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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 September 2007, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Battle for Bolivia's heart
By Lola Almudevar
Sucre, Bolivia

Since the 1890s, La Paz and Sucre have shared the title of Bolivia's capital. However, proposals to transfer executive and legislative government to Sucre have resulted in demonstrations in both cities and a crisis for President Evo Morales.

A demonstrator in La Paz
Sucre has a population of 250,000 compared to La Paz's 1.7 million
Consuelo de Miranda is selling out of three items you might not expect to find in a pharmacy: vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and face masks.

Her customers will sip the vinegar, dab the bicarbonate of soda under their eyes and wear the masks to reduce the effects of tear gas, which has been used by police to control demonstrators twice this week.

Welcome to Sucre. A Unesco World Heritage Site, whose famous white buildings are now daubed in red and black graffiti and where more than 100 hunger strikers are camped out in the main square.

But the fight is not against the so-called "white city", it is for it.

Protesters here want Sucre - Bolivia's judicial seat of government, and the constitutional capital - to regain control of the legislative and executive branches of government, currently held by La Paz, thus making it the sole capital.

It is a dispute, which has simmered since the country's civil war in 1898.

More than 100 years later, it is becoming the most serious crisis Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, has faced since coming to power.

And the campaign is not confined to Sucre.

The opposition parties in the eastern and western regions have united behind the cause, saying they are not just fighting for the capital, but for democracy as well.

They joined the Sucre protesters after the Constituent Assembly, which was set up to re-write Bolivia's constitution, voted not to discuss Sucre's claim, a move that was criticised as undemocratic.

Now the protesters cry "democracy yes, dictatorship no" as they stomp through the streets, increasingly with batons and sticks in their hands.

'Democratic revolution'

But the picture can be confusing.

Smoke surrounds buildings in Sucre
These days Sucre's skies are often filled with black smoke
At a rally last week, I spotted a protester with a swastika on his rucksack. When he told me he was marching for democracy, I asked what he meant.

He sniggered and shrugged.

"Well can you tell me why you have a swastika on your back?" I persisted. He looked at me blankly and said: "What's a swastika?"

Democracy is still relatively new to Bolivia, and many people do not know what it means.

Evo Morales certainly has the strongest democratic mandate of any Bolivian president, having won almost 54% of the vote. He has promised social change for Bolivia's indigenous poor, in a process he calls "democratic revolution".

But critics say he is side-stepping the law, excluding the middle classes, and relying on the armed forces to guarantee his government's stability. A factor that makes them nervous in the current climate.

Obligation v rights

There are also claims that this campaign for democracy displays a worrying disregard for freedom of expression.

In Bolivia, neutrality comes at a price
Sitting in one of the only open bars in Sucre during a recent stoppage, I was joined by a disgruntled Frenchman, Iusef Abado.

"'They are trying to make me close the office. In my country, striking is a right not an obligation," he said.

In Bolivia, neutrality comes at a price.

Some academic faculties at Sucre's University penalise students if they fail to join pro-capital demonstrations.

Thousands of peasant farmers, or campesinos, continue to march in defence of the Constituent Assembly, which they see as their ticket to a better future.

But for those who are unwilling to stand up for that future, there are economic and social consequences.

Art protest

Local artist Felix Arcienega is fiercely independent in his controversial views, and as such ostracised by both left and right.

Bolivian President Evo Morales
Evo Morales came to power in December 2005

Two weeks ago he publicly displayed a drawing depicting the leaders of the Sucre campaign as rats and likening them to the Nazis.

The glass, in which the drawing was placed, was smashed. Arcienega was verbally insulted and threatened over the telephone.

When we meet he reminds me of a Bolivian Salvador Dali, with his stern pout and maverick eyebrows, under a wide-brimmed hat. But what he has to say is fairly straightforward.

"It was an act of artistic and cultural expression. Some people agreed with me and some people didn't," he says.

"I wanted a healthy and friendly discussion. But here there is a monopoly over public opinion."


When I leave Arcienega's house, Sucre's skies are filled with black smoke.

Fires are lit in the streets and riot police are poised to shoot their canisters of gas.

Map of Bolivia showing La Paz, Sucre and Santa Cruz
A group of students have tried to take over the building where the Constituent Assembly meets, in an effort to make the Assembly discuss the capital issue.

"This is serious," says one masked protester.

"The police are trying to repress us and people say the campesinos are coming. There's going to be bloodshed."

Just after midnight I am driven home by a local photographer. When I tell him I have interviewed Arcienega he shakes his head.

"That guy's half mad" he says. "He's not really political. He just wants to be original."

My door closes to the distant sound of bangs and explosions and another day in Bolivia's fight for democracy.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 September, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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