[News] Bolivia: A Country That Dared to Exist

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Mar 17 11:03:52 EDT 2015

March 17, 2015

*An Interview with Félix Cárdenas Aguilar, Bolivia’s Vice Minister of 

  Bolivia: A Country That Dared to Exist


In 1870, Bolivian dictator Mariano Melgarejo offered an English diplomat 
a glass of chicha – a corn-based beer consumed for centuries in the 
Andes. The diplomat refused the drink, asking for chocolate instead. A 
short-tempered Melgarejo responded by forcing the Englishman to drink a 
vast quantity of chocolate, and then made him ride a mule, backwards, 
through La Paz.

At least, this is how the story is related by Uruguayan author Eduardo 
Galeano, who writes <http://www.progressive.org/node/982>, “When Queen 
Victoria, in London, heard of the incident, she had a map brought to her 
and pronounced ‘Bolivia doesn’t exist,’ crossing out the country with a 
chalk ‘X.’” While the story is unlikely true, Galeano suggests it can be 
read as a metaphor for Bolivia’s tortured history as a victim of 
colonialism and imperialism.

In the interview below, Bolivia’s current Vice Minister of 
Decolonization, Félix Cárdenas Aguilar, makes a similar point, that 
“Bolivia is a failed country” because, from the time of its independence 
in 1825, its modernization was based on the exploitation of indigenous 
people. The challenge now, Cárdenas explains, is for Bolivia, under the 
presidency of Evo Morales, to decolonize itself, to reconstruct its past 
and identity, and to build a “plurinational” country where many 
indigenous nations can thrive. By resisting subjugation, Bolivia is 
daring to exist on its own terms.

This movement toward decolonization in the Andes is as old as 
colonialism itself, but the process has taken a novel turn with the 
administration of Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president. 
Morales, a former coca farmer, union organizer, and leftist congressman, 
was elected president in 2005, representing a major break from the 
country’s neoliberal past.

Last October, Morales was re-elected to a third term in office with more 
than 60% of the vote. His popularity is largely due 
<http://upsidedownworld.org/main/bolivia-archives-31/5080-why-evo-morales-will-likely-win-upcoming-elections-in-bolivia> to 
his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party’s success in reducing poverty, 
empowering marginalized sectors of society, and using funds from 
state-run industries for hospitals, schools and much-needed public works 
projects across Bolivia.

Aside from socialist and anti-imperialist policies, the MAS’s time in 
power has been marked by a notable discourse of decolonization. Five 
hundred years after the European colonization of Latin America, 
activists and politicians linked to the MAS and representing Bolivia’s 
indigenous majority have deepened a process of reconstitution of 
indigenous culture, identity and rights from the halls of government 
power. Part of this work has been carried forward by the Vice Ministry 
of Decolonization, which was created in 2009.

This Vice Ministry operates under the umbrella of the Ministry of 
Culture, and coordinates with many other sectors of government to 
promote, for example, indigenous language education, gender parity in 
government, historical memory, indigenous forms of justice, anti-racism 
initiatives, and indigenous autonomy.

Before becoming the Vice Minister of Decolonization when the office 
opened, Félix Cárdenas had worked for decades as an Aymara indigenous 
leader, union and campesino organizer, leftist politician and activist 
fighting against dictatorships and neoliberal governments. As a result 
of this work, he was jailed and tortured on numerous occasions. Cárdenas 
participated the Constituent Assembly to re-write Bolivia’s 
constitution, a progressive document which was passed under President 
Morales’ leadership in 2009. This trajectory has contributed to 
Cárdenas’ radical political analysis and dedication to what’s called the 
/Proceso de Cambio/, or Process of Change, under the Morales government.

Such unprecedented work by the MAS hasn’t happened without its 
shortcomings and contradictions. Violence against women in the country 
is on the rise, a recent corruption scandal has weakened MAS popularity 
in current local election races, and extractive industries, while 
providing funds for the government’s social programs and national 
development, are displacing indigenous and rural communities, and 
poisoning land and rivers. Leftist and indigenous opposition to the MAS 
has also faced government crackdowns, limiting the autonomy and space 
for grassroots dissent in the country.

MAS allies say such pitfalls are part of the societal legacies of 
colonialism and neoliberalism in the country, challenges which can’t be 
reversed overnight, but which the MAS is trying to overcome. Critics say 
that the MAS is worsening such problems with sexist rhetoric, a 
deepening of extractivism, and silencing of critics.

Bolivia’s road toward decolonization is a rocky and contested one. But, 
as Félix Cárdenas argues below, in a bleak world full of capitalist 
tyrants, bloody wars and racist exploitation, Bolivia’s Process of 
Change continues to shine as an alternative to the dominant global order.


