In the week approaching the referendum something happened to Sucre; its prettiness was clouded over. In part it was the torrential weather, but in larger part it was the vehemence of local opposition to the new constitution, and anything else that Evo attached his name to. It was also in part due to the fact that I still had no apartment, and could feel my time leeching away in the futile search for housing.
The No campaign shouted its cause from loudspeakers and plastered the city with posters. Employees were pressured by their bosses to scrawl anti-Evo messages on every available space. The power in Sucre still unquestionably resides with the old, wealthy elite and their church. Sucre hasn’t always been so far right, but it is a proud city and the anti-Evoists have tapped into this pride to turn the whole city against Evo’s La Paz-focused government.
On the Tuesday a free public concert was held at the stadium, which filled with angry, proud citizens. Sinister flags bearing medieval crosses flapped over the crowds as traditional Bolivian folk music echoed around the stark concrete stadium, mixing with pro-Sucre cries. There was something sinister about it all.
On Wednesday I finally moved into an apartment with two friends. By the next morning I was moving back out again, under the baleful glare of the landlady. Since we had first met her she had changed the price, removed some furniture, and decided she needed a signed contract and a deposit immediately (which aren’t really common in Bolivia). There were angry scenes when we left, and I felt that I was experiencing, in my own minute way, something of vitriol and bile of the stale old ruling class.
On Thursday I was convinced of the sinister, resentful side of the city. An enormous No rally snaked through the streets, dancing and chanting, waving their medieval flags and bearing banners demanding that the people choose between Evo and Jesus (or Yes and No to the constitution). Banners were burnt and fireworks echoed over the city, or misfired, causing the march to momentarily break apart to avoid a hissing projectile. On a podium in the main plaza, beside the cathedral speakers screamed into a microphone, hurling their fists into the air, inciting the crowd.
I had been uncertain of what to make of the new constitution, with its many articles as well as vagaries. Throughout the week, though, I became very certain that I was against the No campaign. All of the aggression and the threat of violence that was attached to January 25 and the referendum was stemming from the No campaign, from the powerful rabble-rousers and their facetious campaigns that tapped into the prejudices of the people. Children all over the city were given no flags and t-shirts, and people were exhorted to vote No if they wanted to protect their family, their church, their country, their freedom. The bands of bellowing youths, the figures on the platforms, the invocation of religion and nation and family, the aggressive rallies, the coercion by the wealthy and powerful; it all seemed a bit fascist.
From what I could tell, on the 25th people would be voting Yes out of a spirit of hope; hope for change and improvement in Bolivia. The people voting No would be doing so out of a spirit of hatred, or at best fear.
I spent the final days in the lead up to the referendum holed up in a dingy hostel, wondering what to make of the beautiful city turned ugly, and wondering that the city might do on the night of the 25th. The constitution was almost certain to be affirmed; the vehemence of the No campaign in the city couldn’t match the number of people all over the country who saw hope and a greater voice for themselves represented in the constitution.
On referendum day the sale of alcohol was banned, and virtually every business was closed. The streets emptied; the growl and honk of cars replaced by the click of bicycles. Sucre had returned over night to its peaceful, pretty self. Families wandered through the plazas, and played badminton in the street. The sky was blue and there was no sign of the usual impending storm. The assembling of groups of people was also outlawed for the day, but behind closed doors on patio and in courtyards gringos assembled to pass the anxious day. By the early evening reports were coming in that the constitution looked set to be approved by a 60% affirmative vote. In the central plaza of Sucre it was announced that the city had overwhelmingly voted against the constitution (70%), but it was of course a hollow cry of victory.
Later, long after dark, a small and triumphant band of Yes voters cascaded through the streets, beating drums, blowing on horns, dancing and waving banners. In the central plaza groups of young guys had been congregating, drinking of unlabelled plastic bottles. These were the dissolute detritus of the No rallies, spoiling for trouble. As the Yes supporters entered the main plaza they were hounded by opposition bullies, who hurled their insults, and when these couldn’t dampen spirits, hurled water, bottles, and anything else they could lay their hands on. A brief confrontation took place, but the Yes celebration, obviously outnumbered by an inflamed enemy, marched quickly away from the centre of town. The No thugs were left in possession of the main plaza, bricks in their hands, belts, wrapped around their fists, shouting insults into the night sky, and with nowhere left to vent their fury.
On Monday morning Sucre was more or less back to its usual sedate self. There were more television cameras and microphones about, but there was no other visible change. The churches still stood, families walked together. The country had not fallen apart, nor had it become a utopia of equality and justice. The changes of the constitution will come in gradually, and probably largely unnoticed. By midday on Monday I had moved into an apartment – the one I had wanted, owned by a couple obviously of the ruling class, but incredibly kind, gracious people who welcomed gringos into their lives.