Growing Tensions in Bolivia

Correspondent for Latin America Jeffrey Kofman is on assignment in Bolivia this week. He blogs from the city of Sucre on the growing tensions between President Evo Morales and the opposition.

It is quiet on the white-washed streets of Sucre today. Walk through the magnificent Spanish-colonial streets and it is easy to see why Bolivia's first capital was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But walk over to the town square, the elegant palm-shaded Plaza 25 de Mayo, and you'll see something else. The elaborate etched windows of the stately provincial congress building are shattered. We are told they are remnants of the November 23rd demonstration against the leftist government of President Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president. Demonstrations that left three dead and left this country bitterly divided over Morales's constitutional reforms.

Now the country faces the possibility of yet more violence. If it happens it will likely occur this weekend when Morales's opponents in four provinces are threatening to declare autonomy. They are courting a confrontation with the army if they go through with this.

That said, three of the provinces are sparsely populated (two are in the Amazon) and have little political significance. The big player is Santa Cruz, the large, largely white, oil/gas city in the east. That's where the trouble is most likely to occur. If it occurs. Morales is sending in additional troops just in case. Publicly he is calling for a dialogue and asking everyone to step back till after the New Year. But if pushed he is likely to push back. The one thing that may discourage the Governors from pushing is that they do not have the military on their side and they'd have real trouble standing up to the military.

The confrontation that is so commonly characterized from afar as left versus right is more complex than that. It is important to understand a few things about Morales's opposition in Santa Cruz. There are a few very wealthy families with huge self-interest in fighting any land reform or redistribution: A study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) found that in the region, 100 families own 25 million hectares, while two million subsistence farm families have barely five million hectares. (1 hectare = 2.47 acres)

That’s really the story of Bolivia: it has the worst income inequality of any country outside of a handful of African states. In this country of 9.2 million, 63 percent live in poverty (in rural areas it is 80%) and 650,000 families are living on incomes of less than 600 dollars a year. The white minority has monopolized political leadership/land/resources/wealth here for centuries. That's why Morales has so much support amongst the indigenous majority.

Last weekend while shooting a story in the fertile Yungas region around Coroico, we visited a desperately poor coca farmer and his family. The farmer, whose family lives on less than $3 a day, told us that Morales is the first Bolivian President to care about people like him.

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