LA PAZ, Jan 22 (Reuters) - After centuries of discrimination, Bolivia’s Indians are poised to strengthen their political clout by voting for a new constitution promoted by one of their own, the country’s first indigenous leader.
President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, says the constitution being put to a referendum vote on Sunday will create a multicultural state where indigenous people have a greater say and end a status quo that favors a mixed-race elite descended from Europeans and Indians.
“This fine land belongs to us: Aymaras, Quechuas, Guaranies, Chiquitanos ... The rights of those that were born in this land are recognized in the new constitution,” he told supporters in southern Bolivia this month.
Ethnic identity, such as speaking an Indian language or following spiritual traditions from before the Spanish conquest imposed Christianity, is a powerful force in Bolivian politics and is expected to guarantee approval for the constitution.
Even though some 60 percent of adults in this impoverished country of about 10 million people consider themselves indigenous, many still feel looked down upon.
“They always sideline us, we never get preference. For example, in a hospital, in public places, in banks, in stores, we get looks,” says 43-year-old Cristina Yapu, an Aymara Indian who wears volumnious traditional skirts and long braids.
Like many indigenous people, Yapu reveres the leftist Morales not so much because of his policies to increase state revenue from natural resources and distribute profits among the poor, but because they feel he is one of them.
“I know very little (about the constitution) ... but I plan to vote ‘yes’ .... I have faith in Morales and his reforms,” said Yapu, a widow who supports her two children by selling groceries in a neatly-stacked store on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital high in the Andes.
Polls show at least 55 percent of Bolivians will vote “yes” for the new constitution, allowing Morales to run for re-election, increase state control over the economy and give indigenous peoples more representatives in a new “multicultural” legislature.
It says Indian groups must be represented on the Constitutional Tribunal and it would allow Indian communities to punish suspected criminals according to traditional customs instead of in courts based on European legal systems.
The charter recognizes the right to self determination for Indian groups on community lands and gives them the right to exploit the land’s renewable resources as well as a say over the extraction of oil, natural gas or minerals.
It also states that public officials must speak an indigenous language as well as Spanish if they work in regions where locals speak an Indian language.
Raul Prada, a former member of the assembly that drafted the constitution, said Bolivian democracy cannot work if it is based on a rejection of indigenous customs.
Now a government adviser, he says the constitution aims to recognize Indian groups’ “ways of governing, their rules ... their worldview and their language.”
But he also foresees an uphill battle for the cash-strapped government to implement many of the reforms. “The struggle is not over yet ... it’s going to be difficult.”
The drafting of the constitution took over two years and was marked by conflict between Morales’ leftist government and the right-wing parties that dominated politics for decades.
Morales has strong support among Indians in the Andes and faces his toughest opposition in eastern regions such as the lowland farming powerhouse of Santa Cruz, where most people do not follow Indian traditions.
The opposition-led Senate allowed Morales to call a nationwide vote on the constitution after he agreed to run for only one more term and to change the draft to give more autonomy to opposition-run regions.
Critics say reforms included in the charter could make it easier for Morales to gain control of the two legislative chambers in a December general election, giving him almost unfettered power.
Others fear the constitution will trigger discrimination against the mixed-race minority.
Xavier Albo, a Spanish anthropologist who has lived more than 50 years in Bolivia said it would be the most advanced constitution in Latin America regarding indigenous rights, and is dismissive of its opponents.
“Deep down they have a guilty conscience ... they worry that (the Indians) could do to them what they have done to the Indians,” he said.
To read more about the constitutional changes, double click on [ID:nN21463556] Editing by Terry Wade and Kieran Murray