Chewing on an illicit coca leaf he brought in to a U.N. meeting on drug policy in Vienna, Bolivia's President Evo Morales, made the case for legalization of coca to a somewhat bemused audience: “This is a coca leaf. This is not cocaine. This represents the culture of indigenous people of the Andean region,” he said.
Morales, a former coca farmer, may be best known in the United States for his publicity stunts, colorful native clothing and close alliance with outspoken anti-American Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. But as an Aymara Indian who was elected president in December 2005, Morales is also widely recognized as Latin America's first indigenous leader.
Although he was re-elected four years later with an impressive 64.2 percent of the vote, many Bolivians have mixed feelings about him. Critics say his socialist government has pushed through constitutional amendments that have dangerously centralized power, particularly a provision allowing the government to seize lands and re-designate them as native community lands.
“The government is trying to control all the branches of government,” said Javier Comboni, who was Bolivian finance minister under the previous administration and is now a professor of political economy at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. “They have been successful but with absolute power comes absolute corruption,” he continued, citing harassment of the judiciary and the takeover of private property in the natural gas-rich eastern lowlands as evidence.
Bolivian President Evo Morales — Latin America's first indigenous leader — greets Andean natives during a collective marriage ceremony for 355 couples in a coliseum in La Paz, on May 7, 2011. The ceremony was designed to honor ancient Andean rituals. (AFP/Getty Images/Aizar Raldes)
Bolivia's ambassador to the Netherlands, Roberto Calzadilla, who is of mixed ethnic background, firmly rejects such criticisms. The 2009 constitution, approved in a referendum, “recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples, which previously were denied and repressed for so long,” he says. It establishes an “equal rank and hierarchy” among various tiers of government and formally recognizes that Bolivia's “36 indigenous communities and groups have the right to territory, language and their own communitarian justice.”
Bolivia's wealthy class opposes the new constitution, largely because it bans private ownership of more than 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres) of land.
About 60 percent of Bolivia's 10 million people are indigenous, but until Morales’ victory they had never reached the highest echelons of power. Previous Bolivian leaders came from among the country's “mestizo,” or people of mixed European-indigenous descent, who today live mostly in the eastern lowlands.
The languages used by the two largest indigenous groups, the Aymara and Quechua, were not officially recognized until 1977. The two groups live mostly in the western highlands, while smaller indigenous groups, such as the Guarani, Arawak and Chiquitano live in the eastern lowlands.
Calzadilla says the situation for indigenous peoples in Bolivia has greatly improved since the 1950s, when the elite populations of largely European ancestry viewed the natives as slaves, or “pongos,” and did not allow them to enter the main square of the capital, La Paz. Today, he says, indigenous people are represented in the executive and legislative branches of government and at all levels of the army. The Morales government also has adopted anti-racism laws, and many indigenous Bolivians credit Morales’ policies with helping them to finally reach equality after centuries of discrimination.
But the 40 percent of the population with European or mestizo ancestry who still control most of Bolivia's mineral and petroleum resources fear Morales will redistribute their wealth to poorer regions. The lowlands’ economic dominance has emerged only in the past few decades. During colonial times, Bolivia's wealth was concentrated in the silver- and tin-rich highlands.
Eduardo Gamarra — a comparative politics professor at Florida International University in Miami and a Bolivian national — notes that lowlanders are worried because the Morales government “has been sending waves of indigenous people into the lowlands of Santa Cruz.” That could erode the political power of the mestizo elite and make them more intolerant of indigenous groups. He adds that “Venezuela is financing Morales,” and points out that Morales and Chavez “are both anti-U.S. and view the white elites as racist.”
Calzadilla admits that in the early years of Morales’ rule “strong resistance came from the nonindigenous population, mostly descendents of the Spanish colonizers” who live in the lowlands, some of whom in 2007 and 2008 even threatened to organize a secessionist movement. Such talk seems to have quieted down in the past couple of years.
Although most indigenous Bolivians support Morales, some also criticize him. For example, the indigenous communities living in sprawling Madidi National Park worry about government plans to authorize oil and gas drilling and construction of a hydro-electric dam and highway in the park.
Mirna Fernández, coordinator of the Save The Madidi Campaign, says President Morales is guilty of “reprehensible incoherence” by invoking Pachamama — or Mother Earth, the Andean deity of indigenous peoples — while moving to exploit nonrenewable resources in protected areas.
Calzadilla says the government's relations with indigenous groups in the lowlands are “very good” but admits that native communities take a more “ecological” view of government infrastructure projects in the area.
— Brian Beary