Bolivia: When minorities deny the rights of the majorities

By Miguel Lora Fuentes, Bolpress (translation by David Montoute)

How true it is that nothing lasts forever. Bolivia’s exploited classes, of mainly indigenous origin, are now confronting more than five centuries of exclusion. This territory’s original inhabitants were subjugated by the cross and the sword during the colonial period, they were harassed and had their lands taken from them under the Republic, and their culture was ignored during the bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1952. Now, as they finally take state power by democratic means at the beginning of the 21st century, the dominant minority accuses them of wanting to install the ``first racist, fascist state in Latin America’’.

The current historical juncture is characterised by a profound crisis of the market economy, of liberal democracy and of the very foundations of the old republican colonial state, a monocultural, centralist and exclusionary state that has remained intact since the foundation of the Republic.

The current historical moment opened by the indigenous and working-class movements resembles the period between the 1940s and 1950s in which a struggle for power between the ``rosca’’ [oligarchy] and the popular movement marked the prelude to the nationalist revolution of 1952.

What is new is that the indigenous peoples are now the challengers of the old colonial state –which was both subordinated to foreign powers and the architect of today’s racialised class-society. Determined to liberate themselves from their accursed colonial heritage, the historically excluded sectors, who were never recognised as subjects with political rights, are changing the course of the state and attempting to consolidate cultural, socioeconomic and institutional reforms in the country.

The exercise of politics has been ``deprivatised’’. Previously it was in the hands of the systemic parties, whereas now the masses have burst onto the scene, appropriating the bourgeois democracy and the normative judicial apparatus which has historically subordinated them. Vice-President Alvaro García Linera defines this juncture in ``Leninist’’ terms: ``It is the moment of the masses … Bolivia’s Indians have decided to become political actors and decision makers. This is the most important event in the history of the Republic and has delivered a mortal blow to the neo-liberal model.’’

In the minds of the exploited classes, a different vision of the state has crystallised, and a Second Republic is emerging, one whose sustenance is the communitarian civilisation ignored from the Republic’s inception.

From the beginning of this century a ``new plural and social subject’’ is under construction, and it demands a new national project. It has broken with the old, colonial, republican state and assumed the historical challenge of collectively building the new SocialUnitarianState based on plurinational communitarian law. Its aim is a true Bolivia – one that is democratic, productive, peaceful and committed to integral development and the free will of the people.

Without moving an inch beyond the conservative boundaries of the exhausted neoliberal paradigm, the most reactionary political and business interests have rejected the democratic battle of ideas and called for fascist tactics to block the transformations promoted by the immense majorities.

Minorities entrenched in the region of the ``half moon’’, deceived by the agro-industrial, land-owning commercial elite and linked to multinationals, openly violate the democratic rules of the game. They denigrate institutional rule, practice the crime of sedition, openly call for disobedience and organise de facto mini-republics that are independent of central authority.

In search of pluralism

The right wing understands the background of the current program of transformation as the ``domination of one group by another’’. It sees the ``closing-down’’ of political, economic and cultural freedoms, the construction of a ``racist state’’ with the ``constitutionalisation’’ of the term ``native indigenous campesinos’’ . According to the Podemos parliamentarian Walter Javier Arrázola Mendivil, this term has no sociological or historical foundation and shatters the universal principle of ``citizenship’’.

The conservative political sectors see only the descendents of the pre-conquest peoples and nations being recognised by the new political constitution of the state, while other social identities built in the last 500 years, such as the mestizos [mixed Spanish/indigenous heritage] are denied any value.

The right says that the new Magna Carta ``creates first and second-class citizens’’ and ignores ``mestizaje’’ [the ``mixed race’’]. In this way, ``being indigenous’’ becomes a means of social and economic advancement and a kind of ``cultural and economic [reprisal]’.

But is this really the case?

