By Juan Karita
Monday, December 10, 2007
ORURO, Bolivia, Dec. 9 -- Defying an opposition boycott, Bolivia's constitutional assembly approved a new charter Sunday that would empower the poor South American nation's indigenous majority and let President Evo Morales run for reelection indefinitely.
The new constitution must now be approved by Bolivians in a national referendum. No date has been set for the vote.
Opposition leaders vowed to launch protests and legal challenges, saying the document does not represent all Bolivians.
"This is an authoritarian project that only seeks to perpetuate Morales in power," said Reynaldo Bayard, president of the Civic Committee of Tarija, a state where most leaders oppose Morales.
Supporters say the charter is needed to give Bolivia's indigenous peoples -- about 62 percent of the population -- greater autonomy and control over their traditional lands.
The constitution's approval, 16 months after the popularly elected assembly first convened, was celebrated with fireworks and music by supporters in this pro-Morales stronghold high in the Andes. Morales called the approval a source of "great happiness for the indigenous and popular movement" that "consecrates a peaceful transition."
Opposition to the new charter is stiff in the country's low-lying and more prosperous eastern states. Bolivia has been wracked by violent protests against the new constitution in recent weeks, with three people killed in rioting and various hunger strikes launched.
Assembly Vice President Roberto Aguilar said one article failed to garner a two-thirds majority in the body and will have to be approved directly by Bolivian voters. The measure, which would limit the size of individual land holdings to 24,700 acres, has been bitterly opposed by the country's agribusiness.