Racism, Domination and Bolivia


“The problem in Bolivia is that the country is undergoing a process of reforms, without abandoning the democratic framework, but both the opposition and the government act as if they were facing a revolution,” stated Marco Aurelio García, a close advisor to Lula in international affairs, according to an article by José Natanson in the newspaper Pagina 12.

Allowing myself to not take this declaration literally, but instead in an ironic sense, Marco Aurelio García, an intelligent and well-informed man, can’t help but realize that if the two protagonists of the Bolivian confrontation believe that they are dealing with a revolution, this belief is the best confirmation that, in effect, it is. The Vice President, Álvaro García Linera, on the other hand, has said that what is happening is “an increase in elites, an increase in rights, and a redistribution of wealth. This, in Bolivia, is a revolution.”

He is right: in Bolivia this alone would already be a revolution like the one in Nicaragua in 1979. But what is happening is something much deeper and that goes much further than the elites, politics, and the economy. This is a questioning of the means of the historical domination by those elites, old and new. It comes from very far below, it is moved by an ancient fury, and it will not be stopped by the massacres at the hands of fascist groups nor by the fragile government agreements with the prefects of the Media Luna.

The massacre in Pando, with more than 30 campesinos assassinated in cold blood by the hit men of the white minority, and the horrific scenes of humiliation, pain and punishment of the indigenous people in the public plaza of Sucre and in the streets of Santa Cruz de la Sierra at the hands of gangs of fascist youth, are telling in that this white minority knows exactly what game it is playing: its power is not negotiable, its lands are untouchable, its right to despotic rule resides in skin color not in the votes of citizens. The white minority is not willing to, in a sense, “extend” said despotic right, supported also by poor white groups whose only “property” is their skin color that separates them from the Indians. They are much less willing to redistribute property or wealth.

The Bolivian right-wing, the old and not-so-old elites, the owners of land and of lives, were defeated by the immense indigenous and popular uprising that began with the Water Wars in the year 2000, culminated with the rebellion of El Alto in October 2003, and concluded with Evo Morales’ entry into the presidency in January 2005. The new Constitution, even though subjected to a referendum, and other measures by the Bolivia government, have been steps to strengthen the new government in judicial, political and economic terrain.

This process was approved again by a the great majority of the Bolivian people in the referendum on August 10th; 67 percent of the votes–-more than two-thirds–- with up to 85 percent approval in the communities of the Altiplano. The dominant white minority in the eastern region has incited revolt, and, with brutality and ferociousness, challenges these national electoral results and threatens secession.

This minority knows well that it is not about simple “democratic improvements/extensions” but that instead it is about a revolution that questions the minority’s power and its privileges, the “structural inheritance” of its despotic rule. Therefore a revolution is one of those culminating moments in which the insurgent movement of the people touches those exact bases of domination, tries to destroy them, and is able to fracture the dividing line where that domination passes through the given society.

It is not about the line that separates the governors from the governed, a political question, but instead about the line that separates the dominators from the subaltern. In the classical sense, social revolution refers to the subversion of that social domination and not just to political or economic domination.

That dividing line is sharp and deep in Bolivia. It is not only a class domination, although that does exist. It is above all about a racial domination that was shaped in the colonial times and reaffirmed in the ogliarchic Republic from 1825 onwards.

In that domination, being a full citizen means being white or an assimilated mestizo. To become a citizen, an Indian must stop being Indian and see themselves and be seen as being white; break from their concrete historical community, that of the Aymaras, the Quechuas, the Guaraníes or another one of the many indigenous Bolivian communities; and enter as a newly-arrived subordinate into the abstract community of the citizens of the Republic. The Indian does not expect that the Republic will change and be like his people. Instead, it is required that these people change their men and women, renounce their identity and their history and be like the Republic of the whites, the rich, the eucated, the Spanish-speakers – where, for everyone else, the inerasable color of their skin will forever condemn them (those men and women) to second-class citizenship. That is the nature of this domination.

The strength of the revolution taking place in Bolizia is supported by an ancient civiliation, invisible in the law but one that persists in the languages, customs, belief, relationships of solidarities and communities, both rural and urban. The dominated brown-skinned people were not brought from other lands. There were there before, they were and they continue to be the native civilization. The filmmaker Jorge Sanginés, in an unforgettable film, called it “The Clandestine Nation.” Guillermo Bonfil named it “Deep Mexico: A Civilization Denied.” Following in their steps, I have named it “a subaltern civilization” in my book, “Historia a contrapelo.”

