By FRANK BAJAK
Associated Press Writer
LAGUNILLAS, Bolivia - Juan Vasquez didn't have much of a childhood. He never went to school, began to work as a ranch hand at age 12, married three years later and has nine children.
But in all his 55 years, Vasquez says with moistening eyes, he never got paid - not unless a daily meal from a communal pot can be called compensation; or a twice-yearly allotment of used clothing.
"I didn't know what it was to earn money," Vasquez says through a half-set of teeth stained evergreen from chewing coca leaf.
With re-election last month of Evo Morales, Bolivia's first Indian president, and with Indians of Vasquez's Guarani people winning seats in congress for the first time, the end may soon be at hand for a system the U.N. has classified as "forced labor and servitude."
Though the Guarani Indians account for only about 85,000 of Bolivia's more than 6 million Indians, they have been the most downtrodden, and that makes them a priority for Morales in his mission of eradicating all vestiges of colonial repression.
For now, several thousand newly "liberated" Guarani, including Vasquez, live in a penniless limbo, waiting for the government to make good on its promises to give them land.
But Bolivia already has taken giant steps toward ending a centuries-old legacy of what Morales calls endemic mistreatment of its third-largest ethnic group by white overlords.
His landslide re-election was a ringing endorsement.
Another expression of the Guaranis' political awakening came in the same election, when voters approved autonomy for Indians in two Guarani-dominated municipalities. In April, the Guarani are poised to win a number of mayoral races for the first time here in their traditional homeland in southeastern Bolivia, where Andean foothills meet broad plains of dry scrub that extend east to Paraguay and south to Argentina.
Since the Dec. 6 election the government has seized ranches totaling 15,500 hectares (60 square miles) from two powerful white opposition leaders in Bolivia's eastern lowlands, stronghold of Morales' most bitter foes. The government said the land met the main criteria for confiscation - obtained by fraud and serving no "social or economic purpose."
With the electoral rise of the Guarani, the opposition's grasp on power is rapidly eroding in the Alto Parapeti region, at the intersection of Santa Cruz, Tarija and Chuquisaca states where the government says exploitation of the Guarani has been most severe.
Juan Vasquez is at the epicenter of the struggle. He walked away from one of five ranches encompassing 37,000 hectares (143 square miles) in the Alto Parapeti whose owners are fighting government expropriation orders.
The government says it found servitude on those ranches. The ranchers, who include American Ronald Larsen and his son Duston, deny it.
"We're hoping for the best. That's all we can do," Duston Larsen, 31, told the AP of the legal battle to save the family's 58-square-mile (15,000-hectare) spread.
He said they had always paid their workers twice the minimum wage and provided free health care and schooling - but were now down to about 15 workers from twice as many in 2007.
Along with the other cases, the Larsens' is stalled in the National Agricultural Tribunal since last year. But the new, pro-Morales congress is expected to abolish that court and replace it with a new tribunal of popularly elected judges.
"There has been an uprising, to reclaim the right to land and liberty," says Celso Padilla, a senior official with the Guarani People's Assembly, his people's national governing body.
Under Morales, of the Aymara, the largest Indian group, this poor South American country has been steadily chiseling away at white minority control of politics.
The keystone is a new constitution, enacted in February, that established Bolivia as a "plurinational republic." It gives the country's 36 ethnic groups, well over 60 percent of the population, the right to self-determination at municipal level. Eventually there will be autonomous territories, though the new congress still needs to define how that will work.
The Guarani, Bolivia's third-largest ethnic group, are now rattling ranchers far beyond the Alto Parapeti.
Many ranchers are treating their workers better and have begun to pay the minimum wage of 647 bolivianos ($92) a month, after previously paying only half as much, says Walter Herrera, an official with the Guarani's Capitania, or local council, in Monteagudo in hills to the west.
"A lot remains to be done, but the human rights situation is improving," he said.
But other ranchers have simply fired their workers with severance payments averaging $565, while as many as 350 Guarani families still live as peons on smaller ranches deeper in the hills, economic prisoners of their bosses, Herrera added.
The claims of serfdom are unfounded, said Javier Antunez, president of the cattlemen's association based in nearby Camiri.
"The government has made a lot of proclamations about servitude but it hasn't produced anything solid to be able to prove it irrefutably," he said in an interview.
