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Bolivia's native peoples poised to win new rights

COTA COTA BAJA, Bolivia — Highland Indian communities here remain rooted in the past. The towns have dirt streets. Farmers till their fields with hand plows. Pigs, sheep and cattle graze alongside dogs that run loose.

The men wear trousers, sandals and fedoras. Women prefer bowler hats, colorful shawls and multilayered skirts known as polleras. They carry infants on their backs, wrapped in the shawls. Most everyone chews green coca leaves to ward off hunger and the cold.

For the past three years, Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, has made mostly symbolic improvements that have opened doors for the country's Indian majority. However, he's now put forth a new constitution Bolivians are expected to approve Sunday that seeks to empower the Indians and end their longtime status as second-class citizens.

"We want to create a new state with equal rights for everyone," Morales told jubilant supporters in the country's historic Plaza Murillo in La Paz on Thursday night.

On the high plains of Bolivia in indigenous communities such as Cota Cota Baja, one gets a glimpse of how far the nation has traveled in race relations — and how much farther it has to go.

Opponents say that the new constitution would further Balkanize the polarized and politically unstable nation. Former President Carlos Mesa said that the special new rights for Indians "will generate chaos and inequality."

For the Indians, though, the prospect of greater rights strikes a deep chord.

"We're recovering the life lost by our ancestors," said Gonzalo Laura, a 51-year-old Indian farmer from Huarina, a few miles from Cota Cota Baja, who in his spare time plays the pan flute, an Andean bamboo instrument. "We think Evo is in favor of the poor and the indigenous people."

Bolivia is South America's poorest country. About 60 percent of the population lives on $2 a day or less. Bolivia has more Indians than any other Latin American country as a percentage of its population.

It's also the world's third biggest producer of coca, the raw leaf that forms the main ingredient of cocaine.

Morales, who herded sheep as a boy, has developed close ties with socialist Venezuela and communist Cuba. Meanwhile, he's expelled the U.S. ambassador and agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

He's a hero to poor Indians who live in hamlets such as Cota Cota Baja, a farming community some 90 minutes by car west of La Paz, the capital, and some 12,000 feet above sea level.

Life began to change after the 1952 revolution, which gave indigenous people in Bolivia many of their first rights. Until then, Indians had to adopt European last names to gain university admission, had no representation in Congress and were prohibited from speaking their native tongues in school.

"We lived like slaves," said Nicolas Choquehuanca, a stooped but still spry 84-year-old farmer in Cota Cota Baja. He dropped out of school after third grade. His wife never learned to read or write.

Even after 1952, Choquehuanca felt the sting of discrimination when he traveled to La Paz. He'd board a bus and hear other passengers mutter, "Ugh, an Indian. He smells."

Choquehuanca raised seven children in an adobe home built with dried mud and straw that lacked running water or electricity.

Today, Cota Cota Baja has both. Even more dramatic, Choquehuanca's son, David, is the country's first indigenous foreign minister.

"We're recovering everything we had lost: our music, our language, our cultural resources, " David Choquehuanca said in an interview in his office. He remembered how he'd watched airplanes pass overhead as a boy and dreamed that one day he, too, would have the chance to fly.

Officials in ministries such as Choquehuanca's used to turn away indigenous people like Gregorio Quispe, unless he was dressed in a coat and tie.

Today, Quispe is the mayor of Huarina. He attends meetings with Morales in the baroque presidential palace.

"Now I feel free, free to express what I think," Quispe said.

Ministry officials used to require Margarita Bautista to doff her bowler hat.

"Today, thanks to brother Evo, we feel stronger and more valued," said Bautista, a 41-year-old Indian activist who lives in El Alto, outside La Paz.

Race in Bolivia is a complicated affair.

Seventy percent of Bolivians look Indian, said Ricardo Calla, a former minister of Indian affairs, but only about 35 percent dress in traditional clothing.

"It's difficult to define exactly who is Indian in Bolivia," Calla said.

Benecio Quispe, a sociology professor at the Public University of El Alto whose enrollment is virtually 100 percent Indian, said Bolivia was undergoing its own civil rights movement. Quispe is a common name among Aymara Indians.

Quispe said that the Spanish who colonized Bolivia in the 1500s and their light-skinned descendents who formed the country's business and political elite in the generations after independence made Indians feel that they were inferior and had no right to a voice.

"Bolivia is a very racist country," Quispe said.

The revolution had an effect in Bolivia similar to the end of the Civil War in the United States: Indians then had many of the same rights as the European-descended elite, but only on paper in many cases.

Change came gradually, as more and more Indians moved to the cities in search of a better life, adopted European dress and learned Spanish.

Even as late as the 1980s, however, boys such as Jose Luis Limachi, who's now a farmer from Antacollo, near Cota Cota Baja, were booted out of the Plaza Murillo by policemen who called them "pig," "dirty," "ignorant."

In 1993, a year after Bolivian Indians marked the 500th year after what indigenous intellectuals viewed as the invasion by Christopher Columbus, the country elected its first Indian vice president, Victor Hugo Cardenas. His father and the father of David Choquehuanca were cousins, but Cardenas' father changed his last name in the 1940s to gain admission to a technical institute.

In 2002, Morales and Felipe Quispe, an indigenous leader from near Cota Cota Baja, waged strong campaigns for president.

Growing activism by indigenous people sparked violent street demonstrations that forced one light-skinned president to resign in 2003 and another in 2005.

New elections were called. Morales, 49, promised change and won.

The indigenous people have come a long way, but they still have a long path to gain equal standing. Only two of Morales' 17 Cabinet officers are indigenous.

"We don't have experience in public administration," Choquehuanca said. "Little by little, however, we are gaining power."

He acknowledged that Morales has yet to lift the standard of living for Indians.

The president's biggest success is increasing pensions for the elderly — most of whom are indigenous natives — thanks to higher taxes on foreign-owned natural gas companies.

Per capita income is about $1,400. Indians typically earn less than that, although exact figures aren't available.

The old bugaboo, racial discrimination, has yet to be eradicated, although the new constitution would enshrine indigenous rights.

"Women in polleras don't get good service in the Zona Sur," Choquehuanca said, referring to a tony neighborhood in La Paz. "Public officials at the Foreign Ministry call me sir. But behind my back, they say they can't wait for this Indian to go home."

Beatrice Quispe, an Indian activist in Soncache, near Cota Cota Baja, said change hadn't come as quickly as many had hoped under Morales but that she remained optimistic.

"We'll get more opportunities with the new constitution," she said.


Bolivians are expected to approve a new constitution Sunday that President Evo Morales says will empower the indigenous majority and end 500 years of colonialism, racism and discrimination. The new charter would:

  • Recognize the country as having 36 different indigenous groups.
  • Create a quota of seats for Indians in the Congress and the Supreme Court.
  • Require the approval of indigenous groups before production of natural resources on their territory could begin.
  • Allow indigenous people to be tried for crimes under their own justice systems.
  • The constitution also would allow Morales to seek re-election later this year, would attempt to put more land in the hands of the poor and, as a nod to conservative opponents, would permit state governments to make more of their own decisions.


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