President Evo Morales' drive to reinvent Bolivia takes a big step today with the opening of a convention to write a new constitution aimed at ending the centuries-old supremacy of the European-descended minority.
Morales, a leftist elected in December as Bolivia's first Indian president, envisions the nationally elected Constituent Assembly, which has up to a year to rewrite the Constitution, as nothing less than the "refounding" of the country on a new deal for the Indian majority.
The divisions of class, race, geography and culture that will frame the debate were brought into sharp relief on Thursday night as the 255 delegates elected last month were sworn in.
On one side of the narrow aisle sat the delegates from Morales' leftist party, many wearing the fluorescent-colored knit caps of the Aymara Indians or the bowlers and white straw hats favored by rural women.
On the conservative benches, the skin tone was visibly paler, and business suits dominated.
At one point the conservatives, many from eastern provinces that want to keep more of their wealth from being consumed by socialist programs, shouted "Autonomy!"
Morales' loyalists responded with "Revolution!"
After pleas for order, both sides settled down and sang the national anthem.
Sunday's opening ceremony was envisioned as a Latin American event, with the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela joining Morales to play soccer afterward.
But Morales broke his nose playing soccer last week, and the presidents have since canceled their trips, mostly because they conflicted with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's second inauguration on Tuesday.
Morales' closest ally, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, was the last to cancel, with an official announcement late on Friday. Morales still intends to play in today's game, though his playing time will likely be limited.
Bolivia's current constitution was adopted in 1967 under Rene Barrientos Ortuno, who rose to power in a military coup and was then elected president. Its last modification came in 1994, when President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada drove changes to the electoral process, including expanding presidential terms from four years to five.
In Sucre, Bolivia's colonial former capital where the assembly is gathering, workers painted bright new crosswalks on narrow streets, and residents had until Sunday to spruce up the facades of their houses or be fined.
Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS, holds a thin majority in the assembly, but not the two-thirds needed to control the assembly outright. Even so, the party hopes use the assembly to reshape the Bolivian state to give more power to the long-neglected Indian majority.
Other themes will be the autonomy demands of four wealthier lowlands provinces where opposition to Morales, an Aymara Indian from the Andes, runs high. Morales also wants to place more state controls over the economy.
Morales' party will hold six of 11 seats on the assembly's governing council, while the remaining five will be split between the conservative party Podemos and other minority parties.
Some participants hoped the assembly could bring the two sides closer.
"The idea is that through the right proposals, we can build this bridge," said Samuel Doria Medina of the center-right National Unity Party, who ran against Morales last year.