Page last updated at 16:59 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Bolivia's First Lady hopes for unity

By Nikki Jecks
BBC World Service

Esther Morales Ayma

Bolivia is a country marked by social, ethnic and regional divisions.

These splits were in evidence on 25 January when Bolivians voted on a new constitution designed to empower the country's indigenous majority.

The charter was passed overall but several regions voted No.

But Esther Morales Ayma, the country's First Lady, told the BBC World Service she believed the new constitution would help to unite Bolivia.

President Evo Morales, who became president in 2005, is the country's first indigenous head of state since the Spanish Conquest nearly 500 years ago.

Esther Morales helped to raise Evo after their mother died in childbirth and says his determination to help people get things done was obvious from his youngest days.

"When I was little I told my brother to go and get a donkey, and he brought a donkey and he painted it red, yellow and green, and since then we were ready to fight injustice," she said, describing the colours of the Bolivian flag.

But the actions of the grown-up Morales are not universally praised.

The new constitution has given the country's indigenous population more autonomy, a greater share of the country's mineral wealth and set limits on land ownership.

It's all about the fact that they have ruled us for 514 years and they don't want to give up their privileges, that's what it's about
Esther Morales Ayma

But amid the celebrations of Mr Morales's supporters, the rejection of the charter in some parts of the country suggests Bolivia is as divided as ever.

One of the concerns of critics is that the new constitution may frighten away foreign investors at a time when the country needs them more than ever.

Other opposition voices say the changes to the constitution, which include lifting the single term limit for the president, so allowing Mr Morales to seek re-election, constitute a power grab.

Critics also argue that President Morales has mishandled his mandate for social change by polarising public debate instead of uniting it around the constitution.

But Esther Morales strongly defends the new constitution and has harsh words for her brother's opponents.

"It's all about the fact that they have ruled us for 514 years and they don't want to give up their privileges, that's what it's about," she says.

"They don't like the fact that an indigenous person is president. That's why they say these things."


She insists that the divisions will fade and that Bolivia's political and social systems must be reformed.

"The struggle has not stopped. The struggle will keep going."

For Esther Morales, this change has been a long time coming.

Esther and Evo were born into a poor Aymara family in the town of Orinoca in the Bolivian highlands, one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

Our lives as poor people was a struggle, we were pushed into a corner
Esther Morales Ayma

According to the 2007 National Nutrition Survey by Bolivia's Health Ministry, one in every two children in the highlands suffers from malnutrition.

Esther and Evo's parents had seven children. Only three survived childhood.

Esther remembers vividly the fight she and her brother had to hold onto their own indigenous language and identity as children in a life characterised by poverty.

She describes their family home as a simple abode house with a straw roof. The family made a meagre living from farming.

"Our lives as poor people was a struggle, we were pushed into a corner, at seven years old we went to school to learn Spanish."

Now, as president, does Esther see him any differently? "No," she says. "I don't think of him as president, he's my brother."

Women's rights

Evo Morales, who is single, declared his sister First Lady soon after taking office.

President Evo Morales at a rally in support of the new constitution (22 January)
President Morales is hoping to win a second term

But Esther does not sees herself not so much as the First Lady, as a fellow campaigner - her campaign is for the rights of indigenous women.

She says at first she thought it was just indigenous women in Bolivia who suffered repression.

Now, through her travels as the president's sister, she says she has seen that the problem is widespread.

"I thought there weren't poor people or indigenous people in other countries, I thought it was only in Bolivia," she explains.

"We as women, as workers, we see that we are all facing racism in many different countries."

But she refuses to feel bitter, despite the continuing divides in society, instead she says the struggle for justice must simply go on.

"We don't feel bitterness at all, we are all human, we have hands, we are complete people. We care for each other."

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