Published: July 2008
Bolivia's New Order
After 500 years, indigenous people return to power in a restless land.
By Alma Guillermoprieto

Three years ago in Villa Tunari, a shabby little tropical town at the center of Bolivia's province of Chapare, the source and power of the ethnic revolution taking place in this Andean nation was on full view. Flood rains had churned up rivers, destroyed bridges, provoked landslides, and caused deaths in the region. An entire busload of the press corps, along with dozens of other buses and cars, was at that moment trapped ten miles away near the swollen Espíritu Santo River, between a tunnel that had been sealed by a sliding boulder and the nearest bridge, which had collapsed. What sort of human being would show up in this catastrophe to listen to a campaign speech and shout a few slogans?

The answer was a crowd of several thousand descendants of Bolivia's earliest inhabitants: pueblos indígenas or originarios—first, or original, peoples, as they variously prefer to be called throughout the Americas. Many had forded swollen streams and walked miles to stand here on the outskirts of Villa Tunari, impervious to the hammering rain and the ankle-deep, sticky mud that sucked shoes and sandals off their feet.

A lucky few of us in the press had made it across the river by skidding in a 4x4 along the ruins of the bridge. By the time we arrived, people had been standing in the downpour for hours, wedged shoulder to shoulder and back to belly around a rickety podium, shivering under plastic capes or soaked to the bone, but until the rally ended at sunset, the crowd never thinned. The men and women in this audience had gathered here on a historic mission, after all: Following centuries of humiliation and in defiance of the law of probabilities, they were about to produce the next president of Bolivia from their midst.

The candidate was Evo Morales, who was elected in December 2005 and, in one of the most unstable of all Latin American countries, remains in power two and a half years later. His rule has been fraught with difficulties: Bolivia, geographically divided between the prosperous tropical lowlands and the impoverished Altiplano, is now more politically divided between these regions than ever before. An autonomist movement in the eastern, whiter half of the country threatens the stability of his government. But it is worth remembering how improbable Morales's rise seemed even on the day of the rally in Villa Tunari, only weeks before the election. In the administrative capital, La Paz, the light-skinned, business-suited men of influence I had talked to a few days before the rally were contemplating this possibility with a mixture of contempt and disbelief. An Indian president? He could never be elected. Or: He will be elected, but he will never last.

On the podium, men wearing garlands made of flowers and the leaves of the coca plant gave speeches in languages I could not understand: the Quechua and Aymara of the Inca Empire, still more familiar than Spanish to virtually everyone in the audience. The candidate, whose broad, hatchet-nosed face peered out above the garlands of coca, fruit, and harvest vegetables around his neck, stepped forward and began his speech in heavily accented Spanish. "We are Aymara, Quechua, Guaraní—the legitimate proprietors of this noble Bolivian land!" he cried, to long cheers and applause. Noisemakers crackled. Somewhere, someone beat a deep-toned bombo drum. A president whose Spanish is not native? Impossible.

The men and women next to me turned aside whenever I attempted conversation. They smelled of soaked wool and smoke. Most of the women wore flat-brimmed straw hats over their long black braids, Quechua style, and they flaunted brightly colored, above-the-knee velvet skirts worn over many short petticoats. The Aymara women, who in general have more imposing figures and broader faces, were dressed in longer skirts and embroidered shawls, topped by bowler hats. The men, dressed in faded and mended polyester shirts and slacks, each had a big bump protruding from one side of his face—the wad of coca leaves that native people throughout the Andean region keep constantly tucked in their mouths.

The crowd answered an exhortation by the candidate by chanting, waving their fists in the air, stomping, rattling their flags. "This effort of yours has not been in vain," Morales declaimed, and they applauded the next president of Bolivia, and themselves. They had been fighting together ever since he was a poor farmer like them, a producer of the age-old crop of coca and the leader of a long, rough battle against the forces of the United States' war on drugs, centered in this very region. They had fought stubbornly and mostly without weapons in endless confrontations with army troops and antidrug police—largely by refusing to budge, just as they were now showing their support in the downpour.

