Indigenous People Power

The street protests by the indigenous people of Bolivia that drove President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado from office last week have deep historical roots. The same history could bring more unrest in Latin America - and damage US interests - unless officials take action to improve the Indians' status.

Relatively few Spaniards settled in the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America and the mountains of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru during the period of Spanish rule from 1492 to the early 1800s. Those that did ran the colonies' politics and economies.

That legacy continues today. Light-skinned people of Spanish descent are generally at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, followed by those of mixed Spanish-Indian ancestry (mestizos). At the bottom are the Indians, who are frequently the peasants and laborers, and who suffer from societal prejudice and discrimination.

The resulting social tensions have erupted in recent decades, fueling uprisings and rebellions from Chiapas in Mexico to the South American Andes. In such conditions, Cuban Communist Fidel Castro and other leftist revolutionaries have found fertile ground for troublemaking.

Some 55 percent of Bolivia's population are Indians. The spark for the protests that sent the president into exile was a plan to export Bolivian natural gas to the US. The pipeline would go through Chile, Bolivia's historic rival and the country that seized Bolivia's Pacific seacoast in 1884, a setback Bolivians still wish to reverse.

The Indian population was also upset over a US-backed ban to eradicate coca. For the Indians, coca is a traditional crop. But it's a significant part of their income as well: Most coca is sold for processing into cocaine, which is then smuggled to the international drug market.

The real issue in Bolivia, however, is the ethnic divide that has left most Indians destitute and powerless, while people of European ancestry reap most of the economic benefits and monopolize political control.

New Bolivian President Carlos Mesa Gisbert has appointed two Indian ministers and created a Ministry of Indigenous Affairs. That mirrors small steps of progress in some other Latin American countries. But tensions will persist in Bolivia and elsewhere until those societies find ways to share economic development and political power with citizens of every ethnic background and skin color. The US, which has direct interests in the region, could be far more helpful in moving that process along.

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