*Benjamin Dangl: Could you please provide an overview of the kind of 
work the Vice Ministry of Decolonization does?*

*Félix Cárdenas:* First of all it’s not the kind of vice ministry where 
we have to say ‘we built 3,000 kilometers of highway,’ or ‘we 
constructed 20 stadiums.’ It’s more than anything a political and 
ideological vice ministry, and for this type of work what we have to do 
first of all is establish some points of departure for the work of 
decolonization. It’s not sufficient to go somewhere and say ‘I declare 
you decolonized!’ and that’s it, they’re decolonized. No. It’s a 
question of changing mentality, behavior, of life philosophy, and to do 
this at an individual level, or at a communitarian level, a national 
level, we have an obligation to first ask ‘what is Bolivia?’ If we don’t 
clearly understand what Bolivia is, then we don’t know what needs to be 

So, as a part of this process, one has to explain that Bolivia is a 
failed country. This is a point of departure. Bolivia failed as a 
proposed country. This country, that was founded in 1825, that claimed 
to be modern, that claimed to be civilized, that wanted to look like 
Europe, that wanted to be Europe while denying itself – this type of 
country failed. It failed because this type of country, that was born in 
1825, wanted to be modern, wanted to be civilized based on the 
destruction of the indigenous people, based on the destruction of their 
languages, their culture, their identity. /

Therefore, it’s from this perspective that we understand that Bolivia is 
not what they tell us – that Bolivia is one nation, one language, one 
religion. We are 36 [indigenous] nations, 36 cultures, 36 ways of seeing 
the world, and therefore, 36 ways of providing solutions for the world. 
We call this diversity of cultures ‘plurinational,’ and we want to build 
a plurinational state.

So, seen in this way, if our future work is to decolonize and create a 
plurinational society, we have to work in education, we have to work in 
all areas, in justice, for example, to reinstate indigenous justice. The 
constitution tells us that indigenous justice and standard justice have 
the same hierarchy. So there is a need to work in indigenous justice, 
reinstate indigenous justice in the face of the crisis of standard 
justice, which is foreign as well as corrupt.

The constitution speaks of a secular state. Before, the catholic 
religion was the official religion. Not today. Today no one is obligated 
to get married in front of a priest. No one is obligated to be baptized 
in front of a priest. Religion was the strongest aspect of colonialism. 
Religion was always power. Today, no. Today religion is outside of 
power, outside of the government palace. It’s fine if religion dedicates 
itself to saving souls, but never again will it define the politics of 
the state as it used to.

When many people talk about decolonization they think it’s just an 
indigenous people’s problem. But decolonization is not an indigenous 
peoples’ problem, decolonization is everyone’s problem. For example, our 
bourgeoisie, our private business class, thinks that they are condemned 
to always live off of the scraps thrown to them by transnational 
companies. This is colonialism, and they don’t dare invest in the 
development of their own country. And so, decolonization is everyone’s work.

*BD: A process of decolonization has to be global, right? What do 
countries in the north, the most capitalist countries, have to do as a 
part of this process?*

FC: For the first time, the countries of the north have to look at 
themselves in the mirror and realize that they are in crisis. If they 
don’t accept that they are in crisis, they will never find ways to solve 
their crisis. But they also need to accept that they’re in crisis and 
they themselves don’t have the solutions. They have to look to us, to 
the indigenous people. Not to Bolivia, but to the indigenous people that 
are all over the world, and who have a philosophy of life that is 
qualitatively superior to philosophies constructed in the form of 
civilizing modernity.

 From Bolivia, we salute the [Syriza] triumph in Greece. We salute the 
future triumph in Spain, which has more or less the same 
characteristics. These revolutions in Spain and in Greece are being 
built while looking to Bolivia. So, for us, this is a kind of 
complication; to recognize that 500 years ago they [Europeans] arrived, 
taught us a way of life, a type of religion, a type of modernity that 
failed. And so today, after 500 years, we, the indigenous people, have 
the obligation to go to Europe and speak to them, to convert them, to 
tell them that there is another way to live, and that their crisis is 
bringing planet earth to a global crisis.

*BD: The economy of Bolivia is very much based in mining, gas – 
extractivism. How do you see this process? How can Bolivia overcome its 
dependency on mining and gas? On the one hand, the president speaks of 
respecting mother earth, but on the other hand, mining and gas 
industries are very crucial here. How do you see these contradictions?*

*FC:* This isn’t something that this government invented. Bolivia has 
always lived off of mining, we have always lived off of extractivism. 
Now, what we hope to do is that this sacrifice, this fruit that mother 
earth is providing us with, is not in vain. And that it doesn’t just 
leave [the country] as raw material, but that there’s a need to 
industrialize, and as we industrialize we can reach the point where we 
can lower the level of extractivism.

/*Benjamin Dangl* has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America, 
covering social movements and politics in the region for over a decade. 
He is the author of the books //Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements 
and States in Latin America/ 
and //The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia/ 
Dangl is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at 
McGill University, and edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism 
and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive 
perspective on world events. Twitter: 
//https://twitter.com/bendangl// Email: BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com/

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