Autonomy Vote Bares Bolivia's Deep Divisions

By: AP
By: AP

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (AP) -- The wealthy white governor stood beneath a giant statue of Jesus and promised freedom to the tens of thousands cheering him on - freedom from a llama herder-turned-president who reveres the Indian earth goddess Pachamama.

"Autonomy! Autonomy!" the crowd screamed, waving flags bearing the cross of Santa Cruz state.

Proponents of autonomy speak of economic independence: Santa Cruz churns out almost 30 percent of Bolivia's gross domestic product and its soy and cattle barons are loathe to share with western highlands where poor Indians scratch out a living on tiny potato patches.

But the reasons why a referendum Sunday asking voters to approve a broad declaration of autonomy is expected to pass in a landslide have more to do with divisions of culture and race that have tormented Bolivia for centuries.

Many white and mixed-race middle-class Bolivians here feel that President Evo Morales, the nation's first Indian president, doesn't represent them.

"They accuse us of not wanting to be Bolivian," Gov. Ruben Costas growled during a rally this week in front of the state capital's Christ statue. "The power belongs to the people, to the forgotten, to the provinces and to the states, where this new Bolivia is born."

Morales says he won't recognize the results of Santa Cruz's "illegal survey" after a court ordered it postponed. But five more states - most in Bolivia's relatively prosperous lowlands - may soon follow the example of Bolivia's largest state and hold their own autonomy votes.

It's unclear how Santa Cruz's improvised federalism would work.

Bolivia is still so centralized that hotels in La Paz advertise special rates for citizens traveling to the capital to fill out forms unavailable in the provinces. Santa Cruz leaders want an autonomy so ambitious it would permit them to sign their own international treaties.

They also want to keep more of the state's natural gas revenues and shelter their vast plantations and ranches from land redistribution. Morales counters that he needs a strong central government to spread the Santa Cruz's wealth to the rest of South America's poorest country.

Only by reversing the effects of centuries of racism, he argues, can Bolivia resolve a national identity crisis dating back to the Spanish conquest.

"We were, and continue to be, a profoundly colonial society, where our differences, our jobs, our opportunities are all a function of skin color," Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera told The Associated Press. "Undoing this requires making the problem visible. And sometimes we don't like to look at ourselves in the mirror."

For centuries, Bolivia enforced boundaries between indigenous, mestizo and white through strict laws and customs. Until a 1952 revolution, Indians couldn't even set foot in the plaza in front of the presidential palace Morales now occupies, let alone vote.

His landslide election in 2005 turned the old order on its head.

But Morales' civil rights crusade came bundled with visions of class struggle and socialist reform - a hard sell for his whiter and wealthier opposition.

"You want to eradicate racism, but racism has shown itself in your government, which uses racism as an excuse for everything it does," La Paz state governor Jose Luis Paredes told Morales. "You always say, 'They called me Indian.' But you and I are both mestizos - as is most of our country's population."

A 2001 census found 62 percent of Bolivians over 15 identify themselves as indigenous - but mestizo wasn't included as an option. Other polls have found most Bolivians acknowledge a mix of Indian and European heritage.

As Indians abandon the countryside for cities, they build new lives amid the same cheap Chinese electronics, fried chicken stands and pirated U.S. movies as their mixed-blood neighbors. Some wear traditional bowler hats, others hoodie sweatshirts. Some switch back and forth.

Morales has tried to unite Bolivia under a new constitution creating a "plurinational state" that would give indigenous groups greater power. But Santa Cruz delegates walked out on the constitutional assembly and declared autonomy.

Garcia, the vice president, says both sides of the debate raise important questions.

"What's interesting is how important the struggle for identity has become - the importance of asking 'Who are we?' to place ourselves in the world," he said.

To answer that question, Bolivians look back to the 1500s.

The highland capital of La Paz was settled by Spanish conquistadors who crushed strong resistance and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Aymara and Quechua Indians to work the huge silver mine at Potosi.

In the lowland east, the Europeans' culture clash with the local Guarani, Guarayo and Chiquitano Indians was softened somewhat by Jesuit missionaries and a lack of precious metals to exploit.

So while Morales rails against "500 years of oppression," his eastern opposition takes a more benevolent view of their European heritage.

A painting in the office of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, the center of the state's autonomy movement, shows a crowd of European and mestizo men in powdered wigs and buckled shoes celebrating the state's 1810 declaration of independence from Spain. Barefoot Indians watch from the sidelines.

"We in this region are positive about the conquest," said Luis Nunez, the group's vice president. "We do not in any way resent what that history meant for us. It reflects who we are now."

Somehow, Garcia said, the two sides must figure out together what it means to be Bolivian.

"The crisis unites us," he said. "Today the elite have to think, 'What do I have in common with my maid?'"

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