La Paz hosts continental indigenous encounter

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LA PAZ, Bolivia – Amid rising social tensions and media criticism of Evo Morales’ government, more than 1,000 representatives of indigenous nations throughout the Americas met in La Paz Oct. 8 – 12 to show their support for Morales, exchange experiences and proposals, and strengthen continental unity.

The event, entitled “From Resistance to Power,” was organized by the Coordinator of Indigenous and Campesino Organizations and backed by the Bolivian government.

Throughout the event, residents of La Paz faced an uncertain commute as transportation workers threatened to blockade downtown regions. Television screens broadcast ongoing news of the conflict between state and cooperative workers in the mining town of Huanuni, in which 16 workers have been killed, and influential newspapers like La Razon blamed Morales for “racism” and “instability” in the country. Rumors circulated on television and the Internet that a coup was being planned for Oct. 12.

Morales has accused the media, opposition parties and the United States of undertaking a deliberate campaign of destabilization of his government.

Spiritual authorities opened the encounter by lighting a ceremonial fire and conducting an offering to Mother Earth in the coliseum of the American Institute. The ceremony was followed by speeches by Venezuelan ambassador to Bolivia Julio Montes, Ecuadorean activist Humberto Cholango, Mapuche representative Juan Millan Milafran and Mohawk delegate and journalist Kenneth Deer, and others.

The speakers emphasized indigenous renaissance, continental unity and respect for the laws of nature. Some gave homage to Che Guevara on the anniversary of his death.

“We are in a time of change,” said Mayan Carlos Batzin, of the Indigenous Council of Central America, “when the old structures are disappearing and we as indigenous people need to reaffirm our commitments.

“It’s time we re-evaluate and regenerate our own self-esteem, and recognize that there is tremendous potential in the daily life of our peoples, in the wisdom of our elders, in our ancestral wisdom. These potentials are a clear manifestation of what we can bring to the evils that currently affect the world.

“Then one day,” he concluded, “it will be possible to unify the condor, the eagle and the quetzal.”

Several representatives spoke out against neoliberal economic policy and the destruction of natural resources. A female leader of the Guarani people called for respect and reconciliation with “the law of the water, the law of the sun, the law of the air, the law of the earth.”

Organizers said one of the objectives of the event was to construct a “wisdom council” of spiritual authorities from different nations.

Delegates formed commissions that worked on sovereignty and government, international indigenous rights, identity, education, economics, historical, social and ecological debt, youth, gender roles, strategic alliances, communication and spirituality.

Dancers and musicians from throughout the Americas performed, including the Long Plains dancers from Manitoba, Canada.

At dawn on Oct. 11, participants gathered at the Aymaran site of Tiwanaku, where Morales had been ceremonially inaugurated as the “president of indigenous peoples of the American continent” last January. Morales arrived in a helicopter while delegates greeted the first rays of the sun. He participated in a ceremony led by spiritual authorities of diverse nations then spoke briefly to the crowd assembled at Tiwanaku, vowing to continue “the fight to recuperate our territory and natural resources.”

“The fight is not just for humanity,” he said, “but also for planet Earth.”

The event culminated on Oct. 12 with a march to the Plaza San Francisco. Marchers chanted “Evo! Evo! We are with you!” while flags of various peoples flew alongside the multicolored flag of the Wiphala, a symbol of continental unity among indigenous people.

Several thousand people gathered in the plaza to listen to indigenous representatives and Morales, who addressed the crowd for nearly an hour.

He spoke directly to media criticism and rumors, denying racism and the rumors of a coup d’etat that had been circulating, blaming “destabilizing sectors who want to scare us, intimidate us and psychologically destroy us.”

Calling for an inclusive society for all Bolivians, he cited successes in raising the minimum wage, improving the economy, nationalizing resources and providing free health care. He also urged the citizens of Bolivia to be patient and called on other nations of the world to help ensure democracy in Bolivia.

He said the change that was set in motion by his election would occur “with or without him.”

The delegates issued a formal declaration which announced the beginning of “the new era” in which “humanity, as the species that threatens to destroy the planet, will evolve towards harmonic integration with the universe.” It criticized the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for not going far enough, but urged governments to support it as an initial step. Criticism was also directed at privatization of natural resources and at the United States for its interventionist activities, and solidarity expressed with the people of Cuba and Venezuela.

Delegates spoke of the inspiration they drew from the event.

“I see here a lot of color, of music, of identity, of language,” said Lorenzo Muelas Hurtado, Guambiano and former senator of Colombia. “This is really important, because this is what is being diluted and what we are losing: identity, attitude, philosophy, an indigenous philosophy that is being erased from the map, from the face of the earth. That it is being recuperated here is extremely important. From that point on, everything we achieve here is a success.”

For some of the northern delegates, it was their first visit to South America.

“I have a lot of impressions.” said Deer. “One is the poverty that I see here, but another is the tremendous hope the people have now that they have an indigenous president.

“You’ve got to continue with these meetings, you can’t stop.” he added. “There has to be a concerted effort to keep the networking going and the sharing of information.”

Organizers said their next continental encounter would be the Summit of Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala in March 2007.