[News] History at the Barricades: Evo Morales and the Power of the Past in Bolivian Politics

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Oct 10 11:40:22 EDT 2019


  History at the Barricades: Evo Morales and the Power of the Past in
  Bolivian Politics

by Benjamin Dangl <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/dehufr/> - 
October 10, 2019

A caravan of buses, security vehicles, indigenous leaders, and 
backpackers with Che Guevara T-shirts wove their way down a muddy road 
through farmers’ fields to the precolonial city of Tiwanaku. Folk music 
played throughout the cool day of January 22, 2015, as indigenous 
priests conducted complex rituals to prepare Bolivia’s first indigenous 
president, Evo Morales, for a third term in office. His ceremonial 
inauguration in the ancient city’s ruins was marked by many layers of 
symbolic meaning.

“Today is a special day, a historic day reaffirming our identity,” 
Morales said in his speech, given in front of an elaborately carved 
stone doorway. “For more than five hundred years, we have suffered 
darkness, hatred, racism, discrimination, and individualism, ever since 
the strange [Spanish] men arrived, telling us that we had to modernize, 
that we had to civilize ourselves… But to modernize us, to civilize us, 
first they had to make the indigenous peoples of the world disappear.”

Morales had been reelected the previous October with more than 60 
percent of the vote. His popularity was largely due 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.

“I would like to tell you, sisters and brothers,” Morales continued, 
“especially those invited here internationally, what did they used to 
say? ‘The Indians, the indigenous people, are only for voting and not 
for governing.’ And now the indigenous people, the unions, we have all 
demonstrated that we also know how to govern better than them.”

For most of those in attendance, the event was a time to reflect on the 
economic and social progress enjoyed under the Morales administration 
and to recognize how far the country had come in overcoming five hundred 
years of subjugation of its indigenous majority since the conquest of 
the Americas.

“This event is very important for us, for the Aymara, Quechua, and 
Guaraní people,” Ismael Quispe Ticona, an indigenous leader from La Paz, 
told me. “[Evo Morales] is our brother who is in power now after more 
than five hundred years of slavery. Therefore, this ceremony has a lot 
of importance for us… We consider this a huge celebration.”

For critics on the political left, the Tiwanaku event embodied the 
contradictions of a president who championed indigenous rights at the 
same time that he silenced and undermined grassroots indigenous 
dissidents, and who spoke of respect for Mother Earth while deepening an 
extractive economy based on gas and mining industries. Indeed, the way 
the MAS used the ruins of Tiwanaku for political ends, as it had in past 
inaugurations, appeared shameful and opportunistic to some critics.

But such uses of historical symbols by Morales were part of a long 
political tradition in Bolivia. From campesino (rural worker) and 
indigenous movements in the 1970s to the MAS party today, indigenous 
activists and leftist politicians have claimed links with indigenous 
histories of oppression and resistance to legitimize their demands and 
guide their contested processes of decolonization.

When Evo Morales walked through the doors of Tiwanaku amid smoking 
incense and the prayers of Andean priests, for many Bolivians it was a 
profound moment marking the third term in office for the country’s first 
indigenous president. It was also just another day in a country where 
the politics of the present are steeped in the past.

The Morales government typically portrays itself as a political force 
that has realized the thwarted dreams of eighteenth-century indigenous 
rebel Túpac Katari, who organized an insurrection against the Spanish in 
an attempt to reassert indigenous rule in the Andes. This was underlined 
in the recent naming of Bolivia’s first satellite, Túpac Katari. The 
launching of the satellite was broadcast live in the central Plaza 
Murillo in La Paz, an event accompanied by Andean spiritual leaders who 
conducted rituals to honor Mother Earth. The government has also named 
state-owned planes after Katari. That Katari’s legacy could be put to 
use in such a way speaks to the enduring political capital of the 
indigenous leader.

*Túpac Katari’s Symbolic Return*

Over two hundred years before the Morales government launched a 
satellite bearing his name, the Aymara indigenous rebel Katari led a 
109-day siege of La Paz that rattled Spanish colonial rule. Katari’s 
revolt was part of an indigenous insurrection across the Andes launched 
in 1780 from Cuzco and Potosí, and spread by Katari to La Paz in March 
1781. A central demand of the revolts was that governance of the region 
be placed back into indigenous hands.

