The political awakening has extended into Peru, where indigenous people have also closed highways and taken over some small towns. In Ecuador, groups of the Pachakutik movement have pledged to step up protests meant to force the resignation of President Lucio Gutiérrez, whom they helped to put in power but who has fallen out of favor over his free-market policies.It is in Bolivia, the most indigenous country in Latin America, where they hold the most influence. One crossroads for the two visions of Bolivia will come Sunday, when a referendum is held on the issue of how to use the country's abundant natural gas, either exporting it in the hope of conventional economic development, or keeping it for use at home. The outcome could ignite new protests unless President Carlos Mesa is able to finesse the issue through his complicated five-question ballot. He faces Indians who are increasingly aggressive in taking on the government, and have scored a series of victories.Just nine months ago, their protests forced President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozado to resign. Now, they want Mr.Mesa to expropriate Bolivia's oil and gas companies, a proposal he rejects.
In local meetings, some Indians now even talk of forming a completely new nation, reaching across the scrub grass of the Andean highlands into Peru and Chile, where the Aymaras also live. It is a idea that has a powerful hold on this swath of the former Inca empire. "We could remain part of Bolivia, but we want to run things," said Ramón Yujra, the director of a school in Achacachi and an indigenous leader. Felipe Quispe, a former guerrilla and a prominent indigenous leader, went further. "What we've been doing is taking out the government representatives, the police, the transit force, the judges, the subprefects, even the mayors," he said. "Like a drop of grease that expands, if this movement keeps growing, we will reach all of Bolivia."Such talk is enthralling to his followers, and unnerving to the ruling elite and the government. Motivated by a distrust of the ruling class for ignoring their poverty, and rejecting global economics, they talk of a vague - critics say naïve - plan of returning to the Inca past, with a communal agricultural society. All decisions should be made by consensus in local councils, or allyus, these Indians say.
The indigenous movement has surged in the first years of this century, using the ballot box, sometimes violence, and popular protest. In 2000, they stopped a plan by the Bechtel Corporation of San Francisco, the huge conglomerate, from privatizing the water system in Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city. Politically, Indians and their allies now control about a third of the 157 seats in Congress, up from a handful a few years before. But not all Indians, perhaps not even a majority, support Mr. Quispe's plans to found a new society "on the communal system our ancestors lived," fearing that breaking off from Bolivia would only mean isolation, conflict and increased poverty.
Notably, Evo Morales, Bolivia's most influential indigenous leader and a perennial candidate for the presidency, has become a de facto ally of Mr. Mesa and is working within the political system to harness the country's gas riches to help his people. Still, indigenous leaders are confident that one day, sooner rather than later, the Indians will probably run the nation's government, either by winning the 2007 election, or possibly by capitalizing on the kind of revolt that ended Mr. Sánchez de Lozada's brief presidency. Many politicians agree that the Indians are on the verge of
taking power, something that has not happened in Latin America in centuries. "We want to reconstitute our own state," said Eugenio Rojas, an indigenous leader and academic at the teachers college in nearby Warisata. "There is no other option but a new strike. We need a revolution."
The indigenous have the numbers. They comprise up to 61 percent of the 8.3 million people in this vast country, the size of France and Spain combined, so big that over the years the national government's hold on the countryside has been tenuous, at best.
Of Bolivia's 314 municipalities, 200 have mayors and other government officials who are indigenous. This highland region, where indigenous groups are most radical, contains three million Indians stretching across four states that make up a third of the country. Indeed, the battles between the indigenous and the nation's ruling classes - those of European heritage or mixed-race people called mestizos - have led to the most tumult here in Bolivia. Indigenous leaders have been particularly forceful ahead of a referendum Sunday that asks Bolivians about how they want their nascent, but potentially lucrative, gas industry developed. Its five questions ask whether the nation should revive its state-owned oil company, use gas to regain a coastline lost to Chile in war a century ago and exert tighter control over oil and gas. If the questions pass, the government hopes for a new, legal framework that will permit it to raise royalty rates on oil and gas companies and permit the exportation of gas, crucial to this country's development.
