Saturday, May 31, 2008

Indigenous Demands Overshadowed by Autonomy Movement

by Franz Chávez for Inter Press Service

LA PAZ, May 30 - The autonomy movement in Bolivia’s wealthier eastern provinces has overshadowed the demand for empowerment and greater participation in political decision-making for indigenous people, who are worriedly observing the confrontation between the government of President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, and the rightwing opposition.

Morales, of the Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, was elected with 53.7 percent of the vote in December 2005, on a platform promising equality for the country’s historically marginalised and discriminated impoverished indigenous majority.

But the president’s initial agenda, which included the immediate incorporation of indigenous peoples’ demands in a new constitution, has been blocked by the delay in putting it to a referendum.

The draft of the new constitution was approved in December by the MAS majority in the constituent assembly, in a vote that was boycotted by the rightwing delegates.

Since December, the anti-Morales autonomy movements in the provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija have refused to recognise the draft constitution as legitimate, and have drawn up their own autonomy statutes, which would give their provinces the right to administer their own natural resources, collect taxes, pass laws on the use of their land, and create their own police forces.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically divided between the predominantly indigenous western highlands and the much wealthier eastern provinces, which account for most of the country's natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and gross domestic product. The population of eastern Bolivia also tends to be of more European descent.

On May 1, the province of Santa Cruz held a referendum in which 85 percent of voters ratified the provincial autonomy statute.

Although the autonomy movement declared a resounding victory in Santa Cruz, Morales pointed out that his supporters had called for a boycott of the referendum, which ran counter to the country’s constitution, and that the "no" votes, combined with the high abstention rate and the number of blank and spoiled ballots, added up to 50 percent of the registered voters.

The provinces of Beni and Pando will hold their own autonomy referendums on Jun. 1, and Tarija in the southeast will do the same on Jun. 22.

"We are fully committed to this struggle, and the demands of indigenous people cannot be raffled off or lost," constituent assembly member Esperanza Huanca, who is from the poorest region in the southwestern highlands province of Potosí, told IPS.

But the demand for respect for indigenous rights is also endangered by plans for an Aug. 10 recall referendum for Morales, his vice president, and the country’s nine provincial governors.

The government’s support bases, which were working for approval of the new constitution, have now focused all of their attention and energy on the campaign to get Morales confirmed in his post, for which he will have to win as many or more votes as he took when he was elected in December 2005 (53.7 percent).

"We know that our achievements have been accomplished at the cost of bloodshed, and as indigenous people we are seeking changes and better living conditions, to put an end to poverty and slavery," said Huanca, who was elected to the constituent assembly with the hope of reviving the traditional pre-Columbian indigenous forms of organising in extended families and communities, based on "marcas" and "ayllus".

Huanca used the term "slavery" to refer to a state of forced servitude in which hundreds of indigenous families in rural areas in the east still live.

The new constitution recognizes decentralization at the provincial and municipal levels, but also grants autonomy to indigenous communities in their current territories. It would not restore to them the much more extensive ancestral lands to which they lay claim, nor would it establish "marcas" and "ayllus".

"The right has had greater organizational capacity, to impose and perpetuate the old capitalist and colonial model," sociologist Félix Patzi, a former education minister under Morales, told IPS.

Patzi said the government is "cornered" by a rightwing opposition that holds power in four of the country’s nine provinces, and whose growing influence has led it to believe that it is stronger than the national government and its indigenous, peasant and labor grassroots support bases.

The August 10 recall referendum, he said, will test the popularity of Morales and the provincial governors. The confirmation of Morales in the presidency would show that he still has strength despite the stiff opposition.

But if voters support not only Morales and his vice president but all of the governors as well, nothing will have changed, which would demonstrate weakness on the part of the government, and the stalemate would continue, he said.

Asked about the long-delayed demands of the country’s indigenous people, Patzi said there are members of the pro-Morales social movements who believe the president is unable to fully bring about the transformation they are calling for.

The former minister also criticized Morales’ cabinet, saying they had failed to interpret the call for traditional indigenous forms of community organization.

"They have never understood this demand, and have tended towards a traditional leftist model based on the nationalization of companies instead," he said.

According to Patzi, an informal survey of grassroots supporters, who are not represented in trade unions, would show that they no longer see Morales, the former leader of the country’s coca farmers, as capable of pushing through the in-depth changes he promised.

Patzi downplayed the staunch support for the president expressed by trade unions and rural leaders, saying they have dogmatically aligned themselves with the governing MAS.

Constituent assembly-member Huanca, meanwhile, sees the actions of the rightwing opposition as an attempt to topple the national government, and says she and her indigenous colleagues will continue to fight for direct representation in governing bodies and the right to their ancestral territory, "which holds the dreams of our indigenous peoples."



















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