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White Racism and the Aymara in Bolivia


Recently, NIKOLAS KOZLOFF, author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), caught up with Magdalena Cajias, a historian at the Upper University of San Andres, Bolivia, and producer of the documentary film, Achacachi, the Aymara Insurgency. During their interview, Cajias discussed endemic racism in Bolivian society, Aymara cultural nationalism, and the relationship between social movements and the government of Evo Morales. –editors.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Could you tell me a bit about your professional background?

Magdalena Cajias: I´m a historian and I also produced a documentary in 2002 about the indigenous movement. I spent two years gathering first hand testimonials from campesinos hailing from the altiplano [highlands] who were linked to the indigenous leader Felipe Quispe. In 2000, Quispe was my student in the history department. When he was detained following a blockade, we sent a letter of support from our department. Quispe told us he was interested in recovering first hand testimonials from those who participated in the blockade. We started to conduct visits and conduct interviews. Through Quispe, who gave us permission, we were able to sit in on key meetings where participants were discussing the course of the campesino and indigenous movement. Our documentary was the result of this work.

NK: How has racism worked historically in Bolivia?

MC: The Indians have had two approaches towards the Bolivian state and white or mestizo society. On the one hand, they have pursued integration. They have linked up with populist parties, principally the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (known in Spanish under the acronym MNR). But if you go back even to the colonial period, you can find many instances in which the Indians pursued negotiation and integration with white and mestizo society. Aymaras on the other hand have cultivated their own sense of identity and self determination.

NK: So, how did it work exactly, were certain professions off limits?

MC: At certain times, we might speak of a white minority in Bolivia, although no one is really white here. As in the U.S. with the black codes, the municipal government of La Paz had certain established forms of discrimination in the beginning of the twentieth century. On buses and trams, you had to sit in the back. There was explicit and implicit discrimination. The possibility that Indians would ever attain important government positions was practically nil.

NK: Have race relations improved?

MC: No. I think actually what has happened is that the Indians´ discourse, which has tended on the radical side, i.e. that all whites have oppressed us, etc., has produced a reaction amongst the middle class which reside in the south of La Paz. As a result, the middle class has become more racist. There’s a lot of fear, now that there’s an indigenous president. The middle class has been excluded from the positions it occupied before, and has lost a bit of its social position.

NK: How is racism manifested?

MC: During moments of political conflict, in October 2003 and later when Evo Morales assumed the presidency, rumors circulated that the Indians were going to bust into the homes of white people. I could show you e-mails that have circulated in moments of crisis. For example, when the government was debating a new land law, thousands of Indians came to San Francisco Square. E-mails declared that the Indians were staging an invasion. This is the kind of rhetoric that harks back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

NK: So, notwithstanding all of the momentous recent political changes, La Paz continues to be a racist city?

MC: Racism exists, but now there are more ways to confront it. The Indians feel they have more clout, because they’re in the government now. Sometimes however the Indians exaggerate, they act out inverse racism. It’s like women who refuse to accept men, who are labeled as the oppressors, etc. We’ve had very heated rhetoric coming from the Minister of External Relations [David Choquehanca, an Aymara Indian], who said he could not go to the south of La Paz “because they all hate me there.” So, on both sides we get this kind of confrontational discourse. In my own personal case, my father was very, very dark and my mother was rather white. If people don’t know me, they say, “She´s a white professor” in a disparaging manner.

NK: To what extent does cultural nationalism have to do with hatred towards whites?

MC: There is a certain degree of resentment. We’re not living in South Africa, but who’s had access to education? The sons of whites and mestizos. On the other hand, Aymara nationalism is more confrontational in its rhetoric than in actual practice.

NK: Now that cultural nationalism is on the rise, will we see more Indians in the media and will Quechua and Aymara become official languages?

MC: Of course. In state entities, studying Aymara is mandatory. In the Ministry of External Relations people are required to speak Aymara. Whites have made fun of this. They say that officials should instead know how to speak German, French, and English. In the Constituent Assembly, certainly indigenous languages will become official. One of the principal aims of the Educational Reform has been to recognize not only Aymara and Quechua but also the languages of eastern Bolivia and Guarani.

NK: But, watching TV here I don’t see any Indian presenters…?

