The rise of Evo Morales to the presidency of Bolivia was a landmark moment in the struggle of indigenous people against colonial oppression. Bolivia has been ground zero in this struggle for centuries. Five hundred years ago, enslaved Aymara worked and died in the silver mines of Potosí, some while standing ankle deep in liquid mercury. The riches from those mines funded the European Renaissance. The mine’s symbol gave us the dollar sign we use today.
Since then, Bolivia’s riches in natural resources have led primarily to its exploitation. It fought wars and lost land to foreign interests over tin, oil, and potassium nitrate. Evo came to power in a conflict over natural gas. He’s been overthrown due to foreign interests in lithium. It is no wonder the Aymara say everything on the earth belongs to God, but everything under it belongs to the devil.
Evo’s rise was steeped in indigenous legend. When I was there in 2010, in restaurants I saw photos of Machu Picho turned on edge. The Sleeping Inca, they said, has woken up. They spoke of a prophecy of 500 years of oppression to be followed by 500 years of sovereignty. The first 500 years was now ending.
When I was on the Altiplano, “Evo” and “Este presidente as mi presidente” was spray-painted on walls and houses, even written on walls in children’s bedrooms. They could hardly believe a government that represented them.
This poster of Tupac Katari, an indigenous leader who rose up against the Spaniards, highlights his last words as he was drawn and quartered. “I will return, and it will be in the thousands.” The rise of Evo represented the return of Tupac and the rise of the Aymara. The wiphala, the indigenous flag, became a co-national flag under Morales.
He was a lowly coca farmer, had never worn a tie in his life (and made a point never to do so), had been beaten up and left for dead by a US-financed anti-drug police unit, and was now president. As the first indigenous head of state in the Americas since the Spaniards, Evo held his inauguration ceremony at the historic pre-Incan site, Tiahuanaco, in traditional style.
Evo required all government employees to learn either Aymara or Quechua in addition to Spanish. He pushed indigenous languages in schools. Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America became required reading in high school.
Bolivia is a country with two halves. Up on the Altiplano above 10,000 feet, there are the indigenous Aymara, living in poverty, growing potatoes when they aren’t working the mines. In the lowlands, there are the Spanish-speaking ranchers and businessmen, the conservative ruling class that have pretty much controlled the country for centuries. As recently as 1952, you could buy property on the Altiplano that came with Aymara slaves written into the title deed.
Evo challenged not only historic colonialism, but also modern neoliberal colonialism. Rather than allow the country to be pillaged of natural resources by multi-national corporations while its people suffered in poverty (e.g., exporting natural gas while the poor in El Alto lived at 13,400′ with no heat), he raised royalties and nationalized parts of the natural gas industry. He thus filled government coffers and started providing services: roads, electricity, and turf soccer fields for remote villages; three modern cable car telefericos for public transport between La Paz and El Alto; and improved access to education for the poor. Under Evo, Bolivia’s economy did well and poverty was dramatically reduced.
When Evo ran for the president the first time, he energized and mobilized a people not used to voting. He won a first term and a second term. Then he ran into term limits, but successfully modified the constitution to run for a third term. Then, this year, again facing term limits, he sued. The Supreme Court, largely his appointees, ruled that term limits “violated his civil rights”. He ran a fourth time.
So Evo probably overplayed his hand. He probably should have planned for a peaceful succession to an ally. This time, the right-wing forces arrayed against him were ready. They fomented an election controversy (which is well-explained at the Twitter link below).
Evo ended up fleeing to Mexico, his house ransacked, with a conservative anti-indigenous racist asserting the presidency. She called the Aymara “satanic” for their traditional ceremonies.
This story is still unfolding.
As with the overthrow Zelaya in Honduras in 2014, which involved AT&T with support from Senator John McCain and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (working against President Obama), the real story will come out slowly, shunted by the mainstream media to page B7 or simply left for left-wing journals to report.
But this story is not over. Search “Bolivia coup” on Twitter for a sampling. No one protests like miners. The indigenous people are still rising; their 500 years are just beginning.