A New Social Contract
Bolivian Constitution of 2009, Mark Goodale, 2018. "A New Social Contract", The Bolivia Reader: History, Culture, Politics, Sinclair Thomson, Rossana Barragán, Xavier Albó, Seemin Qayum, Mark Goodale
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The right-wing fury and the regionalist revolt that accompanied the drafting of Bolivia’s new constitution, between 2006 and 2008, brought on a full-scale political crisis that threatened to fracture the nation. After winning a popular referendum on his government in August 2008, President Evo Morales quickly moved to put the new constitution to a national vote. In the months leading up to the constitutional referendum of January 2009, individual articles of the document were debated passionately and at length in the pages of national newspapers, on television and radio programs, and throughout the country. Some opposition to the constitution focused on provisions that would radically restructure the country’s political, legal, and economic systems. Others worried that the celebration of indigenous values and alternative models of social and economic organization would put Bolivia at odds with other countries in the region and with its traditional ally, the United States. In the end, the new constitution “refounding” Bolivia was supported by a decisive majority of the country’s citizens, and it went into effect in February 2009.
In relation to other constitutions in the world, the new Bolivian constitution marks a departure. It is based on the concept of plurinationalism, in which the nation-state intentionally divests itself of complete internal sovereignty by recognizing autonomous “nations” within its border and investing them with jurisdictional power that is meant to be coequal to that of the state in certain areas. For example, under the new constitution, the legal system of the state and the legal system(s) of indigenous areas “enjoy equal status.” The new Bolivian constitution is also unprecedented in the way it makes the values, languages, and worldviews (cosmovisiones) of Bolivia’s different indigenous populations central to the articulation of the new social contract. Yet, despite the many ways in which the Bolivian constitution is a remarkable achievement and an innovative model for what some have called a “postneoliberal” state, many of its most transformative provisions were not put into practice in the early years after its approval.
The following selected articles illustrate the range and scope of Bolivia’s constitutional experiment. The state adopted indigenous “ethico-moral principles” as the foundation of Bolivia’s plural society; created a plurinational political framework that cedes state control over resources and public duties; recognized a constitutional right to promote, sell, and market coca; and imposed a maximum limit on landholding and a ban on the ownership of any land that does not “fulfill a socioeconomic function.” Yet other articles reflect that it was a compromise document in which the conservative lowland opposition obtained fundamental demands. The departments would possess substantial autonomy from the central government, and the state would not seize ill-gotten, unproductive, or oversized properties already in existence.