Bolivia – From colonialism to Indianism

Christian Rudel


The analytical tradition of the European or Argentine radical left on “the social and political situation” in Bolivia — reinforced in part by the work of Guillermo Lora, the Bolivian Marxist — is marked by a unilateral or skewed approach.

Its image of the Bolivian miner was simply of a proletarian and not a proletarianized “Indian”; that is, a Quechua or Aymara who was “mobilized” by the descendants of Francisco Pizarro (the 16th century conquistador) and by the “national bourgeoisie” in formation beginning in the 19th century, to spill its blood in the extraction of tin and silver. And to be executed by the army when he revolted.

This interpretation was all the more dominant in that the authoritative written references tended to confirm the spin by those who supplied this expurgated “workerist” analysis. For example, the Theses of Pulacayo — drafted in 1946 by Guillermo Lora under the influence of European revolutionary Marxists — were presented as the direct, authentic product of the miners who belonged to the Federation of Miners Unions of Bolivia. Such was not the case.

Furthermore, a sort of Trotsky-izing sub-culture was widespread in the leading circles — fairly restricted and not very “Indianized” — of the militant Marxist political forces. They were in fact active and played a not insignificant role in the history of Bolivia’s class struggle.

However, under the impact, on the one hand, of the social and demographic decline of the miners since the mid-1980s, due in large part to the crisis of the tin and silver mines, and on the other hand the long and complex wave of indigenist mobilizations, linked in part to the depth of the socio-economic crisis and the decentralization of state structures characteristic of structural adjustment plans, a dual status came to assert itself. That of “Indian”, having fought in extremely varied forms for the reappropriation of the land and against exploitation and oppression, and that of working men and women, the abjectly pauperized.

We publish below an article by Christian Rudel. Any political and analytical approach entails some risks, and the risk here is to underemphasize the political and economic issues raised not only in Bolivia’s recent history but also in the international context and the policies of the imperialisms of the countries of the “centre”, as well as the economic forces dominant in Brazil.

Nevertheless, it is through attempting to approach in the most respectful manner possible the protean day-to-day struggles aimed at “transforming” Bolivia that we can best grasp the process now under way, which does not adhere strictly to the institutional timescales analyzed by political scientists. This article is a contribution to that task.

-- Charles-André Udry

* * * * * *

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. Translated by Richard Fidler from Développement et civilisations, No. 346, September 2006:
Introduction by C.-A. Udry is from À l’encontre, a “virtual political review” published on-line from Switzerland:


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The problem of the land

One of the major problems that must be resolved as quickly as possible by the new Bolivia is that of the agrarian reform. The peasants, who are overwhelmingly indigenous, own just 15 million of the 60 million hectares of the country’s lands that are tillable. Some 40 million hectares of land are the property of big landowners; 10 million are allocated to the major companies in the mining, gas, lumber and other industries.

As a result there are tens of thousands of very small owners, at least 200,000 families without land, and indigenous communities that for centuries have been seeking restitution of their traditional lands that were stolen from them. The agrarian reform launched last June 3 began with the return of these lands to various communities in the departments of Oruro, Pando, Potosí and Santa Cruz. A symbolic action, since the old principle of working communally is still favoured in these communities.

Christian Rudel


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Cultural revolution

Since 1992, which commemorated 500 years of resistance, the Indian cause has developed considerably. In Bolivia, as in many other countries of Latin America, the Indian fire had smoldered for a long time, sustained by a powerful clandestine cultural continuity. Indianness now emerges, its face uncovered, sustained by the exercise of a power that has been conquered democratically.

A revolution? Yes, but more than political. It is cultural: the indigenous lifestyles and thinking, so derided by the whites, can now express themselves without a complex, thanks to this political accession. Political power is here an indication of something else that is deeper and more decisive to the future of the Indian cause: the right to exist according to one’s culture.

The indigenous cause, often treated as archaic, allies with modernity. The discourse of Evo Morales and the MAS does not point to a return to the past. On the contrary, it contains ideas shared by the most open fringe of political modernity, put at the service of typically indigenous goals: for example, to cite only one instance, the nationalization of hydrocarbons, which is consistent with the old Indian dream of the collective use of natural resources.

The indigenous victory in Bolivia is not a withdrawal, but a deployment of identity. It is openness to the universal in the very midst of its particularity. That is why so many indigenous peoples are right in saying that, for today’s world, their cause is not a problem but a part of the solution. Can we hear it?

