Bolivians Divided by Energy Reserves, History

Bolivia's first indigenous president was elected one year ago. The country remains deeply divided over Evo Morales' campaign for control of the country's considerable oil and gas revenues.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Evo Morales assumed power atop Incan ruins one year ago.

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SIMON: Bolivia's first indigenous president promised to restore the dignity and natural resources that he said had been plundered over five centuries of foreign exploitation. He moved quickly to reverse decades of U.S.-backed market-driven reforms and convene a constitutional assembly. But a year on, partisan rancor over the direction of the country has deeply divided Bolivians and there is growing concern that Morales's style of governing may be fueling that division. From La Paz, Bolivia, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Evo Morales rose to prominence as a master of confrontational politics. Critics say he's practicing them as president and cite recent events in the central state of Cochabamba. Morales made his name and friends in Cochabamba's Chapare region as the charismatic leader of coca growers there. They came to his defense last week.

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MCCARTHY: Two thousand cocaleros took over the town square of the capital city, Cochabamba, demanding that the governor resign. Governor Manfred Reyes Villa is a member of the conservative opposition, who wants expanded state powers. But Morales and his followers say that scorns the voters. A majority of Cochabambinos, as residents are called, rejected state autonomy in a referendum last summer. The governor called for a second referendum and set the stage for this showdown.

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MCCARTHY: His stick-brandishing backers battled it out with Morales supporters, who wielded stones and sharpened staffs. The fighting left at least two people dead. Felix Vasquez(ph) marshaled his pro-Morales forces from the Cochabamba Public Works Union to oppose the governor, calling his push for autonomy an affront.

Mr. FELIX VASQUEZ (Public Works Union): (Through translator) This autonomy is an attempt to divide Bolivia and tear the country apart. This is a head-on fight against the dictatorship of a governor who has gone against the people's will. We've been humiliated by a democratic dictatorship for years. And so it's natural for the dispossessed in Bolivia to make their voices heard.

MCCARTHY: Holding a bullhorn, local businessman Yetta Goharisiege(ph) says that Morales is the one monopolizing power and that his supporters must be stopped.

Mr. YETTA GOHARISIEGE (Cochabamba Businessman): (Through translator) We can't let ourselves be dominated by these people who don't respect the law. The present government wants to run Bolivia like it's a terrorist country, and (unintelligible) we have laws. And this government respects absolutely nothing.

MCCARTHY: Two visions of governance are colliding in Bolivia, those of the hardscrabble western highlands that want power centralized in the capital La Paz versus those of the restive states in the prosperous eastern lowlands who want more local autonomy. Cochabamba lies between them. Political analyst Jim Schultz runs the Center for Democracy in Cochabamba. He says as much as anything, the struggle is over who controls Bolivia's oil and gas.

Mr. JIM SCHULTZ (Center for Democracy): So you have a fight between the highlands in the western part of the country where the oil is not and the eastern part of the country where the oil is. I mean it's geology, and when they say autonomy, what they really mean is to maximize local control of the revenues that come in from oil and gas. That's what it's about.

MCCARTHY: Schultz says Cochabamba's governor, Reyes Villa, inflamed passions between the lowlanders and highlanders to position himself as the chief opponent to President Morales.

Mr. SCHULTZ: I don't think it's any secret to anyone that Manfred Reyes Villa has made it his objective to be the president of the country.

MCCARTHY: But Schultz says events in Cochabamba have also eroded Morales's urban middle class support.

Mr. SCHULTZ: They talk about how he speaks constantly about the indigenous and the poor, and it makes people who aren't in those categories wonder whether Evo really understands the challenges that they face and the struggles that they face.

MCCARTHY: Filemon Escobar, who was instrumental in shaping Morales's rise, says the president has failed to learn the principle of his own indigenous culture. Two different forces, like night and day, he says, are actually halves of the whole and must co-exist.

Mr. FILEMON ESCOBAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: This means the West needs the East and the East needs the West and dividing the halves is to destroy the country, he says. However, Morales insinuated that action on behalf of the disadvantaged is by definition divisive. He told a summit of South American leaders in Rio de Janeiro yesterday...

Mr. EVO MORALES (President, Bolivia): (Through translator) When one wants change, when one wants to fight for the majority, for the poor and for the indigenous, one arrives at the conclusion that there will be a cost to defending them.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, La Paz, Bolivia.

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