Bolivia’s Indigenous Political Voice Essay
Bolivia’s Indigenous Political Voice
The full empowerment of the political voice of the indigenous people of Bolivia is symbolized by the election of Evo Morales, the country’s first Indigenous President. How did an Aymaran Indian coca farmer, the most marginalized, discriminated, and impoverished people in Latin America; finally won control of the political power to change the lives of all the peoples of Bolivia? How did the Indigenous people overpower the 500 year old political, economic and social institutions that exploited and degraded their country?
The significance of this victory has implications not only for the Indigenous people and citizens of Bolivia but also to the other indigenous people around the world, other Latin American and developing countries, black African Americans and even to the U. S. and EU ‘majority’ citizens whose tax dollars pay for the implementation of imperialist policies but are ignorant or apathetic on how the ‘corporatocracy of America’ impoverish and kill other citizens around the world (Perkins, 2005). Petras (2004) has described the mass movement in Bolivia as one of the most important mass anti-imperialist movement in modern history, second only to Cuba.
This is a big departure from the anti-globalization movements in North America by human rights activists, environmentalists and NGOs which only increases educational awareness but have no political or economic impact at all to the Imperialists. Due to the transformational impact and significance of the Political Voice of the Indigenous people, the paper aims to discuss the proactive actions of Indigenous people and the confluence of events which shifted the real power from the ‘white’ minority in Bolivia to the ‘Indigenous’ majority.
Furthermore, it is significant to note that Petras’ (2004) insight to the sustainability of the mass movement in Bolivia can also be related to the sustainability of Bolivia’s New Indigenous government. Petras stated that the anti-imperialist movement in Bolivia is sustainable because inherent class struggles of peasants and urban workers are ‘embedded in the movement’. The mass-based leadership and its direct connection to the struggles of the people prevent the betrayal of the movement from ‘bourgeoise nationalists’ who are vulnerable to the seduction of the elite and foreign imperialist governments.
Therefore, for the Bolivian Indigenous government to survive, it must stay anti-imperialist and create institutions, political instruments and polices that would make it secure against the attacks and at the same time strengthen its linkage to the struggles and daily lives of its people (Petras, 2004). This truth is affirmed by the current Indigenous president in his inaugural speech in 2006, “You have to control me. You have to control me. I may make a mistake but I will not betray you.
” Most importantly, the paper highlights how the Indigenous knowledge and cultural values have provided Bolivia, an alternative framework for economic development, industrialization and management of natural resources. In addition, the solutions to promote solidarity and nationalism to Bolivia’s multi-ethnic and geographically divided population (which is also being attacked by the right-wing elite backed by the U. S. government) is found in the Indigenous Catholic Church.
In the past, the church served as the catalyst for Bolivia’s mass movement. Today, the Indigenous Church continues to play a vital role in unifying Bolivian citizens. Lord Acton has noted “Christianity’s capacity to transcend national differences, at least among believers. Its universalism, he noted, enabled nations “to live together under the same authority, without necessarily losing their cherished habits, their customs, or their laws. ” (Jusdanis, 2001, p. 198)
Another important source for the forging of ‘Bolivian Nationalism’ is the strong social democratic state led by Evo Morales which will assert its legitimacy and sovereignty, through equitable distribution of wealth and education and health reforms. As Lord Acton explained, “A nation is a moral and political being; not the creation of geographical or physiological unity but developed in the course of history by the action of the State. It is derived from the State, not supreme over it”.
That the state should precede nationality was in his opinion essential for the maintenance of liberty and prosperity—the opposite of Herder’s belief that the state should grow out of the nation. (Jusdanis, 2001, p. 198) Furthermore, solidarity built through common experience of colonialism and imperialism has motivated Bolivia, South America, and Third World countries to create political instruments and institutions such as ALBA, Mercosur, Telesur, G22 to protect their respective countries’ sovereignty which is ‘necessary for the attainment of an equitable and balanced economic growth’(Morales, 1992).
I. Background on Bolivia Bolivia is known for its extraordinary geography, the ‘Tibet of South America’; extreme poverty despite rich natural resources, ‘Beggar sitting on a throne of riches’; extreme racism and exploitation of the majority by few wealthy elites and by multinational corporations backed by an imperialist government, ‘Economic slavery and Apartheid lives in Bolivia! ’. However, these facts alone do not convey what is most significant about Bolivia, the extraordinary spirit of its Indigenous people.
