Thousands of protestors from the city of El Alto and the rural provinces are assembled in the Plaza San Francisco of La Paz. A woman wearing the pollera, a skirt worn by indigenous women of rural origin, is being filmed by the crew of a popular alternative radio station.
Firm, determined, and angry, she says, “I feel hurt and heartbroken. We cannot surrender now because our wiphala [the flag of indigenous self-determination that was burnt by the organizers of the civic-military coup in Bolivia] has been insulted. We ask Camacho to leave. Otherwise, we will kick him out because El Alto is always on its feet, never on its knees. If he does not leave now, he will leave in his coffin.”
After threatening the self-declared President Jeanine Añez of dire consequences if she continued in office, the indigenous woman went on to say “We do not fear death. We have to die of something sooner or later. We are ready to die for the fatherland.” By the time she completed her interview, the Ponchos rojos, members of a militant indigenous organization from rural La Paz joined the protestors in the Plaza chanting “Civil war! Civil war!”
Hours later, on the other side of the plaza, a woman holding the wiphala was captured on camera confronting a police officer saying “They burnt our wiphala. That is why I have come here. I am ready to die for Bolivia”. Raising her arms, she screamed “Kill me. I am going to die with the wiphala in my hand. We from El Alto are always on our feet, never on our knees. We are Aymara and Quechua.”
Why did the burning of a flag lead to an explosion of such intense collective rage? Why are thousands on the streets ready to wage a militant struggle against the new transitional government? Events that transpired in the previous weeks have once again placed Bolivia at a crossroads of its history.
The drama began to unfold when the opposition candidate Carlos Mesa asked his supporters to mobilize after suspicions of electoral fraud in the Presidential elections held on the 20th of October. Protests broke out in various Bolivian cities.
On the 8th of November, the Organization of American States (OAS) recommended that new elections be held as they found irregularities in the vote count. Later, two reports emerged, one published by Walter Mebane of the University of Michigan and another by the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR) that questioned the conclusions of the OAS. Nevertheless, Morales immediately accepted the recommendations of the OAS and asked the legislative assembly to form a new electoral tribunal and declare fresh elections.
That was not sufficient to satisfy the opposition. By then, Luis Fernando Camacho, the leader of the Civic Committee of the city of Santa Cruz, a representative of extreme right-wing politics had eclipsed Carlos Mesa as the major spokesperson of opposition to the government. He called for the immediate resignation of Morales.
This was followed by the Chiefs of the Police and the Armed Forces asking him to step down. Left with no other option, Morales announced his resignation declaring that a coup has been consummated in Bolivia. In the power vacuum that was created, Senators from the Opposition met in a session without the necessary quorum and Jeanine Áñez, the Second Vice-President of the Senate proclaimed herself as the interim President. Senators from the Movimiento al Socialismo, the party of Evo Morales did not attend the session as most of them were underground due to the severe political persecution party members were subject to after the resignation of Morales. Some of their houses had been burnt and their families threatened.
Hours after Morales announced his resignation, La Paz witnessed dramatic scenes of Luis Fernando Camacho entering the Presidential palace and the wiphala being removed from the Presidential palace and burnt. The wiphala, the flag of indigenous self-determination was officially incorporated as a symbol of the fatherland along with the national tricolor flag by the new constitution promulgated by the Constituent Assembly convoked by Evo Morales during his first term in office. It is the burning of the wiphala that sparked off waves of protests from different indigenous sectors and immersed Bolivia in serious political turbulence.
Why is the city of El Alto once again at the center of extraordinary mobilizations? What makes people in the city brave and confident enough to dictate terms to the new unabashedly dictatorial transitional government? However, for those of us familiar with El Alto, none of this is surprising.
The city is well known for its rebellious character and its residents were the protagonists of massive mobilizations demanding the nationalization of gas that led to the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003 and Carlos Mesa in 2005. Inhabited predominantly by Aymara indigenous migrants from rural communities as well as ex-mine workers, El Alto has been the fastest growing city in Bolivia.
