What’s happening in Bolivia should worry democrats throughout the continent, because it is one more expression of the offensive that radical and authoritarian populists have launched in Latin America.
BY CARLOS SABINO
Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly has met to draft a new and fundamental charter for the country. What happens in the Constituent Assembly is of great political concern to Bolivians, because it will determine whether or not Bolivia will have a new dictator.
The Law for the Convocation to a Constituent Assembly, approved by Congress some time ago, clearly establishes that all the decisions of that body must be approved “by two-thirds” of its participants. Evo Morales did not attach much importance to the limitation this proviso imposed upon him; confident as he was that he would achieve an overwhelming majority in the July elections. It didn't turn out that way. With little more than half of the popular vote, Morales managed to garner 142 representatives out of a total of 255, gaining a simple majority but not the two-thirds required by law (170 representatives) to impose his will without dissension.
A NEW DICTATORSHIP IN THE MAKING
So far, the reader may think, we’re looking at circumstances that are normal in every democracy, where the popular vote is fragmented among various currents of opinion and where, hopefully, decisions acceptable to all are reached by means of agreements that seek consensus. But, no. We're talking about Bolivia, where a new dictatorship is in the making and the majority, small though it may be, is trying to impose its decisions upon the entire nation. The Constituent Assembly decided—by a simple majority, of course—that its accords, and eventually its new Constitution, would be approved by the current simple majority, rather than the two-thirds required by law.
The consequences of this act, which is profoundly illegal, could not be worse for the country. Evo Morales and his party, MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), wish to impose upon Bolivia a Constitution similar to Venezuela’s, with its personality-based dictatorship and easily manipulated division of powers. Venezuela is both centrist and racist. Morales raises the banner of oppressed indigenous peoples, but at the same time makes odious distinctions, in a country where a broad majority of the population is in fact mestizo and the indigenous cultures are closely intertwined with the Western traditions. Encouraged by Chávez and the moribund Fidel Castro, Morales is trying to become another in a long line of dictators this Andean nation has endured throughout its history.
Of course, none of this has gone unnoticed by the majority of the Bolivians, who have taken to the streets in recent months to protest a new law limiting private education. After seeing what’s happening with the Constituent Assembly, four of Bolivia’s nine departments (states) recently staged an impressive work stoppage. Demonstrations rejecting the way in which the MAS wants to annihilate the minorities are on the increase. Six prefects (governors) and several civic representatives have spoken out against the manipulation of the Assembly and in favor of the autonomy of the departments, a position that has been openly adopted by a good many in the national electorate.
What’s happening in Bolivia should worry democrats throughout the continent, because it is one more expression of the offensive that radical and authoritarian populists have launched in Latin America. What Chávez has achieved in Venezuela—the manipulation of elections and a Constitution that gives him carte blanche—is a virtual dictatorship where he can be assured of an almost lifetime presidency. The same can happen in Bolivia now, and could have happened in Peru, Mexico and other nations if the voters hadn't responded with maturity to this new threat.
Liberal democracy is not, like some think, the absolute reign of the majorities, but a regime that abides by majority rule while fully respecting the opinions and rights of the minorities. If the elections are used to elect caudillos who later exercise their personal power arbitrarily and without limits, then we're looking at a caricature of democracy, a dictatorial and authoritarian regime that is not very democratic and not at all liberal. Lamentably, that is what's happening in the region today and what might happen still in some countries (like Ecuador or Nicaragua) if we are not alert to the dangers we face.
Carlos Sabino is an adjunct fellow with The Independent Institute, a fellow of the Francisco Marroquín Foundation in Guatemala, a director at CEDICE, a public policy institute in Venezuela, and the author of many books on development. This column was republished with permission from The Independent Institute.