February 06, 2005

Why Prefect and Referendum before the Assembly?

MABB is a registered TM.

I have personally been puzzled and intrigued by the anxious (almost desperate) insistence on the part of the Comite Civico de Santa Cruz (CCSC) to hold the referendum and elect a Prefect, before the Constituent Assembly (CA) has a chance to meet.

The way, I thought, it should all work out, was to go through the process of the CA, where the question about autonomies was going to be proposed, debated, resolved and included in the new constitution. That is according to what the government said. It was then, and only through that process, the different departments or states were going to be able to obtain autonomy legally. The form of the autonomy would be according to what the CA defined autonomy to be. After all, it is only logical that if a country's political institutions were going to be radically transformed, this transformation followed a legal framework and thus, what the constitution dictated.

The position of the CCSC seemed to me intransigent. They pressed the government to hold the national referendum on autonomies before the CA. This particular demand, seemed to have a reason, which was not so transparent. Some of the reasons floating around were the apparent monopoly of the traditional political parties on the CA. Other reasons, however, argued the hidden motive was the secret desire of the cruceno business elite to secede from Bolivia. Yet another reason had a group of transnational energy corporations conspiring to divide Bolivia so they could continue with their plans. All these arguments were (and still are) unsubstantiated, but the first one might give us something to think about.

However, a more careful look reveals that the reasons for such a demand are strategic in nature. The cruceno lawyer Juan Carlos Urenda, who aside from being the intellectual leader within the CCSC, is the one person who proposed the version of autonomy Santa Cruz demanded on the January 28 town hall meeting. The main aim of his proposal appears to be for Santa Cruz to eventually acquire the ability to become an autonomous region. A region, with its own head of government and own assembly, capable of administering its own internal affairs.

According to Urenda, the reasons why there should be elections for Prefect (by popular vote) and, more importantly, a national and binding referendum on autonomies, before the CA starts making decisions, is two fold. First, Urenda believes the government and the traditional political parties do not have the necessary will to arrive to a model of autonomy, envisioned by Santa Cruz, during the CA. Second, the Law on Referendums (from July 2004) does not facilitate, and in fact, makes it more difficult, for a national referendum on autonomies to be held.

On the first point, Urenda argues, the traditional political parties would have an overwhelming monopoly on the CA process. The assembly members are, in fact, mainly representatives of the major political parties. If the decision of autonomy were to be decided in the assembly, Santa Cruz would have less influence. As a result, if a model of autonomy was created by the CA, the shape of that autonomy will most likely not be best suited for Santa Cruz. The lack of political representation of Santa Cruz in the CA and the lack of will by the political actors are two of the reasons cited by Urenda as to why the desired autonomy is in serious doubt.

As for the second point, it leads us to this question: why does the Law on Referendums stands in the way of Santa Cruz's autonomic efforts? According to the mentioned law, only the executive and legislative powers have the ability to call for a national referendum, with a citizen's initiative being the only alternative in which the people could bring about such a referendum. Moreover, on the issue of departmental referenda, the law clearly states that "while there is no state government elected by popular vote, the referendum will be called by the legislative branch". Additionally, the law specifies that a referendum has to be fully financed by the department or state in question. However, each department or state is subject to the executive power, and thus not free to use their funds as they see it fit.

According to Urenda and the CCSC, the only way to obtain autonomy is to, first, force the government to approve a law which provides for the legal election of a Prefect. The de-facto assembly already exists. It is the committee formed by the CCSC the day of the town hall to oversee this process. Second, to force the government to call to a national referendum on autonomies and have it declared binding. These two demands address the fears of the CCSC. By declaring the referendum binding, the CCSC is assured that come the day of the CA, the results of the referendum will have to be taken "as is" by the constituents and just written into the new constitution. And the Prefect? Well, the Prefect is insurance for the CCSC. In the case the Government of Bolivia (GOB) drags its feet on the referendum, Santa Cruz will already have a regional government and a Prefect, who will be elected by "popular vote", and could call to a departmental referendum on autonomies.

Notwithstanding, this seems to me to be sitting on very thin legal ground. The CCSC has to be very careful not to step over into the unconstitutional side of the issue. As of now, it seems, their case is in a very favorable and good course. Now, they just have to make sure the referendum really happens and that the Prefect elections go as planned. Additionally, they have to keep the pressure on the government so it does not drag its feet on it. Also, they have to keep, and this might prove more challenging, the opposition (FEDJUVE, Evo) in check and be careful not to ignite their powerful networks. So, no matter what happens, come June 2005, Bolivia will be a very different country.