Despite Feats, President of Bolivia Stirs Fierce Debate

(By Dado Galdieri -- Associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 15, 2009

ACHACACHI, Bolivia -- The barefoot teen in the potato field acknowledged that his family of 12 still had nearly no money.

They live the way they have always lived. They still work the earth with wood-handled tools six days a week to grow their own food. They sell a pig or a sheep occasionally at the market but rarely leave their cluster of mud-brick homes next to the lone dirt road along the marshy shores of Lake Titicaca.

But under President Evo Morales, said 18-year-old Freddy Callisaya Mamani, something feels different about being an Indian in Bolivia.

"Now we can be equal with the others," he said. "Now there should be no more discrimination."

In three years, Morales has performed stunning political feats in this Andean nation, where he rose from being a coca union leader to become Bolivia's first indigenous president. He seized control of oil, mining and telecommunications companies. He cast out the American ambassador, accusing him of helping Morales's political enemies. He won a recall referendum with two-thirds of the vote. Last month, he pushed through a new constitution that could strengthen his powers and give him another five-year term.

But there is a fierce debate in Bolivia about whether the country is better off under Morales, particularly in terms of indigenous issues, the economy and the government's coca-leaf policy.

The president's supporters say he has embarked on a historic effort to right long-standing inequities and uplift the poor. His rivals, including those in the wealthier eastern regions that are home to more people of mixed or European heritage, want nothing to do with his government or its socialist program. They consider Morales a replica of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Fidel Castro in Cuba, and view him as an authoritarian leader whose misguided economic plan is driving his country toward destitution.

The argument within Bolivia reflects the political alternatives now competing for ascendancy across South America. Leftist presidents in several countries are riding the wave of popular discontent to challenge traditional elites. The international financial crisis has only made the debate more urgent, as these leaders use the collapse of first-world economies to justify their policies.

"Misery, poverty, unemployment are growing, and global capitalism is largely to blame," Chávez told a crowd of thousands at a recent social forum in Brazil that Morales attended.

Regard for Indigenous Poor

One of the clearest effects of Morales's three years in power has been the shift in government attention, if at times more in words than actions, to the masses of indigenous poor in Bolivia. For the roughly 60 percent of Bolivians who describe themselves as being members of an indigenous group, his administration has offered something new: a stake in their government and hope for the future. Many of them, including Morales's fellow Aymara Indians, have been allowed to vote only since 1952. During his 2005 presidential campaign, his supporters held mock voting sessions to show illiterate farmers how to mark his name.

"This is a country that has existed in a state of de facto apartheid for decades, centuries, millennia, depends on how you want to count it," said Jim Shultz, director of the Democracy Center, a human rights organization based in Bolivia. "For people who were so used to being marginalized, even though they're the majority, to see somebody who looks like them, who dresses like them, who talks like them, become the president of their country, you can't underestimate the emotional symbolism of that."

Rufo Yanirico, an Aymara leader in the town of Achacachi and a member of an indigenous military group known as the Red Ponchos, recalled how his elementary school teachers used to be punished for speaking to students in Aymara. Bolivian military officers in the past would never shake hands with an Indian, he said, but at a festival in Achacachi in December, the soldiers were drinking and celebrating alongside the townspeople.

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