The mobilizations in 2003 that resulted in over 60 deaths by state forces
The mobilizations in 2003 that resulted in over 60 deaths by state forces focussed international attention on the city and gave it titles like “the most significant rebel city in Latin America”. The militant radicalism of the city´s residents is manifested in the chant “El Alto on its feet, never on its knees” that is repeated ceremoniously on all special occasions like the anniversary celebrations of the city and each one of its neighborhoods.
It is this extraordinary character of the city that inspired me to not only visit El Alto from another part of the world but also conduct research on the city focussing specifically on the emergence of a militant urban Aymara political identity in the context of these mobilizations. I conducted ethnographic research in El Alto for about 25 months between 2010 and 2015 which gave me the opportunity to interact with residents of multiple neighborhoods, university students and members of various youth organizations. During the course of these years, I also lived in three separate neighborhoods in the city.
Many of the oral narratives I collected from the residents of El Alto, most of whom participated actively in the mobilizations of 2003 reflected great optimism. They saw themselves as the protagonists of the “process of change” the country was going through, which they attributed to the brave sacrifices of their brothers and sisters who lost their lives to “recover the natural resources” stolen from the country.
In their narratives, they regularly made distinctions between “the past” and “the present”. They affirmed that earlier, they were discriminated against severely for wearing the pollera (a skirt worn by indigenous women), for speaking Aymara in public spaces, and for indigenous phenotypical traits. Many of them hailed policy initiatives of the Morales government such as appointing indigenous women wearing the pollera to positions such as Ministers, Ambassadors and Directors of institutions and promulgating anti-discriminatory laws such as the law against racism. People responded to my questions on whether discriminatory practices persist with statements such as “How can they discriminate against us when many legislators are of pollera?”
The Morales government also significantly increased public investment in the country by increasing the percentage of royalties the transnational petroleum companies pay the state. Huge investments were made, among other things, in rural development projects, construction of roads and highways, and direct cash transfers to the elderly, pregnant women and students of public schools. These redistributive measures considerably reduced poverty and inequality. Extreme poverty reduced from 38 percent to 18 percent. Bolivia has been registering the highest rates of economic growth in the region continuously for the last five years.
A large section of the Aymara population in El Alto are traders in the informal sector who also benefitted from the demand stimulus generated by these redistributive policies. Many of my interlocutors have double residency in the city and the countryside, and engage in commercial activity in multiple rural and urban locations. Under Morales, the extent of kilometers of roads constructed quadrupled. The construction of roads connecting rural provinces to the city brought significant material benefits to these indigenous sectors. I came across similar opinions in my occasional visits to rural communities in the Department of La Paz.
However, despite all their optimism, people sometimes spoke of the threat of the right-wing parties returning to power. For instance, on the tenth anniversary of the mobilizations demanding the nationalization of gas in 2003 in El Alto, the Centro Cultural Wayna Tambo, a youth organization organized bonfires in various neighborhoods of the city in commemoration of the rebellion and the massacre of protestors by the government.
Two documentaries on the rebellion were screened on the streets. During the screening in the Extranca of Rio Seco, a part of the city that witnessed a massacre of protestors, an old man came up to me to express his worries that right-wing forces would jeopardize the efforts to transform the nation. He went on to narrate his experiences as a participant in the rebellion and how some of his neighbors were injured in the repressive action by the armed forces.
Getting very emotional, he said, “Now the same forces that killed the people… the MNR, ADN (major parties that ruled Bolivia before Morales) want to return to power (the presidential elections of 2014 was just a year away). We should stop them, otherwise, the same things will happen.”
For many people who are on the streets protesting today, those worst fears have been realized. What does the burning of wiphala symbolize for them? In a meeting held by the community leaders of the Camacho province in the Department of La Paz, the representative of the union of workers in the interprovincial transportation sector said, “for us, the burning of the wiphala means returning to the past.”
In an interview with the television channel Telesur, a resident of the popular neighborhood of Chasquipampa in La Paz said, “As we are indigenous, we are not going to let them return. Now we are organized and we have woken up. The Bolivian people now know how today a woman wearing the pollera has the right to give her opinion, the right to enter an office. Earlier, we were prohibited. If we had to enter an office, we had to take off our sombreros (hats that were part of their attire) and wait behind. But thanks to an indigenous person who entered (the Presidency), all of us have rights. We are on the same level.”
