Pending the Birth of a Constitution: Bolivia’s Contentious Presidential Future

The clock is ticking on Bolivia’s constituent assembly and its mission to draft the country’s new constitution. The assembly began its deliberations in July of 2006 to foster what President Evo Morales hoped to be a “plural, participative, communitarian and representative democracy.” This process was intended to reflect Bolivia’s diversity, rather than to automatically favor the tiny wealthy minority who has ruled the country for most of the past 500 years. The need for a new constitution arose after Morales, leader of the Moviemiento al Socialismo (MAS), was elected as the first Bolivian of Andean descent to hold the nation’s highest office.

In his speech, Morales characteristically found that the solution to Bolivia’s economic and social problems was rooted in the implementation of populist policies and the extirpation of the neoliberal ideals which both distort the achievement of economic plurality and are emblematic of an imprudent U.S. policy toward Latin America. His election came as a blow to Washington free-market enthusiasts who fear that his ties with the region’s other leftist rulers, such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba, as well as his efforts to decriminalize the coca plant, a main ingredient of cocaine, would create insurmountable problems.

The majority of Bolivia’s poor Andean subsistence farmers see Morales as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure, who means to transfer the monopoly of wealth held for centuries by European-descendents of the Criollos into the hands of the impoverished indigenous Andean population. These ideals directly threaten the affluent individuals represented by the Poder Democrático y Social Party (PODEMOS), which is fighting the native majority over the issue of greater state autonomy. They feel that autonomy over the eastern part of the country which they presently politically control is the best way to protect their now strengthened economic and political powers centered in this part of the country, where most of Bolivia’s wealth, along with its European-descended population can be found. PODEMOS and its allies among the opposition, who have been waging a tough campaign against the government, have effectively gridlocked the constituent assembly after the conservative bloc refused to allow a simple majority vote which would have permitted Morales and his confederates to monopolize the drafting process. Instead, a two-thirds vote is now required for anything to be passed, guaranteeing the right-wingers with the ability to definitively obstruct Morales’ program, forcing him to compromise on issues of major concern for the government. This could make the August completion date for the new constitution impossible to achieve. Given that the first six months were spent determining the voting system to be followed, the assembly has only recently begun to concentrate on substantive issues related to social and economic policy.

Since Morales’ election, the State Department has followed a “wait and see policy” towards Bolivia. The final outcome of the impending constitutional crisis posed by the paralysis now threatening the assembly’s deliberations, is likely to determine how the U.S. ultimately will respond to the Morales administration.

Decriminalizing the Coca Leaf
With the U.S. pouring billions of dollars into the war on drugs, Morales’ pro-coca cultivation stance is seen as insidious to Washington’s legalistic interests. His focus on this issue brings attention to the impoverished lives of Bolivian coca leaf growers who lead isolated existences in small shacks, usually requiring the help of their entire family to cultivate the crop. This is a vastly different scenario than the image of “drug trafficker” conjured up in the minds of U.S. officials who are assigned to monitor these coca growers, due largely to their lack of understanding of the traditional cultural significance of the leaf in the Andean culture.

In Bolivia, coca leaf protagonists insist that the crop is highly beneficial to both the economic well being and physical health of subsistence farmers and their families. Users keep the leaf balled up in the corner of their mouth and when chewed, it releases both mental and physical stimulants which help combat the effects of high altitude and hunger. The U.S.’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards the coca leaf works to marginalize the Andean people, as well as denigrates their traditional way of life. As one of his strategies, President Morales has been working to bring global attention to their plight and last year, he stunned U.S. officials when he brought a coca leaf to a UN gathering in New York, despite its technically illegal status in this country. Morales came with good intentions: “I brought the leaf to demonstrate that the coca leaf is not a drug…had it been a drug, I would have been detained immediately.”

While attempting to attract international appreciation for the leaf, the Bolivian leader also hoped to demonstrate the adherence of his administration to his country’s traditions and the rationale for his decision to expand Bolivia’s legal production of coca from 30,000 to 50,000 acres by the year 2010. Morales may use the public arena to confront Washington on the issue in order to generate popular support for this policy. But how far he can push this strategy is limited by the U.S.’s ability to respond by discouraging the flow of foreign investment to Bolivia, thus threatening its economy. So, he walks a thin line between advocating coca’s cultivation, while at the same time criminalizing its usage for fabricating cocaine. This is done not only to placate Washington and to maintain U.S. funding of Bolivia’s Andean anti-drug campaign, but because condemning this cocaine is the correct thing to do.

A Latin American “Axis of Evil?”

The U.S. is losing its ability to exercise leverage against Bolivia by denying economic aid to La Paz, as Morales has been strengthening his ties with his fellow leftist leaders, Castro and Chávez. By forming a working economic and political alliance outside of direct U.S. influence, Morales will better be able to stand up to Washington. Of note to Bolivia’s future is the People’s Trade Treaty (ALBA) signed by Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, which has awarded a $1 million investment in cooperative research on coca production. The second was Chávez’s announcement at the beginning of this year that he would be subsidizing Bolivian coca production by promising to buy all legal products made from the coca leaf. This was devised as a strategy to both dispense foreign aid and to slowly move farmers away from this crop sector. This approach could fund the production of close to 4,000 tons of coca leaf for products such as tea, medicines, cooking oils and soaps. Construction is already underway in Bolivia to generate production facilities for this project, but current political and economic strife in the country is slowing the pace.

