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Bolivia : from colonialism to indianism

Développement et Civilisations, September 2006, n°346

by Christian Rudel

Bolivia Rising

The "new Bolivia" that emerged from the ballot boxes in 2005 cannot be reduced to a mere victory of the political left, as some Western commentators have characterized it. Rather, it is the victory of "Indianism" over more than 500 years of colonialism and injustice.

On December 18, 2005, through fully democratic elections, Bolivia gave itself, for the first time in its history, a president of indigenous origin. This event is especially remarkable in that these indigenous peoples — the descendants of the peoples living in this country before the "discovery" of America and the arrival of the Europeans — make up at least 70% of the population. An important event, therefore, but above all an indication and the beginning of a profound change in the political, economic and social life of Bolivia.

The task now, says the program of the new president Evo Morales and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), is to build a new nation in which all will be equal in the diversity of their ethnic origins, languages, customs and beliefs, although the attitude inherited from the time of the colonization, and which prevailed until now, was to view the "Indians" as inferiors.

It is also to secure the economic basis of the new Bolivia and a life worthy of all its citizens through the return to its sovereignty of the natural resources now being operated by huge international companies for their own benefit.

The MAS had assembled and systematized the demands and popular claims expressed by the various movements, trade unions, peasant organizations and other neighborhood associations.

They had fought, through marches, strikes, roadblocks, etc., against the persistence of the old colonial spirit, the racial segregation and the consequences of the implementation in the mid-1980s of the neoliberal economic model: privatization of national firms followed by massive layoffs, increases in the cost of living, an end to the needed agrarian reform and the concentration of lands for the benefit of the major agro-industrial operations, the devastation of the subtropical forest for production of lumber and raising of herds, destruction of the environment and habitat of the indigenous peoples of the forest, etc.

At the same time, the coca leaf producers were up against the anti-drug program to destroy the coca plantations that was developed by the United States and implemented in Bolivia with Washington’s financial, technical and military support. But the coca fields had become the refuge for many workers laid off after the privatizations as well as small peasants from the Altiplano fleeing dearth of lands, drought and a hard life. Moreover, coca, a part of daily life in the Andes since the dawn of time, is one of the most pronounced aspects of the people’s identity; attacking it is to attack head-on the very soul of the Andean peoples.

Indigenous revolts and uprisings

In fact, the Bolivian people, the indigenous peoples in their forefront, have never accepted the yoke of the conquerors, either under the Inca empire or during the Spanish colonization and the independent republic that was but a continuation of the political and economic situation of the colony. Over the centuries there have been many indigenous revolts and uprisings, and more recently strikes and violent demonstrations by miners, accompanied by attempts at building authentic resistance organizations. In the indigenous world of the final decades of the 20th century, the foremost aspect was the Aymara "awakening" in the early 1970s which, to some extent, prepared the advent of the MAS. During this period the first Aymara political parties appeared: the Tupac Katari Revolutionary Movement (MRTK) and the Tupac Katari Indian Movement (MITKA), both named in reference to Tupac Katari, the Aymara hero of the great uprising of 1780-82. These parties denounced the economic exploitation, cultural oppression and racial discrimination being suffered by the aboriginal peoples. They reclaimed their traditions and their cultures, community democracy and autonomy. They participated in some elections, obtained a few MPs and were thereby able to advance the themes of the ethnic renaissance and its demands.

The "Kataristas" controlled the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB), the independent union of rural workers that had put an end to the military’s control over the peasantry. In the late 1990s, Felipe Quispe Huanca, an Aymara Indian, became head of the Peasants’ Confederation. Associated with urban left-wing elements then led by Álvaro García Linera (now vice-president of Bolivia), he helped to train Cuban-style armed struggle groups, the "Red Ayllus", from which there developed the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK); it was quickly broken up and its leaders imprisoned. When he emerged from prison, Felipe Quispe created the Pachakuti Indian Movement (MIP) and launched the proposal for an independent Aymara republic.

