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Bomberry: ‘An awakening of our force’

Interview with Casimira Rodriguez, Bolivian minister of justice

The Ministry of Justice is located on the main street in downtown La Paz, Bolivia. The colonial exterior is imposing. After hours, huge chains and locks on the doors secure the facility like a colonial fortress. Security guards stand watch and check the credentials of anyone who approaches the building. It was almost 8 p.m. on a Wednesday (Sept. 6), but the minister, Casimira Rodriguez, agreed to meet before she left town the next day.

When I walked into the office, her face lit up. She remembered we had met before, in a small plaza in Cochabamba, and that we had spoken Quechua together.

That was in 1993. I remembered she was dressed in a midcalf pollera and white blouse, the typical dress in Cochabamba. As we talked then about the struggles facing indigenous peoples and the roles that women played in those struggles, her response was always “mujeres valientes” with dignity and respect in her voice. Her primary concern at that time was about the young women and girls who were exploited, sometimes working 16 hours a day, seven days a week for only room and board. It was her story, too. Her quiet strength in narrating the life of domestic workers was palpable during our conversation.

That year, she was one of the organizers of the first National Conference of Domestic Workers that crafted a law that was presented to Congress. By 1996, she was the executive secretary of the Domestic Workers Union (Trabajadoras de Hogar). In this post she coordinated all of the local chapters of the union in the various “states” in Bolivia. After seven years of struggle, the law that regulates the conditions and salaries of domestic workers was finally passed.

In March I visited the offices of the union in La Paz and talked with the women there. They were quick to say with pride that Rodriguez, now the minister of justice, had been the leader of their union. A few days later, Evo Morales declared a National Day of Domestic Workers that was celebrated in Plaza Murillo. This mujer valiente had stayed the course to ensure that workers are protected by law and are symbolically acknowledged with a day of their own.

Rodriguez still wore the pollera and fitted blouse, but she had added a sweater to ward off the frigid La Paz air. On the wall was a picture of the presidents of the Republic of Bolivia. In the middle and above them all was a large portrait of Evo Morales Ayma, the first indigenous president in the history of Bolivia, who was sworn in January.

She insisted on hearing from me first – “How are things going with the women in the United States?” – then listened intently as I gave a short history of 13 years of indigenous women’s activist work in the United States. Rodriguez stressed the emotional importance of having an indigenous president and the process of creating this historical moment. She introduces herself as a Quechua woman in all public interviews but said it was a personal journey towards a deep understanding of the connections and common struggles that indigenous people share. “In my personal memory, I began to identify with all indigenous people during the 500-year anniversary [of Columbus]. For us, it was a repudiation of all that it represented and [in its place] was a fomentation of indigenous peoples. It was an awakening of our force. The water wars, the gas wars added to our awakened consciousness.”

Cochabamba was the center of the water wars that mobilized thousands of people to claim their right to water. The privatization of water had put this basic resource out of the reach of the majority of the population. Similarly, the war for gas showed that indigenous people knew the value of their natural resources and they insisted that they be protected and shared. During the gas war, in October 2004, then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada used deadly force against the protesters. The outrage over his actions by Bolivians from all walks of life resulted in his resignation. He fled the country before his resignation was read before Congress. Rodriguez emphasized that the laws and norms of the United States protect the ex-president, but he should be returned to Bolivia to be tried for his part in the violence.

After Lozada fled, Vice President Carlos Mesa briefly assumed the presidency. By this time it was clear that Bolivia was in deep crisis. Rodriguez said of the state of the country as indigenous people took power, “Regrettably Bolivia is like a house without windows, without doors; a house that doesn’t protect us from the elements. Past governments haven’t cared for our country, haven’t loved the Bolivian people. For me, this is a rebirth of our country through love. My work is my service and my promise to the country. We are constructing a new Bolivia with our brother, Evo Morales, and all of our brothers and sisters.”

The gargantuan task of creating a new constitution is also the culmination of more than 15 years of activism. As minister of justice, Rodriguez pointed out the major elements that should be considered as the Constitutional Assembly convenes over the next year. For women, this includes better access to land that is often denied them through a complicated process of state laws and the use and customs of indigenous peoples.

Rodriguez stated that one of the priorities is equal opportunity and equality for men and women. Land and territory for indigenous peoples is a topic that is of great concern to Rodriguez. She asserted that redistribution of land is necessary because indigenous peoples have been pushed off the best lands and there are still people who are living in slave-like conditions in parts of Bolivia.

According to Rodriguez, land redistribution has to be undertaken without affecting the cultures of indigenous peoples. The recuperation of land is the first stage of this process. “I know the laws and all their articles, but life has forced us to also live injustice and we can feel the pain and thirst for justice in every Bolivian brother and sister.” Anti-corruption is an issue that is being aggressively pursued by the Morales administration, in the push for transparency and openness in government.

I asked the minister what indigenous people in the United States can do to support indigenous people in Bolivia. “We need people to broadcast the truth about our country. It is a miracle that we have this chance for the re-foundation of Bolivia. It seems that we get more bad press than good in what is both a political and psychological war. It is much better for us to have indigenous people in other countries reporting on what is happening here. In Bolivia, we are constructing a democratic country respecting the mandate of the people. We are confronting the racism, exploitation and inequities in our country.”

<i>Victoria Bomberry is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Nation. She is currently a professor of Native American Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. (Aymara radio journalist Rina Zeballos contributed to this interview.)