Thursday, June 14, 2007

The red ponchos and talk of civil war

The Aymara people, who represent about a third of Bolivia, have a tradition of putting on their red ponchos when they go on a war footing. So any display of this symbol can be interpreted as merely tradition or a threat.

On the day I arrived in Bolivia in September, the vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, recalled his days as a guerilla fighter and urged a crowd of indigenous people to have their rifles ready inside their red ponchos to fight against any attempt to divide the country.

He was talking about the eastern half of the country, known as the Half-Moon, which voted last July for autonomy, meaning more local control of its money and government affairs.

Talk of civil war heated up at that time and again in January when President Evo Morales, at a gathering of 10,000 Aymara in their red ponchos, called on them to fight against any attempt to divide the country. (People in the Half-Moon would say they´re not trying to secede, but they do want more autonomy.)

Morales´s Aymara host announced that day that he had 100,000 people ready to take up arms at a moment´s notice if the president wanted. You can imagine what a stir that caused. These images (the one at the top is from La Razon, the other is from El Nuevo Dia) were on TV and the front pages.

Morales, who has a very positive reputation in Europe and the U.S., frequently engages in saber rattling. When he was campaigning for office, for example, he ended speeches with, `Death to the Americans.´

The talk of civil war died down for a couple of months, but tension is growing again because of conflicts between the central government and the Half-Moon about everything from the Supreme Court to foreign trade agreements.

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