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In tense Bolivia, a push to bridge political divides

As four provinces press for more autonomy, one group teaches how to heal racial and political tensions.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2008

Clashes: Residents of Santa Fe, Bolivia – located in Santa Cruz province – threw stones during protests against a May 4 provincial autonomy vote.

Antonio Suarez/AP

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Santa Cruz, Bolivia

In a country where the president calls his political foes in the east an oligarchy, and graffiti in opposition strongholds calls for his death, Chiaki Kinjo's job is daunting.

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As a conflict resolution facilitator in Santa Cruz – the epicenter of dissent against Bolivian President Evo Morales – it is her job to get union members, neighborhood representatives, and parent association leaders to see eye to eye.

"Divisions in Bolivia have created so much violence," says Ms. Kinjo, who heads the Santa Cruz branch of Fundacion Unir Bolivia, a group that aims to bridge racial and political divides.

From the outside, it often looks as if Bolivia is on the brink of civil war.

Last week, Santa Cruz voters overwhelmingly approved statutes giving the province more autonomy from the central government. It's the first of four provinces planning to do so in coming weeks. But Mr. Morales dismisses the autonomy votes as illegal and hopes to counter them and revive his presidency by holding a referendum on his rule within the next three months.

Yet as Bolivia finds itself at a crossroads – in the midst of a power struggle that will either lead to consensus or more clashes – there is also a growing sense of conflict fatigue. And groups like Unir, in the absence of dialogue at the top, are trying to reach those who want to forge peace from the bottom up.

"Politics has entered all of our institutions and divided us," says Veronica Arrencibia, the head of a parent's association that participates in Unir's workshops. "We are trying to learn that we can accomplish our objectives, no matter what our views are."

Bolivia's racial and political rifts

Bolivia's poorer, mostly indigenous western highlands and the gas-rich racially mixed lowlands truly do feel like two separate nations. But regionalism and racism have escalated as Morales has attempted to rewrite a constitution to give the indigenous more power, while the wealthier regions have rejected his socialist agenda. "The tension has gotten much worse," says Father Marcial Chupinagua from the Catholic Archdiocese in Santa Cruz, which tried to mediate between the pro-autonomy governors and the central government.

It was in this environment that Unir began working in Santa Cruz two years ago to engender a more inclusive culture. Since then, the group has trained more than 500 citizens in negotiation and conflict resolution.

Yet here, where autonomy is the most explosive issue, the group does not tackle it directly. Kinjo says passions are too high. Instead they work around local problems – land use conflicts, for example.

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