They never gave up and mounted 150 to 200 coups against oppression in its 160 years of independent history (Morales, 1992, p. 200). Furthermore, the Bolivian mass movement has been described by Petras (2004) as the most important anti-imperialist movement and second only to that of Cuba. The collective spirit or culture of the Indigenous people has proven its strength to endure 500 years of invasion and ‘dictatorship of individualism’ (Blanco, 2007).
“Despite centuries of neglect, destruction of all cultural context or support, ethnic discrimination, starvation, cultural domination, religious conversion, racial bigotry, lack of education and health care, economic exploitation and destruction of their environment, the Andean Indian culture survives, smoldering in hearts and minds, towns and villages, streets and plazas” ( Dowbrigade. com, 2005). After more than 500 years, Highland and Amazon indigenous people still compose about two-thirds of Bolivia’s population.
This is the highest proportion of Indians in the hemisphere. If this were true in the United States, it would be equivalent to ‘160 million Apaches, Hopis and Iroquois’ still living and embracing their culture despite being in a ‘white’ American society (Powers, 2005). Since the 16th century Spanish conquest, Bolivia’s Indigenous people and natural resources have been exploited first by colonizers and then by the elite minority in collusion with multinational corporations backed by the US Imperialist government.
Silver was looted by the Spaniards, then the latter’s descendants, the wealthy urban elites or ‘whites’ looted the country’s tin and rubber. Bolivia is one of the most corrupt societies in the world according to a World Bank study. “Although Bolivia was long a major source of the world’s tin, the wealth from this irreplaceable resource went into the hands of a few absentee oligarchic families who lived mostly in Paris and New York” (Morales, 1992, p.
xi). Moreover, the Spanish descendants or ‘whites’ which are only 5-15% of the population dominated and controlled political and economic life for centuries and was only halted by the election of Evo Morales in December 2005. The ‘white’ elites made a living as professionals, wealthy merchants, or high-ranking government officials. The racial term ‘white’ is chiefly associated with socioeconomic status in Bolivia (Morales, 1992, p. 14).
On the other hand Indians comprise 60% of the population and they make a living as low-income subsistence farmers, miners, small traders or artisans (Country Profile: Bolivia, BBC News. com). The rest or 30% of the population are Mestizos who closely identify with the ‘whites’. The wealthy mestizos are also encouraged to marry daughters of impoverished ‘white’ families so they can have educated ‘white’ children and improve their status (Hudson and Hanratty, 1989. Powers (2005) aptly declares that, ‘Bolivian apartheid’ or ‘pigmentocracy of power’ continues to exist.
In 1985, Father Gregorio Iriarte, published the following statistics: Bolivia has the highest infant mortality rate in all of Latin America (213 per 1,000) and the lowest life expectancy (47 years); half the nation is undernourished, with 70 percent of the children dying before the age of 15 of treatable diseases of poverty; more than 50 percent of the population is illiterate; and the country has one of the worst distributions of wealth in the Americas (the wealthiest 5 percent control 39 percent of the national income and the poorest 20 percent, only 2 percent)(cited in Morales, 1992, p.
204). In 2005, after twenty years of U. S. Aid and humanitarian programs, IMF and World Bank structural and neo-liberal economic policies, the Bolivia majority population still live on less than $2 a day (Powers, 2005). II. What are the factors that gave rise to the ‘Empowerment of the Political Voice of the Indigenous People of Bolivia? Support of the Catholic Church for the Indigenous People, Revitalization of the Indian Culture Waltraud Q. Morales in ‘Bolivia: Land of Struggle’ (1992) attributed Bolivia’s underdevelopment to the structure of powerlessness and lack of economic and political independence.
She strongly advocated that the renewal of the nation and formation of a socio-economic model that would lift Bolivia from poverty lies in the Indian Culture (p. 202-204). Neither the defeated and decadent heritage of Spanish colonialism nor the declining, materialist imprint of North American imperialism can serve as the basis of moral renewal. The heritage that survives undefeated, whole, and vibrant is the Indian one. Unlike the Western system of wealth accumulation to the detriment of others, economic equality is integral to the indigenous vision of justice [italics mine].
