On The Verge Of
A Racial Revenge?
By Pablo Stefanoni
23 June, 2007
since the inauguration of Evo Morales, the right wing have begun to
raise the spectre of a "racial revenge", supposedly promoted
by the new government. Even Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa –
who never loses an opportunity to attack "populisms", both
real and imaginary – wrote about the "demagogy" and
"racism" of the Bolivian president. This "indigenous
messianism", together with the "totalitarianism" of Hugo
Chavez, was putting democracy and the state of law at risk in Latin
America. Alvaro Vargas Llosa, the son of the author of La ciudad y los
perros [The city and dogs], went as far as dividing the Latin American
left into "vegetarians" (Lula, Bachelet) and "carnivores"
(Chavez and Evo). Some local journalists and analysts have run a similar
line, denouncing the "reverse racism" emanating from the new
indigenous and campesino elites.
This debate went beyond limits
of absurdity during a televised discussion on PAT. Without flinching,
Juan Claudio Lechín and Roberto Barbery, whilst speaking about
the undemocratic character of the new government, tried to demonstrate,
using an academic tone, that Evo Morales and the national socialism
of Adolf Hitler both articulated in a similar way ethnic superiority
(in this case Quechua-Aymara), corporativism, and charismatic leadership.
The antidote to ending up with similar consequences was to recognise
that, in the end, "in Bolivia, we are all mestizo[mixed blood]"
and should therefore abandon this indigenist adventure.
But is any of this true:
is the Evo's government and indigenist government? Do they really exclude
white-mestizos via an inverted segregation? Do the indigenous people
act like the criollo [local-born white] elites did throughout the republican
The problems of "race"
(a concept today discredited in social sciences), culture and mestizaje
have accompanied Bolivia throughout all its history - like a permanent
anguish – as well as the divergent visions through time, as corollaries
of the hegemonic theories at the international level. If the positivists
of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th – such as Alcides
Arguedas, author of Pueblo enfermo [Sick people] – considered
racial hybrids to be a kind of curse over Bolivian society, mestizaje
– disassociated from an effective decolonialisation – came
to be, for the Bolivian nationalism of the '40s and '50s, the precondition
sine qua non for the construction of a truly Bolivian nation. By the
'90s, the Bolivian political and economic elites had appropriated the
multiculturalist discourse promoted by multilateral loans organisations,
the United Nations and non-government organisations (NGOs), having integrated
it with the neoliberal postulates in vogue at the time (multiculturalism
+ free market).
Nevertheless, all these attempts
to construct a "true" nation failed, whether through biological
extinction of Indians, or through ethno-cultural homogenisation promoted
by the state or by means of partial recognition of diversity, without
eliminating the material or imagined structures of internal colonialism.
Today we are witnessing a novel recuperation of the term "Indian"
as a cohesive element for a broad popular and national identity, that
articulates various memories: a long memory (anti-colonial), an intermediary
memory (revolutionary nationalist) and a short memory (anti-neoliberal).
The Movement Towards Socialism
and the leadership of Evo Morales emerged through the construction of
this indigenised nationalism.
Faced with this, the elites
have once again raised the flag of mestizaje as Bolivia's reason for
being. But if in the '50s, mestizaje was conceived of within an anti-oligarchic
and transformative discourse, today it has a defensive and conservative
character – in front of the displacement, sometimes more illusory
than real, of the middle classes from public posts, a principal space
for its reproduction – and foreign to the egalitarian sense that
came along with the idea of constructing a shared project for the country.
The urban middle and educated sectors who today proclaim that "we
are all mestizos" seem to forget that in Bolivia there exists both
"white mestizos" and "indian mestizos" or , expressed
in a more modern terminology, "criollo-mestizos" and "cholos".
In this context, Evo Morales
expresses the sentiments of these "indian mestizos", who continue
to be discriminated against and excluded from "legitimate"
spaces of social life, and segregated into the periphery of the cities
or the slopes of the hills, considered to be "dangerous neighbourhoods".
Nevertheless, one should not lose sight of the fact that this indigenous
mestizaje, far from promoting a "return to ancestral times",
is inserted into the processes of modernisation, urbanisation, social
differentiation, capital accumulation (fundamentally mercantile) and
cultural hybridisation: today the majority of Bolivians (60%) live in
the cities, despite the fact that they have not completely broken with
rural life (many maintain their land), nor Aymara or Quechua culture.
The fact that Indigenous hip hop is expanding in El Alto, a city where
82% of the population self-identifies as indigenous, speaks volumes
of this complex articulation between the local and the global.
Despite the fact that in Bolivia "we are all mestizos", the
whiteness of skin colour, dress, economic and cultural practices and
the origins of one's surnames continue to constitute very real boundaries
in the construction of social imagery and mechanisms of domination,
today eroded – but not eliminated – by this indigenous political
eruption and the arrival to power of MAS. All this poses a number of
questions. Amongst them: How much does the proposal of indigenous autonomies
take into consideration these diffuse boundaries between indigenous
and mestizo? Is the proposal for autonomy – generally a demand
raised by minorities, but in this case, by an indigenous majority –
correct? Is there a need to make indigenous peoples autonomous or to
indianise the state?
The Chapare, where Evo Morales
migrated to with his family and began his trade union and political
career, is one expressions of this cultural indigenous mestizaje. We
can add to this the political mestizaje between campesino unions –
consolidated in the '50s in the image of, and similar to, workers' unions
– and communitarian traditions. The current president was formed
politically in the coca grower unions and his indigenist revendication
appears more like Nelson Mandela's denouncement of apartheid –
a demand of inclusion, recognition and possibilities to access power
by a national majority segregated for ethnic reasons – that the
revendication of a return to the ayllu.
On the other hand, the ethno-cultural reaffirmation that Evo Morales
has promoted, traverses through the union culture's own pragmatism and
an energetic anti-imperialist position, whose material base was the
struggle between campesinos and the police forces and military who attempted
to eradicate the coca leaf with US support. To capture this double ideological
dimension – articulation of the national-popular with the ethno-cultural,
and with ruptures and continuities with the past – is the reason
why we talk about MAS as a new "indigenous nationalism", removed
from the "communitarianist" romanticism of the NGOs and the
illusory "mestizaje" of the illustrated middle classes.
Translated from La Epoca
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