New Bolivian Constitution to Boost Indian Majority's Rights

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President Evo Morales' drive to reinvent Bolivia takes a big step Sunday with the opening of a convention to write a new constitution aimed at ending the centuries-old supremacy of the European-descended minority.

Morales, a leftist elected in December as Bolivia's first Indian president, envisions the nationally elected Constituent Assembly as nothing less than the "refounding" of the country on a new deal for the Indian majority.

The divisions of class, race, geography and culture that will frame the debate were brought into sharp relief Thursday night as the 255 delegates elected last month were sworn in.

CountryWatch: Bolivia

On one side of the narrow aisle sat the delegates from Morales' leftist party, many wearing the fluorescent-colored knit caps of the Aymara Indians or the bowlers and white straw hats favored by rural women. One delegate wore a miner's helmet.

On the conservative benches, the skin tone was visibly paler, and business suits dominated.

At one point the conservatives, many from eastern provinces which want to keep more of their wealth from being consumed by socialist programs, stood up chanting "Autonomy!"

Morales' loyalists responded with "Revolution!"

After pleas for order, both sides settled down and sang the national anthem.

Sunday's opening ceremony was envisioned as a Latin American event, with the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela joining Morales to play soccer after the ceremony.

But Morales broke his nose playing soccer last week, and the presidents have canceled their trips, mostly because the event conflicted with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's second inauguration Monday.

Morales' closest ally, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, was the last to cancel, with an official announcement late Friday. Morales still intends to play in Sunday's game, though his playing time will likely be limited.

The assembly has up to a year to work on a new charter.

Bolivia's current constitution was adopted in 1967 under Rene Barrientos Ortuno, who rose to power in a military coup and was then elected president. Its last modification came in 1994, when President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada drove changes to the electoral process, including expanding presidential terms from four years to five.

In Sucre, Bolivia's colonial former capital where the assembly is gathering, workers painted bright new crosswalks on narrow downtown streets, and residents had until Sunday to spruce up the facades of their houses or be fined by City Hall.

Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party holds a thin majority in the assembly, but not the two-thirds needed to control the assembly outright. Even so, the party hopes to use the assembly to reshape the Bolivian state to give more power to the long-neglected Indian majority.

Other themes will be the autonomy demands of four wealthier lowland provinces where opposition to Morales, an Aymara Indian from the Andes, runs high. And Morales will try to insert more state controls to give poor Bolivians a bigger role in the country's free-market economy.

On Thursday night, representatives of Morales' party tried to elect Silvia Lazarte, a Quechua Indian political organizer, as the assembly's president. But representatives of Podemos, the conservative party, delayed that move. Some participants hoped the assembly could bring the two sides closer.

"The idea is that through the right proposals, we can build this bridge," said Samuel Doria Medina of the center-right National Unity Party, who ran against Morales last year. "That is how to bring the two sides together: With creativity, with imagination, with good proposals."

But many were doubtful that after centuries of neglect, the two Bolivias could become one so easily.

"The troubling thing you see now is the resentment of the peasants against the people in the city," said lawyer Maria Elena Stroebel, sipping tea at a pastry shop in Sucre's picturesque downtown. "The future of our country is practically in the hands of the constituents. If you're at all conscious of things, you fear the results."

But some Bolivians said that no matter what comes out of the assembly, it's bound to be an improvement.

"If there's going to be a change, well, that's fair," said Modesto Aldunate, a former forest ranger who used to work with Indians and is now supervising a crew painting a theater in Sucre. "What government ever gives any importance to the peasants? None. Never."