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Anti-Indigenous Racism on the Rise in Post-Coup Bolivia

November 28, 2019

President Evo Morales, as Bolivia's first indigenous president, introduced numerous changes to the country to benefit Latin America's largest indigenous population. The new coup government, however, is seeking to reverse all of these changes.

President Evo Morales, as Bolivia's first indigenous president, introduced numerous changes to the country to benefit Latin America's largest indigenous population. The new coup government, however, is seeking to reverse all of these changes.


BOLIVIA

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia. 

Is Bolivia returning to an era of outright violence and repression against its Indigenous population following the November 11th coup against its first Indigenous president? It would seem so. The new interim self-declared president, Jeanine Áñez, is known for her outright racist attitudes. One of her main supporters and leaders of the right wing opposition in Bolivia is Lois Fernando Camacho, who recently said during an opposition rally in reference to Evo Morales and his government, “We have tied up all the demons and witchery and thrust them into the abyss. Satan, get out of Bolivia now.” 

Meanwhile, the death toll of opponents of the coup regime in Bolivia, who were mostly of Indigenous ethnicity, has reached 33 dead and hundreds wounded. Interim President Áñez made this possible when she signed a decree known as DS4078, which gives Bolivia’s military immunity from prosecution when engaging in crowd control. 

Joining me now to discuss the increasing repression against Bolivia’s Indigenous population in the wake of the coup is Jacquelyn Kovarik. She is a freelance journalist and educator based in Cochabamba, Bolivia where she writes about social and political movements in Peru and in Bolivia. Her latest article for The Nation is titled Bolivia’s Anti-Indigenous Backlash is Growing. She joins us today from Peru. 

Thanks for being here today, Jacquelyn. 

JACQUELYN KOVARIK: Thank you for having me. 

GREG WILPERT: I briefly summarized some of the violence that the coup government of Jeanine Áñez has exacted against the Indigenous people of Bolivia since she became president. Now, give us some more detail as to what’s been going on in this regard. In what ways is anti-Indigenous hatred being expressed in Bolivia since Morales’ ouster? 

JACQUELYN KOVARIK: Yeah. So when Evo stepped down on the 10th, that Sunday, a couple of hours later, Camacho–who is one of the main actors, he is a far right businessmen and lawyer from Santa Cruz and technically isn’t a politician, although he’s probably going to be running in the upcoming elections now–a few hours later, he went to the government palace. He put a Bible on the Bolivian national flag, the tricolored flag, and a pastor next to him said that the Pachamama would never enter the government palace again. And the Pachamama is like the Andean earth goddess, like Mother Earth, not only in Bolivia but in all of the Andes–in Colombia, Peru as well; Ecuador. And so that was like the beginning of showing what kind of rhetoric is going to be used by the far right that is taking advantage of this power vacuum. A couple of days later… Well, Áñez has said similar things, like referring to Andean religious or spiritual beliefs as satanic, witchery, that kind of thing, as Camacho has as well.

And then on that same day and the day after Evo stepped down, on November 10 and 11, people–especially in the military–started burning the Wiphala, the rainbow-colored flag that represents all Indigenous people and Afro-Bolivians as well, and again is a flag that represents the Native Pueblos not only in Bolivia but in all of the Andes. They took that flag down from the government palace in La Paz and burned it, and then military personnel across different departments did the same thing and also ripped it off of their military uniform and burned them. And so that’s a very clear message as well that with Evo stepping down, “we’re burning this flag that represents Indigenous and Afro-Bolivians.” It’s also really interesting because this flag has been in the news across Latin America right now because of the protests that are happening in Chile and in Colombia and in Ecuador; that it represents Latin-American Indigenous people more broadly.

So it’s a very big, violent statement. Those are a couple of examples. And so if you look to the massacres that have happened at the hands of the state military, those people have almost entirely been Indigenous. If you look at Sacaba, nine people were killed by the military police. That was on November 15, and those people were all of Quechua descent. And they were marching across the bridge from Sacaba, which is in a coca-growing area, a rural area outside of Cochabamba, marching into Cochabamba, and they were shot as well. If you look at a massacre that happened a couple of days later outside of El Alto, those are people of Aymara descent. They also were killed when they were marching. They were blockading a gas compound outside of El Alto, and they were also killed by the state. So those are just some of the main examples of what’s happened since Evo stepped down. 

GREG WILPERT: Now, I’d like to give some context to the situation of Bolivia’s Indigenous population. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, and correct me if this is a bad source, of Bolivia’s 11 million inhabitants, about 20% are of Indigenous ethnicity. 68% are considered mestizos or mixed white-and-Indigenous ethnicity, and about 5% are white, and perhaps more revealing I would say is the division in Bolivia if you look at the languages that are spoken, and according to those statistics, 45% speak only Spanish and 43% speak an Indigenous language, primarily Quechua and Aymara. In other words, it seems that Bolivia is pretty equally divided between those who could be considered Indigenous based on their language and those who aren’t. Tell us briefly about this division and how it has been reflected or not been reflected in Bolivia’s history and politics, just very briefly. 

