This day is a day of liberation of our peoples,” said Bolivian President Evo Morales on Oct. 12, the Day of Indigenous Resistance, in the Heroes Square of La Paz, Bolivia.
The embattled Aymara leader addressed a crowd of 10,000 people from this hemisphere as well as Europe, on a day that had been called in Latin America the “Day of the Race,” then renamed the “Day of Disgrace” and now, for some, the Day of Indigenous Resistance. (It was first officially proclaimed as such by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002. The 12th is still Day of the Race in the rest of the continent.)
This was a moment to regroup and reaffirm for Morales and his allies, who spent months trying to secure profits from the country’s resources for the people. They arranged a citizen assembly bent on refounding the country with indigenous rights at the forefront, which was then followed by the expected strikes, blockades, menacing threats from the richer states of Santa Cruz and Beni, and negative coverage from some mainstream papers, It was a celebration of persistence as much as resistance.
Morales’ long and somewhat rambling speech was received with much applause and enthusiasm from the jubilant crowd, many of whom had arrived earlier in the week for the indigenous summit. The speech was also a rallying cry for indigenous peoples in our hemisphere, as he took another step towards being the “advocate” and “president” of all Native peoples as he had promised in his inaugural address in January.
Native peoples from the neighboring countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Mapuches from Chile, Venezuela, Argentina and elsewhere were mentioned by Morales in his discourse; a Northern indigenous observer noted that there were also Inuit from Alaska and Penobscot from Maine, making the audience truly hemispheric from one tip to the other. While the appreciative audience came from many different places and spoke different languages, their cultures and history had important similarities and Morales made that point early.
“We decided, a group of leaders from the altiplano, the valley, the east of Bolivia … to construct [something] to end this dark history of domination, of humiliation, of oppression and especially of the looting of our natural resources, like our historical ancestors Tupac Katari, Tupac Amaru,” he stated in one of the passages citing the history of the resistance.
“We carried out the campaign of 500 years of popular indigenous resistance, we said together, from resistance to power, from protests to proposals, we have organized ourselves and here we have advanced,” Morales continued. He also pointed to the participation of indigenous fighters in the struggle for independence from Spain and how these same people were then excluded from enjoying that independence.
But the history lesson and the calls to remember past struggles were brief. It was, first and foremost, Evo’s manifesto – an impassioned defense of his policies and his allies as well a counterattack on his detractors.
He spoke about how critics of his government had labeled the coca growers as drug traffickers; and later, with the alliance of different labor and social movements, they became ‘terrorists.’
“And now that we are in government they no longer accuse us of being terrorists, of being narco-traffickers; now they accuse us of being ignorant, of being crazy, through the mass media they even say we are incapable of governing,” Morales asserted. He went on to say that the latest tack was to call him “racist” for providing so much focus on indigenous issues.
In other words, his critics are scrambling. They are trying to subvert part of his message that highlights the brutal and unjust treatment of indigenous people for half a millennia by turning it on its head.
Morales also brought up his nationalization plans and constituent assembly process as good examples of the directions the movement wants to take and which have been supported by the indigenous movement and a majority of all Bolivians.
“I want to truthfully say that the natural resources have to serve in order to resolve the economic problems of the family, the region, as well as the nation,” he stated. “Here reason must reign, sisters and brothers.”
Morales was referring to several new laws enacted in the last seven months, including the nationalization of profits from the sale of oil and gas for funding infrastructure, education, public health and other public initiatives; the distribution of unused or illegally occupied land to poor farming families; the nationalization of profits from the mines and arranging for cooperative ownership of them; and the establishment of a constituent assembly that reflects the true composition of the country to rewrite the constitution to protect the rights of the entire nation.
And while there has been violence connected to some of these same initiatives – 12 miners were killed in clashes in mid-October – it is the prospect of a constitution that seeks to ensure the material well-being of a majority of Bolivians that is proving to be the gravest threat to the opposition and their allies, not the least of which is the current U.S. government.
He is such a threat that there were news stories of an imminent coup appearing in the previous week. While it’s not to be found in the printed text of his speech, one observer, Mohawk editor and publisher Kenneth Deer, reported what Morales told the crowd in the beginning of the presentation:
“I heard there were rumors of a coup, so I called up the army, and they said ‘no,’” Deer recalled. “The guy also has a great sense of humor,” he added. It does take guts to have humor about that situation. Although along with the rumor of the coup, there was a national survey, asking Bolivians whether they would support a coup: 85 percent said “no.”
However, Morales knows that there are powerful people who want him dead. But he persists, and a majority of Bolivians are following his lead.
<i>Rick Kearns, a writer on Latin American Native issues, teaches at Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania.