Two weeks ago Bolivian citizens voted to approve a new constitution. Exit polls estimated about 60 per cent of voters had approved the document that is designed to give more rights to the indigenous minority and give the government more control over the economy. It would also allow the president, Evo Morales, to run for a second five-year term.
Mr. Morales is an Aymara Indian who leads the ruling party, the Movement to Socialism. The campaign pitted poor, heavily indigenous western areas where Mr. Morales is revered against whites and mixed-race mestizos in the natural gas-rich tropical lowlands.
The campaign to change the country’s constitution sparked a religious battle.
Pre-referendum campaign ads by evangelical christians showed Bolivia’s leftist president dressed in the garb of a traditional shaman. An image of Jesus Christ arrived to knock Mr. Morales off the screen, and a document labeled “New Constitution” appears amid flames. “Choose God. Vote No” the ad advises.
At the heart of fight is the new constitution’s stated goal of “refounding” Bolivia as a “socially-just state guided by indigenous beliefs–including elevating the female Andean earth deity, PachaMama, to the same stature as the God of Christianity. Bolivia’s previous constitution allowed for freedom of religion, but specifies Roman Catholicism as the sole state religion.
The new constitution recognizes broad new rights for Bolivia’s Indians, termed “originating indigenous farming peoples” in the document, and demands “decolonization” of all aspects of society.
For Christians, whose faith arrived in Bolivia with the Spanish Conquistadors almost 500 years ago, the fight is over fundamental values, which they say the new constitution shoves aside, and replaces with ultra liberal concepts, or worse, indigenous religions.
They contend the new constitution appears to opens the door to abortion and gay marriage, although it doesn’t speak directly to either issue.
The Catholic church hoped the constitution would define life as beginning at conception, and marriage as being between a man and a woman. The text doesn’t offer a clear definition on either point, instead offering broad statements such as one that “guarantees the exercise of sexual and reproductive rights,” language that has religious groups worried. “One of the problems with the constitution is that it’s full of ambiguity,” said Robert Flock, vicar general of the Santa Cruz archdiocese. The constitution “could open the door to a civil law allowing homosexual marriage if there was a public will to do that.”
The Catholic church disavowed the evangelical christian ads, but followed with its own detailed critique of the proposed constitution, handed out after Mass in cities around Bolivia prior to the election. While praising Mr. Morales’ focus on the poor, it raised concerns about his effort to concentrate power in his hands.
In a country that is officially 95% Catholic, the stance by church leaders carries significant weight. So much so that on the day before the referendum Mr. Morales–who has actively promoted indigenous beliefs, including appointing traditional medicine men to his government–publicly declared himself a Catholic, though believing “quite a bit” in PachaMama.