Alain Durand

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recently returned from a 3 week vacation in Bolivia and Peru. Me
and my friend, Mike, stayed in La Paz for a week, and I fell head over
heels in love with the city. Its density, vitality, and geography
were intoxicating. The indigenous culture permeated the whole city,
most of the merchants and vendors who lined nearly all the streets
were indigenous. The mamitas with their bowlers, beautiful skirts,
and vibrantly colored blankets on their backs carrying their wares and
their children (wawas), were ubiquitous once you left the main drag.

We were basically leisurely tourists, taking to heart Ivan Illich's
"To Hell With Good Intentions" and his exortation to "Come to look,
come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But
do not come to help." We spent our days and nights walking around La
Paz -- guided mostly by our whims and our noses.

One of the most magical meals of my life was right on the sidewalk
just uphill from the Plaza San Francisco. A round mamita sat on a
stool under a single bare lightbulb, surrounded first by cauldrons and
buckets and bags of food and then by about 25 locals of all types.
They were carrying on like a dinner party, devouring the fish, lamb,
chicken, potatos and rice the round lady dished out for them like an
octopus dipping her hands wrapped in little plastic bags into the
containers and piling up the vittles on plates. She was an entire
restaurant by herself, with a young mamita to help collect dishes and
wash them.

I devoured the rich, tender lamb chops, nibbling the fat off the bone,
sitting on a wooden bench next to an Argentine we had run into on a
Trufi ride to Tiwanaku. The hills were filled with lights, the street
had a steady stream of people running down it - a few would join the
island of food on the sidewalk, succumbing to the exortations of the
ocopus mamita to come eat. The lights that covered the hills climbing
up to El Alto made me feel as if the starry sky was inverted and I was
in the milky way itself. After the meal we bought some beers from an
old man around the corner and sat on a stoop to drink and watch the
people go by in the early evening.

Ok, so I'm not offering anyone some penetrating insights into the
political situation in Bolivia -- just confessing my love for the city
and people. I sat in cafes reading papers as much to practice my
spanish as to get a grip on what the riots along the gas pipeline in
the southeast were about. I read the graffiti which ranged from the
older "Goni is a Murderer", to "Thanks Evo for the telephones" to
"Indian Power = National Power" and many other references that I could
not decipher, including several supporting various hunger strikes.

In the end, what struck me most was the sheer presence and power of
indigenous people. As you climbed the hills up towards the rim and El
Alto it became even more pronounced. Between the nearly vertigo
inducing landscape with Illumani sitting on the horizon with a halo of
clouds, and the dense markets which lines both sidewalks and the
middle of the street in some areas -- I was dumbstruck and quickly
realized that my pre-conceptions regarding politics and culture in
this environment were worthless.

At the risk of making an ignorant comparison, Peru seemed quite
different. I enjoyed Peruvian hospitality *very* much, but it seems
that the mainstream political culture is much more enamored of their
dead indians than their living indians. Tho the U.S. is even worse in
this respect, where the dominant perception of native cultures are
that they were wiped out and are now dead and good mostly for
generating liberal guilt about the genocidal foundations of our
country, the occasional spiritual or cultural signifier of
authenticity, and casinos.

I have at least one counter-exmaple. The tour guide, Marieta, who
took us to the floating islands in the harbor of Puno spoke directly
to this, saying that Peru appeared very poor, but was very rich in
resources (which she proudly described to us on the boat ride out) but
that it had never had a government that was honest and was not ruled
by greed and thievery. The indians who lived on these islands had a
very rough life and were the descendents of a culture who had suffered
(yet also proved to be adaptable and ingenious) under several empires
before the Spaniards arrived. She said, only partly joking, that this
will soon change, because she will one day run for president and win.
Back on shore that evening, I suggested that maybe Peru will have an
indian president like Bolivia, and her face lit up and she said
grinning she hoped so and she would call us as soon as that happened.
There is certainly more to Peruvian indigenous political forces than
met my tourist eye.

So, what does some gringo from an relatively ignorant political
culture have to offer these people in terms of "critical support" for
their pachakuti or any of the other kinds of kibbutzing we often see
here and in other internationalist political forums? It seems to me
only friendship and the concrete political cooperation of social
relations across borders. Some political analysis, often coming with
admonishments to perform this or that political action, or chastise
actors for not going far enough in some political realm, appear to be
a tremendous waste of time and serve more the self-image of the
"critic" than solidarity.

I am in no way suggesting people "shut up" or that there be no
analysis or thought regarding these processes. I am saying that we
have *much* more to learn than we do to teach or critique. In that
context, some of the political analysis we get here is of limited
value IMO. This makes me really appreciate the work of people, like
Richard Fidler, who translate materials. Learning spanish
sufficiently to help in this project was one of the motivators of my
trip, but I'm admittedly not quite there yet!

Sincerely, Craig Brozefsky