Bolivian Leader's Successes Expose Divisions

Bolivia's first indigenous president, whose striped sweater became his emblem, is marking his second year in office with greater state control over the oil and gas industry and a new draft constitution. But the accomplishments of Evo Morales have also exposed deep ethnic and class divides inside the nation.

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Let's go next to Bolivia, which faces its own divisions. Two years ago, Bolivia elected its first indigenous leader, the socialist farmer Evo Morales. He redrafted the constitution to give more powers to Bolivia's indigenous majority, which was one of many controversial moves that has led to a battle over ethnicity and class. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

(Soundbite of music)

JULIE McCARTHY: On one side of this tug of war is the Altiplano, the western highlands with its poor, indigenous population, favorite son Evo Morales, and two-mile high capital La Paz, the site of carnival celebrations the past week.

The opposing side lies here in the steamy lowlands of the eastern half of the country bordering Brazil. Small indigenous groups are long-standing here, but white European descendents and Mestizos dominate economically. These unpaved, brain-rattling roads are the only way to reach the prosperous haciendas that sprawl across the state of Santa Cruz, where opinions about President Evo Morales can be as unforgiving as the terrain.

Raul Amoral(ph), a native of Brazil, migrated 10 years ago to Bolivia because the land is cheap and so rich he doesn't need fertilizer. Trundling through his lush 15,000 acres, Amoral says this is one of the most productive haciendas in the region, but…

Mr. RAUL AMORAL: (Speaking Spanish)

McCARTHY: You have no support from the government. You are building the bridges. It's your machinery. You're building the roads.

Mr. AMORAL: Yes. (Speaking Spanish)

McCARTHY: Amoral's Bolivian partner, banker Ignacio Bedoya(ph), says besides bad roads, Bolivia's national oil company couldn't distribute diesel in time for last November's harvest.

Mr. IGNACIO BEDOYA: Every state could handle the resources in a better way, but at least give us a chance.

McCARTHY: These two business partners are part of Santa Cruz's sizable commercial class that says with Evo Morales they cannot be certain that laws, like how much land a person can own, won't abruptly change. Banker Bedoya wants greater self-rule at the state level.

Mr. BEDOYA: That it's giving us that insurance that what we have is going to be ours and we can keep investing and keep growing on it. Being protected somehow.

McCARTHY: In addition to this bumper soy crop, there is plenty to protect on this property that produces hybrids and an envied lifestyle of private planes, rare birds, and ski vacations in Vale. Banker Bedoya says entrepreneurship sets Santa Cruz apart, and he bristles at critics who say regional autonomy is nothing more than the traditional elites maintaining their privileges at the expense of the indigenous majority.

Mr. BEDOYA: We agree that we need to change a lot of things. Better education, better health, and better roads, to be more productive and be more competitive. Because the little Indian that has 50 hectors, if I give him a good road, probably his end product will cost him less here and will be more competitive. That's what we want, not that big gap. We need to make them part of the system.

McCARTHY: But this 24-year-old community organizer and Imara Indian, Lola Terazas Terazas(ph), says advocates of autonomy don't truly recognize indigenous rights and prolong Bolivia's stratified system.

Ms. LOLA TERAZAS TERAZAS: (Through translator) When these ruling elites were in power before the present government, they always made the decisions about natural resources. They never had to recognize the rights of indigenous people over their own territory. And they wanted to continue being the bosses, being in control.

McCARTHY: Lola insists the struggle is not between the highlands and the lowlands, but between the rich and poor. Bolivia's poorest have historically been the indigenous. Two hundred thousand inhabitants endure the mud-choked alleys, corrugated stalls and ceaseless noise of this shanty town on the outskirts of Santa Cruz City. The majority, like Lola's parents, are indigenous highlanders who carried their dreams for a better life to the more hospitable climes of Santa Cruz in the lowlands. But Herman Balanza(ph), who heads the state's 600 neighborhood associations, says they face the hard edge of increasingly ugly politics.

Mr. HERMAN BALANZA: (Through translator) Here people think that because you are dark-skinned, you're with Evo Morales, and they discriminate against you. There's no respect.

McCARTHY: Brazil native and soy farmer Raul Amoral says the more aggressive supporters of Morales harbor their own bigotry.

Mr. AMORAL: (Spanish Spoken)

McCARTHY: It's popular among a certain class in La Paz to talk about all the foreigners, all the conquistadors, and all the imperialists, Amoral says. As the political drama unfolds, President Morales has locked horns with four of Bolivia's nine governors who want greater power over redistribution of land and natural resources. Morales's pledge to cut back all-important oil revenues for the states to fund more pensioners, for example, has infuriated the governors. Santa Cruz banker Ignacio Bedoya says the president needs to understand that he is managing two different Bolivias.

Mr. BEDOYA: There are two tendencies, and they are strong, both of them. We are talking five states against four states. It's a really split country, and nobody wants to think about seeing Bolivia working toward a separation.

McCARTHY: Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera rejects speculation that Bolivia could split apart and says the political turmoil stems from the ambitious attempt to do all at once what it took the United States centuries to do.

Vice President ALVARO GARCIA LINERA (Bolivia): (Through Translator) In the United States, territorial distribution of power and land was defined in the 19th century, the redistribution of wealth and the welfare state in the 20th century, civil rights in the 1960s. We are trying to resolve all these issues at the same time.

McCARTHY: But even the country's new draft constitution, meant to resolve differences, has heightened them. Pro government delegates ran for their lives when deadly street violence broke up the final assembly in December. Vice President Linera acknowledges the new draft does something no previous Bolivian constitution has dared.

Vice President LINERA: (Through Translator) For the first time, indigenous people are defined as part of the state and contribute to the national identity. We amplify their rights from bilingual education to indigenous community justice. We are now a plurinational state.

McCARTHY: Recently marking his second year in power, President Morales largely ignored the feud with the states and told the nation…

President EVO MORALES (Bolivia): (Speaking Spanish)

McCARTHY: There is no turning back on the path we started two years ago. And I am convinced, Morales said, that this is an irreversible process. To what extent the opposition agrees will determine whether Bolivia will resolve its differences peacefully, or not.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, La Paz, Bolivia.

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