Racism and Human Rights

The series of events that unfolded in Sucre, Bolivia, since May 24 have not received much attention by the international press; and in some cases, the report contributed to obscure the facts. The events invite us, all of us, to think about racism and human rights; who are the perpetrators, who are the victims, what is at stake when human rights are violated? The events in Sucre are not isolated. Below I provide some elements of a larger context of which the events in Sucre are part of a long and complicated process that unfolded since Evo Morales Ayma was elected president of Bolivia.

1) On Tuesday, January 26, 2008, the Human Rights Foundation (with offices in New York) sent a letter to President Evo Morales Ayma expressing their concern for the violation of Human Rights in the New Constitution. The Human Rights Foundation underscored two areas in which violations of human rights were taken place: the violation of the rights to property and the violation of the rule of law in Indigenous communities who were taking law in their own hands. The first violation—the right to property–was a violation of the landowners rights, particularly in Santa Cruz. The Human Rights Foundation was taking a step in defense of landowner rights to keep their extensive masses of land. The second violation, was the indiscriminate application of “communal law,”the violating the “liberal state law”by actors implementing indigenous law. The first violation made of landowners, indirectly landowners in Santa Cruz, victims of human rights violations. In the second case, Indians were the perpetrators of human rights violation.

Vice Minister of Coordination with Social Movement and Civil Society, Sacha Sergio Llorenti Solis responded to the Human Rights Foundation. Now this letter is difficult to find on Google. It doesn’t matter how you do the search, you get the letters from the Human Rights Foundation to President Evo Morales and Vice Minister Sacha Llorenti, but not the letter from Sacha Llorenti. Thor Halvorssen replied and summarized some of the points made by Sacha Llorenti. There are indeed several versions of it on Google, including dramatic pictures in which civil society has been attacked by Indian mobs.

I have in front of me a hard copy of the official letter from Sacha Llorenti’s letter, dated January 28, 2008 (MPR-VICCORD. MS-SC N0015/09) addressed to Thor Halvorssen. And there is a summary in Spanish published by Agencia Boliviana de Información.

I have not found yet a similar expression of concern, by the Human Rights Foundation, of the attacks perpetrated by the civil society, in Sucre, against Indians and peasants. There is not much available information in English either. Indians and peasant injured are as dramatic as the picture of white victims shown in the letter from Human Rights Foundation posted on Google (shown in the previous paragraph). Documentation of civil society violence and violation of Indian and peasant human rights abound in Spanish. Here are some examples:

Several videos can be found in YouTube; and articles in Terra Magazine, as well as in Indymedia.

Sacha Llorenti’s letter to Halvorssen defended the democratic process in the writing of the New Constitution and focused on Human Rights concerns in the “indiscriminate”application of communal justice. The case invoked in the original letter by the Human Rights Foundation to President Evo Morales was the case of Benjamin Altamirano the Mayor of Ayo-Ayo, indigenous himself. The set of events that ended in his death are very complex and controversial. The Human Rights Foundation letter simplified the case to make it fit their own argument and interest.

The basic narrative is the following. The community of Ayo-Ayo accused Benjamin Altamirano of corruption and mistreatment, and they denounced to the State department of Justice. This was in 2004; much before Evo Morales became president. The year 2004 is quoted in the original letter from the Human Rights Foundation to President Evo Morales. The Bolivian President, at that time, was Carlos Mesa. The Bolivian court of justice followed suit after the accusations by the community and initiated a legal process. In the end, Altamirano was declared innocent. When returning to his community he was captured and assassinated. Anti-Indian prejudices, among Bolivians (mainly creoles and mestizos/as of the middle class) and main stream international press, made the quick assumption that the killing of Altamirano was an act of communitarian justice by the Ayllus (Indigenous socio-economic organization similar to oykos in ancient Greece), of Ayo-Ayo.

Jumping to the conclusion that Altamirano’s assassination was an act of communal justice, and not a crime, will be like linking the rhetoric and the acts of the KKK to the United States government. Saying that the government of the United States supports the rhetoric and the acts of the KKK is equivalent to saying that the government of Evo Morales, and Evo Morales himself, as an indigenous, supports un-ruled acts of violence. Since the reader has access only to the Human Rights Foundation reply to Sacha Llorenti, but not Sacha Llorenti himself, the reader is “forced”to believe in the summary presented both in the Spanish and in English.

The main point of contention is Sacha Llorenti’s charge, to the Human Rights Foundation, of lack of information and understanding of Bolivian history and social situation. Such charges are, in fact, common among experts in Indigenous laws in South America and in Spain. See, for instance, the report written by Bolívar Beltrán Gutierrez on the indigenous penal system in which, interestingly enough, Benjamin Altamirano’s case is referred.

