On the verge of a racial revenge?


Ever since the inauguration of Evo Morales, the right wing have begun to raise the spectre of a “racial revenge”, supposedly promoted by the new government. Even Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa – who never loses an opportunity to attack “populisms”, both real and imaginary – wrote about the “demagogy” and “racism” of the Bolivian president. This “indigenous messianism”, together with the “totalitarianism” of Hugo Chavez, was putting democracy and the state of law at risk in Latin America. Alvaro Vargas Llosa, the son of the author of La ciudad y los perros [The city and dogs], went as far as dividing the Latin American left into “vegetarians” (Lula, Bachelet) and “carnivores” (Chavez and Evo). Some local journalists and analysts have run a similar line, denouncing the “reverse racism” emanating from the new indigenous and campesino elites.

This debate went beyond limits of absurdity during a televised discussion on PAT. Without flinching, Juan Claudio Lechín and Roberto Barbery, whilst speaking about the undemocratic character of the new government, tried to demonstrate, using an academic tone, that Evo Morales and the national socialism of Adolf Hitler both articulated in a similar way ethnic superiority (in this case Quechua-Aymara), corporativism, and charismatic leadership. The antidote to ending up with similar consequences was to recognise that, in the end, “in Bolivia, we are all mestizo[mixed blood]” and should therefore abandon this indigenist adventure.

But is any of this true: is the Evo’s government and indigenist government? Do they really exclude white-mestizos via an inverted segregation? Do the indigenous people act like the criollo [local-born white] elites did throughout the republican history?

The problems of “race” (a concept today discredited in social sciences), culture and mestizaje have accompanied Bolivia throughout all its history – like a permanent anguish – as well as the divergent visions through time, as corollaries of the hegemonic theories at the international level. If the positivists of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th – such as Alcides Arguedas, author of Pueblo enfermo [Sick people] – considered racial hybrids to be a kind of curse over Bolivian society, mestizaje – disassociated from an effective decolonialisation – came to be, for the Bolivian nationalism of the ’40s and ’50s, the precondition sine qua non for the construction of a truly Bolivian nation. By the ’90s, the Bolivian political and economic elites had appropriated the multiculturalist discourse promoted by multilateral loans organisations, the United Nations and non-government organisations (NGOs), having integrated it with the neoliberal postulates in vogue at the time (multiculturalism + free market).

Nevertheless, all these attempts to construct a “true” nation failed, whether through biological extinction of Indians, or through ethno-cultural homogenisation promoted by the state or by means of partial recognition of diversity, without eliminating the material or imagined structures of internal colonialism. Today we are witnessing a novel recuperation of the term “Indian” as a cohesive element for a broad popular and national identity, that articulates various memories: a long memory (anti-colonial), an intermediary memory (revolutionary nationalist) and a short memory (anti-neoliberal).

The Movement Towards Socialism and the leadership of Evo Morales emerged through the construction of this indigenised nationalism.

Faced with this, the elites have once again raised the flag of mestizaje as Bolivia’s reason for being. But if in the ’50s, mestizaje was conceived of within an anti-oligarchic and transformative discourse, today it has a defensive and conservative character – in front of the displacement, sometimes more illusory than real, of the middle classes from public posts, a principal space for its reproduction – and foreign to the egalitarian sense that came along with the idea of constructing a shared project for the country. The urban middle and educated sectors who today proclaim that “we are all mestizos” seem to forget that in Bolivia there exists both “white mestizos” and “indian mestizos” or , expressed in a more modern terminology, “criollo-mestizos” and “cholos”.

In this context, Evo Morales expresses the sentiments of these “indian mestizos”, who continue to be discriminated against and excluded from “legitimate” spaces of social life, and segregated into the periphery of the cities or the slopes of the hills, considered to be “dangerous neighbourhoods”. Nevertheless, one should not lose sight of the fact that this indigenous mestizaje, far from promoting a “return to ancestral times”, is inserted into the processes of modernisation, urbanisation, social differentiation, capital accumulation (fundamentally mercantile) and cultural hybridisation: today the majority of Bolivians (60%) live in the cities, despite the fact that they have not completely broken with rural life (many maintain their land), nor Aymara or Quechua culture. The fact that Indigenous hip hop is expanding in El Alto, a city where 82% of the population self-identifies as indigenous, speaks volumes of this complex articulation between the local and the global.

Despite the fact that in Bolivia “we are all mestizos”, the whiteness of skin colour, dress, economic and cultural practices and the origins of one’s surnames continue to constitute very real boundaries in the construction of social imagery and mechanisms of domination, today eroded – but not eliminated – by this indigenous political eruption and the arrival to power of MAS. All this poses a number of questions. Amongst them: How much does the proposal of indigenous autonomies take into consideration these diffuse boundaries between indigenous and mestizo? Is the proposal for autonomy – generally a demand raised by minorities, but in this case, by an indigenous majority – correct? Is there a need to make indigenous peoples autonomous or to indianise the state?

The Chapare, where Evo Morales migrated to with his family and began his trade union and political career, is one expressions of this cultural indigenous mestizaje. We can add to this the political mestizaje between campesino unions – consolidated in the ’50s in the image of, and similar to, workers’ unions – and communitarian traditions. The current president was formed politically in the coca grower unions and his indigenist revendication appears more like Nelson Mandela’s denouncement of apartheid – a demand of inclusion, recognition and possibilities to access power by a national majority segregated for ethnic reasons – that the revendication of a return to the ayllu.

On the other hand, the ethno-cultural reaffirmation that Evo Morales has promoted, traverses through the union culture’s own pragmatism and an energetic anti-imperialist position, whose material base was the struggle between campesinos and the police forces and military who attempted to eradicate the coca leaf with US support. To capture this double ideological dimension – articulation of the national-popular with the ethno-cultural, and with ruptures and continuities with the past – is the reason why we talk about MAS as a new “indigenous nationalism”, removed from the “communitarianist” romanticism of the NGOs and the illusory “mestizaje” of the illustrated middle classes.

Translated from La Epoca

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