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Bolivia's Morales faces new critic

Indigenous activist's split with her former ally is another rip in the nation's fabric.

September 07, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

SUCRE, BOLIVIA — Renowned as the cradle of Bolivian independence, this colonial town in the south-central highlands has become a front line in a new battle that is threatening to rip this South American nation asunder.

The pugnacious prefect, or governor, Savina Cuellar, a former livestock herder who proudly dons the broad-brimmed hat and billowing skirt that mark her indigenous origins, has become a symbol of the country's deep divisions.

Her peasant background inevitably evokes comparisons to the humble history of leftist President Evo Morales, the coca-leaf cultivator who in 2005 was elected Bolivia's first indigenous president.

But the two allies have become bitter adversaries. Their differences say much about the schisms of class, region and ethnicity that some fear have left Bolivia on the verge of civil war. Five of Bolivia's nine governors, including Cuellar, are lined up against Morales and his controversial plans for a new constitution.

"Evo says there is a democracy, but what I see is a dictatorship," says Cuellar, seated inside the ornate government palace on the scenic plaza, her sentences interspersed with phrases from her native Quechua. "For me, Evo doesn't represent the indigenous people, because they're dying of hunger."

She defiantly rejects the class-warfare rhetoric of Morales, who accuses a U.S.-backed, racist "oligarchy" of conspiring to topple his socialist vision of nationalizations, land reform and Indian empowerment.

"Evo is the racist: He is dividing Bolivia," asserts the diminutive, ever-combative Cuellar. "I don't have anything against the rich. Thank God there are rich! They give us work, so we have something to eat."

The government and its allies deride Cuellar as a sellout: a puppet of the right-wing, white and mixed-race aristocracy that has long dominated Bolivia. The Morales government says it is the first to champion the country's indigenous majority, though others say most Bolivians are in fact of mestizo or mixed-race origins, and not pure Indian.

"Savina has become a tool of the powerful," says Esteban Urquizu, head of a pro-government federation, as he and others chew coca leaves in the group headquarters here. "She is being used, manipulated."

An account in a Mexican newspaper labeled Cuellar the "Bolivian Malinche," after the widely reviled Indian woman who aided the Spaniard Hernan Cortez in his 16th century war of conquest.

Cuellar, a former domestic servant and mother of seven, had little formal education. Her mother died when she was 2, and from an early age she helped care for her siblings, while also minding the family's cows and sheep in her native village of Ichupampa. She showed early leadership skills, however, eventually developing a regional reputation as an advocate for rural women.

A turning point on her path to political activism, Cuellar says, were the killings seven years ago of her father, her husband and her brother-in-law in a robbery. She successfully pressed for authorities to track down the killers and send them to prison.

"From then I fought for justice, for change," says Cuellar, who became a partisan of Morales' Movement to Socialism party. Morales swept to the presidency in December 2005.

But Cuellar split with the central government last year during a raucous convention held here to rewrite Bolivia's Constitution, Morales' top priority. She had served as a delegate for the ruling party.

The proposed overhaul of the constitution has become the focal point of Bolivia's fractious national political debate. Critics say it will perpetuate Morales' power and drown dissent. But the civic leaders of Sucre had one overriding demand: to return national capital status to this city of 250,000, restoring the glory it had lost in the 19th century to the western highland city of La Paz.

For Morales, whose political base is La Paz, there was little choice but to reject the notion of moving the capital.

The debate took a belligerent, bloody turn. Supporters of moving the capital to Sucre clashed violently with police officers and troops on the streets of this normally laid-back town, a popular tourist destination. Three were killed and hundreds wounded in days of rioting.

Cuellar, an ardent advocate of the capital switch, broke with the government. The opposition turned to her as an alternative to head Chuquisaca province, of which Sucre is the capital. She won the governor's seat handily against a Morales surrogate, getting overwhelming backing from the urban, educated middle class and elite, mostly of mixed-race and European origins.

As Bolivia's national political drama appears to be headed toward a climax, Sucre now stands defiantly in the opposition camp that Morales labels seditious. With the president seeking a referendum in December on his proposed constitution, the national atmosphere is so poisoned that traveling here or to other rebellious states poses a security risk for Morales.

"The government in La Paz needs to recognize its errors," Cuellar says. "I became an activist trying to do away with injustice. But now there is more injustice than ever."

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patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

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