In 2009, Bolivia held an election that would deeply change the country’s future. Not only did its outcome make the previous republic into a plurinational country recognizing the indigenous people’s rights, but it also made the country drop its catholic attachments to become a secular state. As the first indigenous president of the country, Evo Morales is breaking new ground on how to open up for decentralized freedom, the cultivation of coca, and Amerindian traditions.
On 25 January 2009, one of the most groundbreaking elections in recent South American history took place. It was the day of the Bolivian constitutional election — the first one in the lifetime of the landlocked country. President Evo Morales had appointed a committee for rewriting the Bolivian constitution, bringing in more traditional ideals and giving the many indigenous peoples of the western highlands more freedom. The constitutional committee agreed on 411 new articles that were to be included and voted upon. Many of these articles aimed to decentralize the power of the government and instead recognize the autonomies of the country. Bolivia has a history of catholic and colonial power, but Morales, in power from 2006, wanted to recognize Amerindians as the majority of the population — which they are by some 60 percent.
The constitution passed in the elections, and a great change was waiting for the country. Morales and his committee had presented a constitution where the Republic of Bolivia was renamed the Plurinational State of Bolivia. The state also went from catholic to secular, and a fourth constitutional power was introduced in addition to the judiciary, executive, and legislative authorities: the electoral authority.
However divided and traditional Bolivia might be, referendum turn-out reached over 90%, with over 60% voting in favor of the new constitution. As the 17th constitution of the country gave rise to many demonstrations and discussions, the elections were postponed twice. The first set date of 5 May 2008 was cancelled as a law was passed giving only congress permission to call for referendums, while for the second date of December 7 of the same year, the national electoral court suspended the elections, claiming insufficient time to prepare for the referendum.
But decentralization of power and communal democracy among indigenous, originary, and campesino people are not the only examples of the increased power given to Bolivia’s native population. There is also a restriction of land ownership to 5,000 hectares, meaning that the wealthy elite has to back down in favor of small-scale farmers. Bolivia’s natural resources, which have been up for debate for the last decades, now belong to the population. This includes the country’s oil and gas industries, which bring in a large portion of the country’s income. In addition, there are now 37 official languages in Bolivia, giving all the indigenous tongues equal value to that of Spanish.
Internationally, the cultivation of the coca plant is regulated, meaning that a fair amount of legal coca farming is taking place in the country. This has been a topic of discussion over recent decades: the indigenous population claims it to be part of their heritage, whereas the United States fears the possibility of enrichment of the plant leaves into cocaine. The US has been involved in the regulation of coca and forced a controversial law upon Bolivia in 1988, known as Law 1008: The Coca and Controlled Substances Law. The implication of this law was that coca cultivation was limited to a few appointed areas, and the trading of and possible illegal alteration of the natural product were drastically deterred.
Even if the Bolivian economy has grown by an average of 5 percent per year and extreme poverty has fallen by 37 percent since before Morales took office in 2009, there are negative reactions on Bolivia’s new direction. Opponents, many of them representing the elites in the eastern lowlands, claim that the lack of privatization will damage the country in the long run. As of now, Bolivia’s proportion of privatization amounts to about half of that of most other South American countries. Despite recommendations from the IMF, Morales keeps oil and gas as national assets. Most of this is exported to Argentina and Brazil, and it is therefore very dependent on the economic situation in these countries. Critics point out the vulnerability and devastating consequences this would have if Brazil or Argentina’s economy would falter.
The drastic change in the Bolivian constitution has so far brought an improvement to the lives of ordinary people in general, and the indigenous people in particular. The nationalization of oil and gas has brought greater income to the country, and extreme poverty has fallen. At the same time, critics claim the economy is now too reliant on Bolivia’s larger neighbors. However, whatever the future holds for Bolivia, its recent direction shows that conventional actions are not by default brought upon a developing nation.