Bicentennial Symbols

The other predominant big event(s) (aside from swine flu) in La Paz right now center on bicentennial festivities.

This summer/winter is the bicentennial of cry for independence. La Paz is festooned with banners commemorating this anniversary and there are on-going cultural events to celebrate. There have been extensive building and clean up projects in the name of the bicentennial – including the installation of more playgrounds, public toilets, and other public services.

Yesterday the Prado was closed to traffic most of the day, as it is most Sundays. As we strolled up and down, we passed several performance stages. One was for guitar/traditional music, one was for young children performing in folkloric dances (the banner behind this one claimed that this was to preserve and valorize “authentic” culture), and one was for the Miss Cholita 2009/Bicentennial pageant .

Why is this notable? Well, we shouldn’t forget that independence was not fought in the name or interest of indigenous peoples (and indeed post-independence indigenous peoples often lost community rights and standing in the eyes of the state). That a prominent symbol of 200 years of independence (sort of) is someone who needs a certain command of local history, indigenous language, and dress is an important reminder of how things have changed.

However, this is also indicative of the Andean-centrism of the current constructions of “authentic” Bolivian identity (all the young folkloric dancers were performing morenadas, caporales, etc., in other words, dances viewed by many as representative of the Andes). To be fair, we *are* in La Paz, so that some relation between local (as in Altiplano/Dpto. of La Paz) expressions and current social symbology is to be expected. But for a Sunday festival proclaiming the liberation of *Bolivia* (not just La Paz) I was struck by this omission (I did not notice even a superficial reference to other regions).

Finally, in a discomfiting twist (to me), while the performances were occurring in the middle of the Prado right across from the Monje Campero was a gigantic Venezuelan flag + “information tent.” The flag itself dwarfed the Bolivian flags there – it was probably 20 feet long by 10 or more feet high. The tent was the largest of all of the activity tents and information booths on the Prado and occupied prime real estate in the center of all the activity. There were representatives of Venezuela handing out small Bolivian and Venezuelan flags, as well as pamphlets and information about Venezuelan aid programs and policies. The tent was packed with people every time we strolled by. It struck me as a rather transparent symbol of the current relationship between Venezuela and Bolivia and perhaps a (yet more asymmetrical) future relationship.


An Invitation to Visit the Fundación Flavio Machicado Viscarra

Don Flavio listening to music.

Don Flavio listening to music.

As many of the GT members and readers will be in Bolivia for “summer” research or just travel, I wanted to invite you all to check out the activities and resources provided by the Fundación Flavio Machicado Viscarra (FFMV).

The FFMV is a small foundation that aims to conserve and make public the intellectual and cultural patrimony of Don Flavio Machicado Viscarra (1898-1986). Throughout his adult life, Don Flavio collected books, newspapers, journals, and classical music, all of which are still in his house at #2448 Avenida Ecuador in Sopocachi, La Paz.  You can make an appointment to visit the library and archive by contacting Don Eduardo Machicado Saravia (at (2)2411791), Flavio’s son who still lives in the historic house and currently is the director of the foundation. You may find something that will help with your research, or simply enjoy a tour of a beautiful, old Sopocachi home and learn about the history of La Paz and the treasures housed there from Don Eduardo.

If you wish to attend a more formal event there are two opportunities.

Between May 28th and June 18th, 2009, there is a wonderful exposition at the Espacio Simón I. Patiño of the FFMV collections. “La Paz: Momentos de Historia y Cultura” presents information on the life of Don Flavio and a sampling of his collections related to the architecture and cultural life of La Paz between 1900 and 1950. Click on the link above to find out more information.

Any Saturday from 6:30-8:30 pm you can also attend the longest standing tradition of the FFMV known as “Las Flaviadas”, where people gather to listen to Don Flavio’s classical music collection. Don Flavio believed that music should be shared and since 1938 he has opened the doors of his house so that any interested person could come in and listen, free of charge. His son, Don Eduardo, continues this tradition today and prepares a two hour program presenting composers ranging from Handel and Mozart to Prokofiev and Messiaen. You can find the weekly programs at “Las Flaviadas” Facebook page (please join our group!), in the cultural calendars published around La Paz, or in the windows of various Sopocachi cafes, restaurants, and book stores.

The FFMV is a wonderful institution that is actively conserving and creating the intellectual and cultural life of La Paz. Hopefully it can aid in your research or provide a pleasant space to relax after a busy week site-seeing or tracking down interviews.

Victor Hugo Cardenas and the “indigenous movement”

El Duderino has posted an interesting defense of Victor Hugo Cardenas’ expulsion from the province of Omasuyus.  While I don’t agree with his conclusions, he does present both historical and legal background of the situation to put it in context.  He believes that President Morales is not, and should not, be the central focus here — rather, community leaders who made the decision to oust Cardenas are fully responsible for their own actions. At the same time, he seems to think this event should not be a major concern:

Does the attack, as suggested at Gringo Tambo, evoke a “worrisome trend” in Bolivian politics of violent intimidation of political opponents, making the analogy of Morales to Mugabe less hyperbolic? No. If other incidents like this were to occur, yes. Of course we know that the opposite is not true, MAS politicians have routinely been the subject of physical assault. That said, the government’s rejection of the attack is important to setting a necessary precedent, before a trend emerges. If Morales wanted to exploit the vicitimization of indigenous peoples in Bolivia to suppress political opponents, frankly, far worse would have already been visited upon Cardanes, Costas, Marinkovic, and the rest.