Antunez dismissed Bolivia's indigenous empowerment as "a new experiment born in Europe," because German, Swiss and Spanish non-governmental organizations have helped the Guarani.
He said it could impede Bolivia's development, putting the country at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring Brazil and Argentina.
Some ranchers violently resisted the government inspections that led to the expropriation orders. Several times in 2008, ranchers shot out or slashed tires of government inspectors accompanied by Guarani.
In one incident, 46 Guarani and officials were injured - 11 of them seriously - when ranchers hurled rocks at them in Alto Parapeti, the U.N. noted in a May report.
An Uruguayan Roman Catholic priest, Rev. Nacho Aguirre, delivered food and medicine afterward to those still living in servitude in remote communities only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicle.
But he left Bolivia this year after the bishop of Camiri, his superior, e-mailed him that the ranchers hated him and "swore they would kill you."
No rancher interfered with an AP reporter's trip to Alto Parapeti in December for interviews with Vasquez and others who said they had lived most of their lives trapped in abusive labor relationships with ranchers.
"I earned 5 kilos (11 pounds) of sugar a week, plus some herbs and a bar of soap. Those were my wages," said Felicia Florez, 78. She said she was born into forced labor on the ranch of Ernesto Chavez, working first as a nanny, then as a cook.
Speaking to the AP by phone, Chavez's son, Roberto, accused Florez and Vasquez of lying. But when asked how much they were paid, he gave no answer.
Miriam Campos, who led anti-servitude efforts in the Justice Ministry for a decade until recently stepping down, said she had confirmed Vasquez's story and many similar cases - "testimony we could not publish precisely because of people's security, because they've been threatened."
A mission of the Organization of American States in June 2008 determined that "people of all ages, including boys, girls, adolescents and seniors" had for decades been subject to "excessive physical labor," in some cases under threat of corporal punishment. Mission members were also told that "in many cases, the (ranch) owners were either local political leaders or directly connected to them."
Indian servitude dates back to Bolivia's 1825 independence from Spain. Until then, even the Incas who once dominated the Andean highlands couldn't conquer the Guarani. But their gradual subjugation was final by 1892, when some 6,000 were killed in an uprising against ranchers, who Padilla says treated the Guarani "like animals," buying and selling their land as if they didn't exist.
It was so thorough that the Alto Parapeti's landlords were spared in a 1952 land reform that broke up large estates elsewhere in Bolivia and continued to take advantage of the politically inert Guarani.
Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary, tried to organize a leftist uprising in southeastern Bolivia in the following decade. But the Guarani didn't join, and Guevara was captured by the army and killed.
The Guarani didn't organize until the early 1980s after the fall of Bolivia's right-wing dictatorship.
Government efforts to finally end the servitude with a 1996 land reform law were fitful, prompting the Catholic church to step in and buy land for the Guarani.
But real momentum came in 2005, the year Morales was first elected, when a government study found that 1,049 Guarani families were living in servitude. Morales vowed to put an end to that.
Advocates say so far the government has given little more than $2 million - much of it in seed corn - to help the newly liberated Guarani.
"It still hasn't attacked this in a structured way," says Campos, who now works with a Swiss aid group.
But the Guarani are among those benefiting from a 2007 government plan to redistribute some 20 million hectares of fallow, underused or disputed land - a 77,000-square-mile area the size of Nebraska - to poor Indians and peasants nationwide by 2013.
To date, nearly three-quarters of that land has been given out, said Martin Basurco of the Vice Ministry of Land.
That includes several thousand hectares in the Alto Parapeti to which a handful of Guarani communities now hold title.
Jose Yamangay, a crafty, energetic 37-year-old, has been among those leading the fight for that land.
He left his family as a teenager at a ranch whose owner he said kept workers pacified with alcohol and coca leaf.
Ever since, Yamangay has been obsessed with obtaining a small, fertile parcel for his family.
"That's what I live for," he says, smiling broadly on a bumpy drive through hills of sandy soil where his ancestors hunted, fished and farmed - disputed for now but soon, he believes, to be returned to the Guarani.
"My father was a peon. My grandfather was a peon. My great-grandfather was a peon," he says. "I wasn't going to be a peon, too."
Associated Press Writer Carlos Valdez contributed to this report from La Paz.