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White Racism and the Aymara in Bolivia

Recently, I caught up with Magdalena Cajias, a historian at the Upper University of San Andres, Bolivia, and producer of the documentary film, Achacachi, the Aymara Insurgency. During their interview, Cajias discussed endemic racism in Bolivian society, Aymara cultural nationalism, and the relationship between social movements and the government of Evo Morales. –editors.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Could you tell me a bit about your professional background?

Magdalena Cajias: I´m a historian and I also produced a documentary in 2002 about the indigenous movement. I spent two years gathering first hand testimonials from campesinos hailing from the altiplano [highlands] who were linked to the indigenous leader Felipe Quispe. In 2000, Quispe was my student in the history department. When he was detained following a blockade, we sent a letter of support from our department. Quispe told us he was interested in recovering first hand testimonials from those who participated in the blockade. We started to conduct visits and conduct interviews. Through Quispe, who gave us permission, we were able to sit in on key meetings where participants were discussing the course of the campesino and indigenous movement. Our documentary was the result of this work.

NK: How has racism worked historically in Bolivia?

MC: The Indians have had two approaches towards the Bolivian state and white or mestizo society. On the one hand, they have pursued integration. They have linked up with populist parties, principally the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (known in Spanish under the acronym MNR). But if you go back even to the colonial period, you can find many instances in which the Indians pursued negotiation and integration with white and mestizo society. Aymaras on the other hand have cultivated their own sense of identity and self determination.

NK: So, how did it work exactly, were certain professions off limits?

MC: At certain times, we might speak of a white minority in Bolivia, although no one is really white here. As in the U.S. with the black codes, the municipal government of La Paz had certain established forms of discrimination in the beginning of the twentieth century. On buses and trams, you had to sit in the back. There was explicit and implicit discrimination. The possibility that Indians would ever attain important government positions was practically nil.

NK: Have race relations improved?

MC: No. I think actually what has happened is that the Indians´ discourse, which has tended on the radical side, i.e. that all whites have oppressed us, etc., has produced a reaction amongst the middle class which reside in the south of La Paz. As a result, the middle class has become more racist. There’s a lot of fear, now that there’s an indigenous president. The middle class has been excluded from the positions it occupied before, and has lost a bit of its social position.

NK: How is racism manifested?

MC: During moments of political conflict, in October 2003 and later when Evo Morales assumed the presidency, rumors circulated that the Indians were going to bust into the homes of white people. I could show you e-mails that have circulated in moments of crisis. For example, when the government was debating a new land law, thousands of Indians came to San Francisco Square. E-mails declared that the Indians were staging an invasion. This is the kind of rhetoric that harks back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

NK: So, notwithstanding all of the momentous recent political changes, La Paz continues to be a racist city?

MC: Racism exists, but now there are more ways to confront it. The Indians feel they have more clout, because they’re in the government now. Sometimes however the Indians exaggerate, they act out inverse racism. It’s like women who refuse to accept men, who are labeled as the oppressors, etc. We’ve had very heated rhetoric coming from the Minister of External Relations [David Choquehanca, an Aymara Indian], who said he could not go to the south of La Paz "because they all hate me there." So, on both sides we get this kind of confrontational discourse. In my own personal case, my father was very, very dark and my mother was rather white. If people don’t know me, they say, "She´s a white professor" in a disparaging manner.

NK: To what extent does cultural nationalism have to do with hatred towards whites?

MC: There is a certain degree of resentment. We’re not living in South Africa, but who’s had access to education? The sons of whites and mestizos. On the other hand, Aymara nationalism is more confrontational in its rhetoric than in actual practice.

NK: Now that cultural nationalism is on the rise, will we see more Indians in the media and will Quechua and Aymara become official languages?

MC: Of course. In state entities, studying Aymara is mandatory. In the Ministry of External Relations people are required to speak Aymara. Whites have made fun of this. They say that officials should instead know how to speak German, French, and English. In the Constituent Assembly, certainly indigenous languages will become official. One of the principal aims of the Educational Reform has been to recognize not only Aymara and Quechua but also the languages of eastern Bolivia and Guarani.

NK: But, watching TV here I don’t see any Indian presenters…?

MC: On Channel 7, which is state-owned, Aymara ought to be spoken. I’ve seen some Aymara programming here and there, but not very much. In general though, TV is much less popular amongst the Indians than radio.

