Bolivia’s new constitution empowers indigenous majority

Bolivia’s new constitution empowers indigenous majority

By Benjamin Dangl, Today correspondent

Story Published: Feb 6, 2009

Published in Indian Country Today

On a warm afternoon shortly after a Jan. 25 national referendum in Bolivia approved the country’s new constitution, I visited Román Loayza in his office in La Paz, the country’s capital. Loayza, a founder of the Movement Toward Socialism, the party of indigenous President Evo Morales, was the most central and unifying figure in an often conflict-filled constituent assembly which first convened in 2006 to rewrite the country’s constitution.

“We have been slaves to the traditional political parties. We indigenous were never recognized. Just a handful of rich people, business and land owners – they governed us,” Loayza said, pounding his fist on his desk. The wall behind him was covered in campaign posters for the MAS and the new constitution. The multi-color checkered wiphala flags representing Bolivia’s diverse indigenous populations hung all around the building.

Loayza believes the passage of a new constitution granting long-overdue rights to the country’s indigenous majority will begin to address 500 years of injustice; 62 percent of Bolivia’s population self identify as indigenous, and nearly the same percentage live under the poverty line.

The new constitution establishes Bolivia as pluri-national (a nation containing many nations), formally recognizing the country’s 36 indigenous and Afro-Bolivian nations. It also requires that government offices be able to communicate with their constituents in their own language, rather than speaking only in Spanish, a language a significant number of indigenous people don’t speak.

The constitution grants autonomy to indigenous groups across the nation, enabling them to govern their own communities, develop their own economy, and administer the use of natural resources. These changes to the constitution, as well as the new parts of the document which call for state control of natural resources, seek to ensure the majority of Bolivians benefit from the country’s vast oil and gas reserves, resources which have historically been looted by multi-national corporations and wealthy families.

“With the constitution no one can now touch the natural resources, now only the people and the government can benefit,” Loayza said. “This is a very important part of the new constitution for us, the indigenous campesinos, along with the poor people of the city.”

In addition, the new constitution reserves seats in the Senate and Congress specifically for representatives from indigenous communities, and officially recognizes forms of community justice practiced by many indigenous groups in the country – as long as the practices adhere to existing Bolivian law.

Regarding this new respect for community justice, Loayza spoke of the typical injustice in the current justice system administered by the state, and the subsequent need for indigenous community justice. “There is no justice in the ordinary justice, there is injustice. Those who have robbed a little bit fill up the jails. Those who have robbed a lot of money are free in Miami.”

The previous constitution officially recognized and upheld Catholicism, the new document recognizes the Christian God as equally as the Andean Pachamama (Mother Earth), a central figure for various indigenous religions across the Andes.

On referendum day, many voters in La Paz supported the constitution specifically for the increased rights it guarantees indigenous people. Lydia Poma, the owner of a shop that sells kitchenware in a working class neighborhood of La Paz, voted for the constitution for the same reason many others in her neighborhood did: “I like the new constitution because it allows the indigenous people of this country to rise up.”

Oscar Luizaga is a member of the Fearless Movement Party (a MAS ally), and wore the neon green colors of his party on a band on his arm. “I consider the key points in the new constitution to be regarding equality among all people,” he said while standing in front of a voting place. “Now we are at an important point of departure. … Now we can transform the country.”

Loayza however, after dedicating much of his life to the creation of this new constitution, feels his work for the moment is done. “I helped create the constituent assembly and worked within the assembly and now, after all of this work, I have a right to rest. For now, I will go back to my land and farm.”