In personal conversation with Aymara intellectual, Marcelo Fernández Osco author of La Ley del Ayllu, he stressed the unawareness from the side of the Human Rights Foundation that the Political Constitution of the Bolivian State is an obvious case of juridical coloniality, regulating the State according to the interests of a minority of European descent, and modeled after the spirit of the French Revolution; which is the case for all the Political Constitution of all Latin American States. The community of Ayo-Ayo is an obvious case of why the Political Constitution of the Bolivian State needed to be re-written in such a way that Liberal and Ayllu conceptions of the State and Democracy can co-exist in armony. The letters from the Human Rights Foundation made evident the lack of knowledge of the other side of the equation, the law of the Ayllu. The ranchers and land owners of the low lands, as well as the elite in Sucre, in accordance with the Political Constitution of the Bolivian State are violating, with their demand of autonomy and property rights, Indigenous human rights by disavowing the rights Indians communities have to live in armony with the land; not the land as property. The letter from the Human Rights Foundation is also mute about the slavery living conditions of many Indian families working under landowners rule.

2) The events in Sucre are not “directly”related to Altamirano’s case and Indigenous violations of human rights. They are indirectly related. The special rapporteur on human rights of Indigenous individuals and communities posted a strong sign of alert. In this case, it is the civil society of Sucre who is violating indigenous and peasant human rights. The international press is denouncing the outrageous barbarism perpetrated under the leadership of the “Band of Four”in the very civilized city of Sucre.

The events in Sucre are indeed signs of radical global changes. And the Human Rights Foundation’s misinterpretations are also evidence that the changes taking place are making obsolescence of entrenched ways of thinking and revealing how feelings and group interests taint our views of what constitute legal violation of human rights; who is violating property rights; and who is denouncing the violation of both as a superior, objective, and transcendent observer who is not tainted itself by its own subjective view of justice, law and property. Property rights violations, one of the concerns expressed in the letter from the Human Rights Foundation to Evo Morales, were not addressed in the letter by Sacha Llorenti. The issue should be brought into the picture because it is not unrelated to Altamirano’s case and to racist violence against Indian and peasants, in Sucre. The very day in which Santa Cruz province was voting on the referendum for its autonomy, the New York Times published a revealing article about a US citizen, named Larsen, a native of Montana, who bought land in Santa Cruz in 1969, and now he seats on an extension of about 350,000 acres.

The article is titled: “American rancher resists land reform plans in Bolivia”. Think of it. Imagine a science fiction world in which an article is published saying “Indigenous Bolivian resists tax reduction in the United States.” Now it so happens, according to the Human Rights Foundation’s interpretation, that the New Bolivian Constitution is violating property rights. That is, is violating Mr. Larsen’s rights to his property, which was acquired through “legal”procedures between the Bolivian government in 1969. These were turbulent years. Military controlled the state and although promised to maintain land reforms implemented by the revolution of 1952, there were obviously some loop-holes. Most likely Mr. Larsen benefited from them and was able to acquire the land.

At stake here is for Mr. Larsen and the Human Rights Foundation that land is a commodity and that it can be economically possessed. For Indigenous people that is not the case: land is not a commodity, and nature is not a passive entity that shall be dominated and exploited, as Sir Frances Bacon stated at the beginning of the seventeenth century, in his Novum Organum. The idea that land is property and that is that was imprinted in the literature of the conquest in the sixteenth century. Dominican legal-theological Francisco de Vitoria, a balanced mind comparable to today’s honest liberals, struggled to find a legal and moral way justifying Spaniards taking possession of Indian lands. He went through complicated but very compelling arguments, stating that just because Indians were unbelievers, unbelief was not a good reason to deny that Indians have rights to property. Vitoria finally found reasons to legitimize Spanish expropriation of land: Indians were not mature enough. A racist decision, enveloped in ethical language, stamped for even both that the idea that land property is a universal of the human species and that Indians are an inferior race of the human species.

The unprecedented situation in Santa Cruz and in Sucre, is that land owners and Mestizo State officers and members of the Civil Society, rebels against the government. The ethno-class that came to power, in all South America, gaining independence from Spain and Portugal, are resisting the coming into being of ethno-classes (peasants and indigenous), who have been dominated and exploited since the glorious days of Spanish independence. And Sucre was the city that witnessed the beginning of struggles for emancipation.

But there is still an issue that Vitoria took for granted and has been accepted since: that Vitoria’s Indians (indeed, people from Tawantinsuyu and Anáhuac), would have to accept their relation to land as that of property, as a commodity. It did not occur to Vitoria (and none of the Spanish missionaries from different religious order), to ask that question. If they would have asked and listened to the answer, they would have understood that property was not the way Vitoria’s Indians related to land and nature.

