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Evo's First Year

Race Conflict Divides Bolivia While Andean Cultural Traditions Restore Balance

A group of young Bolivian musicians are playing traditional autoctonous or indigenous Andean music in Cochabamba's main plaza. Surrounded by towering mountains, this valley city of 650,000 is a hub of political, cultural and social activity.

Cochabamba's plazas are usually filled with families, flowers, orange juice stands and ice cream vendors. Yet in the past two weeks, thousands of campesinos, coca leaf growers, workers, students and people of indigenous descent filled the town center and set up a popular assembly in Cochabamba's main plaza to demand the resignation of Governor Manfred Reyes Villa.

Social movement leaders like Luciano Bilka, Secretary of International Affairs for the Only Workers Federation of Cochabamba, are critical of Manfred, a U.S. School of the Americas graduate, for supporting free-market economic policies known in Latin America as neoliberalism. While mayor of Cochabmaba in 2000, Manfred ushered in a water privatization scheme that was ended by widespread popular protest in which a seventeen-year-old boy was killed by a School of the America's trained sharpshooter. Bilka said, “He intended to sell the water and signed a contract with the Bechtel Company, which provoked street fights for two weeks. He betrayed and massacred the people of Cochabamba. With what morals does he have the right to talk about democracy?”

In Bolivia, street protests in the form of marches, hunger strikes, and blockades are common practice. Mobilizations of both social movements and the right have escalated in recent months. In December, in the eastern part of the country, in the department of Santa Cruz, men baring wood shields with swastikas burnt down the homes and community centers of mainly-indigenous campesinos. Race tensions turned fatal last week here in Cochabamba when Manfred supporters clashed with the darker-skinned indigenous people gathered in the city center. Two men were killed, one from each side of the conflict, and over two hundred people were injured.

Over half of Bolivia's population comes from indigenous groups including the Quecha, Aymara or Amazon-basin inhabiting Guarayni. Members of these populations turned out in mass in December 2005 to elect Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian by birth. “Evo” as he is commonly referred to has become a strong source of indigenous pride, which he has astutely cultivated through mass rallies, conferences and numerous popular social programs during his first year in office.

Morales' vocal support for indigenous people and populist economic reforms have triggered a growing backlash from the conservative elite that has generally ruled the country since its founding. The mainly mestizo middle class is also feeling increasingly alienated. A right-wing led movement for regional autonomy, which threatens to split the predominantly Aymara altiplano or highland populations from the oil-rich eastern half of the country, has capitalized on this discontent in order to gain momentum. Cochabamba, located in both the geographic and political center of the country, could tip the scales in either direction.

Last Friday [January 19, 2007], Morales sent legislation to the Bolivian Congress in order to quickly put into law a recall referendum. In an apparent behind-the-scenes deal, Manfred agreed to allow voters to decide his fate as governor via a referendum in exchange for Morales' directing social movement supporters within his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) political party to diffuse the protests and leave Cochabamba's central plaza.

Wilson Gastillon, Agricultural Secretary of the Only Worker Federation of Cochabamba, explained his lukewarm support for the President's proposal. “For me, this is a solution for the president, but the wounds persist. We are in a truce, but if Manfred continues blackmailing the people, the conflict will return.”

Despite pressure for more radical reform and direct accountability from social movements and the racially-charged backlash from the right, Morales popularity during his first year in office has generally remained high. His successful renegotiation of natural gas contracts with foreign oil companies has doubled income to the state. With these increased revenues every child up to the age of ten has begun receiving an annual stipend of 200 bolivianos or $25 dollars for school supplies.

Yet Morales plans for land reform, the renegotiating of contracts with foreign mining companies and a more comprehensive redrafting of the constitution are being met with stiffer, well-organized criticism from the private property owning elite based in the four Eastern provinces referred to as the “media luna” or half moon. This is also where most of Bolivia's natural resources, including the second largest natural gas reserves in the continent after Venezuela, are located, leading a number of political analysts, including Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center, to conclude that at the base of this conflict is the fight over control of Bolivia's black gold: oil.

On the same day that mobilizations were occurring in Cochabamba, the Bush Administration's first director of national intelligence John Negroponte reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee, "Democracy is most at risk in Venezuela and Bolivia.”

Luciano Bilka believes that if this is the case, than the U.S. is to blame. He said, “Who is financing the arms that Manfred Reyes Villa's group is using to confront the campesinos? From where do they bring these revolvers? From where do they bring these firearms? They are being organized and financed by the U.S. We are going to remain coordinating and making our decisions like we always have, in Tiwantisuyu (an indigenous decision-making forum). If democracy is at risk in Bolivia's provinces, it's because it is being put at risk by U.S. officers.”

As the tear gas cleared and the blockades ended, Cochabambinos were left to pick up the pieces of their race-torn city. New graffiti declaring “death to fascism” is painted in the streets where earlier face to face battles had erupted. Last Friday, autoctonous musicians, artists and urban youth gathered in the central plaza to celebrate their rich cultural traditions in a Jornada (day long event) against fascism and racism. Smoke from the sweetly scented palo santo wood marked the beginning of an Andean cultural ceremony called a Q'oa.

The Andean priest, Pedro Quispe leading the ceremony explained its significance. “We perform the Q'oa to remember the past, share what is in the present, and look at the projections for the future… The future of Bolivia will not be a work of grace. The indigenous continue to be marginalized. This is not easy, to find our way, but we've begun. The indigenous have bit by bit begun to recuperate their history. A people without a history is a people lost.”

The ritual ended with a communal meal called an Aptapi. Large plates of potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, corn and salad were laid out on a colorful cloth. Maria Eugenia, an organizer of the event invited us to share the feast. She said, “These are the products that our parents, all our families, our campesino brothers and sisters produce. They supply the food so that the people in the cities can eat. Now we are going to share an Aptapi.”

The streets of Cochabamba are now filled with the sounds of honking horns instead of chanting marchers, but the work of reconstructing a new Bolivia continues. For these young people, celebrating their cultural heritage through food, music, public debate and ritual, honoring their past traditions is one way to ensure a sound future.


Juliette Beck is an independent journalist living in Cochabamba, Bolivia

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