The prelude to the Magna Carta approved at the end of 2007 describes the existence of a wide diversity of cultures in our national territory. These cultures had no experience of racism until the advent of colonial rule.

Now, the Bolivian people propose the building of a new, truly pluralist state, inspired by the memory of its martyrs and its past social and indigenous struggles. The indigenous worker-campesino majorities are carrying out a bourgeois democratic revolution. They don’t seek to wipe out the conservative political minorities, but rather demand respect and equality for all.

The only goal of the indigenous emergence, says García Linera, is equality – nothing more, nothing less. That is why its premise is the construction of a state that is respectful of political, economic, juridical, cultural and linguistic pluralism. Above all, it must promote the ``intercivilisational complementarity of the Bolivian people in all their diversity’’, living together, and with universal access to water, work, education, health and housing.

However, the new political constitution of the state seeks to establish the foundations of a new ``pluralistic society’’ from the political, economic, judicial and cultural perspective, and transcend the postulates of economic liberalism and representative democracy.

To this end, the indigenous worldview for the first time ever becomes a substantial part of the plurinational state’s identity. Now, communitarian institutions are recognised as an inherent part of the state’s forms of economic, political and cultural organisation.[1]

For the conservative right-wing, the constitution’s recognition of the pre-colonial indigenous nations and peoples is excessive. It considers this recognition a disproportionate benefit from the plurinational state, as with the institutional representation of the state or the autonomous indigenous territories and their sovereign control of renewable and non-renewable resources.

It is inconceivable for them that the native, indigenous campesinos should have direct representation with their ``practices and customs’’, 50% representation in Congress and other state organisms/institutions such as the Constitutional Tribunal, the Agro-ecological Tribunal and the Plurinational Electoral Council. But the only thing the constitution really does is recognise the free will and self-determination of these peoples, in accordance with Agreement 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples ratified by the majority of the world’s countries on the September 13, 2007.[2]

`Mestizos’ vs. indigenous peoples

The Right minimises the importance of indigenous demographics in Bolivia and sticks closely to the concept of ``mestizo multiculturality’’ to devalue the communitarian orientation of the current changes. ``The statistical mean in each indigenous group or ethnicity (37 in total) is a little over a thousand inhabitants, which the political and ideological project of the MAS [Movement Towards Socialism] attempts to configure as a nation.’’

According to parliamentary representative Arrázola, there are only two numerous indigenous groups in Bolivia: the Aymara and the Quechua (91% of the indigenous population) who inhabit the departments of La Paz, Oruro, Potosí, Chuquisaca and Cochabamba, the western half of the country. The other 9% is made up of almost 500,000 natives distributed among 34 lowland ethnicities (Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija). The opposition legislator claims that there is no ``credible data’’ that shows a native and indigenous majority in Bolivia, the only document that backs this claim is the ``Censo de Población y Vivienda’’ carried out in 2001, which concludes that 62% of Bolivians identify themselves as indigenous. This study, adds Arrázola, did not offer Bolivians the choice of identifying themselves as mestizos, unlike a study five years earlier (``Auditoría de la Democracia, Informe Boliviano 2006’’), which arrived at the conclusion that 64% of Bolivians describe themselves as mestizo or cholo; 19% indigenous or native; 11% white; 0.55% black and 4.28% ``none of the above’’. ``Genetically’’ it’s impossible to demonstrate racial or ethnic purity, since globalisation has created a hybrid world. Even the President Evo Morales Ayma of Bolivia is a ``mestizo or cholo’’ because his surname is of Spanish origin, whilst Ayma is of indigenous origin, says Arrázola.

What is certain is that the national majority identifies with one or another of the country’s 37 ethnic groups, some of which extend beyond national boundaries. To the 1.3 million Aymaras who inhabit La Paz, Oruro, Potosí and Cochabamba, we must consider the 100,000 Aymaras in Chile concentrated in Tarapacá and Antofagasta, with another 600,000 in Peru, mostly in Puno, Arequipa, Moquegua and Tacna. In Peru alone, the Aymara occupy a territory approximately the size of Belgium or Switzerland in seven of the Puno department’s ten provinces. Besides this, the Guarani are almost 300,000 in Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil.

