By Published On: January 23, 2006Categories: Indigenous peoples1 Comment on Presente

“I never dreamed that I would be here,” said Evo Morales as he wore his Presidential sash and gazed out over tens of thousands of celebrating indigenous peoples, throngs of foreign journalists, and over-the-moon MAS party activists.

When he cried as the sash was put on, you believed him too – as did many in the crowds and even hardened hacks in the press centre as a few of them wept (or at least snivelled) too.

“We have waited for more than 500 years. But the suffering and the struggles were not in vain. We are now present. We have shown that indigenous people too can be Presidents. We are now here to change our history,” he cried out as the nation turned to listen and watch.

The history he overcame through his election can not be underestimated. Bolivia has a history as Alvaro Garcia Linera, the Vice-President argued in his inauguration speech, that has been deeply racist and exclusive and has caused deep suffering to the indigenous majority.

Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano (whose book “Open Veins” gave this blog its name) at the inauguration said that when Independence was declared in Bolivia, the indigenous people in the country and across Latin America were not invited. It was time for a second Independence.

Evo Morales noted that just fifty years ago, indigenous people were not even allowed in Plaza Murillo, from where he stood yesterday and greeted a largely jubilant nation from the Presidential balcony. In many ways, the arrival of an Indigenous President is as significant as the election of Nelson Mandela in the aftermath of Apartheid.

It is a history that was very present in yesterday’s celebrations and especially the inauguration in Tiwanaku. The Andean ceremony at the ancient temple looked back to a time of Andean rule (before the Spanish). Evo started his speech in Congress remembering key figures in Bolivia’s past like Tupac Katari who led a rebellion against the Spanish, Luis Espinal a priest who was murdered by the dictatorship, Che Guevara who came to Bolivia with a dream of liberation.

It is a history that people won’t forget, but one that also changes very profoundly with the election of Evo Morales. Evo Morales barely talked about his own past, but his is a story that couldn’t be further than the trajectory of previous Presidents.

Evo grew up in an impoverished indigenous family, where at times he ate orange peels thrown out of buses to survive. As a young boy, he herded llamas and saw some of his siblings die. His family was forced like so many of the poor today to emigrate to another country, Argentina, just to try and survive. Evo was one of the vast majority of the country living in desperate poverty whilst a small white and mestizo elite ran things their way. To a young Evo, the suggestion that one day he would stand up and take the Presidential oath would have seemed a cruel joke.

As he grew up and became involved in movement politics, fighting for the rights of coca-growers (cocaleros), he became well-known but still remained very much on the outside. He was publicly called a “narco-trafficker” by the US even though he was defending traditional indigenous coca-use. When he became a politician and spoke up for the poor and the social movements, he was reviled or dismissed by the existing parties.

In fact, remarkably five years ago to the day that he would become President, Evo Morales was thrown out of Congress by the other parties accused of being involved in deaths that resulted from a cocalero protest. Whilst he came back with even higher votes in the next elections, he would continue to be abused and blamed by politicians and media for the rising level of conflicts wracking the country.

But today Evo is President. He is no longer an outsider. He is on the inside, in charge of setting the policies for the new Government. An indigenous, once-impoverished, and long-marginalised man has the enormously difficult task of taking a diverse, rich but also deeply divided Bolivia forwards.

And with his election, it was clear that the indigenous majority of the country finally felt that they were now on the inside. As Evo said in his speech, “This isn’t about Evo. We are now all Presidents”. It was perhaps a typical thing for a politician to say, but the dancing and celebrating indigenous peoples who came from all over the country to see the inauguration suggested that many people felt this way.

Juan Alvorado, an indigenous miner told me: “I am overjoyed. We now have one of us in the Presidential Palace. Someone who knows what it is like to be poor, who knows what it is like to be without food.”

As I wandered the streets, watching spontaneous dances by Mojeños with dramatic feather headdresses, Cochambinas with straw hats and billowing skirts, Orureños with deep red ponchos and leather whips, miners proudly wearing their helmets, mouths bulging with coca, well-made up middle-class mestizo women, it was impossible not to be moved. The enormous diverse richness of Bolivia was suddenly represented.

I must admit though that my overwhelming feeling of privilege at being present on such a day in Bolivia’s history is tinged with some worry about the future.

I am acutely aware of the pressures Bolivia will be under both from outside (in particular multinationals and international financial institutions) but also those who have profited immensely from an “apartheid” system who won’t easily accept change.

I also have concerns about Evo’s ability to accept critical support and his rumoured tendency to be authoritarian within his party, the lack of experience within his Government in the face of hugely complex challenges, the tendency for power to corrupt, the difficulty in overcoming structural injustice that is so deeply embedded within Bolivia. Most of all, I wonder how the huge build-up of expectations for change can be met whatever the commitment held by those in Evo’s government.

But for today, I would like to put those concerns aside – and to keep celebrating.

For me, the most important part is that the indigenous majority and the poor are now “present” as Evo said in his speech. Present in power, guided by a past, determined to build a different future.

His words were echoed in the banners that lay scattered through the crowds: “Rurrenabaque presente” “Federación de campesinos presente,” “Mujeres indígenas presente,” “Pando presente.”

Eduardo Galeano at the inauguration said: “Our principle enemy in building a more just world is fear. Fear of remembering, fear of living, but most of all fear of being.” In Bolivia today, the indigenous people have shown they are not afraid to be. They are “presente.”


One Comment

  1. Audrey Miller January 23, 2006 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    Wonderful to share your view of this historic moment in history of Boliva.
    Duncan and I were hopping between channel four news and your article. You won in terms of impact.I loved your link with Nelson Mandela!
    Hope all goes well.

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