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Bolivia Hungry for Changes

South America: Vote to elect a president and Congress comes amid protests and stark poverty.


HUATAJATA, Bolivia — In this town on the edge of Lake Titicaca, presidential candidate Felipe Quispe, an Aymara Indian, talks openly of starting a war against the government. Fifty miles away, on the outskirts of La Paz, the capital, thousands of peasants are marching to demand that Bolivia's Constitution be thrown out and rewritten.

The presidential candidates of the major parties are dancing around an unspoken truth: Bolivia is broke, and there is little money to pay for all the new jobs, hospitals and schools that the contenders in today's elections are promising to bring to this desperately poor country.

"The political system has reached a point of exhaustion," said Sacha Llorentti of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights in Bolivia, a nongovernmental organization here. "And at the same time we are seeing new groups trying to force their way into the system."

Racked by Divisions

Bolivian voters will elect a new president and 157-member Congress today. Like no other election in this nation's convulsive history, it has brought to the fore Bolivia's gaping ethnic, regional and social chasms.

Already one of Latin America's poorest nations, Bolivia is in its second year of recession. Its growing budget deficit is proportionally larger than that of Argentina, the region's better-known crisis economy.

"We Bolivians have a tremendous capacity for putting up with hunger," said Antonio Peredo, vice presidential candidate of the Movement Toward Socialism, which is running third in some surveys here. "But now things are so bad that more than half the people don't know what it [means] to have bread and sugar."

Cry for 'Positive Change'

The man widely expected to finish first in the presidential race, Manfred Reyes Villa, is the 47-year-old mayor of Cochabamba and founder of the New Republican Force. A former military man, Reyes Villa has portrayed himself as an outsider because he is not a member of one of the four parties that have dominated Bolivian politics for decades.

Bolivia needs "positive change," Reyes Villa says, repeating his campaign's catch phrase. Among other things, he promises to double the nation's education budget.

But even if Reyes Villa finishes first, he might not become Bolivia's next president. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters proceed to a runoff in Congress on Aug. 6. Traditionally, Congress has picked a president only after weeks of back-room deal-making.

No matter who is elected, political observers doubt that any of the major parties can govern Bolivia, which has been shaken for months by a series of protest movements, most in its vast and impoverished interior.

Some of the most violent demonstrations have been against the current government's moves to eradicate coca farming, in which the leaves are used to make both cocaine and traditional remedies. The most prominent opponent of the crackdown has been Evo Morales, a former coca farmer and founder of the Movement Toward Socialism. Morales has become a cult hero to many here since legislators voted this year--under intense pressure from the U.S. government--to remove him from his seat in Congress.

"It was a big mistake on the part of the political elite to kick him out of Congress," said Carlos Toranzo, project coordinator for ILDIS, a La Paz think tank. The U.S. Embassy was seen here as being behind the removal. "Now Evo Morales has become a symbol of Bolivian dignity and sovereignty," Toranzo said.

In the last year, Morales has moved beyond his base of support among coca farmers in Bolivia's tropical east and south to build alliances with the urban left, a coalition symbolized by his choice of candidate for vice president, Peredo. The candidate is a member of a prominent La Paz leftist family, and his brothers joined Che Guevara's failed Bolivian guerrilla movement in 1967.

"The coca farmers aren't the only marginalized people in this country," said Peredo, who was exiled from Bolivia during the dictatorship that gave way to democracy in 1985.

The Movement Toward Socialism has become the first truly national party here with Indian leadership. And Morales, an Aymara with mostly Quecha supporters, could win a Senate seat in the election.

Rallying Indian Voters

Several members of Quispe's Pachakuti Indigenous Movement are expected to be elected to Congress. Despite its low single-digit showing in national surveys, Quispe's party has a strong following in the Altiplano plateau around La Paz, home to the Aymara people.

His one-truck campaign caravan recently spent a day in the impoverished Aymara towns around Lake Titicaca, passing out posters that urged villagers to "vote for your blood."

"The Mallku is here," people called out as Quispe neared, using the Aymara word for condor, a term of respect for community leaders.

"I am going to win, I will govern, and for the first time an Indian will be president of this country," Quispe said in an interview in Huatajata. "And we are going to return this land to its rightful owners."

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