The Aymara believe in Kuskachana or Pampachana, meaning the leveling or reestablishment of a balance. In the Aymara world view, uncontrolled growth as development is suicide, not progress; and development without respect for the earth negates the sense of themselves, their personal and cultural identity. The message from ancient voices is one not of greed or private property but of community and “peoplehood” [italics mine] (Morales, 1992, p. 204). The revitalization of the ethnic Indian culture was initiated by the Catholic Church to stimulate indigenous political activism (Cleary, 2004).
In 1968, Theology of Liberation was introduced in the Latin American Bishop Medellin Conference. The Church recognized that each culture has its own integrity and must be respected and given the freedom to develop their full potential. In addition, the Church advocated against the use of traditional church practices that foster the continuation of the domination of the ‘whites’ and ‘mestizos’ over the Indian peasants through paternalistic and accommodative practices (e. g. sponsoring of the fiestas and indebtedness of the peasants to the patron).
The church recognized that the revitalization of the Indian Culture is central to transforming Bolivian politics and society. They trained native leaders as catechists and promoted the use of native language, ‘recovery of cultural memory’ and integration of the Indian cosmological view with Christian doctrines in the Bible which supported political self-determination (Cleary, 2004). Educational Centers were built and this helped raise the political consciousness of the Indigenous people; encouraged them to turn outward and ‘occupy their political space’, rather than show their resistance by isolating themselves in their communities.
The Indian catechists also built their sense of citizenship; and recognition of their right and capacity to interact with the state instead of feeling inferior and staying outside of the political arena. They were also motivated to self-organize for their emancipation. This resulted in the flourishing of Grassroots organizations in Bolivia (Cleary, 2004). In the 1960s, Xavier Albo, formed CIPCA (Centro de Investigacion y Promocion del Campesinado) or Center for Investigation and Promotion of Peasants.
He later helped young Aymara people establish the Tupac Katarista Center which helped develop young Aymaran leaders. Within a short span of time, these Aymarans occupied positions in several government peasant unions and also organized their own unions. Later on, these leaders were able to unite urban, mine, and rural workers to fight against unequal treatment and demand credit, education, and health services from the government (Cleary, 2004, p. 54). The Katarist movement and experience of other lowland grassroots organizations also influenced the Indigenous Center of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB).
CIDOB gained national prominence in 1990, when they organized the march of Indigenous people demanding “territory and dignity” over hundreds of kilometers across the country’s main highways to La Paz (Cleary, 2004, p. 54). Most importantly, the centers and the native church leaders through liberation theology aimed to develop ‘community solidarity’ among the Indians divided by plural ethnicities, cultures, geography and economic status (Cleary, 2004). Geo-political Reality in Bolivia Geography has been the more potent force, splitting the country in half, into “a land divided”.
Communications and transportation systems have overcome neither the barrier of the high Andes Mountains cutting through the heart of the country nor the northeastern pull of the vast lowland rivers away from the highland and toward the undeveloped Amazon and Brazil. Nature itself seems in league with regionalist forces as this intricate system of waterways “leads from nowhere to nowhere. ” Extreme topographical diversity encourages intense racial and cultural division between the Andean highlands and the eastern, tropical lowlands.
Highlanders and lowlanders are aliens in each others’ world (Morales, 1992, p. 4). As further explained by Morales (1992), the Bolivian highlander identifies more with the other highlanders from Peru and Chile while the Bolivian lowlander identifies more with their fellow lowlander from Brazil or Argentina (p. 4). However, this affinity of Bolivians with people from neighboring countries can also be positive in the establishment of regional integration for the South American region to counter Imperialism. ‘Even within related Indian communities, wide differences in custom and dress persist.
Within the Quechua nation, for instance, one can distinguish a variety of local groups: the Tarabucos, the Chayantas, the Laimes, the Ucumaris, the Calchas, the Chaquies, the Yuras Lipes, and the Tirinas. A highlander can readily identify the region of the country and the community of an Indian by differences in dress, custom, and music’ (Morales, 1992). Moreover, Bolivia is subdivided into nine regional departments or provinces administratively. These departments are La Paz, Oruro, Potosi, Chuquisaca, Cochabamba, Tarija, Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando.