A `Marxist-Stalinist’ state?

The conservative political sectors see the MAS program’s use of the term ``indigenous’’ as an ideological prop of a ``Marxist-Stalinist’’ state – one that substitutes ethnic struggles for the class struggle. While the official constitution guarantees the protection of private property, the centralised ``state capitalism’’ of a planned economy will, in their opinion, lead to a gradual elimination of private property.

The fact is that Morales’ government negotiated new contracts with the oil companies which guaranteed their holdings, their investments and their profits. It provided strong guarantees for private property and investment in accordance with the law, while the new constitution essentially proposes that the old elites share power with the emerging indigenous elites.

The economy envisioned by the new pluralist state expressly states that the communitarian, state, private and social-cooperative forms of economic organisation ``are equal before the law’’ and are articulated on the principles of complementarity, reciprocity, solidarity, redistribution, equality, sustainability, balance, justice and transparency.

The four axes of the new pluricultural state under construction are:

1. The state as protagonist in the economy and responsible for the equitable redistribution of the national wealth;

2. Equality between Bolivia’s diverse peoples and cultures;

3. The right of the indigenous peoples to take decisions at a state level; and

4. The autonomous national state.

One of the objectives of the changes is the reconstitution of the indigenous communities –facilitating the autonomous development of their collective culture. Its starting point is an acknowledgement of the current unequal land distribution. The west covers a third of the national territory and is home to almost two-thirds of the population, while the east, which covers two-thirds of the country, is home to little more than a third of the population.

The right claims that the MAS will take advantage of the native, campesino concept to redistribute eastern territories. In this way, the inhabitants of the west can ``conquer’’, ``neo-colonise’’ and promote a process of ``acculturisation’’ of the lowland inhabitants who historically, culturally and sociologically built ``mestizo identities’’.

A single national project and regional resistance

The conservative political sectors define the current juncture as a struggle between two distinct visions of two distinct and different countries. But in practice, the minority provincial classes lack a concrete program, as in 1952, and are simply opposing the new political and economic project that is dominated by the national majorities.

Small clans permanently linked to political power, and co-governing with the military dictatorships and neoliberal regimes, were cornered by a popular insurrection in 2003. After 20 years of ``democracy’’, this is the first government in which these groups are not directly administering the state apparatus.

The land has become a strong and cohesive rallying point for the national oligarchy. A report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reveals that approximately 100 feudal-style families own five times more land (25 million hectares) than 2 million campesinos (five million hectares) condemned to scratching a living from eroded and over-exploited mini-estates. On average, a landowning family in Bolivia holds a quarter of a million hectares, while a campesino family must make do with one hectare.

The concentration of land is most notorious in the department of Santa Cruz. There the latifundios [large estates] were initially set up with the help of ex-dictators and later by corrupt functionaries and politicians of the old, defunct political parties such as the ADN, MIR and MNR after the ``second agrarian reform’’ of 1996.[3]

The clan is powerful because in addition to land, it also owns rivers, forests, haciendas and even the very lives of its labourers. It controls the agro-industrial sector, foreign trade, the banks and the communications media of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija. It controls the principal business, civil and even popular organisations. And now the oligarchy has de facto control of the government and political power in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija – that is, in four of the country’s nine departments.

Seeing their interests threatened by a new constitution that restricts individual landholdings to a maximum of 5000 to 10,000 hectares, the ruling classes openly conspire against the government and try to set up autonomous mini-republics. These have their own parliament and police forces, and total control over land, taxes and the region’s natural resources.

