Saturday, December 29, 2007

Indigenous issues: Indigenous majority confronts rich separatists

The Indigenous majority of Bolivia mobilized massively Dec. 15-16 to defend its gains made by the Constituent Assembly that concluded Dec. 12. Leaders of the old racist European-origin oligarchy declared “autonomy” Dec. 15 in the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando. These provinces comprise more than half the national territory, but only about a third of Bolivia’s population. They also hold most of Bolivia’s natural gas and petroleum wealth and the richest agricultural land.

President Evo Morales placed the armed forces on alert. Government supporters outside Santa Cruz, the center of the “autonomy” movement, took up arms and created blockades, according to a CNN report. Tens of thousands of people mobilized on Dec. 15 in La Paz, the capital, in defense of the new constitution. “We won’t permit Bolivia to be divided,” President Morales declared to the crowd. “They must give back the money they took from us,” he said. “We will retroactively investigate all the big fortunes, and the corrupt are now trembling with fear.

“Bolivia is a nation among nations,” Morales said, referring to the diversity of Indigenous peoples whose traditions date back centuries. “We are not a country of blue-eyed, green-eyed folks only. It’s a pluri-national country made up of dark-skinned and white-skinned. This new Constitution will unite us.” (CNN, Dec. 12)

Morales is a member of the Aymara nation, who together with the Quechua people and 35 other Indigenous nationalities, make up the overwhelming majority in this country of 9.5 million. These proud people, descendents of the centuries-old Inca civilization, were enslaved by the Spanish conquerors, and have remained essentially oppressed and exploited until the current struggles, which brought Morales into office in December 2005.

President Morales’ administration nationalized the oil and gas industry in 2006, over the protests of the elite and their backers in the large transnational oil companies. Now, in the new provisions to the Constitution, the majority Indigenous communities will have local authority, their 37 languages will become official languages of the country, and—most horrifying to the oligarchy—they will have the right to regain land taken from their ancestors over generations. The new Constitution also provides for new taxation of the rich, in order to return the national wealth to the people.

Leaders of the oligarchy boycotted the Constituent Assembly, where these proposals were approved. But they still protested in horror at the results. “Evo [Morales] is putting us on the road to chaos with ideas that discriminate against people who are not indigenous,” declared the president of the separatist Pro-Santa Cruz Committee in a Dec. 16 interview with the New York Times. The elite “autonomy leaders” drafted regional charters that would give provincial officials power over natural gas royalties, agricultural policies, and police forces. They also propose to limit migration of Indigenous people to the eastern provinces from the Altiplano (high plain), where the majority lives.

There is irony in the former slave owners moving to declare autonomy after the descendents of the slaves and forced laborers have risen up to reclaim what was stolen from them. And they seem to believe they have a just claim for “self determination” against the new government that for the first time in 500 years truly represents the majority of the people. As ridiculous as it seems, the elitists are dead serious, and appear to have confidence—possibly due to support from the giant oil companies and the imperialists in Washington.

But Morales and the Indigenous majority are serious, too, and are ready to fight to keep their country together and return its stolen riches to the people. The slogan at a vigil of thousands of Indigenous miners, peasants, neighborhood organizations and others outside the Constituent Assembly when the new measures were announced on Dec. 12 was, “Ahora sí empieza el cambio!” [Now, for real, the change begins!] (Indy La Paz, Dec. 12)

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