Bolivia’s new constitution

Having posted recently on Latin American revolutionaries and on Somalia, here’s a post that connects both.

Bolivia, as readers may or may not be aware, recently approved a new constitution with a 60% referendum result, a constitution that the indigenous president, Evo Morales, describes as an attempt to ‘re-found’ the country in a way that will promote and empower its indigenous majority.

Key features include the setting up of a load of ‘autonomous’ divisions of equal rank, most of them indigenous ‘tribes’ (using that word oh-so-loosely), but some Eastern provinces, mainly inhabited by the descendents of Europeans. Part of what this means is new status for traditional indigenous justice systems. Another key feature is the limit on the size of land holdings – although people can keep their current enormous chunks of land, future holdings will be limited in size, to spread ownership around more people. There is also the possibility that people owning huge plots will be required to make sure it’s being used for somthing socially useful.

It would be a bit of a waste of time for me to go into the history and background, you can research that yourself. I’m just going to speak my brains.

The reason I said this post links in with Somalia is because a large part of Somalia’s problem is the failed attempt to replace its (eroded and suppressed) traditional social structures with those of a modern nation-state, and the tension between these two. And a large part of the idea of this new Bolivian constitution, as I understand it, is to ease that process by combining the two, granting greater autonomy and respect to the traditional indigenous structures, while through doing so, mobilising the masses of the nation behind a national government.

The mechanisms of local dispute resolution are important here. In Somalia, the closest thing that southern Somalia has had to a central government with widespread support was the Union of Islamic courts – an organisation growing out of traditional local dispute resolution structures. Similarly, part of what seems to be helping the Morales government to mobilise support is granting official status to traditional local dispute resolution structures.

Now I don’t know much about traditional indigenous law, nor do I know about the various interpretations of Shari’a professed by the Islamic courts of Somalia. I imagine that there is much in each of them that I would disagree with. I imagine that in the former case at least, some of the elements most in conflict with modern notions will have been changed (the government professes a fondness for Marxism, after all). But the precise content of those law codes is, it seems to me, not the most important issue. The important issue is that they work because people respect them, people understand them, and people trust them. In both cases, this is not remotely true of the ‘modern’ law enforced by corrupt and incompetent police and courts.

A key difference between Bolivia and Somalia (well, apart from the other key differences, like one having a popular government) is the basis of the economy. In Somalia, those social formations which have developed the greatest stability are those in the north, Somaliland and Puntland, which are based on exporting livestock and on piracy, respectively. In Bolivia, much of the government’s income comes from gas and other resource exports. This is more open to conflict, because it’s a relatively finite thing and not the result of anyone’s creation. The gas deposits mainly reside in the eastern (white, right-wing) parts of the country. Aside from the effect of fossil fuels on the environment (which, it should be said, most of the recent leftist Latin American movements have been very good on in other respects) this means that base that a lot of the government’s activities are proceeding on is not a very stable one in the long run. In economic terms, Cuba might be a good model of a country that’s developed a lot of wealth (wealth measured in terms of human well-being, not GDP) without any major natural resources, through a focus on human capital. If that could be combined with a more open political system, that would be awesome.

Some Bolivian communists argue in more detail over the constitution and why they were spoiling their ballots here. I think it’s obvious that the constitution doesn’t introduce socialism. Maybe it should. Maybe it could. My instinct tends to be to focus on what’s clearly possible, and see how it compares to other things that are clearly possible. In that sense the constitution is, I think, a clear advance on what preceded it. But the decisive contests remain.

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