By Maria Paez Victor
“The Indian is good for nothing. But he represents in Bolivia a living force, a mass of passive resistance, a concrete tumor in the entrails of the social organism…The Indian race and the Mestizo caste will have to perish in the struggle for existence.”
– Nicodemos Antelo, Bolivian writer, circa 1860
It was a fundraiser for Peruvian sick children. Being at the main table, I was seated – uncomfortably- next to a young man who was the embassy envoy, representing one of the most corrupt governments in the Americas. “But it is for a good cause, I shall behave and talk small talk”, I kept telling myself. My good intentions did not last long.
When the music performance was announced I said something to the effect that Latin American music was very romantic but some seem to think we have only salsa. (That was my attempt at small talk.) The diplomat then proceeded to tell me who was and who was NOT Latin American, and pointing to the photo of a needy child which graced every table, he said: “For instance, that child there is not Latin American”. Astonished I asked how can you say that? She is Peruvian! “No, she is Indian. Latin Americans are those of us who stem from Spain and Portugal.” He was not kidding nor making some sort of epistemological statement on the origin of Latin languages. He was unashamedly, sneeringly , racist, making a clear distinction between himself and that poor child. Our conversation deteriorated from then on to reach a point when he said that “those” children got sick because their mothers were too ignorant to know how to care for them. Trembling with disgust, I got up telling him I would sit next to him no more.
Peru and Bolivia, two of the countries of the Americas with the largest indigenous populations share the same racist attitude among much of their ruling white/mestizo middle classes. The “Indian” is apart, but lower, less worthy, ignorant, too backward to be able to really participate in politics, let alone, rule. This attitude is long standing, strengthened by European positivism in the 18th century and a vile distortion of Darwin’s scientific theory . It is demonstrably prevalent in many works of Latin American literature, such as Facundo, Doña Barbara, La Voragine, in authors from Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile or Peru.  The Argentinian president Sarmiento, rabid anti-Indian put it quite clearly: “Nothing can compare to the extinction of the savage tribes or else to keep them weakened until they stop being a social danger.” Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (President of Argentina, 1868-74)
The scene painted by these anti-Indigenous writers is invariably one of a struggle between Civilization vs. Barbarism, with the Indian representing that which is barbarous or savage, reinforcing the myth of the treacherous, lazy, worthless Indian. The Black population fares the same fate, being regarded as even lower than the Indian, branded by the stigma of slavery and the myths of devil worship and voodoo. Thus President Hugo Chávez, of mixed Indian and Black ancestry, suffered the visceral hatred of the Venezuelan upper classes throughout his mandate, hatred which the working class mestizo president Nicolas Maduro has fully inherited.
This is at the very root, the very heart, of the passionate contempt of the elites for Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of the región who dared recognize the plurality of cultures and languages in Bolivia, who dared promote and protect the human rights of the majority. Representing the indigenous population with dignity he led a wise and prosperous political administration. In the recent tumultuous political life of Bolivia how could the upper classes admit that The Indian knew how to govern better than any previous white president? He was the antithesis of every prejudice, of every biased attitude and feeling against “Indians” that the elites had held for centuries.
Evo Morales was deposed in a coup d’etat that the USA, Canada and other satellite nations, right wing politicians, crass NGOs, the Ministry of Colonization (i.e. the OAS) and the prostituted mainstream press dared say was NOT a coup, despite the killings, the wounded, the suspension of civil guarantees, the onslaught of the armed forces and police, and the outrageous, blatant disregard of the Bolivian Constitution. So often we hear from politician’s mouths platitudes of how they respect the “rule of law”- rule of law , which is only invoked when it suits their economic and political interests.
The men and women who run the large corporations have a most overwhelming stance: that of greed – which in capitalist terms is not a vice, but a virtue, the mandate to accumulate capital and enjoy profits without pesky regulations or governmental interference. If the animosity and desire to depose the Venezuelan government lies basically on corporate longing to fully control the vast Venezuelan petroleum reserves, the desire to topple Evo Morales lies in great part in longing to fully control one of the largest deposits of lithium on the planet that lies in Bolivia. If petroleum is the lifeblood of today’s economies, lithium is the lifeblood of the future economy: batteries to power digital technology, artificial intelligence and state-of-the art aeroplanes and missiles. Petroleum and lithium may not be in the hands of democracy, of popular governments, of dark people that dare question corporations’ rights to their natural resources. So the greed of corporations and the racism of Bolivia’s upper classes came together in perfect harmony to destroy Bolivia’s Constitutional order.
So what is to be done? If we could turn back the clock and be there when the Spanish (and later the English in North America) decimated the indigenous peoples of the Americas: Aztec , Mayas, Incas, Carib, and every tribe in between with their gunpowder, mail, horses and diseases, if we had been there as they utterly destroyed their cities, temples and cultivated lands, if we had been witnesses to their human and cultural genocide, would we had done anything to counter it? Would we have been like Fray Bartolome de Las Casas denouncing such human outrage, or would we had been complicit with our acceptance?
We cannot turn back the clock, but circumstances have brought us to a historic crossroads, so similar in intent, that it is a temptation to say that History is repeating itself. We can reject the racist politicians and usurpers in Bolivia, we can denounce their racism, we can repudiate corporations’ rapacious and malign interference, and we can exert whatever democratic means are at hand to shame the “supposed” democratic countries of the world to stand by the Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia and the Americas, and demand the return of Evo Morales.
This is not only about one man, one Indian, one Evo Morales. If we allow his ouster to stand, the message, the reality, will be that no other such as him will be allowed to govern, no Indian and no Mestizo who dares defy the might of corporations and the governments they control will be acceptable. Decent people should not be willing to live with that.
All is not lost. I had the honour of being invited as an observer to the Encounter of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas that took place in October in Caracas. It was stirring to listen to indigenous representatives from many countries, one by one talk of their peoples, situations amd common threats. I noticed a steely resolve not simply to survive, but to thrive, to exercise their rights, protect their communities, lands and resources from rapacious capitalism. After 500 years of resistance, they are determined to be united in the midst of their distinctiveness and defeat any form of oppression or paternalism.
All is not lost. Despite their outrageous and bloody attempts, the USA hegemon and allies have not been able to oust the democratic and popular government of Nicolás Maduro. It endures as a clear sign of the times: Latin Americans are repudiating elite governments in places such as Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Haiti, that for so long have oppressed the indigenous peoples and the working class, elites that have identified with the empire and turned their backs on their own people, history and culture.
1) Gustav Le Bonn, Auguste Compte, Spencer, Gobineau all presumed superior and inferior races. See Antonio Sacoto, “El Indio en el Ensayo Hispanoamericano” Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, 2002 ↑
2) Authors such as: D.F. Sarmiento, Alcides Arguedas, César Zumeta, Agustín Alvarez, José Ingenieros, Carlos Octavio Bunge, Carlos Arturo Torres, Nicodemos Antelo, Romulo Gallegos, among others. ↑
Featured image: Zlatica Hoke – Public Domain