MC: On Channel 7, which is state-owned, Aymara ought to be spoken. I’ve seen some Aymara programming here and there, but not very much. In general though, TV is much less popular amongst the Indians than radio.

NK: And you hear more indigenous languages on radio?

MC: Yes, a lot of Aymara.

NK: There’s talk of creating an ethnically pluralistic nation, but I wonder whether the Aymaras and Quechuas get along?

MC: Traditionally they’ve had their rivalries but that was a long time ago because of course the Quechuas conquered the Aymara. To this day there are differences between the two peoples. Quechuas have always pursued closer societal integration and have interbred with outsiders to a greater extent. The rivalry between Quechuas and Aymaras was manifest in the relationship between Felipe Quispe and Evo Morales when they were both powerful. Of course, now Quispe doesn’t have much of a following and Evo has capitalized on indigenous sentiment which is totally in his favor. The two differed, not only in terms of their ideological vision but also in ethnic terms. Evo has Aymara roots but identified as Quechua because he was from the coca zone.

NK: Do these rivalries form a barrier for nation building?

MC: It might. In an effort to construct a state with a common identity, we may wind up with a very fractured society. Even more than the Quechua-Aymara split, there are a lot of divisions in Aymara society itself amongst different communities. On the other hand, in critical moments such as 2003 in the city of El Alto, there was a certain unity amongst diverse social sectors such as miners, rural and urban settlers. Quechuas and Aymaras meanwhile worked to help each other out.

NK: What was your impression of Quispe when you filmed the documentary?

MC: Quispe was intelligent and skilled at cultivating a certain discourse at a precise moment. His ideology was based on recuperating ethnic and cultural elements within the larger social struggle. Quispe´s struggle wasn´t always so abstract: he and his followers would initiate a blockade so as not to pay for water service, or to reclaim lands. On the other hand, we noticed that no one could go to meetings without putting on a poncho.

NK: How do nationalist Indians perceive Morales?

MC: I think Morales didn’t use to cultivate an ethnic discourse, he was someone who defended coca, who had a more worker oriented, anti-imperialist rhetoric. But then he incorporated Quispe’s radicalism, i.e., “I am an Indian, that is why they mistreat me,” etc.

NK: Does the idea of forming a separate Aymara nation enjoy much support?

MC: No. That´s why Quispe no longer has much of a following. Aymara nationalism is nothing like Serb nationalism. When white oppression is too much to bear, the Aymaras react in a very radical manner. But the Aymaras are also capable of negotiating and allying with others. They’re not going to push for separation from the Bolivian nation state, but they’re going to demand a certain amount of autonomy. For example, they want the right to elect their own indigenous municipal authorities.

NK: Does Evo Morales ever speak Quechua?

MC: In the coca zone, he speaks Spanish and Quechua. He puts on a poncho, which he never used to do. He’s been in politics for twenty years, and only during the last five has he put on a poncho.

NK: Could we see the emergence of the most radical social movements here in Bolivia?

MC: It’s possible. In Bolivia the state has never been able to function without social pressure from below. That’s to say, civil society is permanently organized and constantly exercises pressure on the government. At times, this pressure can become quite radical. But radical in what sense? People may organize a blockade or strike. But it’s not radical in the sense of Central America where you wound up with guerrilla movements. In Bolivia, armed movements have never achieved any kind of importance. The 1952 Revolution was much less bloody than the Cuban and Mexican Revolutions and it was also shorter. It was three days of struggle in the streets and boom!, the oligarchy fell. There’s no culture of long term violence here in Bolivia. On the other hand we do have a tradition of participatory democracy which comes out of the ayllu [a pre-Inca form of political organization based on extended family groups] and labor movement, which de-emphasizes delegation of power towards leaders.

NK: When you speak with the Indians nowadays, do you notice any psychological shift?

MC: Yes. I have noticed a change in my students in the history department, who have campesino origins. Ten years ago, it was difficult to get them to even say their last name. Finally they would say their name, but very slowly. Now it’s different. People say, “I am from such and such a town in the altiplano, and I am an Indian!”

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). He is currently writing another book tentatively titled South America’s New Direction (Palgrave, 2008), about the political realignment in South America and lessening of U.S. influence.

Magdalena Cajias is a historian at the Upper University of San Andres, Bolivia, and producer of the documentary film, “Achacachi, The Aymara Insurgency.”


NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.

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