The ascent to power of a new elite of militant indigenous people has been a long time coming. Nearly 500 years ago the Spanish conquistadores arrived and transformed Bolivian territory into what was essentially a forced labor camp. The Quechua and Aymara highland communities were broken up, and the people were forced to toil in suffocating mines or pressed into working on haciendas, left free just long enough to scratch out a subsistence from the land. The original inhabitants of the Bolivian Amazon have fared no better: After independence came in 1825, they were herded into deadly camps in the lowlands to harvest the latex of the hevea tree for export as rubber. As recently as the 1980s they were driven off their fertile lands by migrant Indian communities from the highlands, like those that settled in Chapare. Andean history is scarred with Indian rebellions, but tragedy was the outcome of most, and they brought little change. Across Bolivia and well into the 20th century, indentured labor remained legal. To this day in outlying regions, women are raped by their patrón almost as a matter of horrifying routine—and children from such unions bear a lifelong stigma.

In 1952 a nationalist revolution led to sweeping land reform and gave the vote to women and Indians (previously excluded as "illiterates"). But for most of the century a corrupt military elite controlled the country. When the generals finally retired from power and called for elections in 1982, Bolivia was the poorest country in South America and one of the most indebted. Its experience of modern civic life was nonexistent, and the chasm between the overwhelmingly Indian majority and the tiny, lighter skinned elite could not be bridged. Five consecutive presidents were not so much elected as picked from the white ruling class.

Which is not to say that apathy ruled the land. The country was in a state of almost nonstop turmoil, thanks to radicalized priests, local unions and organizations, and thousands of unemployed and highly politicized displaced miners from the highlands who had migrated to the Chapare region to set themselves up as coca farmers. The coca farmers, who were growing a crop that in Bolivia is as traditional as tobacco and were often diverting it to the illegal cocaine market, battled Bolivian troops trained by U.S. special forces. The priests and union leaders organized entire communities to march for their rights. A short-lived nativist guerrilla movement bombed a few electrical pylons and put out the idea of a return to the Inca Empire. From 2000 onward, each day seemed to bring a fresh barrage of marches, roadblocks, strikes.

And in December 2005, as if in a sudden rush of understanding of the power of their numbers, Bolivian Indians went to the polls with a common goal. In the 2001 census, 62 percent of the population had identified itself as indigenous. Six weeks after the rally in Villa Tunari, Evo Morales won the presidential election by 54 percent (the first such majority win in decades), with the lowest abstention rate ever. Native communities all over the country elected dozens of their own members as representatives to both houses of congress. Upon taking office—in a ceremony that included traditional Andean rites officiated by Quechua and Aymara amautas, or priests, President Morales appointed four cabinet ministers with Indian last names or cultural traditions and called for elections to an assembly charged with drafting a new constitution. Dozens of Indian delegates could be seen bustling in their brightly colored attire when the assembly was in session. In addition to Spanish, all of the 36 native tongues spoken in Bolivia were declared official languages in the draft constitution. Five centuries after the conquest, there was the possibility of a New World in Bolivia.

In the meeting hall of the unprepossessing municipal building of Achacachi, a town that lies more than 12,000 feet above sea level, councilwoman Gumersinda Quisbert, 42, sat on a broken-down plastic sofa, looking sturdily out at the world from under the gold brim of her bowler hat. Wrapped in a threadbare embroidered shawl, she spoke fiercely—although in halting Spanish—about the transformations in her home district, now led by an Indian mayor and an Indian council.

"Before, we campesinos had no way of getting into a government official's office," Quisbert said. She gave an example: "I was involved with my husband in a lawsuit, and whenever I went to court, since I wore a pollera [the traditional long petticoats and skirt] they always told me to wait outside."

