Bolivian Referendum Points Up Clashing Visions

In the mostly indigenous city of Warisata, President Evo Morales greets a crowd of several thousand people commemorating Bolivia's National Day of the Indian on Saturday.
In the mostly indigenous city of Warisata, President Evo Morales greets a crowd of several thousand people commemorating Bolivia's National Day of the Indian on Saturday. (By Evan Abramson For The Washington Post)

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia, Aug. 5 -- Henrri Zeballos, a lawyer, and his wife, a dentist, gathered the kids in their minivan for a Sunday-morning drive through their home town of Santa Cruz.

People came out of their houses to watch them pass. Housewives shouted ugly slurs. Grown men and little girls thrust up their middle fingers in rage.

"This is natural," Zeballos said.

A young woman stopped washing a truck and shot the hose spray into the open window of the Zeballoses' van.

"It's okay. We don't want to fight. We'll get wet," Zeballos said.

Technically, what the Zeballos family took part in Sunday was a flag-waving parade in support of President Evo Morales. But their caravan was also a provocation, a gesture of defiance in an increasingly volatile country. Other cars in the parade were hit by rocks; on the street, fistfights broke out.

This city is the emotional heart of opposition to Morales, a relatively wealthy lowlands region that is pushing for autonomy and a free-market alternative to the socialist path pursued high in the western mountains by Morales, the first president from the country's indigenous majority.

On Sunday, the nation is scheduled to vote on a referendum on whether to recall Morales, his vice president and nearly all of the regional leaders, known as prefects. Polls suggest that Morales and several of the prefects will probably keep their positions.

But angry and violent protests against Morales are growing more common. On Tuesday, protesters descended on an airport in southern Bolivia, prompting presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina to cancel a planned visit. And two people were killed and several more injured during clashes with the police near Huanuni, Bolivia's largest tin mine, news services reported.

"Whatever the result, the referendum is going to show that this is a divided country," said Juan Carlos Rocha, editor of La Razón newspaper in Bolivia.

The conflict grows from two distinct and conflicting visions of the future of this small, impoverished country, where about 60 percent of residents identified themselves as indigenous (native cultures that predate the Europeans) in a 2001 census and roughly the same percentage live in poverty.

To supporters of Morales, his landslide victory in December 2005 marked a historic turning point, especially for downtrodden indigenous communities that for generations have provided cheap labor for rich businessmen, extracting from the ground silver, tin, oil and gas, and soybeans. While Morales has supporters of all economic and ethnic backgrounds, he has tended to focus his political priorities on the indigenous and other people of lower classes.


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