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Bolivian Historian Cusicanqui: A Starbucks in Bolivia – ‘Go to Hell!’

Outspoken critic of Bolivian President Evo Morales, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, recently sat down to discuss the state of Bolivian politics with ICTMN.

Bolivian historian and social theorist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui is author of the classic work Oppressed But Not Defeated: Peasant Struggles Among the Aymara and Quechua in Bolivia, and has recently emerged as one of the country’s foremost critics of President Evo Morales from an indigenous perspective. Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with her in New York City, where she recently served as guest chair of Latin American studies at New York University’s King Juan Carlos Center.

What is your current work in Bolivia?

I used to teach at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, which is the biggest public university in Bolivia. And I was very much involved in university politics, because I was trying to fight corruption in the university. In 2005, I had a 15-day-long hunger strike, and we managed to kick the dean out. But he left a lot of corruptos were still there, and I was forced to retire.

Since then, I have been doing community things, trying to network and create micro-politics. I am working with artisans, with urban self-reliance groups in La Paz, ecological and feminist groups, working in the qhatu, or traditional peasant fair or market. We try to link every public issue where human rights, indigenous rights, and the rights of the Pachamama [Mother Earth] are involved. We call ourselves Colectivo Ch’ixi—from the Aymara word meaning “stain.” We are mestizos, but we have a strong Indian stain in our souls.

The current Bolivian situation seems to be one of many contradictions...

I had so much hope at the moment when Evo Morales came into the government. But he has come to crave centralized power. The idea that Bolivia is a weak state and needs to be a strong state—this is such a recurrent idea, and it is becoming the self-suicide of revolution. Because the revolution is what the people do—and what the people do is decentralized. It is a megalomaniacal kind of thing to have a “strong nation.” It is an inferiority complex. I think we should have many reasons to be very happy with what we are. Instead of always craving to be more modern, more developed, more fucking big—more highways, more technology...

One can anticipate the response that Bolivia is trying to assert control over its own territory and resources against the United States, and other imperial powers. And it is therefore necessary to form a strong state.

I would say that the strength of Bolivia is not the state but the people. And the people have been strong and stubborn enough to be what they are, and to put their own desires as the terms and conditions of what is going to be the change.

Half the population of Bolivians live outside Bolivia. There are probably 9 million Bolivians in the diaspora—in Argentina, in Spain, in Italy, Chile, the United States. And it is not the weakness of the state that has thrown people away—it is the strength of the state that has thrown people away! Because they are starting to normalize, homogenize, totalize, control and make difficult the lives of the people.


In so many ways. For instance, there is no support for self-employment strategies. There is only support for big state-owned companies and enterprises. And to get a job there, you need to be a militant of the party in power. So what happens to the rest of the people?

You’ve said that the current Bolivian government is not truly an indigenous government.

No. It has an indigenous face. But, unfortunately, you do not want a “face” to be happening. You want an episteme to be happening. You want the worldview, the matrix of the culture to be happening. And what Evo is doing is putting an Indian face to corporate capitalism. And that is even worse than putting a hard face to corporate capitalism, which is its real face. It’s a disguise.

If you think that “development” means to have malls and to bring Wal-Mart and to bring Starbucks—go to hell! I don’t want development!

But is Evo doing that?

Evo is doing precisely that!

You have a Starbucks in La Paz?

It’s coming. It’s coming, and it’s not Evo’s fault. But he’s not putting any obstacles to corporations. And what’s even worse—because with Starbucks you can either go or not go—but if a mining company is contaminating the water you drink, you have to drink it. And his new Mining Law is resulting in exactly that.

Evo’s whole program is based on the idea of centralization and making the state stronger. And what I think makes Bolivia such a special case in terms of indigeneity is the fact that we’re very decentralized. There is a lot of locality, community, networking. What they call the “Gas War” [2003 uprising against a planned gas pipeline] happened because many, many local constituencies and groupings came to the same conclusion. That’s why one little spark set the whole thing ablaze. Because the readiness was there at the local level.

So, we have to prepare a people’s revolution...

What does that mean?

I am very familiar with the history of my country. So I know that it will happen again. The leadership will distance itself from the grassroots, and the gap will get bigger and bigger, and a moment will arrive when the grassroots sees another converging of agendas and networking begins, and... wham! We will throw Evo to the garbage!

In favor of what?

Well, that’s the risk of every revolution. Probably we will have civil strife and a lot of fragmentation, and rising and falling of caudillos... Or, we will have right-wing electoral politics capitalizing from the disgust of the people. Now, both these scenarios are very bad. I’m not telling you that I support that. I’m telling you that it is likely to happen. I am recognizing, sadly, what a huge, historic opportunity has been squandered. With so much pain, I say this.

But you still hold out hope that there can be some kind of transformative process?

Under Evo? No. But in Bolivia? Always. In Latin America? Always. I will always have hope of that. Because hope makes things happen!

Do you believe that an indigenous government is possible? Or do you think that it’s a contradiction in terms?

You caught me there. That, I have to think a lot. Because there are different scales of government. At certain levels of the scale, you can have self-government, like the Zapatistas’ caracoles. But beyond that, it is much more difficult—ever more difficult. If you are talking about a nation-state—even a small one like Bolivia, with 10 million people—you are talking about a centralization of force that is beyond the will of the people. It is even beyond the will of the individual. It is like a machine, a whirlpool, a black hole... That is the historical construction of the colonial state. And that historical construction, I don’t know how to dismantle. I think that dismantling it is a daily process.

A daily process?

Yes. We will never give up trying to do that—even though you know it’s impossible. Because you know if you don’t do that, you will be swallowed. So at least you have yourself and certain friends around you resisting the swallowing force of the state. And then you become an anarchist, more and more.