Fog covered El Alto, Bolivia on Saturday morning as social movements from around the country marched into the city to mark the official passage of Bolivia’s new constitution. "This is the second independence, the true liberation of Bolivia," Bolivian President Evo Morales said as he signed the new constitution.
The new constitution was approved by 61.43% of voters in a national referendum on January 25th. Among many other changes, the document empowers Bolivia’s indigenous and Afro-Bolivian communities, establishes broader access to basic services, education and healthcare, limits the size of large land purchases, expands the role of the state in the management of natural resources and the economy and prohibits the existence US military bases on Bolivian soil.
Wilfredo, a Movement Toward Socialism (MAS, the political party of Morales) activist, attended the event in El Alto with his daughter Betty on his shoulders. He said "I am a MAS fanatic, it’s in my blood. It is very important that this event is happening in El Alto, because during the Gas War in 2003 it was El Alto that kicked out [President] Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and brought about this process. Now change will even come to Santa Cruz!"
El Alto, a rapidly growing city outside of La Paz, has been the site of numerous revolts in recent years, revolts which set in stone many demands – including the nationalization of gas and the re-writing of the constitution – that become major platforms of the MAS. El Alto was also the base for the 1781 seige of Spanish-controlled La Paz led by indigenous rebel Tupac Katari. Morales spoke at length of Katari’s legacy, describing the passage of the new constitution as the continuation of a struggle sparked in part by Katari in his fight for indigenous liberation.
"After 500 years of rebellion against invasions, against permanent looting, after more than 180 years of resistance against the colonial state, after 20 years of permanent struggle against the neoliberal model, today, 7th of February of 2009, a new Bolivia is born," Morales said, his voice echoing across the altiplano.
Bolivian flag-colored kites flew in the sky, countless fireworks shot off from rooftops, some of them colliding in the air, and exploding onto neighboring buildings. Social organizations’ banners were draped from balconies around the neighborhood.
Daniel Quiroga, a union member of the Regional Workers’ Center who was born in El Alto, said "I support the constitution because I am handicapped and this new constitution supports handicapped people. The constitution will bring about change in Bolivia without corruption. This is why I voted for it."
"For the first time in the history of Latin America, and in the world, basic services, water, electricity, telephone are now a human right, they will be a public service not a private business," Morales said in his speech. When he announced that the new constitution prohibits foreign military bases on Bolivian soil, the crowd went wild.
Guatemalan indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchu, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace prize, was in attendance. Regarding Bolivia’s new constitution, Menchu said, "It is something that will open a new era of struggle for the people of this continent."
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com