Morales’ initiatives only increase doubt among State Department officials that he qualifies to be a candidate for USAID assistance. But accepting Venezuelan funding should not automatically signify that Morales has an unbending loyalty to Chávez, nor that he dismisses U.S. national interests with indifference. Morales is cognizant of the importance that U.S. funding plays in maintaining his available options. The proposed 6 percent reduction of U.S. support to Bolivia’s anti-narcotics funding may be due to what Washington sees as its overly lenient anti-drug policy, could hurt Morales. By the end of June, the expiration of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) will take place, which has given Bolivia and other member states preferential access to U.S. markets in return for effective cooperation in drug eradication efforts. The Act provides duty-free access for roughly 5,600 products, a benefit that Morales does not want to lose.

The fact that Morales is responsive to pressure from Washington is reflected in his May replacement of former Vice-President on Coca Affairs Félix Barra with Gerónimo Meneses, who was more inclined to take anti-coca steps than his predecessor. La Paz officials also launched a cooperative program, funded by the U.S., to slash illegal production in the Yungas region. Due to its isolation and difficult terrain, the Yunga’s coca production historically has been ignored by the central government, yet the UN estimates that about three-fourths of Bolivia’s coca is grown in this region. While in his speeches Morales may have harsh words for Washington when brandishing pro-coca policies, he nevertheless realizes the financial benefits that could come from toning down his rhetoric and staying in respectable limits when it comes to drugs.

Refundar Bolivia: Will it be the Solution or Will it Perpetuate the Problem?

The constituent assembly formed to ‘refound’ Bolivia, aims to address contentious issues such as land reform, coca, natural resources and restructuring the government in order to be more inclusive. The new constitution will provide for the institutionalization of some of these answers and could be instrumental in determining basic foreign policy outcomes, especially towards the U.S. But with its completion date just around the corner, ethnic and socioeconomic tensions could dangerously derail these efforts.

Washington Wary When it Comes to Bolivia
The U.S is primarily concerned with what the assembly decides will be state policy regarding coca, but it is not the only issues of concern, as it turns to Washington’s interest in democratic and free market ideals as well. The U.S. is also deeply concerned about Bolivia’s orientation to both its left-leaning allies and the U.S.’s most trusted spear carrier, Bogota. Following Chávez’s recent decision to shut down the television station RCTV, Morales chose to follow suit and establish tighter controls over the press. In a recent week-long research mission in the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that members of the press have faced difficult times under the Morales administration. The degree of autonomy for the predominantly Spanish-descended wealthy inhabitants of the country’s eastern regions is also being fiercely debated. Although these elites constitute a tiny minority of Bolivia’s population, they retain enormous economic and political influence both at home and abroad. As a result, the U.S. will undoubtedly wait to see whether the new constitution points the Morales administration in a direction viewed as inimical to U.S. regional interests, as viewed from Washington’s perspective.

To supplement the new constitution, Morales has announced plans to hold elections for both executive and congressional positions, in what appears to follow democratic precedence, but is more likely meant to be a maneuver designed to extend his tenure. If re-elected, which seems highly probable, Morales would be in power for another five years. This will send up a red flag to his foes, announcing to them a possible shift towards authoritarian rule, even though, as of now, there is no evidence for such speculation. But if this is so, the Bush administration would most likely step-up to the plate to combat such a development, but it should be reiterated that as of now it does not have the firm ground to do so. The constituent assembly will have the last word on the constitution, not Morales, and could entirely upset his plans to hold new elections. The present gridlock between Morales and the opposition’s policy of intermittent paralysis is likely to continue, severely straining constitutional prospects for the country.

Put another way, Bolivia’s outcome will be a test of the Bush administration’s tolerance, flexibility and ability to restrain itself from playing an enormously destructive hegemonic role. Morales may take this opportunity to apply his authority to ensure the constitution’s completion and promulgation in a speedy manner, or he may call for a national referendum. Whatever the result, Morales’ dealings with the constituent assembly will be a major indication of his commitment to democratic ideals and process and will provide the U.S. with a framework for forming a fair and balanced policy towards the Morales administration. The path for wisdom here is to give the benefit of the doubt and provide for an opportunity for Morales to forge Bolivia’s own direction without Washington manipulating terms and conditions.

The Possibility of a Future outside of Washington’s Reach
As President Morales attempts to steer his country away from the watchful eye of Washington policy-makers, the U.S. could come to humbly realize that a Latin American country like Bolivia can survive, even thrive, without its daily blessings. By forming relationships with fellow populist leaders, such as Chávez, Correa of Ecuador as well as Castro, Morales will have the possibility to stabilize an independent and autonomous form of governance. Bolivia has the continent’s second largest reserves of natural gas, yet internal corruption and a patronage system are major problems. A high level of transparency is necessary to assure that the funds from this sector are allocated in a way that will ultimately combat Bolivia’s largest problem: unemployment. If successful, thriving industries can offer Bolivia the opportunity to move out of poverty without having to succumb to U.S. neoliberal policies, which can be counted on to accompany any foreign aid and investment agreements.

Ethnic and socioeconomic problems may hinder efforts to establish an egalitarian Bolivia. Policies must be formulated that respond to the desires of a wide range of factions and sectors in Bolivia, in an effort to avoid social discontent, the most lethal threat which can be raised against good government. Recent threats by the PODEMOS to practice “democratic resistance” to keep unqualified property rights from losing out to a communal system are worrisome. Even if the constituent assembly successfully drafts a constitution, the fate of Bolivia may be threatened by a surge of ethnic and regional tensions. Morales’ impracticable efforts to please all may instead create insuperable problems, especially with the possible dragging out of the deliberations of the constituent assembly. Due to extreme poverty among certain classes, promises of social progress are not completely what the people want to hear; they mainly want to see tangible results. Morales may be the hero of the poor for the moment, but that will not last much longer if progress stalls. The manner in which Morales addresses these problems will determine the face of his positive legacy, and, to a great extent, the future of Bolivian politics.