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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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."

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