The Spanish eventually crushed the rebellion and captured Katari. It is 
widely understood that moments before his execution, Katari promised, “I 
will return as millions.” Indeed, though his dream of overthrowing the 
Spanish and gaining indigenous self-rule was crushed, during the 
hundreds of years that have passed since his execution, this martyr and 
his struggle have been taken up as symbols of indigenous resistance by 
countless movement participants, activist-scholars, and union leaders in 

Activists have erected Katari statues, his name and portrait have graced 
placards and the titles of campesino unions, and his legacy has fueled 
dozens of indigenous ideologies, manifestos, and political parties. 
Katari’s street barricade strategies have been taken up again by 
twenty-first-century rebels, and the satellite named after him circles 
the globe.

Katari’s symbolism travels well. In April 2000, the specter of Katari 
returned in the form of a series of Aymara-led protests against water 
privatization and neoliberal policies. The protests involved road 
blockades that cut off La Paz from the rest of the country. Marxa 
Chávez, an Aymara sociologist with rural roots, became involved in the 
uprising. She told me that activists took turns maintaining the 
barricades and established vigils along the highways to signal when 
locals, visitors, and the military were arriving.

The very act of blockading roads to strangle La Paz recalled Katari’s 
struggle. “The blockade is a form of remembering the siege,” Chávez 
explained. The movement’s organization of road blockades utilized 
practical knowledge that had been “transmitted basically by oral 
memory.” For example, “there was a form of convening people in the Túpac 
Katari uprising which was to light bonfires in the hills so that other 
communities would see them, and it was a symbol of alert.” In the 
blockades of 2000, activists used the same style of fires to summon 
people. “That’s why hundreds of people later arrived in [the highland 
town of] Achacachi to face off with the military, because they had seen 
the smoke.” She placed the origins of the technique in the “unwritten 
memory in the communities.”

Three years later, another siege would rock La Paz, this time led by the 
same highland communities and spreading to El Alto. For weeks on end, 
Aymara activists maintained barricades surrounding La Paz to protest 
government repression and a plan to privatize and export Bolivian gas. 
The protests ousted the neoliberal president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada 
and ushered in a new phase of grassroots organizing and leftist politics 
that paved the way for Morales’s election in 2005.

/The Five Hundred Year Rebellion/ 
demonstrates how the grassroots production and mobilization of 
indigenous people’s history by activists in Bolivia was a crucial 
element for empowering, orienting, and legitimizing indigenous movements 
from 1970s post-revolutionary Bolivia to the uprisings of the 2000s and 
into today. For these activists, the past was an important tool used to 
motivate citizens to take action for social change, to develop new 
political projects and proposals, and to provide alternative models of 
governance, agricultural production, and social relationships. Their 
revival of historical events, personalities, and symbols in protests, 
manifestos, banners, oral histories, pamphlets, and street barricades 
helped set in motion a wave of indigenous movements and politics that is 
still rocking the country.

As contemporary Bolivian politics and movements demonstrate, the 
struggle to wield people’s histories as tools for indigenous liberation 
is far from over.

*Coca Fields and Street Rebellions*

The road to Evo Morales’s election was a long and tumultuous one, forged 
in coca fields and street rebellions. Morales is a former coca grower 
and union leader who rose up from the grassroots as an activist fighting 
against the US militarization of the tropical coca-growing region of the 
Chapare in the central part of the country. (Although it is a key 
ingredient in cocaine, the coca leaf is used legally for medicinal and 
cultural purposes in Bolivia.) Morales and other coca farmers saw the 
US-led drug war in the country as an attempt to undermine radical 
political movements, such as the coca unions Morales led. He became an 
early figurehead and dissident congressman in the MAS political party, 
which grew in part out of the coca unions and ran a nearly successful 
presidential bid by Morales against neoliberal president Sánchez de 
Lozada in 2002.

