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Morales' victory brings indigenous leaders to Bolivia

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- The Dec. 18 election of the Aymaran Evo Morales as the
first Indian president of Bolivia has brought indigenous leaders from all
over Latin America to Bolivia to discuss Morales' win and what it means for
Latin American Indian movements.

Though Bolivia has a majority indigenous population, Indians there were not
allowed to vote or receive an education until 1952. Morales' election has
been, for many Latin Americans, a major blow to the apartheid-like
conditions that have existed for indigenous people on the continent.

Reactions to Morales' victory from indigenous leaders have ranged from
exuberant celebration to challenges to Morales to be "more Indian" in both
his knowledge of his own Aymaran traditions and his political actions.

Morales himself convoked an advisory conference of indigenous authorities
in La Paz on Jan. 20, the day before his ceremonial investiture at
Tiwanaku. In attendance were representatives from communities throughout
Latin America, as well as organizations like the U.N. Permanent Forum on
Indigenous Issues, the Indigenous Fund and La Cuenca Amazonica.

"Day and night, sun and rain, we have dreamed, we have resisted; and now,
finally, the rights that were taken from us are returning," said Blanca
Chancosa, Quechua activist from Ecuador.

Chancosa stressed that Morales' victory was not just about Bolivia, but
signaled a new "international agenda" for the future of indigenous people.

Marta Sanchez, of Mexico, expressed her concern at the continuing racism
against Indian people throughout the continent. "We need not just to
celebrate but to delineate a point by point program against this racism,"
she said.

The La Paz conference will be followed by a larger conference that will
include American Indian and First Nations representatives from the United
States and Canada, said Victoria Tauli Corpuz of the U.N. Permanent Forum
on Indigenous Issues.

On Jan. 23 and 24, leading indigenous intellectuals met in La Paz at a
symposium called "Living Well: Perspectives on Decolonizacion in the Andes
and the Amazon." Representatives shared the struggles of their individual
communities with issues of identity, territory and education, and
emphasized the work that still needed to be done.

Esteban Tikona said that Morales was creating an "Indian protocol" in
international diplomacy, with symbolic acts like his investiture ceremony
at Tiwanaku or his refusal to wear a tie, which for many indigenous
Bolivians is a symbol of European domination.

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Tikona, with other speakers, emphasized that Morales' election did not mean
that Indians in Latin America had come to power. "We have an Indian in
power," he said, "but let's not fall into illusion."

Tikona asked whether Morales would be more influenced by his Aymaran
traditions or by the left-wing presence around him, as typified by Hugo
Chavez and Fidel Castro. He, along with other speakers, critized the left
for using Indian movements for their own ends.

Felix Cardena of Bolivia stressed that Morales should carve out a
government based on Aymara traditions that would be different from the old
left -- right political paradigm.

"Decolonization," for the speakers at this symposium, meant not only
political, religious and economic decolonization, but decolonization of the
mind and spirit.

"We talk about change," said Cardena, "but then we end up baptizing our
children in the Catholic church. I am going to baptize my child on June 21
[Inti Raymi, the Quechuan New Year], in front of my traditional spiritual
authorities, and I am going to fight so that the state will recognize this
baptism."

Other speakers emphasized the reconstitution of Tawantinsuyo, the ancient
territory of the Incan empire.

"The very term 'indigenous people' was coined by the conquerors," said
Fernando Untoja. "We are nations, like any other nations." Untoja -- like
Felipe Quispe, who ran against Morales in 2002 and 2005 -- believes that as
nations, original peoples of Latin America should have hegomony in
territories that would dissolve the current national borders of countries
like Peru and Bolivia.

Marco Murillo, of Ecuador, whose own people, the Puruwa, were conquered by
the Quechuas of the Incan empire, stressed the importance of respecting
diversity and forming alliances among all peoples. "We who have been
excluded often become the ones who exclude the most," he said.

Morales was criticized by Aymaran Simon Apara for his lack of knowledge
about Aymaran ceremonial traditions. But Apara felt that the upcoming
constitutional assembly will give the indigenous people of Bolivia a chance
to bring more of their traditonal political knowledge into the structure of
the country's government.

For Fernando Huanawiri, Morales' triumph "is the triumph of a very big
river, a river that goes beyond political parties. It's time to make
ourselves visible, to strengthen our certainties, to unify."