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Power and Autonomy in Bolivia


Among other things, the question that has echoed through my ears several times in the last few days is: what is the difference between the Aymara people ­ those from the countryside and those who live in the city of El Alto ­ and the autonomists from the city of Santa Cruz? Aren’t both groups saying and demanding the same thing as many of the movements in countries throughout Latin America ­ autonomy to make decisions, referendums to decide our future? And to be honest, the answer is always the same: no, it is not the same thing. But let’s look at that answer in more detail.

Who exactly are we talking about here? Because although the media frenzy they have created is huge, actual identities have not been discussed. Let’s go first to the altiplano, the high plains, where the Aymara live. They are people with robust bodies and dark skin, most of them with a family income of between one and two dolllars per day (fifty-eight percent of the households in Bolivia are living under such conditions). They are part of the 63.05 percent of the people in this country over the age of 15 who identify themselves as indigenous (if we were to count the children under 15, the proportion of indigenous people in this country would undoubtedly grow). And they want something very simple: to govern the territory they have inhabited for thousands of years without pressure from the outside… they are convinced, as the mayor of Achacachi (capital of the Aymara world), Eugenio Rojas, told me, that their system of communal management of life (of goods and work) is not just older, but better than that which is imposed by the state.

The Aymara have risen up dozens of times in the last 224 years to confront their oppressors: from the rule of the Spanish crown, to that of the local white elites, and up to the current rule of transnational corporations, as happened with the Suez corporation in El Alto, the Aymara city of nearly 800,000 people. Centuries of oppression and discrimination (racial, social, economic) have made them rebellious and untrusting, with good reason.

They are not racists, and I’ll put up Noah Friedsky as an example of that. Noah, a white “gringo,” has passed entire afternoons and evenings drinking with the people of El Alto (and once among the Aymara farmers of the countryside as well), and as far as I know, he has never had problems. Neither are they aggressive or exclusionary, and I can speak to that, because if they were I would never have been able to write my book about the insurrection of October 2003, which removed President Sánchez de Lozada from power. It was their generosity and patience that allowed this Mexican journalist to take their words in his own hands. They have their problems, like everyone, but that and nothing more.

And Santa Cruz? What can we say about this city of 1,135,526 inhabitants? To begin, they make up just under one sixth of the Bolivian population (as of the latest census, Bolivia’s population is 8,274,325). A great number of them, perhaps half, are white: children of the Bolivian criollo elite or the product of European immigration. Just look at one of their leaders, Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee President Rubén Costas:

Does Costas look indigenous, in this country full of indigenous people? No, and of course, he isn’t poor either… because in reality, in that city ­ which holds more than 400 beauty pageants per year, which generates 38 percent of Bolivia’s taxes (La Paz, itself full of indigenous people, generates 45 percent), which is home to the biggest domestic companies and headquarters for the transnational gas and oil corporations ­ well, there’s a lot of money moving around. (Ah, and of course, it is well known that the drug cartels operate there, too.) And what do they want? Autonomy. To govern their own lands? Yes. Which lands? Ah, well, that depends, because among their demands, the city of Santa Cruz wants to see more of the benefits of gas exportation, and the department of Santa Cruz (Bolivia is divided into departments as opposed to states or provinces) has more gas than any other Bolivian department. But the gas is not in the city, it’s in the south, in a region known as el Chaco, inhabited mostly by… indigenous people, the Guaraní, who of course do not participate in the angry demonstrations up in Santa Cruz. Would they have even been invited? I doubt it…

Among other things, Santa Cruz is home to the most extreme right-wing groups in Bolivia: the Camba Nation and the Cruceñista Youth; both of them autonomist, and, to be a bit more descriptive, fascist. It was those groups that organized the aggression in Santa Cruz on October 16, 2003, against the march of indigenous and poor farmers that had arrived in the north of the department to demand Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation. They are the same people that have entire arsenals stored in their haciendas to use to attack peasant-farmers and the Landless Movement. (Did I mention that the land in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest department, is concentrated in the hands of just over 140 families?) They are the same people who, last Friday, in a pro-autonomy march led by the rebel government, began to raise their arms and salute the Führer they carry within them, in their hearts…

It would be worth reading the following essay by Mario Iván Paredes, from Santa Cruz, to understand a little of the history and the racial and land problems in Santa Cruz (and to show that in that city, not everyone thinks the same way): des1.html

And now that we’re trying to get to know them, why not recall that in the municipal elections of last December, Evo Morales’ MAS party received many victories in the department of Santa Cruz? One of them in the city itself, where their candidate made it into the city council. So, not all of the city’s inhabitants are white, and some did vote for a party made up of indigenous and peasant-farmers.

Finally, we have a few whites, backed by their own economic power (and the transnational oil companies), who are trying to maintain an exclusionary society. (Some sources claim that Sánchez de Lozada actively supports this sedition, and their were even rumors that he was in Santa Cruz) Will they pull it off? Who knows…

What’s certain is that the military and the police have rejected their approach:

That the indigenous and peasant-farmers are doing what’s necessary defend their country, Bolivia, against those they have called “powerful groups that no one elected”:

That even in El Alto they have declared that they will not permit Santa Cruz’s sedition:

Man, even the businessmen of La Paz have rejected their colleagues:

I should also mention that, now that so many are talking about Rubén Costas’ numbers (and distorting them greatly), that in none of the photographs of the demonstrations published in the Bolivian media do we see ever many people: those of us who weren’t there have no way of knowing if we’re talking about a thousand people, two thousand, or more… although José Mirtenbaum, professor of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism and resident of Santa Cruz, told me that they were not many.

The social movements and many honest people in Bolivia are not confused about this. What is at stake here is a national project, or rather, two. And that’s what I wanted to talk about in this post; I hope I’ve done so.

But, to give an example, is it the same in Santa Cruz as in El Alto? No, no, no… some of them want a nation that they have a right to, others want to invent that right with dollars. Or to put it in more political terms: while the indigenous city is trying to change forever the current system of exploitation and misery, in the city of the so-called “Cambas,” they are fighting to maintain it.

LUIS GOMEZ writes about Bolivia for NarcoNews, where this article originally appeared.

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