We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

I will return...and I will be millions

I will return

There’s something in the air. After two decades of wrangling, the world – with a few notable exceptions – has signed up to a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, supporting their centuries-long struggle to recover their lands, dignity and autonomy. In Australia the word ‘sorry’ has finally passed the lips of a prime minister, the newly elected Kevin Rudd, as he officially recognized that stealing a generation of Aboriginal children from their parents was wrong. In Washington the World Bank is being put to shame by Congolese Pygmies, proving that the institution is breaking its own rules by helping logging companies destroy the world’s second lung. While in Bolivia, Evo Morales has just entered the third year of his presidency, putting into practice a programme of radical change that is both indigenous and socialist.

In this issue we look at events around the world that suggest a new dawn for indigenous peoples. But we focus on Bolivia, a crucible where ideas as well as demands for justice are being tested. Much is at stake and there are implications for us all, as we face climate change and depleting natural resources.

Let’s begin elsewhere. Hong Kong, December 2005. Thousands are gathered by the water’s edge. Police armed with teargas and water cannon are facing protesters as they try to enter the building where the World Trade Organization (WTO) is holding its summit. Tension is mounting. Then someone leaps on to the protesters’ stage and grabs a microphone. He cannot contain his excitement. The votes are still being counted, he shouts, but it’s looking like Evo Morales has won the election! Bolivia has its first-ever indigenous President! A massive cheer goes up. From thousands of miles away, on the other side of the world, comes news of a triumph for equality, for social justice, subverting the rule by the rich that the WTO most exemplifies.

Fast forward two years. Dawn is breaking over the snowcapped peaks, close enough for wonderment but a bit too close for comfort as the plane descends towards La Paz, at 4,000 metres the highest capital in the world.

The snippets of news from Bolivia that have made it through the filter of the mainstream media since Evo Morales took office in early 2006 have a colourful but arbitrary feel to them. Much was made of his sartorial tendencies – eschewing suit-and-tie for a Bolivian _chompa_ or sweater, even when meeting foreign heads of state.

More was read into his use of the army to nationalize the country’s oil and gas fields, exploited for many years by multinationals on the basis of ‘sweetheart’ deals with Bolivia’s previous governments. Latterly, reports have centred on violent clashes as the mainly creole (white) and _mestizo_ (mixed-race) business and landowning minority that holds economic sway in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s second city in the lowland east of the country, makes strident demands for autonomy. Support comes from neighbouring departments, with similar characteristics and demands – and which, incidentally, are sitting on the country’s oil and gas fields.

The stakes are high, that’s for sure. But it’s not easy – from a distance – to make sense of what’s going on. I’m hoping, as the brown plateau below mutates into adobe and red-brick buildings, shining tin roofs and incongruous white German churches of the sprawling shanty city of El Alto, that things will become clearer ‘on the ground’.

Enter Túpaj Katari

There’s a story Bolivians like to tell. It concerns an indigenous man called Julián Apaza, better known by the name he gave himself, Túpaj Katari.

One of three rebel leaders organizing resistance in different parts of the Spanish colony, in 1781 he gathered forces here on the _altiplano_ (high plain), on the rim of the deep bowl in which La Paz lies. From El Alto, where Túpaj Katari held court with his partner and comrade, Bartolina Sisa, the rebels laid siege to the city for 10 months.

Their aim was independence from Spain and social and racial equality; a cross-class, cross-race emancipation. This was an era of revolutionary ideas in France, North America, and – though it rarely gets a mention in the history books – indigenous South America.

It almost worked. According to Spanish sources, the colonizers were within a hair’s breadth of losing the Vice-Royalties of both Peru and Argentina during 1780 and 1781.

Bolivia at a glance

Sources: Bolivia Information Forum/BBC(World Bank 2006)

Bolivia map

At first the rebels could count on the allegiance of creoles and mestizos who also wanted independence from Spain. But alliances broke down, support melted away. The rebellion was crushed by the Spanish and Túpaj Katari was executed most brutally. His arms and legs were attached to the tails of four horses which were made to pull in opposite directions. The quartered remains were displayed in different towns of the colony.

Who knows what might have happened had the indigenous-led rebellion been a success? Independence was to come 40 years later, led by creoles and mestizos, including Simón Bolívar. At first they too espoused ideals of equality. But within a short period the indigenous population were oppressed and exploited as before. Indian ‘tribute’ was restored and some two-thirds of the population denied citizenship.

Recently the indigenous-led bid for freedom and equality of the 1780s has had powerful resonances. Before he died Túpaj Katari is reputed to have said: ‘I will return, and I will be millions.’ On assuming power in 2006 Evo Morales paid special tribute to the rebel Túpaj Katari, among others. To the millions of indigenous people watching and listening, it must have seemed that the moment of return had come. Not only had Evo Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party won the election – they had won by the largest majority in Bolivia’s democratic history.

