Bolivia's farmers criticize Morales, fight centralization

Montero (Bolivia) (AFP) –


Bolivian dairy farmer Jose Roca's blue eyes glow with anger when he talks about indigenous ex-president Evo Morales and his supporters. "They call us racists, separatists, all the bad adjectives are for us," he says.

With his 500 cows and 250 acres of land, Roca is a long way from the Andean highlands and the seat of government in La Paz.

Here in the hot and humid region of Santa Cruz, where many people are descendants of Europeans, the fertile plains extend as far as the eye can see.

Roca's grandfather arrived here from Spain in 1910 "to create a new Bolivia."

More than a century later, Roca has 14 employees and his cows produce 1,585 gallons of milk a day. He has just invested $150,000 in a new milking machine.

Roca says he feels Bolivian, yet he shares the misgivings of many in the country's agricultural heartland regarding Morales and the political power centered in La Paz, 480 kilometers (300 miles) to the west.

In Roca's opinion, the only thing Bolivia's first indigenous president did for the landlocked country was "divide" its more than 11 million people.

The "biggest beneficiaries" of his nearly 14 years as president were the coca farmers in the central region of Chapare, Morales' political stronghold in the foothills of the Andes where indigenous people dominate.

Morales is credited with doing much to repair centuries of injustice in the poor but resource-rich country where 62 percent of inhabitants are indigenous.

His strongest act was the 2009 Constitution which, among other things, officially recognized for the first time the languages of the 36 indigenous groups. The law also began to treat indigenous people the same as other Bolivians.

But in the largely white Santa Cruz, people feel hurt by Morales' policies.

The local dairy industry received "almost zero help from the previous government," complains Klaus Frerking, the head of the sector's federation.

The antipathy for Morales was evident in the October 20 election results -- more than 46 percent of voters in Santa Cruz supported the centrist candidate and former president Carlos Mesa.

Around 35 percent voted for Morales.

The ex-president claimed victory in the election with 47 percent of the vote nationally -- more than 10 percentage points ahead of Mesa -- before the opposition cried foul and the Organization of American States noted irregularities in the results.

- Growth engine -

Santa Cruz and the region's milk sector led the country's post-election protests. For three weeks, thousands of people blocked roads to demand Morales' resignation.

"We have been one of the pillars that helped the fight for the recovery of democracy," Frerking says.

Isolated and abandoned by the police and military, Morales quit on November 10 and fled to Mexico where he was granted political asylum.

Right-wing senator Jeanine Anez declared herself interim leader and has since authorized a new ballot that excludes Morales.

While Santa Cruz's distrust for La Paz was clearly evident in recent weeks, it is not new.

The region has long enjoyed robust economic growth.

"Bolivia has been growing by an average 4.5 percent a year for the past 10 years, and in Santa Cruz it's seven percent," says Fernando Hurtado, president of the region's Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Santa Cruz produces 70 percent of the food consumed in Bolivia, but it feels mistreated by "centralization," says Romulo Calvo, vice president of the Committee for Santa Cruz, an independent civic movement.

"If I want to export, I have to go to La Paz to do the paperwork. If I want to import it's the same," he says.

The rivalry with the capital reached its peak in 2008 with a referendum organized by Santa Cruz authorities for greater autonomy.

The proposal received overwhelming support, but the central government never recognized the result.

After the vote Morales "treated us like racists and separatists," says Roca.

"But it is false."

Roca sums up the problem of centralization with the example of school buildings constructed in Santa Cruz, where the average temperature is 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).

Plans were based on those used for schools in the Andean region where the mercury often drops to nearly 0 degrees Celsius at night.

"We need huge windows, not closed-in buildings," Roca says.