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Bolivia begins rewrite of constitution

Bolivian President Evo Morales has won the first battle in an ambitious project to rewrite the South American country’s constitution to give more power to the poor, indigenous majority.
/ Source: Reuters

Bolivian President Evo Morales has won the first battle in an ambitious project to rewrite the South American country’s constitution to give more power to the poor, indigenous majority.

Along with pledges to nationalize the oil and gas industry, establishing a constitutional assembly to “refound Bolivia” was a key election promise of leftist Morales, who took office as the country’s first Indian president in January.

After days of bitter wrangling in Congress, the government managed to secure the opposition support it needed Saturday to agree to the make-up of a national assembly charged with rewriting the nation’s constitution. Elections for the assembly will be held on July 2 and a referendum on greater regional autonomy will take place on the same day.

“Here begins the social and cultural revolution,” Morales told reporters, praising deputies for reaching a compromise in order to “deliver the second liberation of the Bolivian people.” He was due to sign the accord into law Monday.

The government had to water down its proposal on the assembly’s composition in the face of strong opposition from critics, some of whom have accused it of seeking to impose a left-wing agenda on the country’s constitution.

There was also resistance from smaller provinces that wanted greater representation in the 255-member assembly, which will meet in the traditionally neutral city of Sucre, where Bolivia’s independence was declared in 1825.

National symbols
It remains unclear what the assembly will consider doing to the constitution during its one-year lifetime starting on Aug.  6, but a string of demands are already on the table.

Some hardline indigenous groups want the assembly to change the country’s name and national symbols. Gas-rich areas known as Chaco want to carve out a 10th national province, while wealthy Santa Cruz province wants greater autonomy from central government enshrined in the constitution.

At least 50 percent of the candidates standing for election to the assembly must be women and 18-year-olds will be able to stand. The minimum age to become a deputy is 25 in Bolivia.

Establishing a constitutional assembly has been a key demand of the rebellious social groups that have toppled two governments in as many years in Bolivia, which has been dominated by an elite descended from Europeans since the Spanish arrived five centuries ago.

Morales, an Aymara Indian who rose into politics as the leader of the coca farmers, has vowed to reverse 500 years of discrimination against Bolivia’s indigenous peoples.

The mood was generally upbeat following Saturday’s vote, with commentators describing the agreement as a rare moment of compromise in the often polarized nation.

“The disagreements ... were at the point of causing an insoluble crisis in the country, but dialogue achieved the necessary accord,” said the editorial in Sunday’s La Razon.  “(It shows) that, yes, it is possible to find solutions in politics, in open and transparent dialogue and democracy.”