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Racism in Bolivia: a less sexy indigenous story

3 June, 2008

As Greg has noted, the “Lost Tribe of the Amazon” have received a massive amount of media attention since their “discovery” (the drive-time hosts were making jokes about them on the radio this morning — a sure sign they have achieved their 15 minutes of fame).  It’s interesting to compare this avid fascination with the almost complete lack of interest in this much more humdrum, far less sexy story of indigenous people being publicly humiliated in Bolivia (see also here).

The incident, which shook the country but received little attention from the international press, occurred on Saturday, when President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, was to appear in a public ceremony in Sucre to deliver 50 ambulances for rural communities and announce funding for municipal projects. But in the early hours of Saturday morning, organised groups opposed to Morales began to surround the stadium where he was to appear a few hours later. Confronting the police and soldiers with sticks, stones and dynamite, they managed to occupy the stadium. The president cancelled his visit, and the security forces were withdrawn, to avoid violent clashes and bloodshed. But violent elements of the Interinstitutional Committee, a conservative pro-autonomy, anti-Morales civic group that is backed by the local university and other bodies, continued to harass and beat supporters of the governing Movement to Socialism (MAS) and anyone who appeared to belong to one of the country’s indigenous communities. A mob of armed civilians from Sucre, partially made up of university students, then surrounded several dozen indigenous Morales supporters, including local authorities who had come from other regions to attend the ceremony and were unable to leave the city after the event was called off. The terrified indigenous people, who had sought refuge in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Sucre, were stripped of their few belongings, including money, identity documents and watches, and forced to walk seven kilometres to the House of Liberty, a symbol of the end of colonial rule in Bolivia, which was declared there on Aug. 6, 1825. In the city’s main square in front of the building, they were forced to kneel, shirtless, and apologise for coming to Sucre. They were also made to chant insults to Morales like “Die Evo!” They were surrounded by activists from the conservative pro-autonomy movement, who set fire to the blue, black and white MAS party flag, the multicolour flag of the Aymara people, and colourful hand-woven indigenous ponchos seized from the visiting Morales supporters, as a signal of their “victory” over the president’s grassroots support bases.

Suffice it to say, Sucre hasn’t exactly become a household name in Sydney (and I’d guess anywhere else outside of Bolivia).  Of course, this sort of story might indicate why isolated groups of indigenous people might prefer to remain “lost”.

Jovan Maud

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Third Tone Devil permalink
    4 June, 2008 1:45 pm

    This is interesting… I guess the first instance of a specific anti-indigenous backlash in the Andean countries that have made indigeneity ideology. Or have there been others?

  2. 4 June, 2008 1:49 pm

    Good question TTD. I’m not sure about the specifics or the historical context. My main reason for posting this was to illustrate differences in the way stories are taken up (or not taken up) in wider contexts. Maybe other readers know whether there are historical precedents for this sort of backlash.

  3. 6 June, 2008 12:11 pm

    I’m no expert in Andean anthropology but my impression from reading the work of an anthropologist who works in Ecuador, Kristine Latta, is that the postcolonial history of the Andes has been about anti-indigenous sentiment that have made indigeneity ideology. I’ll ask her to comment…


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