The Miami Herald
Aug. 16, 2002

Bolivian Indians drive back exclusion

Congress' new makeup a step to end 'Andean apartheid'

  Special to The Herald

  LA PAZ, Bolivia - When Bolivia's new Congress began its five-year term recently, in the legislative chamber there were copper-faced congressmen dressed in
  feathered indigenous hats and multicolored ponchos, and congresswomen wearing colonial-era dresses, long shawls and derby hats that covered their braided hair.

  There were even bags of the sacred coca leaves at their sides for chewing. The scene was praised as the beginning of the end of ''Andean apartheid,'' a victory over
  centuries of social exclusion of the Indian populations in this South American nation.

  About 30 percent of Bolivia's 154-member Congress is now of Indian origin. In a country in which seven of 10 people are indigenous -- the largest indigenous majority in Latin America -- it is still not completely equitable. But it is a dramatic step forward for the Indians who have long faced social, political and economic difficulties in their ancestral lands.

  ''We never would have imagined this to be possible,'' said Ramón Conde, a sociologist who is an Aymara Indian.

  ''But it isn't an institutional change,'' Conde said. ``So many people voted for Evo Morales not because he was indigenous, but because they were angry at the
  traditional political parties and the economy.''

  Morales, also an Aymara Indian and longtime leader of the coca farmers, finished a close second in Bolivia's presidential race. He campaigned primarily on changing the neo-liberal market reforms that were introduced to the country in 1985.


  In Bolivia's election system, the makeup of the Bolivian Congress usually parallels the results of the presidential race, hence Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party was able to open the door for the first time to a significant number of native people.

  In years past, Indians had been shut out of the leadership of traditional political parties. Efforts to organize indigenous political parties and voters never really took off. Without the political clout or the votes, the nation's leadership has been dominated by a minority whose lineage is European.

  Indians did not get voting and education rights until 1953. Economically, large companies in the private sector are still mostly run by whites. The Indians are seen
  primarily as a source of cheap labor. Indians and non-Indians usually only interact socially in public places. The racism and discrimination can be overt. Indians often are asked to leave hotels and restaurants in downtown La Paz because they're wearing traditional or tribal clothing.

  Only in rare cases have Indians been given top jobs in Bolivian governments, such as in 1993, when Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who was reelected Bolivia's president earlier this month, chose Víctor Hugo Cárdenas as his vice president.

  A well-educated Aymara who grew up in a poor family on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Cárdenas served with Sánchez de Lozada until 1997 and made some positive changes.

  The country's Constitution was symbolically changed during the Sánchez de Lozada-Cárdenas government to identify Bolivia as a ''multiethnic and multicultural
  republic.'' New laws were also passed to recognize indigenous land rights, and intercultural and bilingual education replaced mandatory Spanish instruction.

  About a quarter of Bolivia' 8.3 million people are descended from Aymara-speaking Indians who have inhabited the Andean highlands for centuries. Another three out of 10 Bolivians are Quechua-speakers, descendants of the ancient Inca empire. Then there are several small, isolated jungle tribes.

  Five centuries after the conquistadors came, Indian culture still thrives in religion, dress, language and music.


  But Indian leaders complain the reforms have had little tangible impact on the daily lives of Indians.

  Bolivia's Indian majority continues to suffer from rampant poverty. According to government statistics, 69 percent of indigenous Bolivians are in poverty as compared to the nonindigenous poverty rate of 47 percent. In rural areas, where about half of Indians reside, 85 percent of them live in extreme poverty.

  Basic services such as electricity, potable water and sanitation are lacking in much of Bolivia, but especially so in Indian communities in urban and rural areas.

  Rosendo Copa, a newly elected Aymara Indian congressman, attributes much of the continued problems of Indians to free trade and globalization. Copa says, for
  example, that Indians on small farms must compete with cheap imports from the United States and elsewhere.

  ''The government needs to do more to protect our interests instead of the transnationals,'' Copa said.

  Land and ownership titles promised to indigenous groups for years have also yet to materialize for many Indians, notwithstanding the passage of the 1996 land reform law. In June, nearly 5,000 Indians marched from across the country to La Paz, the Bolivian capital in the Andean highlands. They came demanding a new constitution that would grant Indians more political and governmental representation.