The spirit of El Alto

If there’s anything in the theory that places have spirits, this high brow on the edge of La Paz, where Túpaj Katari gathered his forces, is graced with a powerful spirit of rebellion.

In October 2003 the predominantly Aymara and Quechua inhabitants of El Alto rebelled again. This time they succeeded in ousting the government of right-winger Gonzalo ‘Goni’ Sánchez de Lozada, known as ‘el gringo’ thanks to his American accent and allegiances.

The people of El Alto were furious with the Government for a host of reasons, including plans to privatize services and impose taxes. But the main rallying point in October 2003 was opposition to a deal allowing multinationals to export Bolivian gas for the US market, dirt cheap, with value to be added by processing in Chile.

Sánchez de Lozada’s response to the protests was to send in troops who opened fire, killing at least 54 and injuring over 400. It did not quell the protest. ‘For eight days we battled with the authorities. When they sent in tanks the kids played hide and seek with them,’ remembers Pablo Mamani, local resident, Aymara activist and university teacher.

The Government had not reckoned on El Alto’s grassroots organizations. The 800,000-strong shanty-city had roughly 600 neighbourhood assemblies that could be mobilized. Of these, says Pablo, ‘at least 400 were functioning like autonomous, local governments. These were other models, other forms of government that had real power and that took control because the Government of Bolivia was rotten.’

‘It was an incredible time,’ says Teresa Panyagua, a fellow resident and Quechua academic, as we sit in an El Alto café. ‘We had no food. There was a lot of fear, but also a feeling that things were really changing. We had meetings on street corners. We all agreed that no-one would give the names of leaders if caught. We were so well organized, especially the women.’

Protesters cut off the routes into the capital. Then the people from El Alto brought their protest down into the centre of La Paz.

Teresa recalls: ‘People in La Paz said: “Where do all these people, these indians, come from?” But we were always there. They just didn’t see us, as citizens, as people.’

The protesters of the so-called ‘October Revolution’ had three demands. The Government must resign; the gas deal to the US must be scrapped; and the country’s gas and oil fields must be nationalized.

Having lost control – by now 150,000 protesters had a stranglehold on the capital – Sánchez de Lozada resigned and escaped to Miami. A new government headed by former journalist Carlos Mesa promised to carry out the demands of the ‘October Revolution’. But Mesa sidestepped the issue of nationalization. Further protests followed. El Alto called an indefinite strike in mid-2005 and yet again the capital was paralyzed. The action spread nationwide until blockades had shut down eight of the country’s nine ‘departments’ or regions.

Protesters demanded a new constitution be drawn up by an elected Constituent Assembly; that the ex-President stand trial for ordering troops to fire on protesters; and, once again, that the gas and oil fields be nationalized. Elections were called and this time the ground was well prepared for a victory by the coca growers’ union leader, Evo Morales.

View from the economic edge

Two years later, I’m curious to know how much has changed. The basic indicators show that most Bolivians are still desperately poor.

I ask Teresa Panyagua if she thinks she or her neighbours in El Alto are any better off today. She reflects before answering: ‘There’s still hunger, but not so much.’

Basics – such as electricity – have been made cheaper. The minimum wage has been raised twice. Sanitation has improved. Micro-enterprise industries, such as market gardening using greenhouses and solar technology to protect plants from extreme cold, have been developed.

A cluster of individually modest measures, funded by oil and gas revenues and applied nationwide, have had a cumulatively positive impact. There is a small annual grant for each child in education; free healthcare for children; and an old-age pension of around $25 a month for everyone over 60, regardless of whether or not they have been in formal employment. ‘This is very important for indigenous people in the urban area where many work as street hawkers,’ says anthropologist Xavier Albó.

I see this for myself when I go up to El Alto for its Sunday morning _feria_, reckoned to be the largest flea market on the continent. Women traders, wearing bowler hats, sit precariously on the edge of a precipice against a backdrop of indigo sky and snow-capped Mount Illimani, and they are selling everything. Old cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, ripped-out computer motherboards, old LPs, high-heeled shoes, pirate videos. A little further on, past a dusty space where a fast-paced game of football is being played, there are washing machines, sound systems, plasma screens.

This does not fit the rural ‘close to nature’ stereotype of indigenous culture. But for the many indigenous people who live in cities, the informal economy is the means of subsistence. ‘Land’ is the plot on which your shanty dwelling sits; ‘communal territory’ is your street, which is also your means of subsistence. The neighbourhood unions that played such a key role in the uprisings are, in the words of Pablo Mamani, the ‘urban _ayllu_’ or traditional indigenous community structure – of which, more later.

