– From Colonialism
By Christian Rudel
15 May, 2007
"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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Flexible and cultural
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
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. Translated by Richard
Fidler from Développement et civilisations, No. 346, September
Introduction by C.-A. Udry is from À l'encontre, a "virtual
political review" published on-line from Switzerland:
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