Competition for political power and economic influence have historically characterized the relationships between these departments (Morales, 1992, p. 5. ). Furthermore, Chavez (2007) added that the division between the western highlands, and eastern lowlands is also racial, and socio-economic. The Western highlands is home to the impoverished indigenous majority while the Eastern provinces is home to wealthier people of mainly Spanish descent. The Eastern provinces also hold most of the country’s natural gas production and industry. Indian Culture and Values Central to the transformation of Bolivian Society
Hugo Blanco, leader of the peasant uprising in the Cuzco region of Peru in the early 1960s explains how the Indigenous “cosmic vision is different from the Western outlook that views the creator as a superior immaterial spirit who created man in his image and likeness and created nature to serve him. For the indigenous cosmic vision, humanity is a daughter of and part of Mother Earth. We must live in her bosom in harmony with her “(Blanco, 2007). Blanco is proud of the Andean-Amazon culture and states that, “This culture is marked by deep knowledge of nature and is highly agricultural.
Ours is one of the seven zones of the world to have originated agriculture… For more than 10,000 years our culture domesticated 182 plant species, including around 3,500 potato varieties. Our people know 4,500 medicinal plants. Tawantinsuyos planned agriculture based on a system of watersheds and micro watersheds or basins. They built long aqueducts, taking care to avoid land erosion. Terracing was practiced on the slopes and “waru-waru” in the altiplano (highlands)]. Special technologies were used from zone to zone.
Across the entire Tawantinsuyo territory they created storage buildings (qolqa) to supply food to the population whenever some climatic shift undermined agriculture …It’s true that the new forms of collectivism gave rise to privileged castes and wars of conquest. But in no part of the continent was production based on slave labor or the feudal system. Although there were privileged castes, hunger and misery did not exist. Orphans, persons with disabilities, and the elderly were cared for by the community” (Blanco, 2007). Cochabamba Water War 2000
Alturalde (2006) imparted that the indigenous people view ‘water as life and gift from Mother Earth’. When the World Bank and IMF in Bolivia imposed the privatization of water on the Bolivian government, Aguas del Tunari (ADT), the subsidiary the US-based Bechtel was awarded the contract which included sources of water that belonged to the Indigenous people since ancient times. When ADT announced an increase in water rates, which the Indigenous people could not afford, the latter in massive numbers went to Cochabamba to protest.
Anger was already simmering due to the structural policies of the IMF which deprived them of much needed government services. The additional privatization of water which made it unaffordable to the poor indigenous people and the directive not even to save rainwater provoked violent reactions. Hundreds of people were injured in the ‘water war’. This disaster also made the people aware of the lack of recognition of the legal rights of the Indigenous people and their lack of strong political representation in Congress to defend their interests (Alurralde, 2006). Indigenous Alternative to Privatization
In 2002, Bolivia’s Consejo Interinstitucional del Agua (interinstitutional water council) asked organizations for research on how to resolve the water conflict. The Comision para la Gestion Integral del Agua en Bolivia (commission for integrated water management in Bolivia) proposed a highly inclusive participatory process which would involve the use of the best possible science in determining the solution that would be in the best interest of the nation. (Alurralde , 2006). Numerous workshops for Indigenous communities in different parts of the country were held.
To ensure that the new law would reflect the agreement on these meetings, the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Planning, and Parliament’s Environment Commission were also included. The workshop organizers used Mike Basin, a computer simulation program to analyze the impact of the proposals. They used the data proposed by the government which is ‘assigning individual rights based on a fixed discharge’. The also used the data of the ‘daily water allocation by Indigenous communities under the traditional communal system.
The results of the computer model showed that the traditional system allocated water much more efficiently and equitably, although it was not completely free of waste. The findings provided the foundation for key sections of Bolivia’s new irrigation law which was passed by Parliament in 2004 (Alurralde, 2006). ‘Many Indigenous peoples have a long history of using water wisely. By incorporating their views into the policy-making process, existing policies are strengthened’ (Alurralde, 2006). Nationalization of Natural Gas
The ‘Gas War’ erupted from September to October 2003. These popular protests for the equitable distribution of the benefits of the country’s vast natural gas compelled the resignation of two presidents and the election of Evo Morales. The protests originated from the privatization of President Sanchez de Lozada of the gas and oil companies in 1996 under the orders of the IMF and World Bank. The proposal to sell liquid natural gas to the international markets through Chile, to whom their coastline was lost in the 18th century, further stoked the anger of the population.
