Bolivia’s Constitutional Referendum, 21 February 2016 and the Evo Morales Personality Cult

On Sunday the 21st of February, Bolivia held a constitutional referendum. The referendum determined if the 2009 constitution should be modified to allow the president and vice president to serve third terms. President Evo Morales, after winning the 2015 election, could then nominate for the 2020 election and serve until 2025 should he win. Although Morales was serving his third term at referendum time, his first term did not count as it began in 2006, prior to the 2009 constitution.

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

An advert promoting referendum participation on the back page of the BoA airline magazine

Any visitor to Bolivia in the period surrounding the referendum could see that something was about. Almost every spare space, whether it was a pipeline in the countryside or a city wall, was covered in pro- or anti-constitutional change propaganda. The most common slogans being si (yes, pro) or no (no, anti) in red. Based on observations, government-supported pro-change graffiti dominated. This was not surprising, as I doubt pro-Evo supporters paid for their paint.

I write pro-Evo as the referendum essentially tested the Evo Morales personality cult and the referendum propaganda reflected this. Although Evo has done some great things for Bolivia since becoming the country’s first indigenous president, his recent leadership is questionable. Hanging over him is a story he originally denied about fathering a child with an ex-girlfriend who then happened to be on the payroll of a Chinese company. The company coincidentally received a large no-bid contract from the Bolivian government. That story has grown and the president has threatened journalists and media outlets who report it. This creeping authoritarianism does not bode well for Bolivia.

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

Pro-change graffiti on a pipeline between Villazon and Cochabamba

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

Pro-change graffiti on rocks between Villazon and Cochabamba

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

Anti-change supporters in the Cochabamba Carnival parade

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

Pro-change supporter in the Cochabamba Carnival parade; translated, her shirt reads “Yes, continue advancing”

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

A flyer from the Cochabamba Carnival. The flyer reads:

NO is NO
A new opportunity for Democracy, the Environment and Justice
NO to the modification of the state’s constitution
NO for defending democracy, giving full respect to human rights and freedom of speech
NO to the renewal and abuse of power
CIVIC DECLARATION

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

An anti-change rally in La Paz, four days before the referendum

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

Anti-change graffiti painted over pro-change graffiti in El Alto

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

Pro-change graffiti in La Paz/El Alto

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

Pro-change graffiti on a pedestrian overpass between Cochabamba and La Paz

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

“Potosi says NO” sticker on the helmet of my Potosi mine tour guide

If Evo was policy-focused and more interested in the country than himself, he could allow the next generation of his party’s leadership to develop and take over in 2020.

I was in La Paz for referendum day. Almost all shops were closed and usually chaotic streets were quiet. Referendum Sunday was the perfect day to explore the city. Instead, I was in bed with altitude sickness.

Bolivian 2016 Constitutional Referendum

An empty central La Paz street on referendum Sunday

The Bolivian people voted against the change, 51.29% to 48.71%, for which I’m very happy. The majority of people in cities voted against while those in the country voted for.

In response to this defeat, Evo has suggested having a second referendum on the issue before his current term ends in late 2019. Let’s hope, for Bolivia’s development as a nation, any follow-up referendums are also defeated.