Page last updated at 17:09 GMT, Thursday, 21 May 2009 18:09 UK

Colonial scars run deep in Bolivia

As Bolivia prepares to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the start of its independence struggle from Spain, the BBC's Candace Piette finds that colonialist attitudes remain.

Sucre's main food and produce market
Bolivia's indigenous people are among the country's poorest

In a restaurant near the exquisitely preserved old town of Sucre, high in the Bolivian Andes, a gaudy dance troupe entertain with performances depicting the many different regions of the country.

At one of the tables is Alex Aillon, the executive director of the town's bicentenary commission.

He has been preparing for three years for the anniversary celebrations to mark the start of Bolivia's independence struggle from Spanish rule 200 years ago.

"We were at the centre of the ideas of the revolution at the time," he says.

"Sucre was a very important centre, because we have one of the oldest universities in South America here, San Francisco Javier. We are very proud that we started off the ideas of the revolution and were the first people to bring down the Spanish government."

The events in Sucre are the first of a series of celebrations which will take place across Latin America over the next two years as people mark independence anniversaries from their colonial rulers.

But in Sucre, the festival has a sombre side. There is still a huge split between the city's European descendents and the indigenous people - a split which is repeated in many countries of the region.

On the outskirts of town, in the bustling central market, fresh food and produce are brought in from the surrounding countryside.

The music that blares out from pop videos is sung by Indian girls with pigtails; the language spoken by the women in traditional bowler hats and shawls is the Indian Quechua.

But while the culture of the majority indigenous people in Bolivia is flourishing, they still feel the underdogs.

Merianela Paco Duran
They said to us: 'Go back to your pigs, to the countryside and your cows.' We must never let them humiliate us like that again
Marianela Paco Duran

In the main independence square, with brass bands playing and marching for the celebrations, I met Rafael Garcia Mora, a Jesuit priest who has worked for 25 years in the Indian movements.

He believes that in many ways, indigenous people still feel colonised.

"Here they kept up the same style and habits of Spain," he said.

"In other places they kicked out the colonialists but in Bolivia they cut their ties with the empire and established their own government structures and constitutions so they could just carry on benefiting as they had always done."

Sense of injustice

Despite having a president, Evo Morales, who is an Aymara Indian, the indigenous groups of Bolivia continue to be among the nation's poorest, working as peasant farmers or cheap labour.

And according to Rafael Mora, negative stereotypes abound.

We have a great affection for everyone particularly our people in the countryside
Epifania Terrazas
Head of Sucre's social services

"There are many myths saying Indians are dangerous. From when they are very young, children in the cities are told "don't go there or the Indian will get you". In cities like Sucre, people panic if you say 'Indians are coming to take over'," he said.

"In the past, people were told Indians would come, rape the women and steal everything. Actually, it is the other way round. Even today young Indian girls working as maids are still sexually abused. It's common for young men to be allowed to use them to get sexual experience."

Many in the city of Sucre would disagree with these views.

In the cool courtyard of one of Sucre's beautiful renovated colonial buildings, Epifania Terrazas, the head of the city's social services department, says the people of Sucre have no such sentiments.

"We don't have discrimination here. We have a great affection for everyone particularly our people in the countryside. Here we don't have Indians, we are all from peasant stock here."

But the sense of injustice among indigenous people goes deep.

At a local Quechua language radio station, Marianela Paco Duran, one of their journalists has just come off air.

She was attacked as she covered last year's Independence Day celebrations, along with other Indians who were beaten and stripped as they tried to march to Sucre's main square. They had been trying to demonstrate their support for President Morales' constitutional reforms, which give Indians many rights and which recognise their culture.

Merianela Duran still weeps as she recalls the humiliation inflicted on her people by those she considers colonialists.

President Evo Morales (file photo)
President Morales has pledged reforms to help the indigenous communities

"They said to us: 'Go back to your pigs, to the countryside and your cows.' We must never let them humiliate us like that again. It is still in their psychology. They behaved as if there were defending their own, as it if was their right," she said.

Bolivia, like many Andean countries, is struggling to address the imbalance at the heart of its society; here a minority seems unable to accept that the majority Indians are equal.

Governments in the region are having to fight to introduce constitutions and reforms that give rights to Indians, and recognise their culture.

As Latin Americans begin to celebrate 200 years of independence, colonial attitudes of dominance have yet to disappear.

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