3) Sacha Llorenti is right in pointing out that members of the Human Rights Foundation who wrote the letter misunderstand (it would be more exact to say “ignored”) the other side of the coin: that there is an Indian rationality which is not compatible with the rationality manifested in the Human Rights Foundation’s letter. Sacha Llorenti did not address the question of property rights, but the same charge could be made, on this matter, to the short-sided and partial view of the Human Rights Foundation.

Indeed, one cannot but be surprised to an statement appearing in the Human Rights response to (paragraph #3 of the letter dated 31 de enero de 2008), to Sacha Llorenti. Thor Helvorssen (President) and Armando Valladares (Secretario General), who signed the letter, accused President Evo Morales of making public a false accusation against the Human Rights Foundation. Helvorssen and Valladares’ letter transcribe the following allegedly Morales’s statement, pronounced in Chanel 7 (a state managed TV channel):

“Esta ONG tiene una clara filiación derechista y entre sus miembros aprece el hijo de Vargas Llosa”

The counterargument is interesting to say the least. The first counterargument is to dispel the accusation that Vargas Llosa’s son (both, father and son are well known for their neo-liberal positions and harsh criticism to leftists as well as Indigenous movements in Latin America), is to say Nobel Prize Elie Wiesel is one of the member of the committee whom, the letter clarifies “was prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.”With all due respect to Mr. Elie Wiesel, who has nothing to do with the situation, one wonders to what extent having been prisoner in a concentration camp is a warranty for the statements and accusations made by the Human Rights Foundation (or by the signers Helvorssen and Valladares).

The second counterargument is more philosophical but equally questionable. The signers of the letter address the accusation that the Foundation is a right wing institution: “For the Human Rights Foundation, human rights are neither from left nor from right; as human rights they are just human rights and as such they shall be respected, protected and guaranteed by all and every democratic state in the world, with independence of the political ideology of their government”(translation into English mine, WM).

Who speaks indeed for “human”in human rights? The signers of the letter are apparently assuming that “human rights”are a transcendent entity, some kind of dive or natural law, and that the Foundation has direct access to them. As such, the Foundation arrogates to itself the transcendental power of the observer who observed without being observed. The Foundation really knows what “human rights”are and the “human rights”they know (such as the right to private property), shall be respected. The Foundation operates under the assumption of an epistemology without parenthesis: and objectivity of “human rights”that cannot be contested; that can only be obeyed.

The point I am trying to make is not to advocate in favor of President Evo Morales and Sacha Llorenti’s arguments. My point is that Evo Morales and Sacha Llorenti have a point and that the Human Rights Foundation is reluctant to hear. The Human Rights Foundation is not the proprietor of “human rights”, and since they are not, their role will be enhanced and more helpful if they step down from their role of observer from above and be more aware of what interests they are defending and representing. The fight for human rights is a noble cause in which we all should be involved.

And it is in such spirit that I am here writing.

An institution such as the Human Rights Foundation shall not assume that because it is a Foundation it has the right of property to human rights; and that it is an institution from where you can observe but cannot be observed–what Chilean scientist and intellectual Humberto Maturana calls “objectivity without parenthesis.”


  1. Prof. Mignolo, I greatly admire your work and I am a fan of your books, I am actually writing a thesis about the Katarista movement in Bolivia, and I am using your concepts and ideas to frame the movement.

    I am from Bolivia, and I totally agree with what you put in here. If it is not a problem with you, I will translate and publish this post in my blog and the version in english in another blog, I will properly cite the source.

    Thank you!!!

  2. Thanks for your words. Yes, indeed, you have my blessing
    if you would like to translate the piece and disseminate it.
    Best, and toward a better future, W

  3. It’s clear to me (and has been for some time) that this “Human Rights Foundation” is nothing of the sort. It is right-wing astroturf, and limits its vision of “human rights” to the questionable “rights” of oligarchs to privatize a country to death. The dead giveaway? Thor Halvorsen. He’s a young Venezuelan (of Norwegian descent) oligarch. His mission in life is to smear the Bolivarian government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and apparently his little group has now expanded its bogus “concern” to Venezuela’s allies. Big land-owners are the only oppressed people all of a sudden!

    And what’s really sad is that the mainstream media have totally bought into this view. The indigenous people are invisible to them. Their term “civil society” is just a euphemism for the most uncivil portion of society that I have ever seen.

  4. Hello Walter,
    Could you recommend me three important author whom have written specially about you?

    Thank a lot


  5. Quisiera ponerme a su disposición para cualquier informa´ción que necesiten sobre éte y cualquier otro caso sobre la situación de los derechos humanos en Bolivia.
    Sacha Llorenti
    Viceministro de la Presidencia

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