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Autonomy push sparks racial strife in Bolivia

One protester on each side has died, as citizens await a new constitution addressing the divisive issue.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 2007


On January 11, Juan Ticacolque was shot in the heart and died in a skirmish between pro- and antigovernment protesters here in Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city.

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The father of three hadjoined other farmers protesting an appeal by the provincial governor – a fierce opponent of Bolivian President Evo Morales – for autonomy from the central government.

"We are so sad; his children cry for him," says his widow Cenovia Anguela, who speaks broken Spanish dotted with the indigenous Quechua language.

The same day, Christian Urresti left with his parents to protest against the outsiders who had put up blockades and set fire to the governor's office. He was beaten to death by an angry mob later that afternoon, a day before his 18th birthday.

"If I had known there would be so much hate, I would never have brought him there," says his mother, Blanca Martha Ferrel.

They were the only two to die that day – one from each side of a bitter divide in a nation that, for many residents here, seems ever more like two.

An East-West divide

Bolivia has long been dubbed the "South Africa" of Latin America, and for years leaders in the predominantly mestizo, gas-rich eastern lowlands have called for more autonomy from the central government in La Paz, the heart of the indigenous highlands. But since Mr. Morales, the nation's first indigenous leader, took office more than a year ago, the call for autonomy has grown louder and angrier, and so has the response. Race is its undercurrent.

The West blames the "oligarchies" of the East; the East says that Morales is fomenting hate toward those in the West. The province of Cochabamba is the geographic and political saddle over both, and now a flashpoint for violence in the tense legal battle for autonomy.

"What happened here on the 11th of January will be looked at as a pivotal movement," says Jim Shultz, an analyst for the Democracy Center, a nongovernmental organization here. "It's going to be one of two things: a preview of very ugly coming attractions, or a wake-up call to get people to say, do we really want to have people in the streets beating each other with sticks? I think it's given a lot of people pause."

In July, a referendum on whether to grant provinces increased powers was held: 4 of the 9 provinces voted yes. But it remains to be seen how the autonomy issue will play out. The Constituent Assembly – a body of delegates set up by Morales to rewrite the Constitution to give more voice to the country's long-oppressed indigenous majority – will tackle the sensitive details in a session that will go until August. There, constituents will decide by vote how autonomy is ultimately settled.

Leaders in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, who head the movement, say the central government is trying to deny them more independence. Last year they organized massive protests. Some even went on hunger strikes.

"The country is polarized because the [central government] is ... pitting Bolivians against Bolivians," says Ruben Costas, the governor of Santa Cruz.