NK: And you hear more indigenous languages on radio?

MC: Yes, a lot of Aymara.

NK: There’s talk of creating an ethnically pluralistic nation, but I wonder whether the Aymaras and Quechuas get along?

MC: Traditionally they’ve had their rivalries but that was a long time ago because of course the Quechuas conquered the Aymara. To this day there are differences between the two peoples. Quechuas have always pursued closer societal integration and have interbred with outsiders to a greater extent. The rivalry between Quechuas and Aymaras was manifest in the relationship between Felipe Quispe and Evo Morales when they were both powerful. Of course, now Quispe doesn’t have much of a following and Evo has capitalized on indigenous sentiment which is totally in his favor. The two differed, not only in terms of their ideological vision but also in ethnic terms. Evo has Aymara roots but identified as Quechua because he was from the coca zone.

NK: Do these rivalries form a barrier for nation building?

MC: It might. In an effort to construct a state with a common identity, we may wind up with a very fractured society. Even more than the Quechua-Aymara split, there are a lot of divisions in Aymara society itself amongst different communities. On the other hand, in critical moments such as 2003 in the city of El Alto, there was a certain unity amongst diverse social sectors such as miners, rural and urban settlers. Quechuas and Aymaras meanwhile worked to help each other out.

NK: What was your impression of Quispe when you filmed the documentary?

MC: Quispe was intelligent and skilled at cultivating a certain discourse at a precise moment. His ideology was based on recuperating ethnic and cultural elements within the larger social struggle. Quispe´s struggle wasn´t always so abstract: he and his followers would initiate a blockade so as not to pay for water service, or to reclaim lands. On the other hand, we noticed that no one could go to meetings without putting on a poncho.

NK: How do nationalist Indians perceive Morales?

MC: I think Morales didn’t use to cultivate an ethnic discourse, he was someone who defended coca, who had a more worker oriented, anti-imperialist rhetoric. But then he incorporated Quispe’s radicalism, i.e., "I am an Indian, that is why they mistreat me," etc.

NK: Does the idea of forming a separate Aymara nation enjoy much support?

MC: No. That´s why Quispe no longer has much of a following. Aymara nationalism is nothing like Serb nationalism. When white oppression is too much to bear, the Aymaras react in a very radical manner. But the Aymaras are also capable of negotiating and allying with others. They’re not going to push for separation from the Bolivian nation state, but they’re going to demand a certain amount of autonomy. For example, they want the right to elect their own indigenous municipal authorities.

NK: Does Evo Morales ever speak Quechua?

MC: In the coca zone, he speaks Spanish and Quechua. He puts on a poncho, which he never used to do. He’s been in politics for twenty years, and only during the last five has he put on a poncho.

NK: Could we see the emergence of the most radical social movements here in Bolivia?

MC: It’s possible. In Bolivia the state has never been able to function without social pressure from below. That’s to say, civil society is permanently organized and constantly exercises pressure on the government. At times, this pressure can become quite radical. But radical in what sense? People may organize a blockade or strike. But it’s not radical in the sense of Central America where you wound up with guerrilla movements. In Bolivia, armed movements have never achieved any kind of importance. The 1952 Revolution was much less bloody than the Cuban and Mexican Revolutions and it was also shorter. It was three days of struggle in the streets and boom!, the oligarchy fell. There’s no culture of long term violence here in Bolivia. On the other hand we do have a tradition of participatory democracy which comes out of the ayllu [a pre-Inca form of political organization based on extended family groups] and labor movement, which de-emphasizes delegation of power towards leaders.

NK: When you speak with the Indians nowadays, do you notice any psychological shift?

MC: Yes. I have noticed a change in my students in the history department, who have campesino origins. Ten years ago, it was difficult to get them to even say their last name. Finally they would say their name, but very slowly. Now it’s different. People say, "I am from such and such a town in the altiplano, and I am an Indian!"

Magdalena Cajias is a historian at the Upper University of San Andres, Bolivia, and producer of the documentary film, "Achacachi, The Aymara Insurgency."

