SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — A growing indigenous movement has helped topple successive governments in Bolivia and Ecuador and, angered by the destruction of Andean coca crops, now threatens the stability of other countries where Indians are in the majority.
Drawing support from European leftists and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the long-marginalized Indians are tasting political influence for the first time since the Spanish conquest and beginning to wrest power from South America’s white elites.
The leader of Bolivia’s Movement to Socialism party (MAS), Evo Morales, talks about “uniting Latin America’s 135 Indian nations to expel the white invasion, which began with the landing of Columbus in 1492.”
Urbanized Latins ridicule the idea, pointing out that Indians have intermarried with whites and become assimilated into Western culture throughout the continent. In Chile and Argentina, pure Indians make up less than 10 percent of the population.
But with solid support among rural Aymara and Quechuas — who make up 60 percent of Bolivia’s population — MAS regularly receives 20 percent of the national vote in Bolivia and is the country’s strongest political force.
The party harnesses historical ethnic hostilities together with an extremist anti-American agenda, fed in part by resistance to U.S.-backed programs to destroy coca leaf plantations.
Felipe Quispe, who leads the Pachkutec Indigenous Movement, talks about restoring the ancient Inca empire over Bolivia and neighboring Peru — where one-time shoeshine boy Alejandro Toledo became the nation’s first president of Indian descent in 2001.
A one-time guerrilla who fought in Guatemala and led a Bolivian offshoot of Peru’s insurgent Shining Path, Mr. Quispe withdrew his group of deputies from Bolivia’s parliament last year to prepare for what he believes is an “inevitable resumption of armed struggle.”
In the latest Bolivian upheaval, indigenous groups forced the resignation of President Carlos Mesa two weeks ago and then blocked his constitutional successors from replacing him as mobs besieged the legislature.
After the country’s second change of government caused by massive street protests since 2003, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega denounced the hidden hand of Venezuela at a meeting of the Organization of American States.
Mr. Chavez makes no secret of his support for Indian radicals. In a speech last year announcing plans to export his “Bolivarian” brand of revolution, Mr. Chavez said “the powerful indigenous currents of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia are all Bolivarian, as are the peasant movements in Central America and Brazil.”
Mr. Morales of the MAS is in constant contact with Mr. Chavez and often travels with him to international conferences.
“Morales has succeeded in extending his movement throughout Bolivia and beyond,” said Luis Baldomar of the Agricultural Chamber of Santa Cruz, which monitors land seizures that are taking place with increasing frequency in Bolivia’s eastern provinces.
But some Indian leaders complain that MAS does not represent their interests.
Jaime Yubanore who heads a confederation of Guarani communities in eastern Bolivia, is organizing against what he considers to be an “invasion” by the “Collas” from the Andean mountains. “Colla” is a mildly derogatory nickname for people from the high mountains.
“They are violent and too ambitious and want to take our land,” said Mr. Yubanore, who fears that MAS is trying to submerge the identities of local communities into a homogenous movement aimed at gaining absolute political control.