The symbolic act of the burning of the wiphala has also been accompanied by physical attacks on Aymara and Quechua people. Videos appeared in social networking sites of indigenous women being rounded up and attacked on the streets. In the neighborhood of Senkata in El Alto, an elderly woman wearing the pollera told a journalist of the Russian channel RT that she was on the streets protesting because her underaged son who joined the protests in La Paz was arrested by the police.
When she went to get him released, she was treated as if she were a criminal. Some women who were assembled there insulted her saying, “Now these Indians should not be here, all Indians have to die. You say you want war. Now we are going to kill all of you one by one… Here, the city (of La Paz) should be respected. Shitty Indians, you are not going to enter here.” She added that she also bore witness to protestors being kicked and punched in their faces by the police who were screaming “these Indians have to be killed.”
A young woman who was protesting against the arrest of her brother without probable cause and the physical violence inflicted on him by the police complained to a popular media outlet with tears in ger eyes, “Now we have no freedom to even walk freely. We are really tired because we do not belong to any political party for them to do this to us. It is just because we are brown skinned.”
Racial power struggles over urban space are not new in Bolivia. The first term of the Morales Presidency also witnessed a severe backlash from various sectors of the white-mestizo elites and the opposition parties. When the Morales government convened a Constituent Assembly in 2006 with several elected indigenous delegates in the city of Sucre, residents of the city physically attacked the indigenous members of the Assembly who were passing through the central plaza saying that the plaza was not meant for Indians. Similar attacks were made in cities of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.
After a massacre of peasants in the Department of Pando in 2008 that led to national and international condemnation, the opposition ran out of steam. Laws passed by the Morales government also changed the dynamics of racialized space. Earlier, some restaurants and hotels in elite white- mestizo neighborhoods used to put up signs stating that they had the right to restrict access, which was designed to limit the entry of racialized others into their premises.
A new law against racism and discrimination was passed by the Morales government that now obliges every establishment to replace the sign of restricted access with a sign that states that everybody is equal before the law. Now it is common to see indigenous women in their polleras in spaces like star hotels and restaurants in elite white areas, something unlikely at least till the end of the twentieth century.
Nevertheless, tensions remained latent. A controversy that erupted around the Megacenter, a multiplex in the Zona Sur, the richest and whitest part of the city of La Paz is a case in point. When the Morales administration constructed a cable car system that connected the Ciudad Satelite neighborhood of El Alto with the Zona Sur of La Paz, more people from El Alto started visiting the Megacenter. Some white-mestizo elite residents in Zona Sur responded as if there was an invasion into their territory.
Through their social networking sites, they expressed their horror at the sight of several indigenous women wearing the pollera in the multiplex. They made comments such as “the only way to stop this is to stop the cable car that comes from El Alto and that would kill the dog and also the fleas” and “I don’t want to imagine how the whole of Zona Sur will turn out to be with more car cables that are going to come. We need to do something, but now!!!”
These responses made the Bolivian Vice-Ministry of Decolonization intervene and campaigns against discrimination were initiated. When I visited the Megacenter a week after the controversy broke out, not only did I see several women wearing the pollera moving around the food courts and ticket counters. I also saw messages from the Ministry of Communication against discrimination being constantly displayed on the television screens and right outside the Megacenter a graffiti on the walls that read “El Alto on its feet, the Mega (center) on its knees.”
Another common criticism I heard of Morales was that there is a rural bias in his policies and that the major beneficiaries of his policies are rural indigenous communities.
All these processes were very significant for my interlocutors in El Alto. Access to urban spaces and positions of power in state institutions were recurrent topics in my conversations with them over the years. Though radical Indianist activists were not satisfied with the extent of indigenous representation in positions of power, for many people in El Alto, the presence of indigenous people, especially women wearing the pollera in the parliament, ministries and embassies was a positive indication of the rapid advances made in the struggle against racism. On the other hand, even though indigenous representation in institutions of power still remained disproportionate to their share in the population, it was sufficient to provoke a strong racist backlash from white-mestizo elites and middle classes in La Paz.