The MAS has always defined itself as a political instrument 
of the social movements from which it emerged. During the early 2000s, 
Bolivia saw numerous uprisings. In the 2000 Cochabamba Water War, the 
people of that city rose up against the privatization of their water by 
Bechtel, a multinational corporation. After weeks of protests, the 
company was kicked out of the city, and the water went back into public 
hands. In February 2003, police, students, public workers, and regular 
citizens across the country led an insurrection against an IMF-backed 
plan to cut wages and increase income taxes on a poverty-stricken 
population. The revolt forced the government and IMF to surrender to 
movement demands and to rescind the public wage and tax policies, 
ushering in a new period of unity and solidarity between movements as 
civil dissatisfaction gathered heat, reaching a boiling point during 
what came to be called the Gas War.

The Gas War, which took place in September and October 2003, was a 
national uprising that emerged among diverse sectors of society against 
a plan to sell Bolivian natural gas via Chile to the United States for 
eighteen cents per thousand cubic feet, only to be resold in the United 
States for approximately four dollars per thousand cubic feet. In a move 
that was all too familiar to citizens in a country famous for its cheap 
raw materials, the right-wing Sánchez de Lozada government worked with 
private companies to design a plan in which Chilean and US businesses 
would benefit more from Bolivia’s natural wealth than Bolivian citizens 
themselves would. Bolivians from across class and ethnic lines united in 
nationwide protests, strikes, and road blockades against the exportation 
plan. They demanded that the gas be nationalized and industrialized in 
Bolivia so that the profits from the industry could go to government 
development projects and social programs.

Neighborhood councils in the city of El Alto, many with ex- miners as 
members, banded together to block roads in their city. The height of the 
Gas War recalled Katari’s siege as it involved thousands of El Alto 
residents, organized largely through neighborhood councils, blocking off 
La Paz from the rest of the country and finally facing down the 
military. The government’s crackdown intensified as state forces in 
helicopters above shot the civilians below, leaving over sixty people 
dead. The repression pushed movements in the city into a fury that 
emboldened their resistance. By mid-October, the people successfully 
ousted Sánchez de Lozada and rejected the gas exportation plan, pointing 
the way toward nationalization.

*The Evo Morales Government*

Such protests and others promoting land reform and demanding a new, 
progressive constitution opened up new spaces for radical alternatives 
to the neocolonial state, putting Bolivian sovereignty and a full 
rejection of the neoliberal model at the center of the country’s 
politics. The MAS and Morales emerged from this period of discontent as 
the most adept at channeling the energy and demands of the grassroots 
while navigating the country’s national political landscape—one 
dominated at the time by right-wing political parties.

In 2005, Morales won the presidential election, largely thanks to the 
political space and popular hope inspired by social movement victories 
in the previous five years. Because he was the first indigenous 
president of Bolivia, his election was seen as a watershed moment in a 
nation where the majority was poor and indigenous. That Morales could be 
elected on a socialist, anti-imperialist platform after roughly twenty 
years of neoliberalism was historic. Perhaps even more significant was 
that, in a nation rife with racism and neocolonialism, an indigenous man 
from a humble background could take up residence in the presidential palace.

Shortly after assuming office, Morales moved quickly to institutionalize 
many of the social movement victories that had been won in the streets. 
He nationalized sectors of Bolivia’s rich gas industry, convened an 
assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, and followed through on 
many of his campaign pledges to alleviate poverty and empower the poor 
and indigenous people living on the margins of society. His election 
notably took place at a time in Latin America when other progressive 
presidents were in power; from Argentina to Venezuela, Morales was not 
alone in asserting national sovereignty and rejecting imperialism.

The economic changes in the country point to some of the reasons Morales 
was so popular throughout much of his time in office. Bolivia’s GDP rose 
steadily from 2009 to 2013, contributing to what the UN called the 
highest rate of poverty reduction in the region, with a 32.2 percent 
drop between 2000 and 2012. The rates of employment and pay went up, 
buoyed by a 20 percent minimum wage increase. Much of this economic 
success can be tied to the government placing many industries and 
businesses—from mines to telephone companies—under state control, thus 
generating funds for the MAS government’s popular social programs, 
including projects seeking to lift mothers, children, and the elderly 
out of poverty. Thanks to a successful literacy program, UNESCO has 
declared the country free of illiteracy. Much of the funding created by 
nationalization also pays for infrastructure and highway development, as 
only 10 percent of the country’s roads are paved.

