34 of Bolivia's 36 Ethnic Groups March Against Indigenous President
34 of Bolivia's 36 indigenous ethnic groups are now participating in a 1500-kilometer march against the Bolivian government and Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president. Ten days ago, about 150 members of indigenous communities that make up the CIDOB (Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia - Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia), in the country's northeastern department of Beni, began a long march from Trinidad to the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and plan to continue on from there through Cochabamba and ultimately to La Paz where their goal is to meet with President Evo Morales himself.
The group, which has been marching since June 23rd, includes men, women, children and babies. They claim the government of Evo Morales is not fulfilling promises made for indigenous autonomy as guaranteed by the new Bolivian Constitution. Prior to his re-election and the passing of Bolivia's new National Constitution, at the insistence of Morales' MAS party, indigenous groups in Eastern Bolivia were promised 18 seats in the national assembly, to be formed once the new constitution was passed.
Although the MAS party fought to deter the request for autonomy, calling it a separatist movement, the new Bolivian constitution, which was voted on and passed in 2009, now guarantees that each of Bolivia's 9 departments (states) will have regional autonomy and several indigenous territories were declared autonomous as well. However, an autonomy law must be passed to guarantee these rights.
Shortly after Morales' re-election, the government began debating the new laws needed to form the assembly and promptly decreased the number of representative seats for Eastern Bolivian indigenous groups from the 18 seats promised them to just 7, arguing that the number of representatives each ethnic group should have in the assembly should be based on population numbers. In addition, it states that indigenous groups with less than 1000 members will not have a representative in the national assembly, causing communities that form the CIDOB, who voted for Morales, to feel betrayed and initiate this march.
The new Autonomy Law is currently being debated in Congress and the MAS party, which has the majority, is being widely criticized for attempting to pass a law that will not guarantee regional or indigenous autonomy at all, as members of opposing parties in Congress claim their arguments are being ignored.
The irony of indigenous groups marching against the country's first indigenous president has garnered international attention, clearly embarrassing the Bolivian government.
The group plans to walk from Trinidad to La Paz, covering nearly 1500 kilometers, which could take several months. They are receiving some food and medical help from communities through which they pass. Some members of the march have already fallen ill, victims of diarrhea and dehydration. They've been drinking water they find in rivers and ponds but claim the lack of water is their primary problem.
The Bolivian government claims they are being financed by USAID-funded NGOs in the area, which caused the marchers to feel further mocked. They've stated they are not being funded by any entity, have very little food, water or medications, and have been sleeping in open fields and in tents in small towns along the way. Several journalists have been accompanying the march to report on their progress as they advance toward Santa Cruz.
Throughout the past 10 days members of the march have met with government representatives in several attempts at dialogue; however, the indigenous groups claim they no longer trust the ministers and representatives sent to them. They want Evo Morales himself to go to the area where they currently are marching and speak to them himself.
This mistrust was furthered today when a meeting in Santa Cruz between CIDOB representatives and 3 ministers (of autonomy, the vice presidency and agriculture) was cut short after less than 2 hours of talks.
During the meeting the autonomy minister left the room and held a press conference outside while the indigenous leaders and remaining 2 ministers continued to dialogue inside the Casablanca Hotel. During this press conference he claimed the dialogue had ended unsuccessfully and that the indigenous groups had no intention of dialoguing. He added that the government would not meet their demands as they were considered unreasonable, and stated that the indigenous groups sought only attention and were holding their march for purely political reasons.
He then returned inside and shortly after, the indigenous groups abandoned the hotel. When asked why, by the press, they replied that they had not known the Autonomy Minister was outside giving a press conference to declare the dialogue unsuccessful. They found out about it after he returned to the meeting. However, they insisted that while he was not in the room, they had no idea he was holding a press conference at all.
In addition, CIDOB president Adolfo Chávez indicated that one of the first points of agreement reached with the ministers, prior to initiating dialogue regarding their demands, was that no statements would be made to the media.
Meanwhile, although it claims to be interested in dialoguing with the ethnic groups of the East, the government has been simultaneously running televised ads against them in which it states that the indigenous groups of Eastern Bolivia are attempting to threaten the integrity of the nation. The televised ads show the marchers, then show a map of Bolivia which slowly breaks into pieces.
Although Bolivia is frequently referred to an "Andean" country, under 40% of its territory is Andean. It is also frequently touted as a 60% indigenous national; however, while approximately 32% of the country's population identifies itself as fully or partially of Quechua or Aymara origin, there are 34 additional indigenous groups in Bolivia. These groups reside mostly in the Eastern Bolivian tropics and southern Chaco region and include the Guarani (about 180,000), the Moxos, Sirionó, Yuracaré, Chiquitanos and many others. Their languages and cultures are very different and mostly Amazonic in origin.
They feel the government has broken its promise, as stated in the new constitution, to ensure equal rights and representation for all indigenous peoples.
Over the past 10 days this march has grown from about 150 to nearly 1000 (some media sources accompanying the march calculate there are about 800) as the members of 34 indigenous groups are now sending representatives to join them from all over the country. Several members of congress have also begun a strike in La Paz in support of the CIDOB march, and two former MAS ministers have spoken out against the government as well. One of them is the former Minister of Land Titles. Mr. Almaraz stated recently that the government party used to do what they are now attempting to stop the CIDOB from doing, referring to the dozens of protests and marches the MAS party has carried out in the past. The government responded quickly, calling him a traitor.
There are fears that if this march continues without successful dialogue, it will be met with violence when it reaches the Chapare region of Cochabamba, where the government's MAS party has large groups of supporters. The Chapare is Bolivia's primary coca growing region and Bolivia's president Morales is also the president of the country's 6 major coca producer associations.