Is there a shift toward indigenous leaders in Bolivia?

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LA PAZ, Bolivia — Corruption accusations this month put an end to the possibility that Santos Ramirez — an indigenous Bolivian who was considered the second-most powerful leader in President Evo Morales’ socialist party — will succeed Morales in the country’s highest post. 

The question now is whether other native Indians can gain power when Morales’ administration comes to an end. If another Indian succeeds Morales — who was the first Indian president of Bolivia — that would mark an important political shift in this country.

Bolivia is made up of about 60 percent indigenous residents (largely Quechua and Aymara), who for the most part are lower-class. The remainder of the population is white or mestizo (mixed race), and is mostly middle- to upper-class. Morales’ election marked the first since natives and peasants were allowed to vote in 1952 that an indigenous politician has won the presidency.

Morales — who before becoming president was the leader of coca-leaf producers — has implied that Bolivia is on the verge of change. 

Between the recovery of democracy in 1982 and 2005, no presidential candidate managed to capture more than 35 percent of the vote. Before Morales, all the presidents were of European descent, and either leaned to the right politically or were politically moderate.

Then came Morales, a socialist. In December 2005, Morales won 54 percent of the vote in this land-locked country, which is one of the poorest in the Americas. In a recall referendum in August, Morales won 67 percent of the vote. Just last month, a new constitution crafted by his government won 61 percent support. 

Exactly how long will this support last?

"It is possible that from now on future presidents be indigenous, whereas the natives have begun to vote for their own kind," said philosopher and analyst Javier Medina, who drew a parallel with South Africa. In that country, once the black population was entitled to vote, the leaders have all been black.

According to Medina, the "white elites" who governed Bolivia for decades created a flawed nation, with inadequate development. That fact helps explain the indigenous movements, which tend to be nationalist and leftist. 

Morales built an image through anti-capitalist, anti-U.S. rhetoric, and tightened bonds with other Latin American governments hostile to the United States, including Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela and Raul Castro’s in Cuba. Recently, Morales expelled U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg after accusing him of trying to destabilize his regime.

According to journalist Fernando Molina, who recently published the book “The ideology of the new Constitution," being of European descent is no longer a political advantage.

“The association of political power and ‘ethnic prestige’ — understood as having European descent — has come to an end," he said. "The ‘ethnic prestige’ is now someplace else, precisely in the native Indian camp. This will not change in a long time.” Although many high-ranking officials in the Morales government are white or mestizo, it’s the president who is popular, and who has to be elected, Molina said. 

Sociologist Jose Blanes has a different take on the future of indigenous leaders in Bolivia. According to him, the indigenous population here is not as large as people think, because statistics record many mestizos as natives.

"Support to keep Morales in office is transitory," Blanes said. "In the future we will return to a disperse political system, with parties that will not overcome 30 percent."

"When Morales’ speech is drained dry in reference to indigenous empowerment, his power will simply crumble," he said.

The constitution approved last month allows Morales to run again, something that the old constitution would have barred. Elections are likely to take place in December, and Morales is expected to win an easy victory, which would put him in office until 2014. The new constitution also increases the rights of natives and shifts more of the economy to state control.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Bolivia:

Textiles, drugs and politics

For Which it Stands: Bolivia

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