The MAS political project has not been without its pitfalls and 
structural problems <https://www.alainet.org/es/articulo/175633>. Some 
of the same indigenous and rural communities that the Morales government 
seeks to support with its social programs and politics have been 
displaced by extractive industries. Fields of GMO soy, accompanied by 
toxic pesticides, are expanding across rural areas in the eastern part 
of the country with the government’s support. Abortion is still largely 
illegal in Bolivia, and rates of domestic abuse against women and 
femicide have been on the rise. Major corruption scandals have beset the 
MAS and its movement allies, including the CSUTCB and the Bartolina Sisa 
movement. Morales is pushing forward with a controversial nuclear power 
plant to be built near earthquake-prone La Paz, and the MAS plans to 
build a highway through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and 
National Park (TIPNIS), a move which has sparked protests. (More 
recently, Morales has come under attack 
for policies that led to the wide-spread fires in the country.)

The contradictions inherent in the Morales administration’s decision to 
deepen extractivist projects in mining, gas, and mega-dams while 
simultaneously cheerleading Mother Earth will impact the nation and its 
indigenous movements for decades to come.

*“The Open Veins of Latin America are Still Bleeding” *

When I sat down in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2003 for an early morning 
interview with Evo Morales, then a coca farmer leader and congressman, 
he was drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice and ignoring the constant 
ringing of the landline phone at his union’s office. Just a few weeks 
before our meeting, a nationwide social movement demanded that Bolivia’s 
natural gas reserves be put under state control. How the wealth 
underground could benefit the poor majority aboveground was on 
everybody’s mind. As far as his political ambitions were concerned, 
Morales wanted natural resources to “construct a political instrument of 
liberation and unity for Latin America.” He was widely considered a 
popular contender for the presidency and was clear that the indigenous 
politics he sought to mobilize as a leader were tied to a vision of 
Bolivia recovering its natural wealth for national development. “We, the 
indigenous people, after five hundred years of resistance, are retaking 
power,” he said. “This retaking of power is oriented towards the 
recovery of our own riches, our own natural resources.” Two years later 
he was elected president.

Fast-forward to March 2014. It was a sunny Saturday morning in downtown 
La Paz, and street vendors were putting up their stalls for the day 
alongside a rock band that was organizing a small concert in a 
pedestrian walkway. I was meeting with Mama Nilda Rojas, a leader of the 
National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu, an indigenous 
organization then facing repression from the MAS for its critiques of 
government policy. Rojas, along with her colleagues and family, had been 
persecuted by the Morales government in part for her activism against 
mining and other extractive industries.

“The indigenous territories are in resistance,” she said, “because the 
open veins of Latin America are still bleeding, still covering the earth 
with blood. This blood is being taken away by all the extractive 
industries.” While Morales saw the wealth underground as a tool for 
liberation, Rojas saw the president as someone who was pressing forward 
with extractive industries without concern for the environmental 
destruction and displacement of rural indigenous communities they left 
in their wake. “This government has given a false discourse on an 
international level, defending Pachamama, defending Mother Earth,” Rojas 
explained, while the reality in Bolivia is quite a different story: 
“Mother Earth is tired.”

Critiques of the MAS and Morales are rampant among Bolivia’s dissident 
indigenous movements and thinkers.

“I had so much hope at the moment when Evo Morales came into the 
government,” Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui explained 
“But he has come to crave centralized power, which has become a part of 
Bolivia’s dominant culture since the 1952 revolution. The idea that 
Bolivia is a weak state and needs to be a strong state—this is such a 
recurrent idea, and it is becoming the self-suicide of revolution. 
Because the revolution is what the people do—and what the people do 
is decentralized.” She continued, “I would say that the strength of 
Bolivia is not the state but the people.”

