Leg cramps that started on the fifth day of her hunger strike were not enough to stop Beatriz Leigue de Parada’s “hunger strike” against the constitutional changes planned by the left-wing government of Evo Morales.

The 40-year-old administrator and mother of four – like several hundred other strikers camped out in the main square of Santa Cruz, capital of Bolivia’s biggest rebel department – is determined to stick with her
protest.

The demonstrators are allowing themselves lots of liquids – as well as four almonds and a centimetre of chocolate per day – and will stop their strike when the governor of Santa Cruz, Ruben Costas, today an­nounces a new autonomy statute for the department. So it is hardly “the resistance until death” struggle promised by the banners above Tent 15, occupied by Ms Leigue and about a dozen other women protesters.

Even so, the scene reflects the fact that tensions between Bolivia’s president – an indigenous Aymaran – and the country’s eastern, relatively wealthy and mainly mixed-race departments are running high. And things could get worse if the government opts to force the conservative rebels into submission by sending in police or troops, forcing a confrontation that could lead to violence or even Bolivia’s break-up. Ms Leigue is worried about the prospect of “repression”. Other Crucenos [natives of Santa Cruz] fear an even more catastrophic scenario. Ejti Stih, a local artist, is concerned Bolivia could slip into the same pattern of intransigence and irrationality that led her native Yugoslavia to war in the 1990s. “No one would have thought war was possible in 1982 when I left Slovenia,” she says.

Mr Morales has been at odds with the leaders of Santa Cruz and five other eastern departments ever since his election in December 2005. All six are run by the rightwing or centrist parties opposed to his plans to “refound” the nation to give a bigger say to majority Aymara, Quechua and other indigenous groups.

But things became complicated this month when after a year and a half of stalemate over a new constitution, pro-government legislators railroaded a controversial draft in a matter of hours.

Particularly contentious were clauses in the document – which must still be submitted to a referendum – that granted new rights and autonomy not just to departments like Santa Cruz but to loosely defined communities occupied by indigenous people, allowing them to run justice and other affairs along traditional lines.

Mr Morales describes his opponents as a “fascist oligarchy” that has backed conspiracies fomented by its “US imperialist” backers, a stance that would suggest little room for negotiation. But judging by the protests in Santa Cruz at least, matters seem to be more
complex.

Some of the strikers are comfortably off. Many are members of a myriad of professional and business associations. Employers – such as the soya processing company where 42-year-old Maria Elena Ascarruz works in marketing – are happy to see their staff take time off. But the Santa Cruz protests are also backed by poor local teachers and some indigenous groups.

Indeed, the movement’s varied social composition, says Julio Cesar Caballero, a local journalist, reflects extensive immigration in the past two decades or so, both from abroad – Spain, eastern Europe and the Middle East – and from Bolivia itself as a result of the boom in crops such as cotton and soya. All this has produced a more open and socially mobile society that is different in many respects from the more communitarian culture of the indigenous highlands.

The protesters are alarmed by the indigenous rights planned in the new constitution, arguing these will make their citizenship second class. But they deny accusations of racism. “We are not the monsters that they say we are,” says Ms Leigue, who adds that she and her friends typically help indigenous domestic employees to study and make progress. “Things evolve. We help people out and are inclusive.”

“This is my country as well. We have to be taken into account,” says Ana Maria Seleme, a divorced mother of two and recently qualified psychoanalyst, 41, as she sips iced tea and smokes a cigarette.

Although the protesters distrust Mr Morales’ socialist rhetoric and links with Venezuela and Cuba, they are more worried by botched economic policies that have increased the cost of living.

Government meddling has led to shortages of diesel, for example, that have made it more difficult for farmers to harvest crops, leading to inflation. Rice prices have tripled in recent months. Monica Gutierrez, a 41-year-old primary school teacher, says the poor parents of many of her pupils are now able to afford to eat only once a day.

And despite the fears of the likes of Ms Stih, the protesters are still hopeful that there will be compromise. “We really want it to be settled,” says Ms Ascarruz. “We don’t want a civil war.”

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