To many white-mestizo middle-class residents of La Paz, the presence of indigenous people, especially women wearing the pollera without professional training in positions of responsibility came up as a recurrent topic of discussion. “How can they make a domestic maid a minister?” asked a middle-aged man I met at a museum, in reference to Casimira Rodriguez, the leader of the Domestic Worker´s Union who was the Minister of Justice in the first cabinet of Morales.
Though her stint as a Minister was short-lived, it was sufficient to invite the ire of the white-mestizo middle classes. “This is how they destroy institutions. Under this government, professionals have no value in this country”, said a middle-aged woman in utter disbelief upon hearing that Elvira Espejo, a woman wearing the pollera was appointed as the Director of the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore. Though many women wearing the pollera do have professional training, the dominant racial common sense makes people think otherwise. Moreover, as various scholars have observed, the level of education has strong racial connotations in Latin America.
Another common criticism I heard of Morales was that there is a rural bias in his policies and that the major beneficiaries of his policies are rural indigenous communities. While people of El Alto with double residency in the countryside and the city affirmed that in contrast to earlier governments that “forgot” the countryside, there are significant transformations under the Morales Presidency, some residents of La Paz saw that as rural bias.
Therefore, it is not surprising that sectors of the urban middle classes began to identify at least partially with extreme positions such as those held by Jose Luis Camacho and Jeanine Áñez. Camacho directed the neo-fascist Union Juvenil Cruceñista that is well known for its spectacular displays of violence against highland indigenous people in the city of Santa Cruz. In the 2000s, they used to interrupt the march of indigenous people with whips and chains, go to indigenous neighborhoods with sticks and bats to terrorize the people and circle the city in jeeps painted with the swastika.
The UJC simultaneously functions as a political wing of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee and a paramilitary organization. Carlos Valverde, who founded the UJC had close links with Claus Barbie, the ex-Nazi who fled from Germany to Bolivia after the Second World War. Jeanine Áñez, the self-proclaimed President is not far from Camacho in terms of her ideological leanings. She claims “Aryan and Nordic roots” and as a member of the Constituent Assembly, she was on record declaring her opposition to the inclusion of wiphala as an official flag of the state. Four of the Ministers in her cabinet are members of the Union Juvenil Cruceñista.
Despite making repeated declarations that her government is “transitional”, the self-declared President and her cabinet seem to be in a great hurry to reverse all the major initiatives of the Morales presidency. In an interview with the digital newspaper Infodiez, the Minister of the Economy also suggested that he would consider privatizing public sector companies. Boliviana de Aviación, the Public Sector airline has already been privatized. The government also asked for the resignation of Ambassadors, expelled Venezuelan Embassy officials and withdrew from the ALBA (the alliance of countries ruled by left-wing governments in the region).
The Minister of Government declared on the very first day that he would organize a witch hunt for Juan Ramon Quintana and Raul Garcia Linera, two political heavyweights in the Morales administration. Several office bearers of the MAS continue to remain underground. Áñez signed a Decree offering the Armed Forces personnel complete impunity in repressing mass mobilizations. State repression has so far claimed over 30 lives.
Press freedom has been severely curtailed. The Minister of Communication threatened journalists that they would be tried for sedition, which had the impact of silencing the Bolivian media houses. Journalists from Argentina who were covering the protests were forced to leave the country and an Al Jazeera correspondent was tear-gassed on live television. Telesur, which began covering the protests against the government was taken off the air. According to official figures released by the National Ombudsman, 32 people have been killed and 770 wounded. On the 15th of November, coca growers who were trying to enter the city of Cochabamba were met with violent repression that claimed 9 lives.
Four days later, Senkata in El Alto became the site of another massacre. Protestors were blockading a gas plant cutting off fuel supply to the city of La Paz. To disperse the crowd, armed forces fired indiscriminately at protestors. The official figures indicate 9 deaths but residents of the neighborhood claim that dead bodies were taken by the military personnel to be hidden inside the plant and they have not yet been recovered. The residents marched to the center of La Paz carrying the coffins of the dead accompanied by several thousands of people from other neighborhoods of El Alto, La Paz and rural indigenous communities from La Paz and Potosi. They were teargassed and dispersed, forcing them to flee leaving the coffins abandoned on the roads for a while.
