Bolivia’s National Palace is a classic colonial building that sits on the pigeon-filled Plaza Murillo in downtown La Paz. It’s more often called the “Palacio Quemado” or “Burned Palace” because it’s been set on fire repeatedly by dissidents of one stripe or another over the centuries since Bolivia gained its fragile independence. Today, painted a cheery yellow, it stands as reminder of a conflictive past and a fresh future.
During the colonial period the Spanish exploited the country’s mineral wealth without mercy, leading to the death of hundreds of thousands of indigenous mineworkers and uprisings that punctuated the nation’s history. Between forced labor, the war of independence, and European diseases, the new nation began its life as a republic rich in natural resources but with a decimated populace. In the words of an historian in 1831, Bolivia was like “a beggar seated on a throne of gold.”
In many ways, the nation’s predicament changed little over the two centuries of republican life. The indigenous population, if no longer enslaved, confronted permanent inequality in political institutions and economic opportunities. The constant diversion of resource wealth to a criollo elite -- allied with foreign interests -- cut deep channels into Bolivian society. Those flows changed form but scarcely diminished with the advent of globalization.
The government of President Evo Morales came to power in January 2006 with bold plans to change all this. Its main promise to its indigenous and impoverished base of support was to reform the constitution to assure the indigenous majority the full exercise of its citizenship, and to redistribute national wealth in favor of the poor.
Despite winning an absolute majority in the 2005 presidential elections, the Morales administration has had considerable difficulty leveraging its political capital into an efficient reform process.
For the fledgling government of President Evo Morales, a new constitution is the cornerstone of lasting change. The goal is to create a new legal structure for Bolivian society that for the first time in the nation’s history respects and legally recognizes diversity in a “plurinational” country.
The Constituent Assembly arose as a demand by social movements in the 1990s and more specifically in the Water War of Cochabamba in 2000-2001. In recent years neoliberal governments made legal and constitutional changes to grant private investors near carte-blanche access to natural resources and basic services, exposing the poor nation to one of the most unequal and exploitive forms of globalization found in the hemisphere. These legal changes became the hallmark of their governments and the source of their downfall.
For instance, in 2003 President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada fled to the United States after his government fired into a crowd of protestors, killing dozens. He and former defense minister Sanchez Berzain currently face extradition demands and a lawsuit from the Center for Constitutional Rights for damages related to the murder of 67 women, men, and children in the September and October protests, nearly all from indigenous Aymara communities.
After taking office the Morales government moved rapidly to institute the Constituent Assembly. The unprecedented process required establishing new institutions and rules that have generated ambiguity at times and conflict throughout. Acrimonious negotiations, dualing mobilizations in the streets, and overheated media warnings of ungovernability held the nation in near permanent chaos from July of 2006 to the mandated deadline of December 14, 2007. Much of that time the assembly was suspended.
The government has been criticized frequently by bot