Clandestine, denied or subaltern, the social and cultural framework of those native civilizations appears at the moment of organizing the uprisings and the rebellions of their heirs and bearers, because those rebellions and uprisings are roots as deep as the root of racial domination.

That strength also lives in the inherited framework of the dominated and subaltern who spark revolt to win all of the rights that the racial Republic denies them or limits for them: dignity and respect, spaces of liberty and organization, the natural resources of their land, education, health, everything that constitutes the social framework of a Republic of equals.

The old republican motto “liberty-equality-fraternity” has in such rebellions its double: “land-justice-solidarity.” In these regions there is not liberty without land redistribution, there is not equality without justice for all, and there is not fraternity without solidarity between the multiple communities and between the entire community of this nation of nations that is Bolivia.

It is not just about a new political and economic order. It is about what in the Bolivian context will constitute a new social order. From that comes the bestial violence of the reactions of the privileged minority groups and their hit men, as in Pando, in Santa Cruz, in Chuquisaca.

All of Bolivia, and especially the indigenous and working-class Bolivia that overwhelmingly won the referendum, has seen this muderous violence exercised over its brothers and sisters on television and the radio. Those images have come back to show, better than any speech can, what they have already known and lived in their own flesh and in that of their parents and grandparents. They have been able to see live, in color, the threat of the past returning.

They will not allow it. They have enough experience and organization to know how to respond to the violence with violence if their governors, for whom they wait but of whom they also make demands, do not stop and punish the criminals, the only sensible and effective resolution that could come from the current negotiations between the fighting forces.

The expulsion of the Washington ambassador for conspiring with the racist right-wing has helped to put the right-wing in its place. But it has not stopped it. The summit of the South American presidents in Santiago, Chile, has given support to the government of Evo Morales and has taken certain hopes away from those who support a coup. But it has neither disarmed them nor tied their hands: they still have allies in those countries.

However, it is not just the governments who are playing. In Bolivia the indigenous and working-class organizations from the eastern regions, the altiplano and the valleys are mobilizing and some are literally at war. They do not seem ready to let themselves or the situation be shut away at the negotiation table between the government and the murderous prefeccts.

A report from the Gran Pueblo Chiquitano, from the Eastern region, decided on September 15th that “they had reached their limit for tolerance and they will renew the sense of survival and fury of the Pueblo Chiquitano to fight fiercely for their Land, Dignity, and Indigenous Autonomy.” Therefore, it is decided “to confirm the consequence and unshakeable struggle to defend the results of the constituent process, which has included our historical demands […] So that we will never again be slaves nor servants of the ogliarchic and land-owning groups of Santa Cruz!”; and “to warn the Civil Authorities and Prefectural Authorities from the department of Santa Cruz that the indigenous territories that are titled and those that are in the process of reorganization are untouchable, cannot be changed, and are not subject to external authority.”

A declaration by the Social Organizations of Eastern Bolivia demanded on September 17th that “the Parliament and the National Government not touch the new Political Constitution of the State approved in Oruro on December 9th, 2007, above all the chapter on autonomies, since it is there that the principal demands of more than 25 years of struggle are located and claimed. Humiliated and persecuted, we, and our fallen brothers and sisters, advocate, march, and die for our liberation and the liberation of all Bolivian People.”

A September 17th alert from the Coordinating Committee of the Indigenous Peoples of Santa Cruz says, “Those who assaulted our offices are sent by and paid for by the land speculators, big landowners and those who enslave our indigenous brothers and sisters, and by the Prefect, the Mayor, and civic committees, who oppose our historical demand placed in the New Political Constitution: the autonomous indigenous territories, without subordination to any regional authority, which has an inalienable character and is thus the basis of our liberation as a people.”

In this terrain, that of a revolution whose makers and protagonists are not ready to give it up nor negotiate it no matter what the cost and no matter what violence the land-owners and racists will execute, are the confrontations in Bolivia. Perhaps the end will not be immediate. But, as in October 2003, if they will not give up the outcome they desire, it will be resolved in the streets and in the countryside. That is one of the reasons for the alarm of the governments of the countries bordering Bolivia.

This text was published in Spanish in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada on September 22, 2008


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