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.
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In one workshop, participants from the governor's office took on the role of indigenous landowners fighting an environmental case while indigenous participants played the role of mayor or governor. When they put the two groups together, participants were asked not to share their political affiliations – a lesson that shows that ideology is often secondary to the root problems at hand.Skip to next paragraph
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Most of their participants are mid-level leaders. "This is part of our strategy," says Kinjo. "They can influence others at the top and the bottom." That way a larger phenomenon of common understanding and respect can begin to grow, she says.
Politicians blamed for stoking hatreds
But whether tensions will worsen as the autonomy movement gathers steam remains to be seen.
"Many people feel the government is trying to do everything it can to consolidate power, and the opposition is doing everything it can to consolidate power, and that both sides really don't care very much about how their power needs affect everyone else in the country," says Jim Shultz, a political analyst in the central city of Cochabamba. "Most people would like to see the country move along in a unified way."
That sums up the sentiment of the five members of the Canales family sitting on wooden stools in front of the booth they own selling batteries and blank CDs on a recent day. "She is pro-autonomy," taunts Jimena Canales, pointing at her sister Veronica.
"Every family has a black sheep," adds brother Marcos, smiling.
"We are sick of all this fighting," Veronica says. "It is the politicians dividing us, not the people. Look at us."
But the tolerance that might be felt in the family unit quickly dissipates at the institutional and political level, and that is where Unir hopes to fill a void.
Ms. Arrencibia says the workshops have taught her to slow down, view an entire scenario, and make decisions based on priorities – documenting the entire process. Before, she says she'd be the first to react with a strike or taking over a government building.
During a workshop in the weeks before the referendum, which included participants from both sides of the conflict, she and another leader, Fernando Rosso, who supports autonomy, were asked to present conflicts to the group for mediation.
Both work in education, and despite their vast ideological differences – she calls him "the other side of the coin" – they learned through the exercise where their views coincide, says Mr. Rosso. "We have distinct opinions, but we can learn from each other," he says.
Before training, says Arrencibia, she might have just automatically tuned him out, even though they are working toward the same goal: quality education. "You realize," she says, "that whether you are from here or there, the north or south, the problems are the same."