Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bolivians Vote on a New Constitution

MOROCOLLO, Bolivia (AP) -- Bolivian Indians on Sunday threw their support behind a new constitution aimed at increasing their strength while allowing leftist President Evo Morales a shot at staying in power through 2014.

Voters were expected to easily approve the measure in a country whose Indian majority has been long oppressed.

But opposition from Bolivia's white and mestizo populations and disputes over the document's wording foreshadowed yet more political turmoil in a divided nation where tensions over race and class have recently turned deadly.

Bolivia's first Indian president, Morales says the charter will ''decolonize'' South America's poorest country by recovering indigenous values lost under centuries of oppression dating back to the Spanish conquest.

The proposed document, for example, would create a new Congress with seats reserved for Bolivia's smaller indigenous groups and eliminates any mention of The Roman Catholic Church, instead recognizing and honoring the Pachamama, an Andean earth deity.

''Here, we're all voting yes,'' said Pascual Choque, 64, an Aymara Indian who left home on foot before dawn to vote in the tiny town of Morocollo, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

''There's not a single 'no' here. No mestizos, no white faces -- all 'yes,''' he said, drawing a chuckle from fellow Aymaras lined up in a schoolyard to cast their ballots.

Opposition forces worry the president's proposal ignores the country's growing urban population, which mixes both Indian blood and tradition with a new Western identity.

''The constitution's idea is to make the indigenous no longer invisible,'' said Bolivian historian Fernando Cajias, himself a mestizo. ''But it creates a whole new invisible world'' of mixed-heritage Bolivians.

The proposed charter calls for a general election in December in which Morales could run for a second, consecutive five-year term. The current constitution permits two terms, but not consecutive.

One of the key features of the proposed constitution is a provision granting autonomy for 36 indigenous ''nations'' and several opposition-controlled eastern states. But both are given a vaguely defined ''equal rank'' that fails to resolve their rival claims over Bolivia's fertile eastern lowlands and open land that sits atop Bolivia's natural gas reserves. The development of those reserves drives much of the country's economy.

With an eye to redistributing territory in the region, the constitution also would limit future land holdings to either 12,000 or 24,000 acres (5,000 or 10,000 hectares), depending which voters choose. Current landholders are exempt from the cap -- a nod to the east's powerful cattle and soy industries, which fiercely oppose the proposal.

Morales, an Aymara Indian, has married his mission to improve life for Bolivia's indigenous with what ally and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calls ''21st century socialism.''

Elected in 2005 on a promise to nationalize Bolivia's natural gas industry, Morales has increased the state's presence throughout the economy and expanded benefits for the poor.

Morales also booted Bolivia's U.S. ambassador and several federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents after claiming they had conspired against his government last year. The U.S. government has denied the allegations.

Morales' reforms remain widely popular, winning him 67 percent support in an August recall election. But his biggest project nearly failed in 2006, when an assembly convened to rewrite the constitution broke apart along largely racial lines.

The constitutional dispute has erupted in violence on several occasions: Three college students were killed in anti-government riots in 2007, and 13 mostly indigenous Morales supporters were killed in a remote jungle clash in September when rioters seized government buildings to prevent a draft constitution from going to a vote.

In an October deal, Congress approved holding the referendum only after Morales agreed to seek one more term instead of two.