objective of the referendum is to immediately end the obstacles
toward the sale of gas," Mr. Mesa said in an interview in La
Paz, the capital. "If the response is positive, we can begin
negotiating contracts for the sale of gas." But the referendum
does not ask the question many indigenous leaders wanted: whether
to expropriate gas installations. Mr. Mesa's government said it
opposes such a plan, citing the cost of buying out foreign-owned
properties at more than $5 billion, more than half of Bolivia's
tiny annual economic output of $8 billion.
do not have light, we do not have gas, we cook with wood,"
said Julián Poma, 42, the leader of Corpaputo. "They
sell gas to other countries, and we get nothing." Directing
much of their anger at foreign exploitation, those indigenous groups
are pushing for a nationalization of properties owned by British
Gas, PetroBras, Repsol-YPF of Spain and others. The threat has slowed
investments by oil and gas companies, dropping from $680 million
That has not stopped some indigenous leaders - Mr. Mesa calls them a radical fringe - who say they plan to burn ballot boxes and hold strikes, particularly in El Alto, a city of 700,000 that is mostly indigenous and has been at the forefront of militancy. "They have become even more radical and they seem more open to resorting to violent acts," Ricardo Calla, the indigenous affairs minister, said of Aymara groups in the highlands east of the capital. "You cannot underestimate its presence and how it is passing down to lowland regions."
Mesa has tried to defuse tensions by pledging to negotiate and avoid
the use of force, even in villages where officials have been forced
out. The government has, in many indigenous towns, never really
had much of a presence, and Mr. Mesa has been reluctant to wield
in Bolivia's urban centers show the referendum will probably pass,
but political analysts say that does not mean Mr. Mesa's troubles
are over. The five questions have been described as artfully written,
vague enough that they will be open to interpretation. "I'm
concerned about those who lose, " said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian
who directs Latin America studies at Florida International University
in Miami. "Are they willing to accept the results?" The
indigenous have made important strides since a miners' revolution
in 1952 instituted universal suffrage and
But for many, it is not enough. In three days of interviews in four indigenous villages across a swath of Andean highlands, Aymara leaders spoke of all kinds of ideas: separating from Bolivia, pressing for more resources, or simply having more autonomy. The clear message, though, was that they had little faith in their government and preferred to run things themselves. It is an idea that is already at work in many villages, even those that do not want a clean break from the capital.
"Each community is like a semi-state: they regulate water, their internal conflicts, their politics," said Álvaro García, a sociologist who is close to Indian leaders. The state, he said, "has not been completely expelled, but there is semiautonomy."
In schools and town offices in the highlands, the posters of past presidents or Independence-era generals have been replaced by those of Túpac Katari, who led a insurrection against the Spanish in 1781. Local councils have banned officials from the state or central governments. Prospective investors with mining companies have been chased out.
"We go to a crime scene but the people tell us we will be lynched," said Marco Antonio Nina, a government investigator who has been unable to investigate the murder of a mayor and other crimes in isolated villages. "People see you, and see the white face, and they do not want to let you in.''
Follow-up story, New York Times, 19 July 2004
Bolivians Support Gas Plan and Give President a Lift
of the referendum is sure to linger because many Bolivians did
not understand the convoluted questions, political analysts said.
Protest leaders said the referendum should have asked only whether
Bolivians wanted the government to take over private energy installations.
Political analysts said the real test would come
during the weeks when the president tried to push through Congress
his new hydrocarbons law, to be based on the results of the Sunday
referendum. If his adversaries initiate demonstrations by opposition
groups, Mr. Mesa, a relative outsider with little support in Congress
and no allies in
you have a guy who has no control over the armed forces, no control
over the police," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian-born expert
who oversees Latin American studies at
the surface, Mr. Mesa, a tall, urbane intellectual addicted to
films, history books and the television network that he founded,
may seem out of place as the leader of an inward-looking country
landlocked in the middle of a continent. A former partner in Mr.
Mesa's network, Amalia Pando, calls him a "man who enjoys
the good things in life," clearly not dealing with the basics
running successfully as vice president in 2002 on Mr. Sánchez
de Lozada's ticket, Mr. Mesa had never held public office. He
belongs to no political party and is not from the elite group
of wealthy landowners, military men and mining barons that has
churned out politicians in the past. But that outsider status
is also welcome in a country where people are inherently distrustful
of traditional politicians and political parties, long accused
is a transparent government, and people recognize that for the
first time they have a president who says what's what," said
Ramiro Molina, a historian at