Ground zero in Bolivia’s dispute

Times Staff Writer

Embattled President Evo Morales launched his second year in office this week, mocking his political opponents and vowing that “this Indian is going to be around for a while.”

But recent turmoil in this city long regarded as a bastion of support for Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, has raised new questions about his leftist government’s ability to serve out its five-year mandate.

Days of protests culminated Jan. 11 in violent clashes between pro- and anti-Morales factions that transformed this normally bustling agricultural center 140 miles southeast of La Paz, the nation’s administrative capital, into an anarchic battleground. The fighting left two dead, scores injured and the capitol building and other structures burned.

The tear gas has dissipated and a sense of normalcy has returned to Cochabamba, though riot police still stand watch near the quaint central plaza. But the paroxysm of rage has reverberated in national politics at a time when Morales’ “democratic revolution” was already facing fierce resistance.

“If you’d asked me six months ago if Evo’s government would survive, I’d have replied, ‘Yes, absolutely,’ ” said Jim Shultz, a Californian who works with a nonprofit pro-democracy organization here. “I still say ‘yes’ today, but the possibilities of ‘no’ are rising.”


Bolivia has a long history of forced ousting of governments, including many military coups. Morales won the presidency after protests chased out two previous presidents.

Today, even some of his longtime supporters have assailed the president for failing to quell the festering crisis in Cochabamba and instead opting to heap the blame elsewhere -- mostly on his chief political rival here, Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa, a once-defeated presidential candidate now seemingly positioned for a future run.

Pro-Morales demonstrators, many of them Indian coca-leaf growers brought in from the countryside, unsuccessfully attempted to force Reyes out of office and install a “revolutionary committee” headed by an ex-guerrilla leader once known as Comandante Loro -- Commander Parrot.

The hardscrabble protesters fought pitched street battles with Reyes supporters, largely middle-class, mixed-race residents fed up with what many view as the president’s snubbing of their needs as he exalts Bolivia’s long-ignored indigenous masses. It is a bitterness voiced well beyond Cochabamba.

“Evo has basically turned his back on the Bolivian middle class,” said Gonzalo Lema, a well-known author here.

By all accounts, crossover support from the middle class helped propel Morales into the presidency in the December 2005 election with almost 54% of the national vote. Yet the president seldom acknowledges the existence of a non-indigenous Bolivia, except as a nefarious force opposing his efforts to rewrite the constitution.

“Evo has lost a chunk of his mandate because of rhetoric, and that’s needless,” said Shultz. “What would it cost him to get on TV on a regular basis and talk about the problems of people who aren’t indigenous?”

Keen to capitalize on the dissatisfaction is Reyes, a former army captain and longtime mayor who has been catapulted into a leadership position in the nation’s opposition.

“They’re trying to impose a totalitarian regime,” the governor said of Morales’ government during an interview at a relative’s penthouse suite in this city of 500,000. “Democracy has taken a blow in Cochabamba.”

The president’s response to the crisis here was typically pugnacious: He called for a new “people’s” law to allow recall votes against elected officials such as Reyes. “If the people knew that they could remove an official with their vote, we would avoid this type of confrontation,” Morales explained.

Detractors see a Morales power play to wrest control of Cochabamba and other opposition-dominated provinces -- including La Paz, which also has a rival governor -- at a time when the president’s Movement Toward Socialism party only holds three of nine statehouses.

“Things got out of hand in Cochabamba because it is part of the larger national controversy,” said Fernando Mayorga, an analyst here.

The lightning rod is the demand for autonomy emanating from the resource-rich, lowland “half moon” regions to the east, south and north of La Paz. The lowland zone is geographically, ideologically and culturally removed from Morales’ base in the Andean high plains and nearby coca-growing tropics, where he got his start as a labor leader. The raging autonomy debate has become a proxy for the broader question of the country’s future.

For his part, Morales equates autonomy with Bolivia’s breakup and has vowed to fight it.

“No caballero will be able to split apart Bolivia,” Morales said near Lake Titicaca this week, using a term identified with white colonizers, as cheering “red poncho” indigenous volunteers pledged to resist alongside their Aymara kinsman, the former llama herder who became president.

The volatile ethnic and class issues are somewhat of a diversion, some analysts say. In Bolivia, autonomia has relatively little to do with language, culture, religion or the other core issues that have animated autonomy controversies in other lands. Here, it is mostly about money and resources -- specifically, who controls Bolivia’s valuable natural gas reserves, second largest in South America after Venezuela’s.

From Morales’ standpoint, it is an unfortunate quirk of fate that much of Bolivia’s gas and petroleum wealth is concentrated far from his base of support. The president has repeatedly charged that rich landowners and businesspeople from the eastern city of Santa Cruz, an anti-Morales stronghold, were fomenting and funding the autonomy movement in a bid to grab national resources.

Now Cochabamba, a geographic and cultural bridge between the pro-autonomy lowlands and Morales’ Andean base, has been thrust front and center into the autonomy fight. Seven years ago, a “water revolt” in Cochabamba against foreign distributors helped change the national political landscape.

What Reyes tried to do is ally Cochabamba with the four existing pro-autonomy provinces of the “half moon” region. That is an apparent red line for Morales, who would then be facing pro-autonomy forces in a majority of Bolivia’s nine states, or departments.

Voters in Cochabamba firmly rejected autonomy last year in a nationwide referendum. But Reyes pushed for a new vote, arguing the government misled residents. “People thought autonomy meant you would need a passport to travel from one province to another,” Reyes said.

The governor’s pro-autonomy push ultimately was the spark that ignited this month’s riots. The conflict featured Morales’ alleged shock troops, coca-growers from the nearby Chapare valleys, who descended on the city to demand Reyes’ ouster. Whether Morales, who still heads the coca-growers federation, personally ordered the protests remains unknown.

It is clear, however, that the president did not use his considerable influence to head off swiftly the predictable trouble that followed.

Waves of police and supporters of the governor confronted the pro-Morales masses who occupied Cochabamba’s paralyzed city center. Both sides brandished sticks and rocks.

“Suddenly we were surrounded by police,” recalled Ernesto Marin, 18, a pro-Morales union man from the Chapare, who is being treated by doctors to retain his eyesight, at risk after he was hit by a rubber bullet. “The union told us to come here, and we came.”

The two dead included a fatality from each camp. The violence has left hard feelings on all sides, and a widespread sense that this is not the end of it.

“I could care less whether the governor stays or leaves,” said Edgar Lopez, a merchant here. “But it appears the government wants to divide Bolivians. And in that it is succeeding.”

Special correspondent Oscar Ordonez in Cochabamba and Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.