George W. Bush and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez crisscrossed Latin America on parallel tours recently, pushing opposing agendas. While Bush touted free trade, cooperative ventures and US aid programs, Chávez touched down in Bolivia, where his socialist ally, President Evo Morales, is dancing precariously with a divided population.
“We want to keep the fighting in the assembly and out of the streets,” Willy Padilla told us in September 2006 in Sucre, Bolivia’s constitutional capital. The assembly to rewrite the Constitution had been mired in infighting, and Padilla, a politically middle-of-the-road assemblyman, was worried. “If the assembly doesn’t do its job, this is a possibility.”
Protest movements paved the way to the December 2005 election of Morales as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, but the transition from the streets to the presidential palace has been far from smooth. Padilla’s fears were realized in January, when youth groups sponsored by “civic committees” and armed with lead pipes, barbed wire and hockey sticks confronted coca-farmer unions in a bloody street battle in Cochabamba. These civic groups are part of a regional right-wing movement against the changes Morales is pushing. The coca unions demanded the resignation of conservative governor Manfred Reyes Villa, while Reyes and his right-wing allies called for regional autonomy from the central government.
The conflict in the streets, like the conflict in the assembly, was born out of diametrically opposed views on how best to run the country and its natural resources. On the one side is the socialist vision of Morales; on the other that of the business elites, landowners and right-wing politicians struggling to keep their power. More than a year after Morales’s landslide electoral victory, his administration has given the state more control over natural gas and mines, convoked an assembly to rewrite the Constitution, redistributed land and defended coca growers’ rights. At the same time, regional and class divisions have exploded on many levels.
The constitutional assembly is the formal version of the fight over the nation’s political and economic direction. Approximately 60 percent of the country’s population is indigenous, and the same percentage lives below the poverty line. Many of these disenfranchised citizens see the assembly and their new president as an opportunity to create a country that will include them in its idea of progress.
Elections were set for the new assembly before Morales took office, but conservative sectors demanded that they include a referendum on autonomy for Bolivia’s nine states, or departments. Autonomy in this scenario means greater local control over natural resources, lower taxes to the central government and more political power on a local level. In effect, this is a gambit by entrenched elites to retain their power, or at the very least for economically rich eastern lowland departments like Santa Cruz to distance themselves from the socialist movements of the western highlands.