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Bolivia’s Indigenous Past and Present

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Bolivia’s Indigenous Past and Present

Lillian Lema-Hallauer

HST 449 Student

May 15, 2007

Brooke Larson, a noted Andean historian, visited the University of Washington last Thursday as the fourth guest speaker in the lecture series “Latin American Challenges to the Neo-liberal Order,” co-sponsored by the Latin American Studies Program and the Harry Bridges Labor Center. Larson, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is the author and co-editor of several books on the Andean region of Latin America, with her most recent being Trials of Nation Making” Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810-1910. Currently, she is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center where she is working on a new project on Aymara (an indigenous peoples of Bolivia) social movements in the early 20th century.

In front of University students, professors and guests, Larson presented her lecture titled “Indigenous Movements in Evo’s Bolivia – In Search of Roots.” Larson, who research focuses on indigenous peasantry, believes strongly in bringing a historical perspective to contemporary events. She argues that there are two main bodies of scholarly literature: works by social and political scientists, and works by historians. Between these two bodies there exists a curious disconnect where political social scientists seem to think that indigenous movements spring from nowhere in the recent past, while historians, whose work acknowledges the long processes inherent in social movements, fail to link their long term historical studies to contemporary events. With her work Larson hopes to bridge this gap. Accordingly, she works within two historical frameworks: conjunctural and structural. The conjunctural framework looks at discontinuities and breaks between the present and past, while a structural framework stretches back the time frame in search of the roots of contemporary events.

Working within the first framework, Larson believes that in the last five or seven years, culminating in the presidential election of Evo Morales, Bolivia has experienced a conjucture, a break from past political frameworks to a new framework. This break is represented by Evo Morales and his policies in many ways. First, he is indigenous and represents the indigenous population. Secondly, his rise to power was through the social labor movement and the political party, MAS. Thirdly, he represents a repudiation of neo-liberalism and globalization with his promises of partial nationalization of resources and agrarian reform. Connecting to his indigenous roots, Evo views the coca leaf as part of indigenous heritage and as a cultural item expressing his view through the slogan “coca sí, cocaine no.” Fourthly, he is renegotiating alliances both within Latin America and globally. And lastly, Evo has committed to restoring social programs for the indigenous and poor of Bolivia. In order to put Evo and the conjucture, into a historical framework, Larson expands the boarder canvas from 2007 back to the late 70s.

Looking within the conjunctural framework in order to place Evo Mendes into the historical frame, Larson looks at the last 30 years in global history where she delineates four points that aid in framing where these social movements and Evo came from. The first point is titled “Rise of Friendly International Human Rights Culture” where globally a new discourse on human and ecological rights began which allowed the opportunity for grassroots organizations to flourish. The second point is titled “Democracy Matters” referring to the return to democracy in most of Latin America in the 70s and 80s allowing for opening of new political spaces. The third point is titled “Cruel Paradoxes of Neo-liberalism” which posits the sweetness of political neo-liberal changes (the return to democracy) alongside the devastating effects of neo-liberal economic policies. The fourth point is titled “Extractive Capitalism Goes Primitive” explaining the connection between global capitalism’s move into the Amazon jungle and its confrontation with historically isolated native peoples, bringing Amazon natives onto to the political stage in a new global human rights context. All four of these points are inter-connected, and in all cases Bolivia is a prime example of how these points have played out in the recent years.

However, as a historian, Larson wants to be able to discover the long term processes involved in social movements, expanding the time frame and working within the structural historical framework. Due to time limits of the lecture, Larson was unable to expand fully this part of argument instead leaving the listeners to contemplate three points from this framework. The first, titled “Political Geography and Political Economy of the Aymara,” looks at the configuration of the indigenous population that was able to hold onto its communal lands and traditions during the colonial and early independence periods. The second point is titled “Political Culture of Struggle,” which asserts that the Aymara, when threatened with the loss of their land, have used various ways to defend their land and culture, both through social mobilizations and legal means. The third point, titled “Social Memory,” highlights the importance of a forged ethnic identity as both a social memory and an important cultural resource. With more time and an expansion on these points, Larson hopes to highlight the longer and deeper historical processes at work. However, due to the time constraints of these lectures, Larson’s presentation moved to a very short discussion before breaking up.

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