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Business leaders say constitutional reforms detract from priorities.

LA PAZ -- During a rare personal appearance to address Bolivia's congress on Feb 14, President Hugo Banzer laid out an ambitious and complex fifty-point constitutional reform plan. Corruption and poor economic performance have taken their toll on his image, and Banzer is keen to vindicate his presidency by ending it on a democratic and reformist note.

The reforms are being driven by the rising popularity of new political movements, led by indigenous groups, collectively known as Asistemicos. Since the government lost ground in violent civil protests last year, new political and indigenous movements have increasingly challenged the legitimacy of the status quo. (See story on page 6.)

Calls for structural reforms are widely supported and there have been calls for a constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution, though the Supreme Court has ruled that this could not be used to amend the current document. Banzer dearly hopes a reform of the Constitution will quell calls to discard the current Constitution, which would give the traditional political parties a better chance of maintaining control over the process.

By including a proposal allowing referendums and permitting organizations outside the political party system to contest elections, Banzer hopes to take the initiative away from his opponents and defuse further political unrest.

However, most of the reform proposals are vague and in order to secure support from the poor and indigenous groups, there will need to be negotiations. The unenviable job of reaching a consensus has been thrust on Justice Minister Luis Vasquez, author of many of its original proposals.

Many of the less radical measures to strengthen the power of independent bodies such as the national electoral court and Supreme Court will be beneficial. Other changes reflect recent modernization efforts in Bolivia. The adherence of Bolivia's economic policy to a free market model would be specifically stated. The role of the state as regulator and lawmaker, rather than a producer of goods, would also be underlined. This is a change intended to forestall the possibility of a reversal of state privatizations that have taken place since 1995.

The prohibition on foreign companies operating within fifty kilometers of Bolivia's frontiers is also expected to be lifted.

Private-sector officials complain the constitutional reform effort is a distraction from other important business. They say that incentives to investment, reduced red tape and an improved trade policy would do more to improve conditions in the country than a reform that will, by law, have to be approved by this Congress as well as the first legislature to take office after Banzer departs.

They say that while modernizing Bolivia's Constitution may well be a useful exercise, it will do little to address the problems that have prevented the economy from recovering from a prolonged slump.

RELATED ARTICLE: Bolivia's indigenous movement continues to gain strength

Indigenous people make up a greater percentage of the population in Bolivia - 70% by some estimates -- than in any other country in Latin America. Yet despite decades of demanding a share of political power, the vast majority of the country's indigenous people live in poverty, a situation that has led to violence in recent months.

The Bolivian indigenous movement has its roots in the 1952 coup that brought the Movimiento Nacional Revo/ucionario (MNR) to power. The MNR armed the largely indigenous campesinos during the fighting. Once in power, the leftist MNR abolished a 500 year-old system of servitude that tied many campesinos to the land, legalized land ownership and gave peasants the right to vote. Despite the progress, the indigenous population remained highly marginalized economically.

Between 1964 and 1982, Bolivia was ruled by a series of military governments with different approaches to the indigenous population. It was during this period that the Katarista political movement, named for the leader of a 1780 anti-colonial uprising, gained a following. The movement stressed the importance of indigenous culture in Bolivian society and sought to exposed what is said were ways in which the mestizo elite had repressed traditional culture and exploited indigenous populations.

The movement was forged from a union between industrial and campesino unions. The Single Union Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia (Csutcb), a Katarista-dominated union, gained power during this time and is still the dominant political institution for the highland indigenous movement.

The end of the dictatorship, however, was difficult for the indigenous movement. The left, the movement's traditional ally, faded in importance, and various parties competed for Katarista support. The indigenous movement also began to fragment as different factions supported divergent priorities. It remained largely dormant until neoliberal structural adjustments implemented in the 1980s and 1990s caused the economy to weaken. The government was forced to cut social spending and the indigenous movement began to revive.

The MNR came back into power in 1993 under Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Lozada's Vice President was Victor Hugo Cardenas of the Katarista MRKTL party, the first indigenous politician to hold such a high post. The selection of Cardenas was seen as a bid to garner indigenous support. The Sanchez de Lozada government re-collectivized indigenous lands, created a system of bilingual education, and decentralized the political process, all of which strengthened the indigenous populations. Constitutional reforms recognized Bolivia as a multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual country, and recognized indigenous civil rights and traditional leadership forms.

The reforms provided a catalyst through which the country's indigenous groups began to unify into a single movement. Indigenous representation in city councils and in Congress grew, and the indigenous movement became an organized political force.

In the early 1990s, leaders of the used street protests and roadblocks to force concessions from the government. The 1991 Marcha de la Dignidad brought tens of thousands of indigenous people to La Paz, disrupting the city and demonstrating the movement's power to mobilize its supporters.

Last year, indigenous protests triggered by higher water prices, the bad economy and other government measures, particularly coca eradication programs, triggered several waves of violent protests. Starting in April and running through the end of 2000, thousands of farmers in the Chapare region fought with police and set up road blocks. September, a new wave of roadblocks and demonstrations by coca-growers protesting US-backed coca-eradication efforts blockaded major roads across the country, leading to food shortages in several cities.

The movement has never put one of its own in the presidency, but that could change. The newly-created Pachacuti Indigenous Movement is expected to back popular indigenous leader and head of the Csutcb Felipe Quispe for the presidency. Quispe wants an indigenous constitution and a state controlled by the campesinos, however, the party does not yet have an official platform.

First in a series on indigenous politics in the region
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Title Annotation:Bolivia
Publication:America's Insider
Geographic Code:3BOLI
Date:Feb 22, 2001
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