Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, is the center of a three-year-old indigenous insurrection that has twice routed multinational corporations and nearly achieved the rarest of political successes, election of an openly Indian president in the Americas.
The cause of native people today is widely considered “lost” to genocide or assimilation, except perhaps as a spiritual legacy, an exotic consumer market and isolated moments of resistance. This common understanding not only ignores the phenomenon of tribal people from Iraq to South Asia who are still resisting but is blind to the “mountain chain of indigenous uprisings in reaction to US neoliberalism in Latin America, the most radical thing that has appeared in thirty years,” as described to me by the respected Bolivian intellectual Alvaro Garcia Linera.
What began with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 has surfaced in Ecuador, Guatemala and especially Bolivia, where, Garcia says, almost one-fifth of the population, or 1.5 million Indians, live in autonomous communities where official government structures have virtually faded away. “There is no other country where leaders of the left and the anticorporate movements are Indian,” Garcia, a former guerrilla and political prisoner, notes. “The Indians here have always been carriers of water but never in charge of social movements.” They are not attempting to turn back the historical clock but are becoming “postmodern” and “postnational” bearers of an alternative narrative of the country. Bolivia is now the focal point, he believes, because of its large indigenous majority and the prospect that “the option for exercising power has become real.”
The first of these postmodern revolutionaries I interviewed during a May visit to Bolivia’s highlands was wearing a bright-yellow sweatshirt with a GUESS USA logo. Thirty-year-old Néstor Guillén Daza Mayta described how Bolivian soldiers stormed into his tiny barrio last October 12, the same date as Columbus’s arrival in the indigenous world 511 years before. Néstor’s barrio, Villa Ingenio, is the coldest and poorest neighborhood in El Alto, a ramshackle city of more than 1 million Aymara and Quechua people who migrated during the past two decades from Bolivia’s altiplano, making El Alto the largest, most Indian city in Latin America.
Last year El Alto residents rose against a government plan that allowed foreign investors to exploit Bolivia’s natural gas for Mexican and Southern California energy markets. While energy-hungry California consumers were being “gamed” by one of the pipeline sponsors, Sempra Energy (which made $518 million during the state’s 2001 energy crisis), Néstor’s people in Villa Ingenio were freezing at 13,000 feet without gas hookups. They joined a nationwide protest of Indians, workers and campesinos against the gas giveaway, against neoliberalism and against President “Goni” (Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada), the white mining executive and University of Chicago-trained free-market economist who had been privatizing the Bolivian economy since the mid-1980s. “Our economy was dead, there was no formal work and we were sick of it,” Néstor remembers.