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Chile: A Country Geographically Located in South America ‘By Accident’

Recently, I caught up with Manuel Cabieses, the Director of Punto Final, a Chilean bi-monthly newspaper. During the one hour interview, Cabieses discussed his own background and opposition to the Pinochet government, Chile’s free trade agreement with the U.S., the state of social movements in Chile, Hugo Chavez, China’s rising profile in South America, and the current position of left media in Chile.

NK: Could you tell me a bit about your personal background?

MC: I originally worked in an oil company as a young man. We created a union there, and I was responsible for the labor newspaper. Through the paper I got involved in journalism; I never studied journalism in a formal setting.

NK: How did you get involved in politics?

MC: I first got interested in a party which no longer exists in Chile, which was called Falange Nacional. This was the precursor to the Christian Democratic Party. I got interested in it because my mother was Catholic and friendly with various leaders within the party. I was never a militant however. Then, when I started working I got interested in the Communist Party. I wasn’t such a militant there either, but I got interested in Marxist books. Later, for work related reasons I emigrated to Venezuela, this was during the 1960s. In Venezuela I had contact with the Communist Party of Venezuela which at that time had initiated armed struggle. I later returned to Chile and became more active in the Communist Party. I took up work as a journalist at the Communist Party paper for example. Later I broke with the Communist Party and I became a militant within the Revolutionary Leftist Movement (known by its Spanish acronym MIR). This was up to and even after Pinochet’s military coup in 1973. Later I was imprisoned and expelled from the country. Subsequently I returned in secret to Chile as a MIR militant.

NK: Could you explain a bit about prison and exile?

MC: (long pause). I was detained 2 days after the coup, in the street.

NK: Nearby to your offices here?

MC: Yes, here in downtown. I was in a car. We were all obliged to get out of the vehicle, and someone in the street recognized me. The dictatorship had issued advisories, warning that certain people should hand themselves over, including me. I was imprisoned a little more than 2 years, in different prisons all over the country. Finally I was expelled along with my family. We went to Cuba. I was there for around 4 years and later I returned secretly with my woman, that Senora outside who you saw in my office. We spent almost ten years living in secret here in Chile, working with the MIR. That’s about it in summary.

NK: How strong are social movements here and to what extent can they push the government to the left?

MC: They’re very weak and atomized. The dictatorship, through repression and imposition of its economic model, were able to fracture social movements, and almost succeeded in liquidating any kind of left political movement. The labor unions today are far fewer in number than in the 1970s. It’s unlikely that we’ll see the emergence of a potent social movement here like in other countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador for example.

NK: What about students?

MC: The student movement last year was very strong in the sense that there hadn’t been a movement like that for many years. But intrinsically it wasn’t very strong in terms of organization and wasn’t able to mobilize on a national level. This year the student movement hasn’t advanced at all.

NK: What about the Indians?

MC: After the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, the Mapuche Indians have been politically active on a sporadic basis. But, as with other sectors of society, it’s a very atomized movement and there is no national Mapuche organization. The most radicalized Mapuches have been very beaten back and repressed.

NK: Could there be more social conflict here if poverty increases?

MC: Chilean economic development has reached a threshold. The economy was growing at a rate of 6-7%, but last year it went down to 4%. This year it’s hardly expected that it will significantly increase beyond this rate. The dynamism of the neo liberal, export model, seems to have reached a plateau because Chile lacks necessary infrastructure. Fundamentally, the export model is based on mining, especially copper, the rest is fruit and wood. But there’s no capacity to promote greater development and we lack diversified technology to compete. As a result the economy grows slowly, and a high number of people, some 500,000 individuals, are unemployed on a permanent basis.

NK: Has poverty been reduced?

MC: There has been a reduction in poverty in terms of percentages, but what has advanced more rapidly is extreme wealth concentrated in the hands of a minority. Investors have reaped fabulous profits in the last few years, but meanwhile salaries and pensions have suffered. In this manner, the contradictions between extreme poverty and wealth have been sharpened. At the same time, the political parties have been delegitimized. The same political conditions are being generated here that we observed before the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or Ecuador on a permanent basis, or Bolivia. These conditions will generate a difficult political and social milieu in future.

NK: How does society view Chile’s free trade agreement with the United States?

