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Sunday, December 06, 2009

In Bolivia, a Force for Change Endures

Published: December 6, 2009
LA PAZ, Bolivia — The slogans and posters of Che Guevara notwithstanding, this is not Havana circa 1969, nor Managua, 1979. Instead, the fervor in the offices of the Deputy Ministry of Decolonization could only be felt in the Bolivia of President Evo Morales, who seemed to be sailing toward a victory in an election on Sunday.

The writing on the wall here, literally, is in two indigenous languages — Quechua and Aymara — unmistakable signs of the political movement that has shaken the institutions of this impoverished nation.

“Jisk’a Achasiw Tuq Saykat Taqi Jach’a P’iqincha,” says the greeting at the office of Monica Rey, who explains that it is Aymara for the new unit she leads, the Directorate for the Struggle Against Racism.

“We are in the process of conquering our country’s minds and, even more challenging, its fears,” said Ms. Rey, listing a variety of projects, including changing the portraits on Bolivia’s currency from the white men who long ruled the country to indigenous heroes like Túpac Katari and Bartolina Sisa, leaders of an 18th-century revolt against Spanish rule.

With a sharply weakened opposition and his visceral connection to the indigenous majority — who make up more than 60 percent of the population — Mr. Morales, 50, is arguably the nation’s strongest leader in decades.

He easily won a constitutional overhaul this year allowing him to run for another five-year term. Now polls here show him and his supporters far ahead as Bolivians voted on Sunday. He is within grasp of solid legislative majorities that would allow him to mold the nation further as its first indigenous president.

Voting appeared to unfold calmly in much of Bolivia on Sunday, according to interviews with voters here and radio reports from other voting centers. “Evo has to stay so he can finish what he started,” said Juan Carlos Garcia, 24, a street vendor in El Alto, a city of slums above La Paz, before casting his vote at a crowded polling station Sunday morning. “Those who disagree must bend to the will of the majority,” he added.

Mr. Morales voted early Sunday in Villa 14 de Septiembre, a community in the Chapare jungle of central Bolivia, a coca-growing region that is a bastion of support for the president. He said voters had the right to decide between “the process of change or neoliberalism,” the term Mr. Morales often uses to disparage market-oriented economic policies.

But his dominance has earned him some unexpected rivals, beyond the opposition he faces from traditional elites in the rebellious eastern lowlands. His broadening influence also feels oppressive to an array of indigenous politicians struggling to emerge from his shadow.

“This government exists to spend money on Evo’s campaigns at the expense of the rest of us,” said Felipe Quispe, 67, an Aymara Indian who entered politics after leading a guerrilla insurgency in the 1980s and being imprisoned in the 1990s. “Evo is an Indian dressed in fancy clothing, surrounded by white men and mestizos.”

The iconic Mr. Quispe, who commands a radical party with a small percentage of voters, said the Aymaras, about a quarter of Bolivia’s population of 9.8 million, should reject the very idea of Bolivia to form a homeland with Aymara-speaking people from Peru’s high plains. “We must de-Bolivianize ourselves,” he said.

Ricardo Calla, an anthropologist and the minister of indigenous affairs in a previous administration, said that just as Mr. Quispe stood to the left of the president, other indigenous politicians had emerged across the ideological spectrum, suggesting a more varied political class than presented by state media here.

In the center, for instance, is Savina Cuéllar, a provincial governor in southern Bolivia. To the right is Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, a former vice president whose home was attacked by a pro-Morales mob this year. Still further to the right is Fernando Untoja, an Aymara intellectual running for Congress on the ticket of Manfred Reyes Villa, a former army captain trailing far behind Mr. Morales in second place.

“Evo himself,” said Mr. Calla, the anthropologist, “could be considered the authoritarian left.” Contributing to this classification, he argued, was Mr. Morales’s resistance to cooperating with other parties, threats to jail opponents and the celebration of his administration in government-paid advertising. Mr. Calla called the government’s exuberance over Mr. Morales’s achievements “a cult of personality” in the making.

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