26 January 2009

Big day in Bolivia

Fifty years ago, Bolivia's native people were banned from the presidential palace in La Paz. Last week, their leaders met in the palace to honour President Evo Morales, one of their own, for delivering a new constitution designed to empower the indigenous majority and redress half a millennium of grievances against colonialism, discrimination and humiliation. According to Morales, it will "refound Bolivia as a new state with equal opportunities, a new state where everyone will have the same rights and duties." On Sunday, Bolivians approved the constitution in a referendum.

Among other things, the constitution will recognize self-determination for 36 indigenous nations and set aside seats in Congress for minority groups; place all gas, oil and mineral reserves under state control; provide for election of high court judges; prohibit discrimination by sexual orientation; and guarantee freedom of religion.

Not everyone is happy. Conservative opponents among the European-descended population vehemently oppose the changes. They disagree with such provisions as state control over natural resources, penalties against privatization and the separation of church and state. Some of their criticisms may indeed be justified, but they have no one to blame but themselves for the document. If they had accepted the indigenous people as equals to begin with, a new constitution would have been unnecessary and highly unlikely. Not all supporters of the president were happy either, some thinking it didn't go far enough. That's politics for you.

Notwithstanding the criticism, it signals a new dawn for the native people of Bolivia and perhaps elsewhere in South America. Eugenio Rojas, head of an Aymara group, declared, "We are indigenous people that for the first time in history are in power. ... We want to be an example to other peoples, to show the world that us, the indigenous, can manage a country."

I wish them the greatest luck.

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