The conservative minorities recovered their influence by championing autonomy and fighting centralism, which according to them is responsible for all the nation’s ills. ``Bolivian and indigenous poverty, above all in the west of the country, is a result of state centralism and the concentration of decision making in the government of La Paz... Faced with the country’s poverty, the eastern departments proposed decentralisation and democratisation of power, by means of the Departmental Autonomies’’, says Arrázola, arguing that the rich Cruceño region (where two-thirds of the nation’s GDP is generated; Santa Cruz produces one-third of GDP, 50% of taxes and import duties and slightly more than half of Bolivia’s food) grew ``thanks to hard work, and the liberal and enterprising vision of its people’’.

Businesspeople, traditional party politicians and various middle-class professionals make up a solid anti-popular bloc capable of mobilising great numbers of people. They have the firm support of the pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee and the bourgeoisie as a whole: the Eastern Chamber of Forests and Fisheries (CAO), the Santa Cruz Chamber of Industry, Trade, Services and Tourism (Cainco), the Businessmen’s Federation and the Santa Cruz Cattle Ranching Federation (Fegasacruz).

The circumstantial leader of the clan is Branco Marinkovic, president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, who together with Governor Costas, is the visible leader of the secessionist movement. On December 6, 2007, Marinkovic sent a letter to President Morales to inform him that he was taking up a struggle ``for democracy and freedom against dictatorship’’, stating that Santa Cruz autonomy move has no political motives and no individual’s personal interests behind it. This is despite the fact that he could be the principal estate-holder to suffer from the Agrarian Reform’s Communitarian Recovery Law.[4]

The US embassy promotes and finances the clan. Philip Goldberg has a close relationship with Costas and Marinkovic, whilst USAID finances rightist politicians. Goldberg also worked as special assistant to US ambassador Richard Holbrooke between 1994 and 1996. Holbrooke was one of the architects of Yugoslavia’s disintegration and the downfall of President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Goldberg, who promoted the separation of Serbia and Montenegro, was also in Kosovo, fomenting conflict between Serbs and Albano-Kosovars. Now he encourages the rebellion of the Bolivian autonomists.

The rebellion of big business in the four departments has made it clear that Bolivian society has yet to overcome the defects of the past. In recent months, peasants and indigenous people have been denigrated, insulted, spat at and beaten on the streets of Santa Cruz and Sucre for the sole reason of having darker skin and wearing pleated pollera skirts and abarca sandals.

It’s as if we had regressed decades in a matter of months. All of a sudden, small white and mestizo groups are reincorporating discriminatory and racist expressions into their vocabulary, things we believed dead and buried. In Sucre and Santa Cruz, there is daily denigration of the ``smelly and uncultured Indians’’, the ``fucking Indians’’, the ``dirty collas’’ and ``uppity Indians’’. Today, the oligarchy defies the legitimate president merely because he is an ``Indian’’, a ``macaque’’, an ``ignoramus’’…

The clans' political hegemony is broken

The political crisis generated by society’s most conservative sectors has apparently stalled the country’s transformation, but it has simultaneously radicalised the position of the popular movements. On September 10, 2007, a ``Conference of Campesinos, Native Peoples and Popular Urban Organisations’’ ratified an urgent policy requirement. Namely, ``expropriation of the latifundios without compensation and the immediate distribution of their lands among rural and urban producers who are prepared to make use of it for the benefit of society’’.

President Morales’ priority in his third year of governance is to accelerate the program of structural transformation and the ``decolonisation’’ of the state with the help of a new National Coordinating Committee for Change. One of its first measures is the recovery and expropriation the holdings of landowners enslaving the Chaco’s indigenous people.[5]

The process of decolonisation is irreversible. This is not a political speech, but a painful reality which must be approached with boldness. And, as Morales says, the only way to transform the state is to close the deep wound which colonialism left in Latin America.

The government says it has fulfilled the basic program of the 2005 electoral campaign, such as the nationalisation of oil and gas, and the establishment of a constituent assembly. It now tries to incorporate the philosophical principles of the indigenous community into the new state, meaning the equal redistribution of natural wealth and resources, and a collective ``living standard’’ that does not depend upon anyone’s exploitation.