The most remarkable characteristic of the current mobilizations is the predominance of indigenous political symbols such as the wiphala and the references to Tupak Katari and Bratolina Sisa, indigenous leaders who led a massive rebellion in 1781 against Spanish colonial rule. Though the wiphala was used in the mobilizations of 2003 in El Alto, my interviews with residents in multiple neighborhoods of the city revealed that it was not very common.
The national tricolor flag remained the major symbol of resistance in the context of resource nationalism (though resource nationalism was also understood through a racial lens). However, today´s protests have brought the wiphala to the forefront, establishing it as the symbol par excellence of resistance. Chants like “the wiphala should be respected, damn it!” resound through the streets as thousands of protestors block roads demanding the resignation of the illegitimate racist government. While the coffins of the martyrs in 2003 were draped in the national tricolor flag, today, those of many of the protestors who lost their lives in the current protests are draped in the wiphala.
During the mobilizations in 2003, references to leaders like Tupak Katari were only made by a handful of radical Indianist activists. However, on the 14th of November, a meeting of protest in El Alto attended by hundreds of thousands of people ended with chants “long live Tupak Katari” and “long live Bartolina Sisa”.
In this context, it is important to recognize that Bolivia is witnessing indigenous resistance on a massive scale against an illegitimate government led by extreme right-wing and racist forces that represent a minuscule minority in the country. In the recently concluded elections, the party of Añes just won around 4% of the votes in the country. It is not a government that came to power taking advantage of a “popular rebellion” against Evo Morales as scholars such as Raul Zibechi argues.
It is undeniable that there were serious tensions between the Morales government, and some indigenous sectors and organizations. The latter have been organizing, among other things, against the development model followed by the government, especially its reliance on natural resource extraction. Indigenous organizations such as CONAMAQ and CIDOB were spearheading resistance to the Morales government´s development policies. Nevertheless, the fact remains that many other indigenous popular sectors support the same policies as redistributive extractivism has brought considerable material benefits to them, and also reduced poverty and inequality in the country.
As I have elaborated elsewhere, indigenous radicalism in twenty-first-century Bolivia not only takes the form of indigenous communities resisting projects of natural resource extraction in defense of their ancestral territories. For most of my Aymara interlocutors in El Alto, indigenous liberation was understood in terms of achieving developmentalist goals financed through natural resource extraction. For instance, mobilizations in October 2003 rather than demand an end to extraction called for the nationalization and domestic industrialization of gas.
Today, the question of lithium is on the protestor´s minds. Bolivia is believed to have about 70% of the world´s lithium, the raw material for batteries for electronic equipment and electric cars. It is seen as one of the most valuable raw materials of the future. Morales's plan was to begin the exploration and industrialization of lithium through a joint venture in which the public sector company YLC would hold 51% of the stocks, a decision that is clearly not favorable to the multinational corporations. Attempts to make deals with corporations from the United States, Canada and South Korea failed. An agreement that was signed with the German company was later suspended due to protests from the Civic Committee of Potosi over the share of the royalties that would go to the Department of Potosi.
The protests that culminated in the coup and the capture of power by the Fascist forces were not led by indigenous popular sectors that were against the Morales government.
In a video filmed by a network called Tejido cultura viva comunitaria, a resident of the Senkata neighborhood who was on the highway preparing for the march to La Paz with the coffins of her neighbors forcefully affirmed, “In 2003, we fought for gas, now are fighting for our lithium”. She was referring to a similar massacre that took place in Senkata during the 2003 mobilizations demanding the nationalization of gas when the government of Sanchez de Lozada sent in the armed forces to break the blockade of the fuel refinery to take gas to La Paz.
