Constitution struggle opens Bolivia's old east-west divides
Tuesday, January 8, 2008 - Intnl Herald Tribune-The Associated Press

LA PAZ, Bolivia: The symbols of Bolivia's constitutional standoff reflect its divided soul: an Andean rainbow and a red Spanish cross.

A new charter completed last month by backers of President Evo Morales names the wiphala, a colorful checkerboard banner of indigenous pride, as a national symbol. Santa Cruz state — home to Morales' fiercest opponents — has declared its autonomy under a seal bearing a red Christian cross left by the Spanish conquest.

All still salute Bolivia's official red, yellow and green flag. But as the nation's first indigenous president met Monday with opposition governors in La Paz for talks over the bitter impasse, the two factions faced a national identity crisis dating back long before the country's 1825 founding.

Morales, whose political base lies largely in the western highlands, is seeking support for his new constitution. Santa Cruz and three other eastern lowland states have refused to recognize the charter and issued their own broad autonomy declarations.

Both propositions will face voters this year — the new constitution in a nationwide ballot, the autonomy statutes locally in the four states. Morales also plans an up-or-down referendum on his presidency and each of Bolivia's nine state governors. No election dates have been set.

Reconciling the rival proposals will give Bolivians a chance to search for what unites them, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"Both documents refer to something we have in common, though they stress different things," Garcia said, sitting on a sofa in his modest La Paz apartment. "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."

That question is key to Bolivia's current tug of war over power, money and land.

Morales' constitution would replace the opposition-controlled Senate with a new body granting wider representation to the country's indigenous groups.

An autonomous Santa Cruz, meanwhile, would keep a larger share of the state's crucial natural gas revenues while sheltering its vast soy plantations and ranches from redistribution to the poor.

The roots of division can be traced back to the 1500s, when Bolivia's colonization began.

When Spanish conquistadors heading south from Peru established La Paz and settled the surrounding western highlands, they encountered strong resistance by the Aymara Indians, Morales' own bloodline. The conquistadors enslaved hundreds of thousands of Aymara and Quechua Indians at a huge silver mine at Potosi.

In the lowland east, meanwhile, Spanish settlers moving north from Paraguay and Argentina met opposition from the local Guarani, Guarayo and Chiquitano Indians, but Jesuit missionaries and a lack of precious metals to exploit softened the culture clash.

The separate histories reverberate today.

Morales often rails against the evils of European colonization, and donned a traditional Inca costume for his 2006 inauguration atop the ancient Tiwanaku ruins.

The eastern opposition, led by the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, takes a different view.

A painting hanging in the committee office shows a crowd of European and mestizo, or mixed heritage, men in powdered wigs and buckled shoes celebrating the state's 1810 declaration of independence from Spain. Barefoot Indians look on from the sidelines.

"We in this region are positive about the conquest," Committee Vice President Luis Nunez told the AP. "It reflects who we are now."

Bolivia's historically severe segregation has hindered the creation of a national mestizo identity so central to many other Latin American countries. Most Bolivian Indians were not allowed to even vote until a 1952 revolution.

A 2001 census found 62 percent of Bolivians over the age 15 identifying themselves as indigenous — but study authors never listed mestizo as an option.

Much smaller surveys have since found a majority call themselves mestizo. In Bolivia, however, that classification often represents a blend of culture instead of race.

In recent generations, Indians across Bolivia have abandoned the countryside for the cities, where they have built new lives among the same cheap Chinese electronics, fried chicken stands and pirated U.S. movies as their mixed-blood neighbors.

Members of this new class make their own way in the urban mix — some in traditional bowler hats, others in hoodie sweat shirts — declaring themselves "mestizo" or "indigenous" depending on who asks.

Such fluid demographics tempt everyone to play the race card.

Morales often refers to his indigenous supporters as the "moral reserve of humanity," subtly casting his reforms in a light of racial infallibility.

Santa Cruz's European-descended leaders boast that their vibrant economy welcomes all Bolivians. But they rarely condemn attacks by young, stick-wielding whites on the state's growing population of Indians migrating from the highlands.

"There's an ethnic factor here that makes all of this much more explosive and difficult to resolve," said Fernando Molina, editor of the Bolivian news magazine Pulso.

Garcia sees the race debate as uncomfortable but unavoidable.

"We were, and continue to be, a profoundly colonial society, where our differences, our jobs, our opportunities are all a function of skin color," the vice president said. "Undoing this requires making the problem visible. And sometimes we don't like to look at ourselves in the mirror."

Bolivia's fractured reflection may never entirely become whole. But a complete break between east and west is unlikely.

The poor, dusty highlands desperately need the east's produce and gas revenues. In turn, an independent, conservative Santa Cruz would find itself alone in the landlocked center of a left-dominated continent, two borders away from the sea or key trading partners in the Andean Community of Nations.

"If Bolivia as a whole is weak, the two halves divided would be weaker still," said Carlos Borth, a senator with the opposition party Podemos. "At the last minute, material interests will prevail."

It will take more than material interests for South America's poorest country to square its differences.

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