Evo Morales and the Power of the Spectacle in Bolivia
A caravan of buses, security vehicles, indigenous leaders and backpackers with Che T-shirts wove their way down a muddy road through farmers’ fields last Wednesday to the pre-colonial city of Tiwanaku, where Bolivian President Evo Morales was ceremonially inaugurated into his third term in office. Folk music played throughout the morning as indigenous priests conducted complex rituals to prepare the president for his next term. The spectacle in the ancient city’s ruins was marked by its many layers of symbolic meaning.
“Today is a special day, a historic day reaffirming our identity,” Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, said in his speech in a stone doorway to Tiwanaku. “For more than 500 years we have suffered darkness, hate, racism, discrimination and individualism, ever since the strange [Spanish] men arrived who told us we had to modernize, we had to civilize ourselves… But to modernize us, to civilize us, first they had to make the indigenous peoples of the world disappear.”
Last October, Morales was re-elected with more than 60% of the vote. His popularity is largely due to his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party’s success in reducing poverty, empowering marginalized sectors of society, and using funds from state-run industries for hospitals, schools and much-needed public works projects across Bolivia.
“I would like to tell you, sisters and brothers,” Morales continued, “especially those invited here internationally, before what did they say? ‘The Indians, the indigenous people are only for voting and not for governing.’ And now the indigenous people, the unions, we have all demonstrated that we also know how to govern better than them.”
For most of those in attendance, the event was a time to reflect on the economic and social progress enjoyed under the Morales’ government, and to recognize how far the country has come in overcoming 500 years of subjugation of its indigenous majority.
“This event is very important for us, for the Aymara, Quechua and Guarani people,” said Ismael Ticona Quispe of the Tupak Katari campesino federation of La Paz. “[Evo Morales] is our brother who is in power now after more than 500 years of slavery. Therefore this ceremony has a lot of importance for us… We consider this a huge celebration, especially for the Aymaras.”
For critics on the left, the Tiwanaku event embodied the contradictions of a president who champions indigenous rights at the same time that he silences and undermines grassroots indigenous dissidents, and who speaks of respect for Mother Earth while deepening an extractive economy based in gas and mining industries.
But the politics of decolonization in Bolivia are never simple, and the spectacle represented more than these contradictions. This complexity was on fully display in Tiwanaku, where indigenous movement leaders walled off beyond the main event complained that the Argentines with blond dreadlocks yelling “OlÃ©, OlÃ©, OlÃ©, OlÃ©, Evo, Evo” were blocking their view while “Hallelujah” played on the loudspeakers at the same time that Andean priests blessed a Middle Eastern dignitary shaking hands with the president right after Evo said “there’s no first world… or third world… only one world” while a local worker cleaned out the dozens of porta-potties.
There were thousands of Bolivian social, indigenous and labor movement participants in attendance, yet the presence and enthusiasm of international activists, from Europe to Central America, was very palpable at Tiwanaku. Beyond the many shortcomings and victories of the Morales government nationally, the administration also serves a political purpose outside of Bolivia’s borders, orienting and inspiring people toward an alternative horizon.
As Ana Llao, a Mapuche leader from Chile, explained, she was attending the ceremony “to strengthen the ties between the indigenous peoples of Abya Yala and especially give our support to our brother Evo who is the first indigenous president. I believe that in Latin America and throughout the world, as [Morales] said so well in his speech, that today the indigenous, the original peoples, these social classes are capable of governing. Today Bolivia is demonstrating this.”
The way the MAS used Tiwanaku for political ends, as it has in past inaugurations, was shameful and opportunistic for some critics. But there is a long history in Bolivia of couching politics of liberation within the deeper story of colonialism and indigenous resistance. From campesino and indigenous movements in the 1970s to the MAS party today, activists and leftist politicians have evoked a glorious indigenous past to legitimize their demands and guide their contested processes of decolonization. In the Gas War in 2003, when residents of El Alto laid siege to La Paz, their militancy recalled another siege over 200 years earlier, when Tupak Katari and Bartolina Sisa led a similar assault on the colonial city. Today, the country’s main indigenous and campesina women’s movement bears Bartolina Sisa’s name and just celebrated its 35th anniversary earlier this month.
The MAS doesn’t have a monopoly on the uses of Bolivia’s rebel past, but it’s incredibly savvy in its deployment of historical consciousness as an ideological and political tool. From the uses of the coca leaf and the multi-colored wiphala flag as symbols of indigeneity, to naming Bolivia’s first satellite after Tupak Katari, the past has always been present with the MAS. When Evo Morales walked through the doors of Tiwanaku last week amidst incense and the prayers of Andean priests, it was a profound moment marking the third term in office for the country’s first indigenous president. It was also just another day in the MAS era.