Cultural revolution

I’m wandering around El Alto with musician Adrián Villanueva, formerly of the folk group Rummillajta, and now with Kallawaya. For many years he has been an informal ambassador for Bolivian indigenous culture, travelling the world with panpipes and _charango_ and bringing the joys and melancholies of Andean music to international audiences.

‘Today we are experiencing a revolution, a cultural revolution,’ says Adrian. ‘For 500 years we did not have a voice; now we have our dignity back. Before, _quena, charango, zampoña_ were considered the instruments of the “indio” – and that word “indio” was said to make you feel low. They dominated us with that word. Now we have freedom of expression. And there is a social and cultural convergence. For example, lots of middle-class and white people are interested in our music, in playing this music.’

They are also listening to stridently political Aymara rap – much of it emanating from El Alto – and traditional music played, untraditionally, by women.

Silvia Rivera is a feminist, indigenous Aymara professor of sociology at the University of San Andrés and co-founder of the Andean Oral History Workshop. I meet her in a wooden-floored house which used to be her father’s, in the Sococachi district of La Paz. Wearing indigenous clothes – but pants rather than a skirt – she combines bird-like alacrity with high-octane intellectual energy.

‘The main effect of having an indigenous president has been psychological,’ she says. ‘Evo’s presence has altered the self-perception of being Indian. To be Indian is not to be miserable, poor, a beggar, but to be “knowing”, to have political significance. It’s a form of liberation, a recuperation of self-image, self-esteem.’

The Constituent Assembly established in 2006 brought more indigenous people into the decision-making process than ever before (see box). The President of the Assembly, Silvia Lazarte, was an indigenous peasant organizer from Cochabamba.

But Silvia Rivera sounds a note of caution: ‘The élites are still very strong and capable of adapting the indigenous discourse and usurping indigenous representation in government. In the Constituent Assembly indigenous [people] are often silenced by mestizos, men of the Left who claim to be representative.’

For her, the litmus test is language: ‘How many of those men who speak for us speak an indigenous language? They may speak English or French, but no indigenous language.’

But then neither do her own university students. ‘Sixty per cent of them have Aymara names, but hardly any of them speak Aymara. Their parents didn’t want it; they wanted them to stop being Indian. It pains many of the students and now they are starting to learn Aymara; they’re getting over their parents’ beliefs.’

Nearly two-thirds of Bolivians identify as being of indigenous origin. In terms of ethnicity Bolivia is similar to Guatemala or Peru. But in terms of identity, a very different picture emerges. In neighbouring Peru, for example, where anti-indigenous prejudice is strong but less openly discussed, surveys reveal that most people identify as ‘mestizo’, or mixed. While few Bolivians are purely indigenous, there is less pressure to hide their indigenous roots and bury them in a ‘mestizo’ identity than in Peru.

But the revolution that Bolivia is undergoing is not solely about race or even culture. It’s happening at many different and complex levels: economic, social and philosophical.

Silvia Rivera again: ‘Being indigenous is not just about language or clothes. It’s something much more. It’s a vision of the world that can fit together with working a computer and relating to modern life.’

These are interesting times, she says, during which indigenous wisdom is being accessed by many people – indigenous, mestizos and whites.

‘The change that’s happening is more profound than a cultural revolution. It’s a new stage, a new cycle. We call it _Pachacuti_.’

Pachacuti. An Andean concept of a time of upheaval, of big changes, out of which a new phase of history may emerge.

Rocky road to a new constitution

A key demand of the social movements that brought Evo Morales to power was for the drawing up of a new constitution to ‘re-found’ the nation. The Constituent Assembly, elected in July 2006 to do this, had a high proportion of indigenous representatives and women. But Morales’ party, MAS, rejected new, more creative forms of collective representation based on ethnic criteria or trade unions or neighbourhood assemblies, and went for the conventional liberal system of representation – one-person-one-vote, based on existing electoral districts – favoured by the Right. Soon the Assembly ran into trouble, as conservative opposition parties unleashed a series of objections and stalling tactics, making full use of the two-thirds-majority voting system they had got MAS to agree to. Finally, with the already extended deadline looming and opposition parties boycotting the Assembly, MAS steamed ahead and the basis for a new Constitution was agreed in December 2007. The main areas of agreement are:

There will be a national referendum on the new constitution on 4 May – but opposition groups, buoyed by Hugo Chávez’s referendum failure in Venezuela, are pledging to fight it all the way.

Sources: Bolivia Information Forum,/John Crabtree; Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, _Revolutionary Horizons_ (Verso 2008).

Subscribe   Ethical Shop