Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Crossroads of History

‘In the Andean region, abides since time immemorial the Aymara Indian, aloof and savage like a beast from the forest, given to his gentile rituals and to farm that sterile land in which, without doubts, his race will soon disappear’[1] (Alcides Arguedas)

This is how in 1910, one of the most important figures of the Bolivian intellectual elite, decreed the end of the Aymara people, and of all the indigenous people of Bolivia. Indigenous people, according to his Social Darwinist perspective,[2] belonged to the lower levels of the human races, and had no other possible end, but to be exterminated by the power of Civilization. Arguedas, never renounced to his vision of Bolivian reality, and at the end of his life, he became a great admirer of Adolf Hitler. His posture and analysis of the of the Bolivian State, must be considered in the historical context of his time, both regionally and internationally. Nonetheless, his ideas have held strong and perdurable in the white and mestizo imaginary of many Bolivians. There are many Bolivians, who still consider, indigenous people as inferior, and that it is that cultural inferiority that keeps the country underdeveloped.

Alcides Arguedas’ arrogance is reflected on and lives within many of today’s white and mestizo attitudes towards President Evo Morales, and the processes of political, social and cultural transformation that Bolivia is going through. Indigenous people however, despite centuries of humiliation and the systematic destruction of their cultures, have always resisted. They have resisted against the Spanish and they have resisted against a state that until 1952 did not even recognize them as citizens.

Indigenous civilizations have not, as Arguedas predicted, disappeared. Their cultures have not become extinct. In fact, the opposite is occurring. Indigenous people are slowly gaining power, and step by step, they are reconstructing and postulating their ways of understanding, feeling and knowing reality. Soon, in a few years, we will see alternatives to western civilization, alternatives that have always existed, but have never been able to show us their identity, their perspective, their reality, in a word, their philosophy.

In 1973, a group of young indigenous leaders gathered at Ayo Ayo, a rural community in the highlands of La Paz. And wrote, what would become one of the most important documents in Bolivian indigenous history. The Manifesto of Tiwanaku. In it, they questioned the status quo, recognized their identity and elevated their demands. I believe it is a great document, and it shows how flawless Arguedas perspective is, and how full of life indigenous cultures are.

‘A nation that oppresses other nations, cannot be free… Us, the Aymara and Quechua peasants, and the other autochthonous cultures of the country, have agreed on something. We feel economically exploited, and culturally and politically oppressed. In Bolivia, there has not been an integration of cultures, instead, the superposition and domination of one culture over the other has been the rule. We have always been at the bottom of that pyramid… We, the peasants of Bolivia, are oppressed, but not defeated!’[3]

The changes we are seeing in Bolivia today, are not new. In the 60’s and 70’s indigenous movements in the rural areas and in the mining towns were extremely important. And these could have become centers of revolutionary activity. The right wing dictatorships of the period on their own, or with the collaboration of regional repressive apparatuses such is the Plan Condor, or the CIA, eliminated many of the leaders of such movements, through repression, exile, assassination, and often desaparición (to disappear people, as in the Chilean and Argentine regimes). Their success however, was only temporary, and the beacon of hope was never shut off, nor could they have destroyed the roads of freedom and equality.

Today Bolivia finds itself at crossroads, those who were confined to be the image on an autochthonous postcard, or were seen as a folkloric ornament, demand their right to actively participate of the Bolivian economy, its society and its culture. Principally, they demand their right to stand up, to be heard, to become democratic actors. ¿Why do people in the high middle and upper classes oppose those demands? ¿Why can’t the upper classes let go of the political power they hold and they have so systematically corrupted?

The upper classes claim that the government neglects their demands for dialogue and negotiations. But they do not look at their own attitudes. They are the ones who refuse to negotiate. They refuse to give up their class privileges. They refuse to understand that Bolivia has changed and is no longer the country they used to manipulate. They refuse to accept that they cannot suck and enrich on the country’s resources anymore, while the great majority lives in poverty or extreme poverty. They refuse to acknowledge that most Bolivians have wakened up, and are willing to demand their rights through democratic processes.

[1] Alcides Arguedas’ Pueblo Enfermo. La Paz: Ediciones Isla. [1909 1st ed., 1936 3rd ed.] 1979, pp. 39. Arguedas and Franz Tamayo, were the most important thinkers of the early 20th century. They both debated over the Indian issue at the beginning of the century, and their influence was to have long lasting effects. For Arguedas, the Indian race was destined to disappear because of its inferior nature, he believed that the country was a sick country because it was populated by a majority of Indians whose natural meaningless culture kept the country behind other Latin American countries in the march towards progress, it could be argued that he was a social Darwinist, in the 3rd edition of his essay Pueblo Enfermo (A Sick People), he even cites Hitler to justify his segregationist views. Tamayo on the other hand believes that Indian people could become civilized, in his most important essay Creación de la Pedagogía Nacional, he praises the Indian race for its strength and argues that its endurance in the course of history shows its racial superiority, ‘the Aymara race will become one of the prominent races of the world’, this also shows the social Darwinist influences of the period. Nonetheless even though Tamayo acknowledges the vitality, and energetic strength of the Indian, he argues that they lack the faculty to think like a westerner. It should be noted that Tamayo, a great poet and political thinker, had an Aymara mother and possibly an Aymara father, although he was adopted and raised by a very wealthy aristocrat. Tamayo, Franz. Creación de la Pedagogía Nacional. La Paz: Ministerio de Educación, [1910] 1944, pp. 110-123.

[2] Saenz, Mario. The Identity of Liberation in Latin American Thought. Maryland: Lexington Books. 1999. There is an interesting analysis of Alcides Arguedas’ thinking and other contemporary Latin American thinkers in this book. I highly recommend it.

[3] Manifiesto de Tiwanaku. 1973. There are probably no English translations of it, and it is very difficult to find one, even in Spanish. The author of this post, will try to translate the whole Manifesto, and post it here on a later date.

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