Venezuela Congratulates Ally Bolivia for Ratification of New Constitution

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez congratulated Bolivian President Evo Morales by telephone Sunday for the ratification of a new constitution.
Bolivians wait in line to vote in the city of El Alto. (Martin Alipaz/EFE)

Mérida, January 26th, 2009 (– Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez congratulated Bolivian President Evo Morales by telephone Sunday for the ratification of a new constitution that strengthens the Bolivian state's sovereignty over natural resources, lays the framework for the re-distribution of unproductive large estates, and could weaken right-wing separatist movements in Bolivia's resource-rich eastern provinces.

"This triumph sets the course toward independence and equality that the Bolivian people have taken, and it consolidates the efforts of President Evo Morales to compel a peaceful and democratic revolution," stated a communiqué from the Venezuelan Foreign Relations Ministry.

In the first ever popular vote on a constitution in Bolivia, close to 62% of Bolivian voters approved the new document, according to the government's unofficial results.

President Morales addressed supporters in La Paz. "The efforts of social movements and others has not been in vain, especially the struggle of the indigenous communities, who are now recognized as people," he declared.

The new constitution, which will replace the previous constitution that had lasted four decades, bears several similarities to Venezuela's constitution, which was re-written after Chávez took office in 1999.

An elected assembly of Bolivians who first convened in 2006 drafted the new constitution in a deliberative but, some analysts contend, very politicized process.

The constitution guarantees expanded access to basic services such as health care and education, expands the state's involvement in the economy, and places a 5,000 hectare cap on new land purchases.

The document also promotes the native languages of Bolivia's indigenous majority, creates permanent indigenous seats in parliament, and outlines new forms of autonomy for indigenous communities, which are the main political base of Morales, the country's first ever indigenous president.

Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" in Venezuela has granted similar legal rights to indigenous communities, which constitute 2% of the Venezuelan population. However, implementation of these rights has been hindered by non-compliant and corrupt regional and local officials, especially in resource-rich areas.

In Bolivia such indigenous empowerment could potentially undermine a violent separatist movement led by Bolivian elites seeking to weaken the Morales government by sequestering the resources in their wealthy provinces, where large, poor indigenous communities inhabit the rural outskirts.

In a display of indigenous voting power, the new constitution was approved in two of the provinces where the separatists are based, Tarija and Pando. It was rejected in three other separatist-dominated provinces.

Last September, clashes between the separatists and supporters of Morales's political party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), resulted in the murder of dozens of indigenous activists.

Soon afterward, Morales expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg for "conspiring against democracy" along with the separatists. Chávez followed suit by expelling U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy, alleging that a separatist movement in the oil-rich Venezuelan state of Zulia was conspiring with the U.S. government and separatists in Ecuador and Bolivia.

Morales, a former coca leaf farmer, was originally elected in 2005 with 53% of the vote, and then was ratified by 63% of Bolivian voters in a referendum on his presidency that was proposed as a compromise with the separatist movement last August.

Despite these decisive electoral victories, Bolivia's separatists rejected the voting results Sunday, saying the new constitution should be valid only in those states where it was approved.

Also, the separatists denounced irregularities in the voting process, while a commission of electoral observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) reported a "climate of tranquility and respect" and few irregularities.

In response, President Morales praised Bolivians' "high democratic spirits" and called the separatists' accusations a "tool of those in agony and defeat."

Morales and Chávez plan to meet next at an upcoming summit of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), a fair trade bloc in which Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Dominica participate as an alternative to the free trade agreements pushed by the United States.