A Road Paved With Hope

Indigenous workers take a 30-hour truck ride for the opening of the Constituent Assembly, which they hope will bring greater rights to Bolivia's poor majority.
Indigenous workers take a 30-hour truck ride for the opening of the Constituent Assembly, which they hope will bring greater rights to Bolivia's poor majority. (Photos By Evan Abramson For The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 6, 2006

LLALLAGUA, Bolivia, Aug. 5 -- About 40 people crammed into the back of the truck, some leaning against swaying side railings that threatened to completely give way with each turn. Dust from unpaved mountain roads billowed through cracks in the splintered floor. Every bump sparked a jarring current that started in the tailbone and climbed the spine.

Over the course of about 30 hours, the truck would take the group of Quechua and Aymara Indians on a journey from this highland mining and farming region to the city of Sucre, where a Constituent Assembly will be inaugurated Sunday to create a new Bolivian constitution.

Indigenous-led civil unrest toppled two presidents between 2003 and 2005, and redrafting the constitution to ensure more equality became a rallying cry for Bolivia's indigenous majority during that turmoil. December's election of President Evo Morales -- a longtime backer of constitutional reform who claims Aymara ancestry -- officially sealed a redrafting process that he calls "the re-founding of Bolivia."

Fueled by optimism and gallons of diesel, the pilgrims from Llallagua dismissed the crude conditions of their transport as mere afterthoughts. Less than a block into the trip, they lighted fireworks and began to sing. They banged on goatskin drums, played pan flutes and strummed charangos -- traditional Andean stringed instruments that resemble mandolins -- as the last of the town's adobe houses disappeared from sight.

This wasn't just a road trip; it was a party.

"Viva la Asamblea Constituyente!" they shouted.

On rural roadways all across Bolivia in the past few days, indigenous caravans like this one have snaked their way toward Sucre, about 250 miles to the southeast. Most of the people packed in the backs of the trucks won't have official business in the assembly. They went because they want to witness history, many said, and they want their presence to serve as a reminder to assembly members of the indigenous protests that led to the formation of the 255-member body.

"We're going to march through the streets and represent our people," said Roman Arosquipa, 28, one of several farm peasants who walked eight hours from the village of Jachavi on Thursday night to hop a ride on the truck from Llallagua. "The assembly is a great hope for us. We need to improve our lives, and we also need to preserve our culture."

Arosquipa's life centers on his small adobe house in the North Potosi region, the poorest pocket of the poorest country in South America. He grows crops such as corn and wheat -- not to sell in a market, but to feed himself and share with his neighbors. His house -- like all of them in Jachavi -- lacks electricity. He wears a colorfully embroidered vest with white fringe that indicates to other Indians that he's single, but his headgear is anything but traditional -- a Spiderman baseball cap.

Finding the right balance between the traditional and modern is going to be the biggest challenge of the assembly, according to political analysts. Although the indigenous community is well represented among the assembly members -- particularly among the 137 from Morales's party, the Movement Toward Socialism -- no one party or special interest has the two-thirds majority required to approve constitutional changes.

But even before the assembly has begun, tensions between those seeking to strengthen the presence of indigenous culture and those advocating other views have suggested that rewriting the constitution could be a lot like this trip -- far from smooth.

When the truck reached the small village of Lagunillas, the driver parked near a lake that shone like a silver coin dropped between the blunt peaks of the Andes.

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