I disagree (Note: I didn’t write the post that he cites here, Kate did).  I think most of us at the GT agree that the comparison to Mugabe was polemical.  We are aware that indigenous communities do not follow the US Bill of Rights nor modernist capitalist ideals of private property, and that ownership in indigenous rural communities must have community consent in order to be recognized.

Nevertheless, democracy needs to accomodate space for political dissent, and this event brings that into question.  Democracy is not just a product but a process.  That process depends on allowing for multiple viewpoints, even when they are unpopular.

And while el Duderino decries the violence again Cardenas and his family, he is also quite clear about this:

Cardenas is a political traitor to the indigenous movement. … Bolivia’s indigenous communities have no reason to tolerate Cardenas‘ pretensions to speak on their behalf and they should not. He ought to be marginalized as a fraud and scam.

I’m not going to argue VHC’s case here, that’s not my purpose.  Instead, I want to argue that there is no single, unified indigenous movement in Bolivia, and never has been.  A brief look at history makes this clear.  Evo Morales has broad-based support from indigenous and non-indigenous people.  Felipe Quispe (another Aymara leader) and Evo Morales, while making strategic alliances, have never really had the same goals.  The Katarista movement had split into multiple factions long before VHC became Goni’s VP. And going back into Bolivia’s history, one can point to multiple incidences where indigenous groups have taken opposite political sides at particular political junctures.

Who is indigenous in Bolivia is a continuum, not a clear-cut category.  Unlike the US (where being Native America is a legal status, problematic in its own way, but clear in the eyes of the state), being indigenous in Bolivia is something that individuals can step out of (by moving, adopting different clothes and new professions — there are numerous ethnographic descriptions of this process) or into (in the case of many urban Aymara who have recently reclaimed indigenous cultural roots).  To imply that there is a single indigenous group, let alone movement, is to ignore the multiple identities, politics, divisions, and sheer diversity of Bolivians.

It is exactly this kind of reductionist argument, that divides Bolivians into neat categories of indigenous/non-indigenous, that we are trying to get away from here at the GT (despite our internal disagreements).  To assume that all indigenous people should agree with each other simply because they are indigenous — and that those who hold minority opinions are “traitors” — is to fail to recognize the Aymara as a diverse group with multiple histories, perspectives, politics, and beliefs.

The Atlantic on Morales and Mugabe

UPDATE:  Be sure to read the comments, where Miguel responds.  Notes in brackets were added after the original posting.

There’s been a lot of comments recently about Eliza Barclay’s unfortunately titled piece “The Mugabe of the Andes?” published in the Atlantic.

This piece has been roundly criticized by El Duderino and BoRev.  [Note: These guys are a bit polemical for my taste, and not, to my knowledge, social scientists.  But in the name of looking at how the media portrays Bolivia, I think they should be included as part of that conversation and dataset.]  Their arguments seem to focus on her the comparison of Evo Morales to Mugabe (the President of Zimbabwe who is famously responsible for redistributing the lands of white farmers starting in 2000).  Both suggest that the comparison between the two is about race rather than political actions. I won’t deny that seems an easy charge to make, given Barclay’s overall negative view of Evo despite his popular (if geographically divided) support.

Fears of “race wars” — which can be read into the quotes in this article as well as the author’s title’s comparison of Morales to Mugabe — have a long history in Latin America.  The key element to this genre is the concern (founded or otherwise) that a non-white majority will rise up against a white elite minority.  Marginalized ethnic populations have, of course, revolted against discrimination and exploitation.  Multiple examples come to mind: the Haitian Revolution, the Tupac Amaru/Tupac Katari Rebellions, the 1952 Revolution and Land Reform.  But these conflicts were only racial in the sense that race was correlated with economic class through long-standing structural racism and inequalities; the real issue was access to resources, not skin color.

I was also disturbed by Barclay’s misquote of fellow GTer Miguel Centellas. She cites this blog post from August 2007, which is already suspect for a discussion of recent politics.  Barclay writes:

More generally, argues Miguel Centellas, a blogger and political scientist at Mount St. Mary’s University, Morales’s support among middle-class leftists is beginning to decline, in part for economic reasons.

Actually, that’s not at all what Miguel says in that post.  He was actually talking about what he perceived to be a growing split between the Evo government and leftist and moderate intellectuals, not the middle-class in general.  In addition, if this were a trend that was “beginning” now, citing an article from a year and a half ago would hardly be convincing.  [NOTE: In the comments Miguel notes that this is based on interviews with him, which were not mentioned in the online version of the article.]

This seems indicative of two problems.  The first is the assumption that there is — or should be — more unity in other nations than we would reasonably expect even in our own.  For those of us in the U.S., we know that President Obama has both popular support and a determined opposition.  Why does it come as a surprise that Evo is in a similar situation?  For example, Barclay writes:

As the various factions of the opposition and Morales tussled over his economic policies and constitutional reforms, the country split along clear geographical and class lines and murkier racial ones.

Those splits didn’t happen during the debates about constitutional reform.  They have long histories that pre-date Morales, arguably by centuries.  We wouldn’t blame Obama for the divisions between North and South, for example, or between rural and urban populations in the U.S.  Perhaps Barclay is aware of this history in Bolivia but is too constrained by a word-count to give these kinds of details.

More concerning — especially to me as a college teacher — is the fact that she doesn’t use citations correctly.  Hopefully Miguel can jump in here — for all I know, he agrees with the statement she attributed to him — but her citation in this piece simply does not support her claim.  This is something I am constantly bringing up with my own students — the use of evidence to back up claims, the use of citations, and misquotations.  And while I expect these kinds of things from college students, I expect better from professional journalists.

In short, if this were a paper for a class… it would get a C+.  B+.