Making Constitutions in Latin America

Rewriting the Constitution in Bolivia and Venezuela
Written by Sujatha Fernandes
Monday, 18 June 2007, Source:

After gathering proposals during a six-week trip around the country, members of Bolivia’s National Constituent Assembly met on April 30, 2007, to present the proposals and draft recommendations for synthesizing these proposals into a new constitution. As in Venezuela, where a new constitution followed the swearing in of leftist president Hugo Chávez, hopes were high for constitutional reform in Bolivia that could alter entrenched inequalities and facilitate the inclusion of indigenous majorities into society.

But more than nine months after this process was initiated in Bolivia under President Evo Morales it has become delayed by debates over procedure, weakened by the exclusion of social movements, and bogged down in partisan conflicts. Is it possible for radical change to be achieved through constitutional reform? How does the Constituent Assembly in Bolivia compare to Venezuela’s? These are important questions to consider, especially as other leftist leaders in the continent such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are embarking on a similar process of rewriting the constitution.

The demand for a constituent assembly in Bolivia originally came from indigenous social movements in the east of the country who sought greater participation in decisions about land use and ownership, distribution of natural resources, and development policy. This demand for an assembly was taken up by social movements who participated in several protests and campaigns in the early 2000s against the privatization of water (the Water Wars) and for the nationalization of gas (the Gas Wars). After successive governments were forced to resign and Morales was elected in December 2005, he initiated the process of rewriting the constitution. There were demands for new articles to address issues of land distribution, resource management, and regional autonomy, among others. On July 2, 2006, there was a nationwide election of the 255 assembly representatives, who would be in charge of rewriting the constitution.

The failure of Morales’ supporters to gain a majority during the July 2 elections of the constituent assembly introduced certain constraints for progressive forces from the start. Morales’ party Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, MAS) won 135 seats, which was 35 seats short of the two-thirds required in order to control the assembly. Further, the exclusive control by political parties over the electoral process meant that social movements leaders not belonging to political parties were left out of the assembly. In order to participate, social movement organizations needed to gather 15,000 signatures, fingerprints and identification numbers in the space of a few weeks, while political parties were automatically included on the ballot. Key movement leaders such as Oscar Olivera, who played an important role during the 2000 Water Wars, were not even included on the ballot. Requests from indigenous organizations to elect representatives to the assembly according to their own customs were rejected; the indigenous leaders who were elected belong to MAS or other political parties.

In August 6, 2006, the Constituent Assembly was sworn in. For six months, the Constituent Assembly was not able to achieve anything, as it was caught up in a procedural debate about voting, that was finally resolved on February 14, 2007. As the assembly now embarks on the deliberation process, it will also be strongly divided along partisan lines, as a two-thirds vote is required in order to approve each of the articles, and MAS and its aligned parties do not have these numbers. Many are concerned that MAS will be forced to water down its proposals in order to seek support from the opposition parties and fulfill the required two-thirds vote.

By contrast, the rewriting of the constitution in Venezuela, which began in August 1999, was not hampered by a divided assembly, as Chávez supporters won 125 out of the 131 seats in the assembly. Like in the Bolivia case, political parties dominated the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly. Chávez’s Movimiento Quinta Republica (Fifth Republic Movement, MVR) and allied parties who formed the Polo Patriotico (Patriotic Pole), won 120 of the seats. In order to speed up the process of deliberation, the assembly met in 22 commissions rather than a larger plenary. The new constitution was completed over the next few months and approved by referendum in December 1999.

Despite the dominance of political parties over the constitutional process in Venezuela, the process was fairly fluid, and there was space for the participation of diverse social organizations and groups. Women’s groups organized to elect women-friendly candidates to the Constituent Assembly and they lobbied to include articles pertaining to sexual and reproductive rights. Many of those elected to the assembly had been human rights advocates under previous governments, and they incorporated a broad concept of human rights as both civil rights and social rights of public health, education, and welfare.

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