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BOLIVIA
Racism more evident?
Martin Garat
9/25/2008
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Racial violence awakens past fears.

As political and economic divides deepen in Bolivia, racial violence is becoming more evident. Television frequently broadcasts footage of racial attacks, as tensions boil over between the wealthy eastern departments and the impoverished and heavily-indigenous western highlands.

“It´s enraging,” said Bernardino Quispe, a coca-growing leader and native of the highlands. “Our La Paz brothers [living in eastern Santa Cruz] are kicked and beaten with sticks. We´re going to move to Santa Cruz to defend them.”

Gregor Barié, a German cultural relations scholar who has studied Latin America widely, says that Bolivia is a country built upon inequalities.

“In colonial times Bolivia´s economy was based on the servitude of native peoples,” he added. “There is also structural racism in the heart of its institutions. Up until recently, you didn´t see names like Mamani or Quispe in the military hierarchy or in important public administrations positions.”

Barié noted that social gaps that separate the urban middle class from rural indigenous populations are abysmal.

He said that even today, the middle class only knows the indigenous Bolivian as the person who washes his or her car, or cleans his or her house.
 
“The comfortable classes turn their backs on the ´indigenous´ country,” he said. “When they go on vacation, they prefer to go to Miami or Rio de Janeiro instead of getting to know Bolivia.”

In recent years, however, the middle class has become more aware of the state of poverty most indigenous Bolivians live in, and they want that situation to change.

There have also been other hints of change in middle class attitudes as Morales´ 2005 victory would have been impossible without its support.
 
But Morales´ focus is clearly on the country´s poor, Barié explained.
 
“Morales wants to empower the excluded,” he said. “The indigenous peoples have gained self-esteem and actively demand their rights. That scares the middle class and creates tensions.

Country divided
In the more than two years since Morales took office, Bolivia has experienced a strong polarization between the eastern and western parts of the country.

Morales´ main support is the mostly-indigenous west, while right-wing prefects govern the eastern departments.

Officials and voters in eastern Bolivia are demanding a profound decentralization of government and more power to their departments, which Morales has called “demands of the oligarchy.”

Instead of decentralization, or “departmental autonomy,” Morales wants the approval of the country´s draft constitution, which was written and approved by his allies. The charter gives more rights to indigenous peoples and allows for presidential reelection.

It also requires public and elected officials to speak and indigenous language, which has been dubbed an “Aymara” proposal in the east, referring to the indigenous population that lives in the highlands around Lake Titicaca.

At the root of the clashes over decentralization and the new constitution, are two opposing visions of development: Morales´ social democracy, in which the state has more control over the economy, and a free-market economy supported by the eastern department´s prefects.

While most in the very indigenous western highland departments speak native languages such as Quechua and Aymara, the eastern departments is mainly Spanish-speaking with a small indigenous population. Over the last few decades, many Bolivians moved from the poor highlands to the eastern departments in search of more opportunities. Many settled in rural areas and in the sprawling neighborhood called Plan 3000 in Santa Cruz. These migrants comprise Morales´ main support base in the east and are now the target of racist attacks there.

“Knock down the Indian”
Morales has on various occasions accused the opposition of trying to “tumbar al indio” or “knock down the Indian,” meaning that it is seeking to topple his government just because he is indigenous. The word “Indian” has a strong, negative connotation in today´s Bolivia, and has been largely replaced by the more politically correct “indigenous.”

But most analysts do not agree with Morales´ take on the conflict. According to Barié, the strong opposition would have been the same with his vice president, Álvaro García Linera. Light-skinned and western educated García Linera is a native of the central city of Cochabamba.
 
“Regional identity is very important for the lowland population,” he said. “And that identity is felt to be strongly regulated by the central government and the president. Racism in the east has been activated for political motives, as an instrument in the fight against the central government.”

But the highland indigenous population is not the only target of racism. Some leaders of government-allied organizations say that opposition leaders “are not Bolivian” because some of them are children and grandchildren of European or Asian immigrants.

In a speech, Lino Villca, a senator of Morales´ Movement to Socialism party, called some opposition leaders as “Croats,” alluding to the president to the Santa Cruz Civil Committee, whose last name is Marinkovic.

Within Morales´ own party there are several factions: Marxist, nationalist and pro-indigenous.

The pro-indigenous faction wants to build a new Bolivian state based on the indigenous community model, the ayllu, in which conflicts are resolved through community justice mechanisms and authorities are not elected through a secret vote.

Some members of Morales´ Cabinet are in this group, such as Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, but neither the party, nor Morales are trying to “indigenize the country,” Barié said.

“The dominant currents in the government are Marxist and nationalist,” he said. “For example, the proposed constitution does not include the creation of indigenous districts.” Barié added that as the assembly wrote the draft charter, divides emerged between the government and indigenous organizations. “Indigenous issues are strong in the presidential discourse but not in practice.”

Barié said he is convinced that Bolivia´s conflicts do not have an authentically ethnic root, but he warns that racial tensions have awakened old fears.

“It´s possible to reach political agreements that resolve the current conflict,” he said. “But racial attacks leave behind scars that are difficult to heal. There will need to be a long post-conflict labor” to help the situation.
—Latinamerica Press.

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Bernardino Quispe, a coca leader from the western highlands demands an end to racist attacks. (Photo: Martin Garat)
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