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

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.

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.

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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.

But opponents say the autonomy movement has intensified as a reaction to the Constituent Assembly, whose goal is to give more power to the poor, who make up two-thirds of the country. Adolfo Chávez, the leader of the Indigenous Confederation of Bolivia in Santa Cruz, says autonomy is a shield for the traditional ruling classes from the transformation under way in the rest of the country.

"Autonomy signifies the powerful maintaining their power," Mr. Chávez says. "Their bubble has burst.... They always had preference ... and now that is going away."

Another vote on autonomy?

In the July 2006 referendum, Cochabamba voted against autonomy – largely because of pro-Morales agricultural workers. Yet a few months later Governor Manfred Reyes Villa hinted he might call for another referendum on the issue – angering farmers in the province.

The ensuing battles on the streets of Cochabamba, and the two killings, show that the issue has moved beyond legal structures. "Both incidents were racial ... which is something that had really been absent in Bolivian politics," says Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. "The racial debate exacerbates the autonomy question."

Race is the central issue

Both families of the deceased see racial tension as the central issue.

Ms. Anguela and her brother-in-law, Octavio Ticacolque, say they have little faith their side of the story will be told.

"My brother was assassinated," says Mr. Ticacolque. "There is justice for the racists, and not the poor."

For Christian's family, the protest in Cochabamba, widely seen as supported by the political party of Morales, shows that the government cares first for the indigenous people. After the last time Ms. Ferrel saw her son, she took refuge in a house and heard screams: "There's a Camba," a reference Santa Cruz residents that she says has come to define anyone who is not indigenous. "We have to kill the Cambas."

"I didn't realize it was my own son," she says. "We have always lived peacefully with the campesinos. But now, after what happened, the people are mad and feel hate towards them."

Mr. Gamarra says that both the central government and the groups leading the autonomy movement must help steer political rhetoric away from racial issues. Otherwise, he fears, events in Cochabamba might repeat themselves, especially as the deadline nears for the Constituent Assembly to write the constitution.

Spray painted on a wall in the center of Cochabamba are the words "Bolivia = the majority + the minority." But it seems it won't be easy for those two halves to come together just yet.

"We are divided," says Ticacolque. "It's the racists' fault."

"We have never been so divided," says Nelson Urresti. "It's the government's fault."

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