Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BOLIVIA: Local Indigenous Leaders Beaten and Publicly Humiliated

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, May 27 2008 (IPS) - Bolivia may have its first-ever indigenous president, but racism is alive and well in this country, as demonstrated by the public humiliation of a group of around 50 indigenous mayors, town councillors and community leaders in the south-central city of Sucre.

The incident, which shook the country but received little attention from the international press, occurred on Saturday, when President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, was to appear in a public ceremony in Sucre to deliver 50 ambulances for rural communities and announce funding for municipal projects.

But in the early hours of Saturday morning, organised groups opposed to Morales began to surround the stadium where he was to appear a few hours later. Confronting the police and soldiers with sticks, stones and dynamite, they managed to occupy the stadium.

The president cancelled his visit, and the security forces were withdrawn, to avoid violent clashes and bloodshed.

But violent elements of the Interinstitutional Committee, a conservative pro-autonomy, anti-Morales civic group that is backed by the local university and other bodies, continued to harass and beat supporters of the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) and anyone who appeared to belong to one of the country’s indigenous communities.

A mob of armed civilians from Sucre, partially made up of university students, then surrounded several dozen indigenous Morales supporters, including local authorities who had come from other regions to attend the ceremony and were unable to leave the city after the event was called off.


The terrified indigenous people, who had sought refuge in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Sucre, were stripped of their few belongings, including money, identity documents and watches, and forced to walk seven kilometres to the House of Liberty, a symbol of the end of colonial rule in Bolivia, which was declared there on Aug. 6, 1825.

In the city’s main square in front of the building, they were forced to kneel, shirtless, and apologise for coming to Sucre. They were also made to chant insults to Morales like “Die Evo!”

They were surrounded by activists from the conservative pro-autonomy movement, who set fire to the blue, black and white MAS party flag, the multicolour flag of the Aymara people, and colourful hand-woven indigenous ponchos seized from the visiting Morales supporters, as a signal of their “victory” over the president’s grassroots support bases.

Sucre Mayor Aideé Nava and the Interinstitutional Committee immediately apologised after the incident.

On Tuesday, Morales called on local and provincial officials in Sucre to bring those responsible for the racist incidents to justice.

Indigenous people in Bolivia have long suffered discrimination. They were not even allowed to vote until 1952, when the government of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) abolished “pongaje”, a system of serfdom and forced labour under which native people in rural areas lived in semi-slavery conditions.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically divided between the western highlands, home to the poor indigenous majority, and the much wealthier eastern and southeastern provinces, which account for most of the country’s natural gas production, industry, agribusiness and gross domestic product. The population of eastern Bolivia tends to be of more European (Spanish) and mixed-race than indigenous descent.

The eastern Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s richest province, is at the vanguard of an autonomy movement that has caught on in six of the country’s nine regions. People in Santa Cruz voted in favour of regional autonomy in a May 4 referendum, and the eastern and southeastern provinces of Beni, Pando and Tarija will hold similar referendums in June.

Analysts say that underlying the autonomy movement, which is spearheaded by the rightwing business and political elites who governed Bolivia for decades, is the question of control and use of resources like natural gas, farmland, iron ore, water and forests.

The aim of the leftwing Morales administration is to distribute the revenues from the eastern provinces’ natural gas reserves and other sources of wealth more evenly, in order to improve the living conditions of the country’s indigenous people, most of whom live in appalling poverty.

According to governing party representatives and an independent analyst who spoke to IPS, Saturday’s incident has encouraged the government’s supporters to redouble their efforts to bring about structural changes aimed at eradicating inequality and discrimination.

“We are witnessing a backlash by the oligarchy,” René Navarro, a MAS representative in the constituent assembly that is rewriting the Bolivian constitution, told IPS.

Navarro, who is from the southwestern province of Potosí, predicted further incidents of violence against indigenous people by the right.

Over the weekend, the main news in the print media was the cancellation of the president’s visit to Sucre. However, the beatings and public humiliation of Quechua Indians in the city were filmed and aired by a few TV stations, and the images drew indignant reactions.

The right, nevertheless, is attempting in the media to portray Saturday’s violence in Sucre as part of a government-fomented campaign aimed at further polarising the country along regional lines by social and indigenous groups that support the MAS.

But Navarro said that “Evo is indigenous and represents the country’s rural poor, and Saturday’s incidents are a blow to all citizens alike.”

He said that what the government should do is publicise what it has achieved over the last two and a half years.

MAS lawmaker José Pimentel, a former leader of the country’s miners’ union, told IPS that it was urgently necessary to get the draft constitution approved in a referendum, with the support of the rural indigenous peasants in alliance with the urban poor.

Independent analyst Franco Gamboa, a sociologist by training, agreed that the only option open to the government is to continue forging ahead with the new constitution, the vote on which is being delayed by the autonomy referendums as well as plans for a recall referendum for Morales, his vice president, and the country’s nine provincial governors.

The aim of the new constitution, whose draft was approved by the MAS majority in the constituent assembly in a December vote that was boycotted by the rightwing opposition, is to create a unified but decentralised state that recognises Bolivia’s cultural and ethnic diversity, while ensuring greater political participation and access to land and other resources by indigenous people.

But Gamboa also said the government should accept the results of the autonomy referendums in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija.

Juanita Ancieta, a leader of the Women’s Federation of the Trópico de Cochabamba, a coca-growing area, told IPS that “we are not going to allow them to divide Bolivia, and we are not going to sit back with our arms crossed, doing nothing.”

Pimentel stressed that “the fact that Morales was elected as the country’s first indigenous president is not sufficient to do away with a racist, neo-colonial state, which is why it is important to reform the constitution.”

Gamboa said the reaction of conservative groups in Sucre and the autonomy movements in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija reflect opposition to the greater political independence and expanded land rights that the new constitution would grant indigenous people, which would represent a challenge to the privileges enjoyed by the middle-class, landowning and business elites in power in the eastern provinces.

The new constitution would recognise greater autonomy for the provinces, municipalities and indigenous communities, while the anti-Morales provinces only want decentralisation at the municipal and provincial levels.

The events in Sucre confirm the need to destroy the “racist state,” said Pimentel, who said a long struggle lies ahead to bring about changes among conservative sectors in terms of their attitudes and behaviour towards indigenous people.

The legislator said a social pact for reforming the constitution might be one feasible goal in the long road ahead to building a country where all ethnic and racial groups receive the same respect.

 
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