Posted on June 9, 2005

Bolivia: Tiny Nation, Big Troubles

Christian Science Monitor, June 9

Corruption. Weak democracy. These two enduring problems help account for the lack of economic opportunity for Bolivia’s poor masses. They also explain why that country is on the verge of tipping left — mirroring a trend by six other Latin American nations in the past three years.

But another big issue at play needs to be more openly addressed, and that’s racism.

The protests in the capital, La Páz, that this week forced Bolivia’s president to offer his resignation and warn of civil war, are led largely by indigenous people. Making up at least 65 percent of the population, these subsistence farmers and miners live mostly in poverty.

Like other Latin American indigenous groups, they’ve gained political clout in recent years. With that, they want a larger share of the economy, especially from Bolivia’s natural gas reserves — the second largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

In some ways, the situation resembles that of South Africa as it emerged from apartheid, says Donna Lee Van Cott, a Tulane University expert on Latin American ethnic politics. Bolivia’s European and mixed-race elites “are absolutely horrified by the gains the indigenous have made.”

Racism is moving from the subsurface into the open, Ms. Van Cott says. She points to recent cases of light-skinned youths harassing Indian protesters and yelling racial slurs, and protesters pulling neckties from people, calling them “white men.”