I meant to challenge the gentle motherly museum owner in the small village in the eastern region of Bolivia about the inscription, but shamefully didn’t. My silence scratched at my conscience for a few days like an infected insect bite.
What I never expected though was to see a similar image live on TV a month later. Yet three nights ago, I sat sickened and disturbed as I watched a line of campesinos kneeling, their shirts stripped off, forced into mumbling chants against Evo and in favour of Sucre whilst a gang of students deliriously shouted racist insults.
And then back to the square, and the loud war-cries of the noticeably mixed-race young thugs. “Este es Sucre, Carajo, Este es Sucre Carajo” (This is Sucre, goddamit. This is Sucre, goddamit.) Young urban men, some no doubt with campesino grandparents spitting out hatred directed at their own. Next to me watching the TV coverage, my Bolivian flatmate was crying.
Sadly this incident isn’t unique. I have heard of ever more examples of attacks on indigenous people and particularly any leaders associated with the government. Most are ignored by the press. Just two days before the recent events in Sucre, two Congress MAS deputies’ denounced the fact that they had been attacked and threatened on a visit to Sucre. It received two paragraphs in one of the national newspapers.
Whilst in Lima, I talked to Wilmer Flores, a MAS deputy from the Sucre region who recounted how he had been chased from the public square and cornered by a group of students who stamped on him, beat him, shouting “Kill the Indian. Let’s kill them all one by one.” It was as one of them started with broken glass to try and scratch his eyes out that a policeman happened to pass and the group escaped. His attempts to find his potential murderers have met a brick wall of complicity and evasion from all Sucre’s legal authorities.
Watching TV, I noticed that the brutalised campesinos were kneeling in Sucre’s central square, in front of the “Casa de Libertad” (Freedom House) from where Bolivia’s independence was declared. It was the same square where Deputy Wilmer Flores was seen, chased and almost lost his life. Similarly in Santa Cruz, various attacks have taken place in its main central square.
The choice of location for the Right’s violence is no coincidence. It was here in the heart of Sucre that Bolivia as an exclusive state which marginalized its indigenous majority took shape. It is from key municipal and state buildings in Santa Cruz and Sucre that a coterie of privileged families has led a vitriolic backlash against even the possibility of social justice in Bolivia. In Sucre these families, including the Jaime Barron, the Rector of the University and the city mayor Aydee Nava have instigated violence, egged on by a rabid media, in an attempt to stop the constitutional assembly last November.
But the use of the public square for repression and exclusion has an even deeper significance. For up to 1952, indigenous people were not even allowed to set foot in squares like that of La Paz. Now more than 50 years later, with the arrival of an indigenous President, the Right is trying to turn back the clock and through violence make it equally impossible for indigenous peoples to cross public city squares.
The roots and nature of racism in Bolivia are complex and deep, but in essence I believe what I am witnessing is a colonial backlash. A hatred sown in divisions from colonial time, that has persisted insidiously in the structures of all power, and one that has got a grip even in those who have indigenous parents or grandparents. All it took was a change in balance of power and a fear of indigenous leadership to unleash a deeply ugly side to colonised Bolivian society. And there have been enough powerful families fearful of losing their privileges to exploit the already latent sore.
Several centuries ago, the young priest Bartolome de las Casas writing about the atrocities of the Spanish against indigenous people said: “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write.” Five centuries later, I too am trembling watching the horror of racism and colonisation unleashed on Bolivia’s streets.