JACQUELYN KOVARIK: Yeah. It’s a really complicated question, how you determine if someone is Indigenous, and especially when you look at Evo and the MAS Party and how Evo presents his Indigenous identity as a political tool. People before Evo Morales were elected were a lot less likely to identify as Indigenous because it was not something safe, essentially. They didn’t have political rights; they weren’t treated as citizens. And something that’s happened during Evo’s time is that more and more people are willing to identify themselves as Indigenous. So you can look at a lot of different identifiers like race, ethnicity, language, where you grew up, what kind of education you have to determine if someone’s Indigenous. So I would say when you’re looking for a hard number with that, it depends on who you ask and what questions you’re asking. 

Now, the division on who’s white, who’s Mestizo, and who’s Indigenous in Bolivia, it is a division that has existed since colonization. Because like all of South America, and especially the Andes, it was the Spanish coming and colonizing these Indigenous people and picking and choosing what kind of things about Indigenous life they wanted to appropriate and to use their own political systems and what things they wanted to eradicate. And the history of Bolivia since then, of Indigenous people at least, has been them resisting that; maintaining their life ways or reclaiming their life ways and reclaiming their language especially in the last 14 years under Evo and… I mean, that’s how I would define Bolivia’s political history as well as socioeconomic history. 

GREG WILPERT: Now, as Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, what would you say did Evo Morales do for the country’s Indigenous population, and what is the far right in Bolivia threatening to undo in that regard? 

JACQUELYN KOVARIK: So much has changed for Bolivia’s Indigenous population under Evo. That is something that even people on the left, including myself who has some critiques of Evo and the MAS Party, we still cannot afford to forget all of those things that Evo was able to achieve for Indigenous people that is honestly truly incredible. It hasn’t been accomplished in under any other kinds of government, so, if you look to the new constitution of Bolivia in 2009, Bolivia was changed officially from Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia, and that is specifically to acknowledge that Bolivia is one country that has over 37 nationalities that are all a part of one country. That in itself is really radical. And in that constitution, it also recognized 37 Indigenous languages as official in the constitution, and also for the first time recognized Afro-Bolivians as part of Bolivian society in the constitution. 

Also, in 2012, there was an extension of that constitution that specifically was about education and language that required all people who work for the government–so all bureaucrats, people who work in public hospitals, people who work in banks, people who work directly for the government in La Paz–they’re required to speak the Indigenous language of the department that they work in so that being a political citizen is accessible regardless of language. Also in that law, all public schools in Bolivia are required to be trilingual, so they teach Spanish, they teach a third language which is usually French or English, and they also teach the language of the department in which the school is located. Those are just some examples.

These changes really changed people’s lives, especially Indigenous people’s lives. That means that today in Bolivia, people in banks speak Quechua, speak Aymara, speak Guarani. People in banks wear Indigenous clothing. That was something that wasn’t a thing 20 years ago. And it also means more on an individual level, on a daily life level, people are less afraid to speak their language. Parents used to tell their kids, “I don’t want you to speak Quechua outside because it’s not safe,” and that has changed. So that’s just like the tip of the iceberg, but it’s really hard to understate how much the quality of life for Indigenous people has been elevated under Evo’s presidency. 

GREG WILPERT: How does it look now? Are you concerned that this, all of this will be undone? I mean, what are the indications? 

JACQUELYN KOVARIK: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think it’s a little alarmist to say that it will all be undone, because there’s so much work that has been made that people themselves are empowered in a way that they weren’t before. There are social organizations that exist and still have so much hope and still have all a very strong history of social mobilization in Bolivia that goes way back before Evo. So I would say that having the fear that it’s all being undone I think is a little alarmist. I do think that it’s really clear that the current government that’s taking advantage of this power vacuum has no interest in maintaining those changes that have been made. 

For example, Áñez and her cabinet at first didn’t have one Indigenous person, and then there was outcry about that, and now there’s a couple, but token Indigenous people essentially, so you look at that, and now we’re in a situation where once again the government is not on the same page with the movement. And so it’s going to be a lot harder to keep moving forward.

But at the end of my article that I wrote in The Nation, I had a conversation with someone in Sucre. And he basically told me, “It would be a shame if Mesa was elected,” which now it would have been better if Mesa was elected than Áñez because Mesa at least is not as racist and as centrists; Áñez is far right. But regardless of that, he said to me, “Yes, it would be a shame if Mesa was elected.” And in some ways, it’s like going back two decades in time. But at the same time, the 2000 Bolivia is not the same thing as 2019 Bolivia. The Pueblo has awakened and people know how to defend their rights, So I would emphasize there is a lot of problems, and there’s a lot of social movements and resistance that are nonviolent that are happening now as well. So, yeah. 

GREG WILPERT: Okay. That’s really interesting, but unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. We’ll also link to your article in The Nation once we publish the story. I was speaking to Jacquelyn Kovarik, freelance journalist and educator based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Thanks for joining us today, Jacquelyn. 

JACQUELYN KOVARIK: Thank you for having me. 

GREG WILPERT: Thank you for watching The Real News Network.