Meanwhile, the aboriginal peoples of the vast Amazon area — some 800,000 people, long confronted with the ongoing theft of their lands by the major agro-industrial and extensive livestock operations, and devastation of the environment — had established the Confederación de Pueblos Indigenos de Bolivia [Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia – CIDOB], for the defence and recognition of the rights of the original peoples.

It should be added that the continent-wide "500 years of resistance" campaign, triggered in reaction to the announcement of the 1992 official festivities to mark the "discovery" of America by Christopher Columbus, were an opportunity for the indigenous peoples to discover and rediscover the pre-Columbian societies and civilizations from which they were descended, to draw pride from them, to assess their place and their status within the present societies and states, and to demand recognition and enforcement of their rights.

A new mass organization

The genius of Evo Morales — who had become the leader of the unions for defence of the coca growers of Chapare — was to sense that the times were changing and above all to know how to coalesce the various organizations with their demands to form the basis of a new mass organization, the medium for all the claims, all the proposals for change, focused primarily on the indigenous peoples, of course, but subsequently proposed to the country as a whole. That was the origin of the Movimiento al Socialismo, the MAS or Movement Toward Socialism, initially called, in the early 1990s, the Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (IPSP), for the task at that time was to denounce and oppose open intervention of the United States in the fight against coca and drugs. And the MAS, to win the demands of its many components, quickly took the path of the direct conquest of power by participating in electoral contests.

Álvaro García Linera, now Bolivia’s vice-president, draws attention to a novelty that marks "a break with the previous strategies…. In the past, the fighting strategies of the subordinate classes were built around a united vanguard that managed to set up movements it could use as a social base. Depending on the period, it was a political, legal or armed vanguard that managed to form or connect with social movements which then drove it forward." In most cases, however, the unions and social movements simply served as "political ladders" for the parties in their struggle for power and the victorious party ignored the movements and their demands once elected.

This novelty — the self-representation of the masses and the forgotten and marginalized classes — and this break are one of the central points in what is referred to in Bolivia as "Evismo", a neologism formed from Evo, that is not a body of doctrine so much as a set of measures and pragmatic steps dictated by circumstances. Another novelty of "Evismo" is the recognition of the ubiquitous reality of the indigenous peoples, who predominate in both the national population (where they make up more than 70%) and in the social movements. All of these peoples — Quechua, Aymara, Guarani, Chiriguano or others from the jungle and the Amazon basin, in all 36 ethnic groups — are seeking an end to both the colonization and to 500 years of injustice. The two are linked: the colonization, its political apparatus, economic system and social exclusion having endured long beyond the end of the Spanish colonial empire.

The nation now being proposed by Evo Morales and the MAS, "the new Bolivia", must therefore be rooted in the indigenous presence, a physical presence reinforced by the identity-based struggles and demands of recent decades. These demands and struggles have restored to the light of day the identifying factors of languages, religions and customs, etc., ignored and denied by successive governments since the arrival of the Europeans, who had stuffed all the indigenous peoples into the same bag labelled "Indian". The new Bolivia must now be a nation open to all, multi-ethnic and multicultural, developing unity amidst diversity.

In other words, the new Bolivia is abandoning the "tradition" of a country turning on the sole axis of the white elite, to become a nation organized around the multiple poles of the original peoples. Last July 21, reviewing the record of his first six months in government, President Morales declared: "Each measure of the government has for its objective the inclusion of the national majorities in a project of rebirth of the fatherland. We will achieve this in complete attachment to freedom of expression and to democracy." Some will say that the ideas and struggles waged by Bartolomé de Las Casas (who died 440 years ago, on July 31, 1566) are finally being fulfilled.


This future entails recognition and support of the original peoples and their identifying characteristics. That is how, in part, the new government perceives the work of decolonization it is seeking to effect. For example, the numerous original languages (still living although the rural exodus has expanded the use of Spanish) must be respected, through the presence of interpreters in all governmental offices and environments, and taught and used in daily life.