These people were already protesting the lack of transparency in the contracts and their impoverished condition compared to the visible wealth of the foreign companies and elites who controlled their country’s natural resources. In the National referendum on the gas issue on 2004, majority voted for greater state control and increased revenue for the state. In 2006, by Supreme Decree 28701, President Morales nationalized the country’s gas and oil industry (Hodges, 2007). This form of nationalization involved higher tax payments by petroleum companies and the renegotiation of contracts rather than expropriation.
Due to these changes, income increased nine times from 2002 to 2007. In 2003 petrol companies paid an estimated $173 million US dollars in tax to the Bolivian government compared to 2007 payment of $1. 57 billion dollars (Hodges, 2007). These protests against specific issues of water, and gas and the visibility of the IMF and World Bank in imposing privatization and structural adjustment policies increased the growing awareness of the population of the direct linkage of their class struggles (urban workers and peasants) to macro-economic imperialist policies of the U.
S. and the ‘white’ local elites (Petras, 2004). These united the multi-ethnic and diverse urban workers, miners, and rural peasants to a common struggle to oust the ‘puppet regimes’ of imperialist governments and install an indigenous President. Opening of Opportunities to Participate in the Political Process Aside from the Catholic Church’s role in encouraging political activism, other events and people contributed to the civic education of the Indians which built their political capacity to be able to install their own Indigenous President in Bolivia.
The 1952 Bolivian National Revolution led by the MNR party, which was headed by the nationalist elite depended on the strength of the indigenous people to storm the Presidential palace. The Indigenous people began to recognize the strength of the alliance between urban workers and peasants (Cleary, 2003). Victor Paz Estonssoro, returned from exile as President and introduced reforms including universal suffrage, nationalization of tin mines and land distribution, and educational reforms, and improvement of status of indigenous peoples (Country Profiles, Bolivia, BBC News).
These opened up opportunities to the indigenous people to participate in the national life (Cleary, 2004, p. 53). However, these reforms were interrupted by the intervention of the U. S. and the reversal of the nationalization program. In exchange for foreign aid, policies were instituted to promote foreign participation over the extraction of the natural resources (Lernoux, 1980). Under the Vice-Presidency of Victor Cardenas, an Aymaran Indian; laws were also passed to increase the political participation of the indigenous people in national life.
In 1994, a Constitutional Amendment was passed to define Bolivia as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural The law of Popular Participation also recognized the indigenous form of governments of ‘ayllu’ and ‘’imburvicha’. Public funds were channeled for the use of these government units. Furthermore, the 1995 Law of Decentralization, created stronger municipalities and generated synergy among the grassroots organizations of the indigenous people (Cleary, 2004, p. 55). The indigenous people proactively seized and enthusiastically embraced the opportunities for self-determination.
They competed against entrenched politicians who even trucked voters during elections. After decentralization, 464 indigenous leaders were elected to local councils. More than 25% of those elected served as mayors and 9 out of 130 deputies were elected to Congress (Cleary, 2004, p. 57). Cleary (2004) attributed to the above elected Indigenous leaders the ‘widespread multicultural and bilingual educational system, establishment of new government agencies to serve the indigenous sector, acceptance of indigenous culture as part of the national patrimony, and the coming from shadows to prominence [of Indigenous peoples] in national politics’ (p. 57).
National Unity against US Imperialism and Intervention. Waltraud Morales (1992) claims that foreign intervention undermines a country’s development because the ‘fragmentation of nationhood due to foreign control and intervention leads to extensive social, cultural, and moral disintegration (p. 202-204). Since culture and values plays an important role in the development of Nationalism in Bolivia, it is imperative that the state be anti-imperialist.
This fragmentation takes place at the administrative levels, in the press, and in cultural activities; it is visible at the highest levels of population where little groups dispute the privilege of being friends of the foreigner; it descends to the people when the desperation of poverty causes one to consent to achieving an advantage by the sacrifice of dignity.
…Extreme poverty facilitates colonization; men in Bolivia have a lower price. There is a certain level at which poverty destroys dignity; the North Americans have discovered this level and work on it: in their eyes and for their pocketbook, a Bolivian costs less than an Argentine or a Chilean. (Morales, 1992, p. 202).