*The Power of the Past *

While Bolivia’s diverse social and indigenous movements wield power from 
the streets, the MAS and Morales have successfully maintained and 
deepened their influence in part by mobilizing indigenous and 
working-class identity as an extension of party politics. The coca leaf 
is often used by the MAS in political campaigning as a symbol both of 
indigenous history and of the fight against US imperialism. Similarly, 
the government’s championing of indigenous culture more broadly, and its 
connecting that culture to a nationalist project of liberation and 
development, resonates with many voters who felt they had been 
manipulated by previous political leaders who, rather than seeking to 
decolonize and refound the nation on the basis of its indigenous roots, 
instead wanted to turn Bolivia into a mirror image of the West.

Many of the same histories, discourses of indigenous resistance, and 
symbols of revolt produced and promoted from below by indigenous 
movements over the period examined here are now celebrated as part of 
official state policy and rhetoric under Morales. The administration has 
made the wiphala part of the official national flag, granted new rights 
and power to indigenous communities, named a satellite after Katari, and 
published new editions of the works of indigenous philosopher Fausto 
Reinaga and other formerly dissident thinkers and historians.

Some of these government approaches have popularized images of Katari 
more as a distinguished head of state—to suit Morales’s position—than as 
a rebel leader. Katari has been portrayed in a number of ways throughout 
Bolivian history: during the MNR revolutionary period he was sometimes 
depicted in paintings holding a gun, and the Kataristas saw him as a 
defiant, chain-breaking symbol of their struggle.

During its first months in office, the MAS government chose another 
version that represented Katari as a stately leader, not a 
revolutionary. This version of Katari was requested in 2005 by former 
president Carlos Mesa, not Morales. In the portrait, scholars Vincent 
Nicolas and Pablo Quisbert explain 
“Katari is no longer represented as a rebel, but as a dignitary of the 
State, dressed in a kind of jacket and a modern shirt, covered in an 
elegant poncho adorned with textile figures, and grasping a special 
staff of authority, a symbol of his power.” Though produced before 
Morales’s election, this image was taken up by his administration and 
widely distributed to tie Morales to Katari. “The Evo-Katari 
affiliation,” Nicolas and Quisbert write, “has been supported very much 
in this iconography, and is placed as a kind of backdrop to Morales 

Such political uses of the past and historical symbols can be traced in 
part to the government’s Vice Ministry of Decolonization, which was 
created in 2009 and works with other sectors of government to promote, 
for example, indigenous language education, gender parity in government, 
indigenous forms of justice, antiracism initiatives, indigenous 
autonomy, and the strengthening of indigenous traditions, symbols, and 

One of the people involved in such decolonization efforts in the vice 
ministry was Elisa Vega Sillo, a former leader in the Bartolina Sisa 
movement and a member of the Kallawaya indigenous nation. She told me of 
the process of decolonizing indigenous history in Bolivia.

“We try and recover an anticolonial vision above all,” she said, 
focusing on how indigenous people, over centuries of resistance, 
“rebelled to get rid of oppression, the slavery in the haciendas, the 
taking over of land, of our wealth in Cerro Rico in Potosí, our trees, 
our knowledge—they rebelled against all of this. But in the official 
history, the colonial history, they tell us that the bad ones were the 
indigenous people, and that they deserved what they got.” She explained, 
“We recuperate our own history, a history of how we were in constant 
rebellion and how they were never able to subdue us.”

As a part of these efforts, government-led rituals now take place every 
November 14 to mark the death of Túpac Katari. Yet, sociologist Pablo 
Mamani asks, why remember Katari only every November 14, as though he is 
dead? “We must put this kind of ritual behind us to enter a more 
everyday rituality,” he explains. Mamani sees no need to remember Katari 
just one day a year, because “Túpac Katari has returned and is among us, 
and we, ourselves, are the thousands of men and women that we have in 
these territories, and we are on our feet, walking.”

/This essay is excerpted from the Dangl’s book, The Five Hundred Year 
Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/news_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20191010/8a483666/attachment.html>

More information about the News mailing list