An elderly woman wearing the pollera, while descending to the city of La Paz during the march said, “We want her (Añes) to go to Chonchocorro (a high-security prison in La Paz) with all her ministers, they are interested in our lithium. Camacho is buying people with money, they are interested in our wealth, in our lithium. We are not going to let them. We will fight until the final consequences”[i]. Similarly, the previous day, a young woman was filmed by the journalist of the Russia Today channel holding a wiphala and chanting “the lithium is not for sale”.
Recent ethnographic studies have destabilized simplistic narratives of indigenous people resisting extractivist policies everywhere. While some communities such as the peasants in the Tariquia forest reserve organize against petroleum exploration in their territory, others such as the Guaranis in Itika Guasu made deals with transnational corporations to capture gas rents to fund autonomous development plans. Even while recognizing that tensions existed between some indigenous sectors and the Morales government, making sweeping generalizations about the relationship between the latter and indigenous-popular sectors based on them is to miss the forest for the trees.
The protests that culminated in the coup and the capture of power by the Fascist forces were not led by indigenous popular sectors that were against the Morales government. They were organized by the Civic Committees of the cities of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Potosi that represented regional elites and urban middle classes, the fascist Union Juvenil Cruceñista, some university students in La Paz, and the Resistencia Juvenil Cochala, a fringe group of youth in Cochabamba who go around in motorbikes terrorizing and physically attacking women wearing the pollera and the coca cultivators who support Morales.
In the height of the crisis, representatives of the Qhara Qhara indigenous nation that is in conflict with the Morales government made a declaration in the city of Potosi but were not the protagonists in the mass mobilizations demanding his resignation. Contrary to what Zibechi argues, the Union Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia (FSTMB) asked Morales to resign only hours before the Declaration of the Chief of Armed Forces. A few days before, they were on the streets of La Paz marching in support of him and against the opposition.
The protestors on the streets of El Alto constantly affirm that they are not representatives of any political party. Among the protestors there are some who wish that Evo Morales return to Bolivia. In a video captured by Annur TV, an elderly woman thundered “The President has been handed over just like Christ was. However, we are happy because President Evo is not alone. He is alive. They have not killed him like Tupak Katari.”
However, there are other collectives and individuals whom I have closely known over the course of my research who have been very critical of the Morales government but have joined the struggle against the burning of the wiphala forcefully affirming that it is not a symbol of the MAS. For instance, Comunidad Pukara, a collective of Indianist intellectuals made a public declaration demanding strict legal sanction for those who disrespect indigenous political symbols like the wiphala and firmly asserting that they would not permit a retreat from the rights established for indigenous nations in the Constitution. They were also emphatic in affirming that the wiphala does not belong to any political party and that “the rebellion of wiphala is not a party-based movement”.
On the 24th of November, the legislative assembly unanimously approved a law to conduct elections within 120 days. Dialogues were also held between the government and the representatives of El Alto, the twenty provinces of La Paz and the coca cultivators, and an agreement was reached on some points including the abrogation of the decree that gives impunity to the armed forces, an end to political persecution, legal sanction for those who disrespected the wiphala and the retention of state-owned companies in the public sector.
It remains to be seen if the government would comply with the agreements as the political persecution of the leaders of the MAS and the torture of the arrested protestors continue[ii]. The Federation of coca cultivators declared that they would resume mobilizations if the promises made by the government to pacify the country are not met. Uncertainty has reached such levels that it is nearly impossible to even guess, let alone predict what would transpire in the coming days and months.
However, as Evo Morales has categorically affirmed that he would not be a candidate again, it can be safely concluded that the contemporary moment represents the end of a cycle in Bolivian politics. As the right-wing forces try to reestablish their dominance, a new generation of indigenous youth in El Alto is in the process of radicalization. This is an unexpected outcome of this process.
During my years of research in El Alto, the younger generation that had not witnessed the strong anti-neoliberal political mobilizations in the first few years of the twenty-first century seemed to be less interested in politics than their parents and grandparents who had lived through times of severe racial discrimination and participated in extraordinary collective struggles against the same.
The current crisis has awakened their consciousness and the implications of this process can be far-reaching. The wiphala continues to flutter in the strong winds of the Andean highlands like never before as Bolivia is once again at the crossroads of history.