The original religion — of the Andes and the peoples of the forest — which had to hide behind the symbols of Catholicism brought by the Spanish, will openly regain its standing. Amidst this reconquest, discussions are humming over the reorganization of education.

Similarly, the community justice system will have to be recognized. This justice, delivered openly and orally before the assembled community, pursuant to age-old rules, is designed to maintain and promote peace within the community and facilitate the "return" of those who have breached the elementary rules of life in society.

Another community custom awaiting recognition is decision-making through consensus after relatively lengthy discussions in which the entire community is summoned to participate, and which reduces the role of the leader of the community (a responsibility never assigned for life but subject to renewal dictated by circumstances) to one of responsive leadership, "command by obeying".

Also to be restored and enforced is the former autonomy of the indigenous peoples over their traditional lands, an autonomy that should not be confused with the departmental autonomy now at the centre of fervent debates, or with the autonomy of other administrative entities arising out of the colonization or more recently.

Flexible and cultural Indianism

This is how the Indianism proposed by Evo Morales is taking shape, an Indianism that does not seek to overlook the non-indigenous Bolivia or to reject it with contempt in the name of some historical revenge or narrow return to the traditions and customs of the Andean peoples. Such a policy would no doubt have quickly resulted in the partition of Bolivia into two parts: one "Indian" and poor, on the Altiplano, and the other "white" and rich, in the East. So "Evoism" offers non-indigenous Bolivia the status and the same rights as those of the native nations, and associates it in the sharing and exercise of power.

This Indianism, thus comprehensively interpreted, has been characterized as "flexible" and "cultural" as opposed to the intransigent and exclusive indigenism once favoured by some. In fact, the "500 years of colonialism and injustice" that the new government seeks to end afflicted not only the indigenous peoples but the population as a whole. So Indianism is the name for a genuine social contract, the first in Bolivia’s history, that is proposed to the many components of the nation.

Economically, the new government will put an end to the colonialism that had made the country a mere exporter of unprocessed raw materials, a function from which it gained nothing. It will have to recover control over the nation’s natural resources — a process already under way — and, through their industrial operation, put those resources to the development and improvement of the living conditions of the entire population.

Although this may mean relying on foreign technique and capital, and thus becoming more closely involved with the globalized world, there is a need, realistically, to retain, protect and even develop the small-scale traditional base economy of the peasants, the self-employed and family micro-enterprises and all aspects of the informal economy. That is, a base economy governed by the Andean community socialism of solidarity and reciprocity to which President Morales is deeply attached. It is a conception of an economy based on both indigenous traditions and external contributions that shares the same spirit of flexible and open Indianism.

In fact, the new Bolivia proposed by Evo Morales is a true revolution. For the first time since independence, on August 6, 1825, the original peoples, the descendants of the conquistadores and the first colonists, the mestizos and recent immigrants, are all invited to build, on an equal footing and without renouncing or forgetting their cultural heritages, a homeland that is independent, just and dignified. Official white Bolivia was never willing to integrate its indigenous peoples. The closest attempt was that of the revolution of 1952. The middle classes, protagonists of this revolution, thought they had resolved the problem by granting the entire population the right to vote, a right previously reserved to a small elite of well-off whites. But this right, soon controlled and stifled by the new parties, did not enable the indigenous peoples or the people in general to be heard.

Fifty years later, Evo Morales, the MAS and the new government are embarking on the difficult task of building a true nation under the banner of unity in diversity. While victory is still far off, Bolivia feels it is at the dawn of a new pachakuti — a Quechua-Aymara word which can be translated by opposing and complementary terms such as overthrow, revolution, renewal, renaissance, but which also refers to a new historical period. A pachakuti anticipated as well by all the original peoples of the Andes.

Christian Rudel is a journalist and special correspondent on Latin America. He has published about twenty books on the various countries and problems in this part of the world.

Translation by Richard Fidler for countercurrents.org

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