MC: There are labor sectors who look favorably upon the treaty. They believe what the media has told them, that the prosperity, this dynamic export economy, will filter down from the top towards the bottom. There are sectors of society which are not numerically insignificant, which have benefited in some way from the export model. For example, in terms of credit. Credit cards didn’t exist here before. But today a great many Chileans, even those earning low salaries, have them. We have also seen massification of cell phones. In Chile there are 14 million cell phones, and the population is some 16 million people. Support for the export model is clearly demonstrated in the electoral arena. Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, between the electoral vote for the Concertacion and the right, more than 90% of Chileans have chosen to support this model. That’s because a political and social alternative hasn’t yet arisen.

NK: What have been the advantages of the model?

MC: There’s been a great modernization, growth in telecommunications, roads, airports, ports, and all sectors linked to export.

NK: Yes, the airport is quite impressive!

MC: If you go out into the countryside, a half hour out of Santiago, you’ll find agro export farms. There has been prosperity in that sense. Each year the companies register an increase on the stock market.

NK: Is there any chance Chile would back out of the free trade agreement with the U.S.?

MC: No, and in fact every day Chile signs a new trade agreement with other countries.

NK: How do you see China’s rising presence economically speaking?

MC: China is becoming more important. One sign of this is the anticipated copper profits from sales to China, amounting to $ 500-600 million dollars. China pays in advance.

NK: What do social movements have to say about China’s rising profile?

MC: Social movements are passive towards these types of issues. There are some labor leaders who are sympathetic towards China because they think it will have a respectful attitude towards Chilean interests. I think they are mistaken. The Chinese are doing business at the same velocity and lack of scruples as the United States.

NK: How strong is left wing journalism here in Chile?

MC: In television there’s nothing, there’s no station that identifies as leftist. There’s a radio station which belongs to the Communist Party, and there’s a few progressive radio stations. In the press there’s only two bi monthlies, El Siglo, of the Communist Party, and Punto Final, both have low circulation. We have no publicity and experience distribution problems. On the internet there’s more diversity but in Chile most people don’t have access as this is just beginning here.

NK: In Venezuela Chavez has created a lot of state television media and there’s been an information battle going on. Is that possible here?

MC: (long pause). You say, here?

NK: Yes (laughs). Are you surprised by my question?

MC: In Venezuela, you have that situation because there’s a government that confronts the private media. Here, the media is completely identified with the government. The government is the Concertacion, but the party shares power with the right. The media meanwhile is totally on the right.

NK: How strong is CNN and U.S. media here in Chile?

MC: Very strong, but amongst the middle and upper middle classes.

NK: Is Telesur (a satellite news station partially funded by Venezuela) beamed here, and could it compete?

MC: There are some regions of the country, for example in the center, where you can receive Telesur and even Cuban TV. Otherwise however, only people who have access to Direct TV can watch Telesur. You need a long range antenna.

NK: Have you ever had any contact with the U.S. Embassy here while working for Punto Final?

MC: I have never had any contact with them, expect for one time when I applied for a visa to visit Puerto Rico. I was turned down. But, the embassy subscribes to Punto Final (laughs).

NK: It seems to me that Chile’s relationship with the U.S. is a bit ambiguous?

MC: I don’t think Chile has criticized the U.S. in a very direct way as some other Latin American governments have done in the past. Chile is located here by a geographical accident, in the Southern Cone of Latin America. With the exception of the Iraq War, Chilean foreign policy is completely identified with U.S. and European interests.

NK: You interviewed Chavez, what was your impression and what do you think will happen as far as Chilean Venezuelan relations?

MC: In 1994 I met Chavez in Chile. He was on a tour of Latin America and in Chile no one wanted to receive him. No leftist party wanted to associate itself with him because he had this image of being a military coup plotter. But we at Punto Final interviewed him. We went to his hotel and did a two page spread. These days I have a very high opinion of Chavez. I think he’s matured as far as his political ideas, he’s made them more solid, firmer. Sometimes to my mind he uses strident rhetoric when characterizing certain foreign leaders and doesn’t think before he acts. As far as Chilean Venezuelan relations, I don’t expect much. I think optimally what one might hope is that Chile may retain a respectful attitude towards Venezuela. But, I don’t think it will be friendly. Perhaps friendly between high profile politicians like Bachelet and Chavez, but this won’t extend to deep relations between the two governments.

Manuel Cabieses is the Director of Punto Final, a Chilean bi-monthly newspaper.

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Hugo Chávez’s Holy War

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