The Bolivia of Morales is a land divided

Times Staff Writer

The graffiti on the walls of this verdant city tell a story of rebellion.

“Resistance!” urges one slogan. “We Will Defend Our Freedom!” declares another. And this: “Evo Dies in Santa Cruz.”

That would be President Evo Morales, who, in the chilly Andean administrative capital, La Paz, has his own message for these defiant lowlands.

“They want to divide Bolivia, but we won’t let them!” Morales told thousands of cheering supporters this month.


Two years after his historic election, the leftist Morales presides over a fractured nation separated by a vast cultural, geographical and political chasm.

Many Bolivians openly despair of a meaningful national dialogue, something everyone from the president to his bitterest enemies professes to support. Factions have dug into their positions, blunting the opportunity for compromise.

“Instead of looking for real and effective solutions for the crisis of unity and integration of Bolivia, [politicians] offer artificial measures that result in greater polarization, racism, violence and confrontation,” columnist Carlos Alarcon wrote in the daily La Razon.

Tensions came to a head in recent weeks with the government’s adoption of a new constitution amid an opposition boycott.

Santa Cruz and three other lowland states that contain much of the nation’s natural resources, including its vast natural gas fields, opted to reject the new charter and seek some form of autonomy. Several other states may be headed in a similar direction.

“Autonomy” is surely the most incendiary word in contemporary Bolivia. Depending on one’s viewpoint, it is shorthand for treason or liberty, a rallying cry for Morales supporters and opponents alike.


Here, in the heartland of the autonomy movement, no one seems capable of defining what autonomy would mean. But proponents are clear on one thing: The push for autonomy is a thorough refutation of Morales’ grand plan to shape Bolivia into his own vision of a socialist state.

Where Morales proclaims a kind of Andean egalitarianism, critics here see an authoritarian project modeled on that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Morales’ major ally and financial backer in the region.

“We don’t want a Hugo Chavez dictatorship here,” said Ricardo Cuellar, 25, one of tens of thousands who showed up for a massive autonomy rally this month that vilified Morales.

Among the many things Morales and his critics can’t agree on is the ethnic composition of the country.

Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, often proclaims the virtues of the nation’s indigenous “majority,” a population concentrated in the western highlands, his birthplace.

But there is raging debate as to whether the predominant population in this country of 9 million is of indigenous or mestizo, or mixed-race, origin. It has become more than an academic question. Here in the east, home to a great mix of people from indigenous, European and other backgrounds, Morales’ pro-indigenous militancy is often taken as an affront.


But Morales supporters charge that the attempt to deny the nation’s indigenous people predominance is a ploy to cover up the centuries of oppression and poverty suffered by Bolivia’s original inhabitants and their descendants.

“We are a society where the color of your skin, your ethnic origin, forms part of the class condition of society,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said in an interview in the book-lined study of his apartment in La Paz.

Garcia, a former university professor of European ancestry and onetime leftist guerrilla, faults members of the light-skinned elite for, he says, refusing to forfeit even a small portion of their privileges.

“They have to understand that the state is no longer a prolongation of their haciendas,” or estates, Garcia said.

Limiting the size of certain land holdings is scheduled to be one of the matters on which Bolivians will vote in 2008, which might be called the year of the referendum. There may be as many as 11 national and regional votes.

“It’s complete madness, chaos,” said Carlos Toranzo, a political analyst in La Paz. “We’re in the midst of a grand political and territorial impasse, and the country is being turned into an electoral gymnasium.”


High on Morales’ agenda is a recall referendum that would give Bolivians a chance to oust him or any of the nine sitting governors with a no-confidence vote. The president calls it a kind of plebiscite on leadership. Critics see it as a means for Morales to purge opposition governors while prolonging his own term in office, because he is unlikely to be voted out.

But the big election is expected to be the referendum on the new constitution, the centerpiece of the Morales administration. As Chavez did in Venezuela, Morales is staking his popularity on a new Magna Carta for his nation.

Morales lauds the proposed constitution as a model democratic compact that respects private property and shields individual rights.

Critics here see it as curbing liberties and expanding the president’s powers.

Whether Morales can avoid the humiliating rejection that Chavez suffered in Venezuela’s constitutional referendum this year remains to be seen. The president retains strong support among his poor and working-class base. But discontent goes beyond the big soybean farmers and ranchers of the eastern tropics.

“A big chunk of the middle-class urban base that voted for Evo is lost to him now,” said Jim Shultz, an American who runs a pro-democracy institute in Cochabamba.

“A lot of people are still with Evo when it comes to empowering the indigenous and the poor, but they’re very nervous about Evo trying to change the rules of the game for his long-term political benefit.”