LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A dispute over ethnicity marked census-taking day in Bolivia as the landlocked Andean nation's population submitted Wednesday to its first national head count in 11 years.
The controversy revolved around a decision by the government of President Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, not to include "mestizo" as a category.
It might not have been an issue — "mestizo" never appeared as an option on previous censuses — had not Bolivians been given the option Wednesday of declaring themselves members of one of 40 ethnic groups, including Afro-Bolivians.
Critics of Morales say he is afraid people would check "mestizo," or mixed-race, so as not to identify themselves with a particular indigenous group, thus delegitimizing the government.
"I'm not Aymara. I'm not Quechua. I'm a mestizo," read graffiti painted on walls around La Paz, the capital.
"The government wants to put on display an indigenous country, and if 'mestizo' turned out to be the majority identity its entire indigenous routine gets sunk," said Victor Hugo Cardenas, a former vice president and, like Morales, an ethnic Aymara.
More than 60 percent of Bolivians are of native descent and Morales, who grew up in poverty and became a coca-grower's union leader, has solid support from the Aymara and Quechua, the two principal ethnicities centered in the highlands.
The Morales government rewrote Bolivia's constitution to give native groups political autonomy, naming it a "plurinational state."
Interior Minister Carlos Romero said the result of Wednesday's census would help the government construct such a state. And he noted that people who did not wish to identify an ethnicity could simply check "Bolivian" on the census form.
In practice, the autonomy of the country's native groups has been very limited and Morales has alienated many indigenous Bolivians, especially lowlands Indians, by insisting on plans to build a highway across a nature preserve that would link La Paz with Brazil.
The census aims to provide the government with hard data on who lives where and who has moved around to help it make decisions on distributing resources and providing basic services such as health, education, electricity and water.
Expected to be well-detailed in the census is the economic primacy of the lowlands state of Santa Cruz, seat of opposition to Morales. Although La Paz and the Andean highlands are home to most Bolivians, Santa Cruz produces 70 percent of the country's food and accounts for 27 percent of gross domestic product against 25 percent for La Paz.
Administering the census was estimated to cost $50 million.
Bolivians were obliged to stay at home on Wednesday to participate, silencing the usual cacophony on the streets of the major cities in the country of 10 million.
An estimated 2 million Bolivians live abroad, chiefly in Argentina, Spain, The United States and Brazil.