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Bolivia divided

It comes as no surprise that the southern province of Tarija voted for autonomy from Bolivia last weekend. The province – which contains much of the country’s oil and gas wealth – was joining three others, Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando, in seeking independence from central government.

 But the naked racism, hatred and violence with which right-wingers, opposed toindigenous president Evo Morales, are pursing their autonomy campaign is shocking even to hardened locals. Recently, in the city of Sucre, 50 indigenous community leaders were violently attacked by right-wing activists, forced to strip and parade naked around the central square and watch their traditional clothing being burned.

‘Kill the Indian, they said, and all of this occurred in the presence of the President of the Municipal Council of Sucre, Fidel Herrera, and the Mayor Aidée Nava; they applauded everything these violent groups did,’ reported the Mayor of Mojocoya, Ángel Vallejos, who was punched and forced to walk on his knees. A reporter for Radio ALCO – working in partnership with the British aid agency CAFOD to give indigenous people a voice – was beaten and drenched with alcohol and left fearing for her life.

When I was in Santa Cruz a few months ago several of the people I met described the, mainly white and mestizo, autonomy-seekers as ‘racists’ (see NI 410 – I will return) Subsequent events have proved that the word was not being used lightly. Humiliation seems to be a key part of the opposition’s psychological arsenal against indigenous peoples who have been enjoying something of a cultural revolution since Evo Morales’ electoral victory in late 2005.

Autonomy is red hot issue for more than cultural reasons, though. Bolivia depends on gas and oil wealth which brings in 1.2 billion dollars a year in taxes and revenues. The Government’s raft of new social welfare reforms such as free health care for the young and the old, grants for children in education, universal old aged pension, and specific programmes for indigenous development, are all paid for out gas and oil revenues. The traditionally ruling elites in the would-be autonomous provinces want to have greater control over such revenues to use as they see fit. These elites are also fiercely – at times violently – resisting an ambitious land reform programme that will take away some land from families with massive estates. So what is in store now for Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism party he heads?

On 10 August there will be a recall referendum for the President, Vice-President and eight of the country’s nine Governors. If successful in the ballot, Morales says he wants to hold a public referendum on a draft constitution which has been awaiting approval since last year. The Constitution would, among other things, enshrine land redistribution to Bolivia’s indigenous majority and a sharing of wealth with the poorer western regions. MAS, which still has strong support in the West of the country, including La Paz, and from the social movements that brought it to power, is saying it expects a repetition of the 53 per cent victory it polled in 2005. But with food shortages, strikes and rising inflation to add to their woes, it looks like tough times ahead.

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