The aim of the plurinational state under construction is the search for a decent standard of living – one with sovereignty, dignity, complementarity, solidarity, harmony and equality in the distribution and redistribution of the social product. The new Magna Carta questions neoliberalism from a communitarian perspective, privileging equality over freedom and collective rights over individual rights.

According to many analysts, Bolivia is experiencing a break with the philosophical principles of the ``Enlightenment’’ – that is, a break with the idea of the individual as nature’s supposed owner and master. In the indigenous project, not only individual and social rights are claimed, but also those of nature itself.

The Bolivian state has recognised indigenous societies as alternative societal models, distinct from capitalism, the market and Western society. On the international scene it holds up this other kind of conviviality, superior to the Western individualism that has unleashed the environmental crisis.

The Bolivian social movements are building a more civilised human model, austere and respectful of nature, with the invaluable contribution of the ancestral knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples. They are creating a collective subject that does not jettison individual creativity and private freedoms, but does privilege the individual’s intersubjective dimension and his essentially communal identity.


[1] ``SECTION III: CULTURES. Article 99: I. Cultural diversity is the essential foundation of the PlurinationalCommunitarianState. Interculturality is the instrument of cohesion and harmonious and balanced conviviality amongst all peoples and nations. Interculturality will respect differences within equal conditions. II. The State assumes the existence of native indigenous campesino cultures as reservoirs of values, knowledge, spirituality and visions as a firm resolution. III. It will be the State’s fundamental responsibility to preserve, develop, protect and promote the nation’s cultures.’’

[2] After 24 years of debate, the United Nations approved the Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, which recognised the right to self-determination, possession of land, access to natural resources and the preservation of the traditional knowledge and culture of the world’s 370 million indigenous people. As victims of historic injustice, the colonisation and usurpation of their lands, territories and resources has prevented them from exercising their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests. Now these indigenous peoples are free from discrimination, according to the preamble of the historic declaration. The declaration also condemns doctrines, policies and practices based on the superiority of particular peoples or persons for any national, racial, religious, ethnic or cultural reasons. These are, it says, ``racist, scientifically false, judicially invalid, morally abhorrent and socially unjust’’. Bolivia has become the first country in the world to pass into national law this historic declaration of the United Nations. ``Bolivia is a nation of nations’’, said Evo Morales as he declared Law 3760 on the rights of the indigenous peoples.

[3] Three years ago, the INRA estimated that the Cruceño provinces of Guarayos, Chiquitos and Cordillera had 800,000 hectares of recoverable land in the hands of 500 individuals. No small number of former ministers and legislators abused their power to monopolise land. Former Senate president Sandro Giordano and his wife, and the family of Luis Fernando Saavedra Bruno, are notable examples.

[4] Notables in the right-wing power bloc are Oscar Ortiz, former manager of Cainco and now a senator for Podemos, the offshoot of the fascist ADN of ex-dictator Hugo Banzer; ex-president of Fegasacruz Antonio Franco (a rancher and current Podemos legislator who demanded the jailing of NGOs that help indigenous people); and Branco Marinkovic, ex-president of the Businessmen’s Federation and now president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee. In the civil section of the autonomist front, the former president of the Civic Committee Rubén Costas stands out. Today he is the department’s governor. The former parliamentarian and health minister Carlos Dabdoub is one of the movement’s ideologues and currently the autonomy secretary for the Santa Cruz governorship. According to INRA, 15 families have half a million hectares of land which is an area 25 times bigger than the city of Santa Cruz (20,000 hectares). (See ``The rebellion of the 100 clans’’,; ``The land question – the background to the autonomy movement’’,

[5] There are still about a thousand landless Guarani families, with neither a salary nor basic rights. As unbelievable as it sounds, the boss’ permission is required to even speak to them.

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