By Rick Kearns -- Today correspondent
A conversation with Bolivian Ambassador Mario Gustavo Guzman Saldana
WASHINGTON - Bolivian President Evo Morales has good relations with many countries other than Cuba and Venezuela, and is in regular contact with a variety of indigenous leaders, including presidential candidate Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala, according to His Excellency, Mario Gustavo Guzman Saldana, Bolivian ambassador to the United States.
Guzman spoke briefly about the indigenous influence in his country and a variety of topics during an interview with Indian Country Today at the Bolivian Embassy in Washington, one day after he visited the National Museum of the American Indian.
ICT: In the Morales administration, can you point to an indigenous direction or influence or belief in this government?
Guzman: Yes, without a doubt. ... First, the most important thing is that the president is indigenous leader; the chancellor, David Choquehuanca, and Education Minister Felix Patzi are indigenous, as are some in the cabinet; there are also cocaleros, intellectuals, a bloc of people who are representative of the social movements. Indigenous leadership and influence in this government is fundamental.
How to differentiate an indigenous action or not, well, I would say there are two ways of approaching this. First, in Bolivia, there is the great importance of symbols, where over 66 percent of Bolivians identify themselves as indigenous. During more than 180 years as a republic, never had an indigenous person occupied the presidential palace and this fact is very important, politically and symbolically.
And on top of this, one has to understand that in Bolivia of every 10 people, almost seven are extremely poor; of those seven people, four are indigenous; this is the reality. And the importance of the Morales government is that for the first time not only is there an indigenous president, but also a representative of the poor that has taken over the government. That is fundamentally important.
There is also another force that must be taken into account: President Morales and Chancellor Choquehuanca and other indigenous leaders in the government are teaching those of us who are not indigenous of how to live a different way, to understand things in another way. First there is a clear decision, through the government and the state, to change the direction of our history; for example, the recovery of our natural resources is part of that, but the other important factor is to understand that one can establish a different relationship between man and nature.
The president and the chancellor often speak of ''living well.'' ''Living well'' in this case means just that: an open relationship with nature, considering even trees and rocks as living beings. Then, there is a series of rituals and ceremonies that had only ever been performed in indigenous communities before this. For instance, when the vice president was preparing for a visit to the United States, for the first time ever in the Presidential Palace, there was an Aymara ceremony held for him that blessed his journey and bestowed good wishes upon his mission. President Morales, also, one of his first acts upon nationalizing an industry, he made a special offering to Pachamama [Mother Earth] ... there is a great cultural force; this is very important.
The indigenous world was relegated to the world of poverty, to marginalization. Now, thanks to President Morales and the other indigenous leaders, the non-indigenous are beginning to learn how to see the world in a different way. This is how the indigenous influence is expressed.
ICT: I had the impression that the constituent assembly was an indigenous concept as well, this democratic form. I don't know if this is true ...
Guzman: In a way yes, but in the tradition of republics there were many constituent assemblies convened to found certain countries ... but as far as the content and the people involved [in the contemporary constituent assembly in Bolivia] it has become a very indigenous forum in its content but, on top of that in this assembly, is dedicated to developing a new constitution where in Bolivia, for the first time, there will be only one class of citizen - not a first or second class, but only one. This effort will better define the rights, of placing the indigenous within the constitution, but of course there are great advances in our Magna Carta by just recognizing our multiethnic and pluricultural reality.
ICT: What do you think about the announcement of Rigoberta Menchu and the formation of the Winaq movement?
Guzman: I think this is one more expression, manifestation of the seismic changes that Latin America is experiencing with the emergence of these people who were always present, sometimes asleep but now resurgent. The Menchu candidacy adds more force to this resurgence. It is a welcome announcement for Bolivia, a brother country in its indigenous composition. [After the interview, Guzman discovered that Morales had recently instructed the chancellor to deliver the ceremonial Aymaran staff of power to Menchu as soon as possible to show his support.]
ICT: Does the president have close contact with any particular indigenous leaders?
Guzman: I think so, yes. He has met various times with Mapuche leaders [from Chile]. When he took office, he met with a dozen indigenous leaders ... I know he has met with Guarani leaders from Paraguay, Quechuas from Quito, Ecuador, that is very important ... he has direct contact with Ecuador; those are the ones I can definitely point to.
ICT: How was your visit to the National Museum of the American Indian?
Guzman: It was extraordinary. That is an enviable space. I believe the whole world should see the entire Smithsonian complex, but they should see this one in particular. It [the formation of the museum] is an act that dignifies, validates the indigenous peoples of America; it should be the pride of all indigenous people.
(Continued in part two)