Unravelling racism

By Published On: October 5, 2006Categories: Indigenous peoples0 Comments on Unravelling racism

"So how are you?" I asked the gently wrinkled man, in brown suit and 80s style NHS-style glasses, who was sat next to me on the bench in the central square of Sucre.
"I am okay, but things are changing," he muttered darkly. "The Indians are rising up."
"I know it’s great, isn’t it," I replied chirpily.
"No it isn’t," he almost spat. "They should know their place."
"But aren’t we all equal," I protested.
"That’s a communist idea," he retorted.

He hurriedly left the bench, afraid perhaps of contaminating himself with dangerously-subversive ideas. Sadly it gave me no time to ask whether he did not have indigenous roots as most Bolivians do and his dark-coloured skin indeed suggested.

His comment reminded me of my visit the night before to the Constituent Assembly where I watched a debate on whether the Constitution should be "originario" or not (ie start from scratch or be derivative based on existing powers). As I listened to the debate, I was struck by the marked division between the mainly-indigenous make-up of the parties of the left and the suited, more mestizo (mixed-race) representatives of the right.

But in a starker mirror image, the division was even clearer in the public galleries. Crammed together on the left side of the gallery, stood a large group of  indigenous campesinos who have arrived from across the country to monitor whether the Assembly is delivering on their demands. They stood sullenly chewing coca and intensely focused on the speeches. Opposite them as if from a different world, a group of young white-skinned politics students from Santa Cruz lounged around in the latest European and American fashions only half-listening to the debate and more than half-flirting with each other.

Both seemed to keep the maximum distance between themselves. Below in the chamber as the clock reached midnight and I headed back to my hotel, the debate seemed equally stuck in starkly different positions.

Sucre was not necessarily a surprising place to see evidence of a deeply-entrenched racism. It is embedded in the crevices of its white-washed houses, cobbled streets and ornate churches which speak very clearly of Bolivia’s colonial and racist past.

As I took the taxi into the city, there were big banners draped high across the streets proclaiming that "Here liberty was born" referring to independence and the founding of Sucre as a capital. Yet the banners failed to mention that the freedom gained in 1825 was only for a very small elite who founded a State in their image.

Many of Bolivia’s early elite settled here to make the most of the balmy-warm climate. It was also just a few hours from the harsh cold climes of Potosi where many had financial interests in mines. Perhaps it was far away enough to forget the indigenous men who died in their hundreds of thousands in the bowels of the hard earth churning out vast wealth that was being shipped to Europe. To justify the forced labour in mines (called the mitayo), Sucre’s elites referred to indigenous peoples’ "natural wickedness" and questioned whether these sub-humans destined to misery and exploitation  could even have souls.

A pernicious racism that ran through the veins of mining wealth sunk itself even deeper into the body and social politic of Bolivia. At the beginning of the 19th Century, you could still find adverts in La Paz effectively for slaves for hire (pongos). In the University of Sucre, I went to see a mural of Walter Solón Romero, the artist who set up the Fundación where I work. It was a stunning work that dominated a grand salon and was produced in 1950 capturing key moments in Bolivia’s history, yet was fiercely criticised at the time for daring to put an indigenous person at centre stage. 

Sadly, even with Bolivia’s first indigenous President, the legacy lives on. In September 2006, I had read about a group of indigenous women who were refused entry to a hotel in Sucre that they had reserved.

Yet the man in Sucre’s central square was right that things are changing – and it is threatening to a small elite who have dominated Bolivia for so long.

I had come to the city invited by a Jesuit NGO, Fundación ACLO, to lead workshops on campaign strategies. They are involved in community development but most famous for their community radio station that sends out its waves deep into the surrounding countryside.

In both their offices in Sucre and Potosi, I sat watching queues of indigenous men and women waiting patiently to have their turn to speak on the radio. They are some of the 1000 "popular communicators" that the Fundación has trained in villages across the Southern Altiplano. As they took to the microphone in the studio, they seemed to fill out their ponchos and polleras with pride. It symbolised for me a people who are increasingly giving voice.

This was confirmed when Roberto Pozo, one of the leaders in the Fundación, said that some of the popular communicators had gone onto be elected delegates in the Constituent Assembly.

The Constituent Assembly which is designed to rewrite the Constitution is of course the biggest sign of a change in power relations. It has been a long-term demand of indigenous social movements and explains why so many indigenous groups are now arriving in Sucre to ensure that the new Constitution is part of fundamentally changing Bolivia’s social relations.  They are already filling the square outside the Assembly with banners demanding real change and with that same look of hardened determination that brought down governments

It is hugely symbolic that Sucre, which gave birth to a racist society and state is now the city hosting a potential rewriting of history. Inside the Assembly I could hear the demands for a change and an end to racism in the arguments of the MAS delegates as time and again they repeated the need to create a "new country," a "transformed country", a "country for everyone and not just an elite." Their opponents’ reasoned arguments on legalities had undertones of fear.

Yet perhaps the symbol that for me most powerfully represented tides of change came in the stuttered speech of an indigenous woman I heard in Potosi. The event was the presentation of certificates for adults who had completed a literacy course run with Cuban advice and Venezuelan money. It took place in a grand theatre in Potosi which was bursting with indigenous communities dressed up specially for the occasion. The theatre buzzed with energy and chants of "Evo, Evo" as he arrived to present the certificates.

Yet the whole hall went quiet as a woman in her 50s, with her dark plaits reaching down to her pollera skirt, cautiously stood up on stage and read perhaps her first words out aloud from a sheet. She thanked the President for the course. Then as she gained in confidence, she forgot the sheet and said confidently: "I am not going to stop here. I am going to continue until I get my bachiler (ie finish secondary school)". The whole theatre roared with approval and clapped. In her resounding words, a dream of a new and different future for indigenous people echoed.


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