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Labor Day in Bolivia

'nuff said! May 1st is Labor Day in Bolivia. Everything will be closed and no one will work. Well almost no one. On Labor Day I plan to labor.

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Making History in Bolivia

Bolivia is set to undergo some monumentally important changes very soon, but just what these will be, and in what direction they will take the country, depends a lot on a history-making event scheduled to take place on May 4th - The Autonomy Referendum, when the general population of Santa Cruz will vote YES or NO to departmental autonomy.

I thought I should dedicate part of this issue to a short explanation of what Autonomy is and why Santa Cruz is pushing for it because there seems to be so much confusion and mystery surrounding the issue, especially internationally.

What this basically means is that each of the country's nine departments would have control over its own budget. Currently all tax monies are sent to the central government in La Paz, where a national budget is passed and money is disbursed back to the departments. For over 400 years, as the country's largest city, most tax money remained in La Paz and the remaining 8 departments were virtually left to fend for themselves.

Now Santa Cruz is the country's largest department and its population is exploding. It generates over one third of the country's Gross National Product but doesn't get back anywhere near the amount it needs to provide proper infrastructure and services to its swelling population (most of which consists of immigrants from the west, like La Paz).

Many in Bolivia and internationally have been confused by this and have interpreted the call for Autonomy as something more like a desire by Santa Cruz to completely sever itself from the rest of the country and form a new nation. This is not the case, as I understand it. Basically, Santa Cruz wants what the United States has had for over 200 years. A national tax system and a state tax system.

Unfortunately, the misconception is that Santa Cruz, now suddenly (and very recently) wealthy due to the discovery of oil and gas deposits in the region, simply doesn't want to share the wealth. I've seen President Morales (Bolivia's first indigenous president) described in many blogs and news articles as a sort of a Robin Hood fighting the rich to save the poor while cruceños are described as money-hungry rich, huge land-owning whites. (Most of Santa Cruz' population is not white. More than half of the population is comprised of indigenous immigrants from all areas of Bolivia).

What hasn't been talked about much is that upon becoming president, Morales and his Socialist party the MAS, promptly made great changes to the constitution behind closed doors, while hundreds of his supporters blocked opposition congressmen and representatives from entering to vote on the issue. He also promptly nationalized the oil and gas industry and most recently prohibited the export of several key agricultural products that are grown exclusively in Santa Cruz in an effort to halt the autonomy process by bringing the department to its knees economically.

Now me, I'm trying my level best to remain impartial. I love La Paz (lived there 10 years) and I love Santa Cruz (lived here 10 years) and I happen to think that all parties involved truly believe their intentions are good. Evo wants better living conditions for the country's Aymara population (currently the country's largest indigenous group). Evo himself is Aymara, so that's logical. However, there are 30+ other indigenous groups whose needs are not being met and whose voices are not being heard. Leaders in Santa Cruz firmly believe they are doing their best to finally bring some much needed money in to this region of the country which, again, has been grossly ignored for over 400 years.

The problem is, this is being portrayed both nationally and internationally as a RACE issue. Evo and the largely indigenous population of the western half of Bolivia believe cruceños simply want to hold on to their wealth because they are of European descent and as you know, the Spanish enslaved the indigenous people of western Bolivia for over 200 years, so that MUST be the case.

Cruceños (who largely had nothing to do with that because Santa Cruz was founded by a wayward Spaniard who, by the way, settled the region AGAINST the instructions of the King of Spain, and anyway the Aymaras and Quechuas neither inhabited in this region at the time nor were they enslaved here) believe that Santa Cruz has been ignored for too long while for over 4 centuries all the country's wealth was kept in La Paz. And they feel that Santa Cruz is only now large and wealthy enough to be in a position to actually defend itself and finally assert its rights.

What strikes me, is that although many are of European origin, most cruceños feel they've been trampled upon and their rights and needs have been ignored at least as much as, and for at least as long, any of the indigenous groups from the West, and that they also have been a minority for a very long time.

Either way, it is really this dislike between the cambas (eastern Bolivians) and the kollas (western Bolivians) that is dividing the country. Economics and politics are secondary to this. This social rift has lasted for hundreds of years and is deeply ingrained in this society. As long as people continue to think of themselves as cambas or kollas instead of as Bolivians, consensus on this issue is probably nowhere in sight.

So where do we go from here? Well, on May 4th cruceños will vote YES or NO to departmental autonomy. The central government has declared this referendum illegal. Cruceños are calling the new constitution illegal due to the way in which voting on it (in the absense of any opposition) was handled.

Personally, this all brings Dr. Doolittle's Push-Me-Pull-You to mind for me.

I'm American and I love Bolivia for what it is, maybe because even after nearly 30 years I still see it through foreign eyes. It's a beautiful country (the whole of it) with beautiful people (all of them) and could have a beautiful future if people would just stop seeing things in tacky racial terms.

I'm saddened by what I hear and see happening, but I recognize that Bolivians have one thing going for them. They are anything but complacent about their politics or their future and that's good! Kind of tiresome, kind of annoying, and the firecrackers protesters use are SO last century, but profoundly this is actually very very good! I would worry more if there were no political participation at all, something the rest of us could probably learn a little something from.

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