Bolivian New President is Something Altogether Different

Duke in the News, January 14, 2006.

The recent election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia is unprecedented. It marks the first time in world history that an indigenous candidate (Aymara Indian in this case) was elected president by an overwhelming majority.

His election has been described as a turn to the left, but that is not exactly correct. Morales, who will be inaugurated Sunday, was not elected as a candidate of a political party, but by a social movement that emerged from Aymara and Quechua people, activists and intellectuals. This means that his organization has been built on the historical identity of indigenous people and their marginalized experience in relation to the political parties of the white elite in power. We should therefore view his election as a de-colonial shift (and not as a shift to the left within the traditional European political tradition.)

The election of Morales in Bolivia and this week’s election of a woman, Michel Bachelet, in Chile opens up the possibility of a de-colonial shift in two major domains: the racism that has kept Indians marginalized and sexism that has kept woman subordinated to male political authority.

The electoral competition between Morales and his opponent replayed, almost 500 years later, the confrontation between the Spanish and the indigenous people in the Inca territory of Tawantinsuyu. After the Spanish invasion, the existing social organization was dismantled and another imposed upon it.

But the Tawantinsuyu form of socio-economic family structure, the ayllu, persisted. The ayllu can be thought of as a social group, organized around an ancestor that shared communal resources. Like the Greek oikos which became the model of the European form of governance, the ayllu was the basic cell of social organization, entrusted with educating and raising the children and serving as the basic economic structure and political unit within the larger structure, the town or city.

What Morales brings to the presidency, then, is the experience of the ayllu. What that will that mean? According to prevailing rules of the game, Bolivia’s land is a commodity, and the debate is whether its land and rich natural resources should be controlled by private, individual owners (liberalism) or the state, for the benefit of the people (socialism). But for indigenous people, land is not a commodity. So the issue is not land redistribution but rather changing the relationship with the land.

For this reason Morales is introducing into the political and economic debate a principle that was nearly erased by the massive Spanish, British and French appropriation of land, in the Americas and the Caribbean under colonial administrations. He is making clear that for the indigenous people, Pachamama, or Mother Earth, cannot be possessed.

Liberalism and socialism were created as ideologies and political parties in Europe after the French Revolution. They have been transplanted and accepted by the white population of European descent in South America. But neither socialism nor liberalism correspond to the experience of the indigenous people (neither, for that matter, to black population of African descent, which is significant in the Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia). The de-colonial shift shall be understood as the indigenous vision leading the politics of the state. The rewriting of the Bolivian constitution (written by white males of European descent) is now becoming an urgent task for Morales.

Thus the turning point of Morales has the potential of a change of direction, of a de-colonial shift, rather than simply changing political control from the right to the left.

In Bolivia, the philosophy of life and social organization of the ayllu offers the possibility of thinking differently. It does not offer — in itself — an alternative model to the state. The extent to which Morales himself can carry this transformation will depend on many factors, with internal and foreign opposition among the most pressing.

The unprecedented event should be understood as the growing forces of indigenous social movements, more than a belief in Morales himself. An Aymara president is a great achievement, yet not an assurance of anything. (U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General Alberto González are, respectively, African American and Mexican American, but share the perspective of Anglo Americans.)

Instead, we may see new concepts of life, of social organization and of economy emerging from the experiences, memories and survival of people who did not bend to colonization or to the expansion of Western knowledge, politics, economy and forms of social organization.

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