Bolivia gained its independence from Spain in 1825. But while many assemblies had gathered, none had helped Indigenous Bolivians. They had been left out of the process and, consequently, left out of the product.
The Convening Law was created under President Evo Morales, the first Indigenous Bolivian president since Europeans arrived nearly 500 years ago. Following the resignation of previous president Carlos Mesa Gisbert in June 2005 and the ensuing caretaker presidency of Supreme Court Chief Justice Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, Morales and his Indigenous political party Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, for its Spanish acronym, came to power in December of 2005 and immediately set out to make the Constituent Assembly a reality.
"MAS is an amalgam of so many different social
movements and groups with different and sometimes
conflicting interests, that they don't have one clear
idea of how to deal with diverse issues," said Kathryn
Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a
Bolivian non-governmental organization that publishes
policy information and analysis. "It is not a monolithic
Even with all its diverse opinions, MAS represented a shift in political philosophy for Indigenous Bolivians. Formed in the early 1990s, MAS was created as a proactive organization whose goal was winning elections and altering the power structure of Bolivia from within rather than protesting on the outside. This strategy proved successful. Morales won the presidency by a staggering amount, bringing in about 54 percent of the popular vote in a country where 10 to 20 percent is the norm.
Creation of the assembly
The 2006 Convening Law stipulated that a Constituent Assembly would have 255 constituyentes, or Constituent Assembly representatives. The country was divided into 70 voting districts that each elected three constituyentes. Each of Bolivia's nine departments (the equivalent of states or provinces) also elected five representatives. According to the Andean Information Network's analysis of the law, it was designed so that minority parties would be assured representation. The law also mandated that at least 30 percent of the constituyentes be women.
In the July 2, 2006, special election, MAS won 137 constituyentes. The Social Democratic Power party, or PODEMOS, for its Spanish acronym, earned 60 constituyentes, the next highest amount. Of the 14 other parties represented in the election, none won more than eight. This meant that parties such as PODEMOS and former ruling party Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, or MNR, for its Spanish acronym, would have to band together to effectively counter MAS.
The Constituent Assembly was officially inaugurated on Aug. 6, 2006 in the traditional Bolivian capital of Sucre. The constituyentes descended on the city, many bringing families, including children who would go to school in Sucre for the year. Silvia Lazarte, a women's organizer from the lowland Chapare region and a MAS constituyente, was elected by her fellow representatives to head the assembly. The mood was hopeful, and expectations were high. Idón Moisés Chivi Vargas, an Indigenous MAS constituyente, said it felt like they were on a mission for their country.
"We were building the way for our aspirations and dignity," Chivi said in Spanish. "The assembly was where we achieved our dreams and put them in the constitution."
Despite the positive feelings and festive atmosphere, significant procedural disagreements would quickly intervene, and months would pass before any discussion of constitutional substance would take place.
Under the Convening Law, a new constitution could only be passed by a two-thirds majority of the constituyentes present, but other procedural issues were left up to the assembly. MAS already had a simple majority within the assembly and wanted to be able to pass individual articles by a simple majority vote. The opposition disagreed, recognizing that the MAS majority could then create an entire constitution without the input of other parties.