Quisbert had spent the morning in a council meeting called to explain a construction budget to the representatives of a village in the district. The meeting was in Aymara, salted with modern terms in Spanish for "zinc roofing" and "ecological standards." The audience—as far as I could tell, just about all the adults from the village, including nursing mothers and their offspring—filled all the gilded imitation-Louis XIV chairs in the dingy room and listened with unwavering attention, asking what seemed to be pointed and direct questions of their elected representatives. The meeting felt as open and purposeful as, say, one in a New England town hall.

Some of the changes in Achacachi were perplexing, though. A long-standing demand of the pueblos originarios that Evo Morales turned into a campaign promise and wove into the draft constitution was that the ayllus, or traditional rural communities, be allowed to settle local disputes according to their own age-old system of codes and punishments. After winning the presidency, Morales appointed a Quechua union leader, Casimira Rodríguez, as his first justice minister to supervise the change. Many Bolivians worry about having parallel justice systems in what is already a divided country, but others say ayllu justice skirts the bureaucracy and privileges conflict resolution over punishment. Quisbert, however, offered a different example of how the new system worked: "If a husband and wife fight," she explained, "if the case is handled in town, before a court, a fine will be applied. If the case is judged within the ayllu, a whip will be applied."

One had to wonder if wives came in for a crack of the whip more often than husbands, and, indeed, if Quisbert's gender was held against her in her own ayllu. I asked if her new public visibility was creating any problems with her husband. "­Sí!" she replied. "Women are always looked down on when they go out. Husbands are never pleased about it."

At that moment someone interrupted us with a message from the council president to the effect that if I was interviewing the low-ranking Quisbert, then I should interview him first. Some changes, clearly, were taking place more slowly than others.

Most of today's Indian leadership emerged in the 1980s out of indigenous social movements, and so its members are doubly hated by the conservative white elite in the tropical southeastern flatlands, where most of Bolivia's money is made—through the natural gas and oil industry, banking, agriculture, and cattle ranching. There are strong autonomist movements in these eastern provinces demanding more control of local resources, and the conflict with the new government has been escalating. For their part, the Indian and grassroots movements remain highly confrontational, and none of the structural problems keeping most of Bolivia's citizens poor and angry have been solved. One of Evo Morales's goals, even before he took power, was to reform the constitution to allow for repeated five-year terms in office. That measure has temporarily been defeated, and the question remains how long he can survive as the head of such a volatile nation—and as the former leader of a movement used to showing its displeasure with presidents by overthrowing them.

Morales first gained public attention as the leader of the combative Chapare coca farmers, a rough-and-ready organization reviled by the political elite. A man of some charm, he was at first visibly uncomfortable dealing with people who knew more than he did about a given subject, like economics or protocol. At press conferences he relied heavily on Alvaro García Linera, his urbane vice president, a former member of the guerrilla group that proposed a return to the Inca Empire (but himself a fair-skinned member of the elite), to prompt him on the facts.

Lately, however, President Morales has grown into his role. And given his own radical leanings and the turmoil he inherited, he has managed to steer a remarkably even course. As of this spring, his approval ratings have remained good, despite his continuing failure to achieve a consensus among opposing interests as to the future of the fractured nation. The marches, roadblocks, and confrontations with the army and police that toppled his predecessors have still not reached the anarchic levels that had the country in ferment before his election. He has zealously pursued the eradication of institutional corruption—although there can be little hope of achieving that soon. He retains a visceral dislike of Washington from the days when he led the fight against the U.S. antinarcotics program, but he has kept relations with the Bush Administration within the bounds of protocol. And his two most controversial measures—the nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry and an ambitious land reform program now being carried out—have lost no international investors.

Iván Arias, an expert in municipal planning who has long worked with Indian communities and is a close observer of the government, says Morales has already lasted longer in power than most non-Indians expected because he has popular support—and the cash flow to retain it. "A great deal of money is pouring in," Arias told me. "There is the new oil and gas money, money from tourism, and from what Bolivians working abroad send home. And then there is money from the cocaine trade." The area under coca cultivation grew by 8 percent in 2006, though the number of cocaine labs destroyed was up by more than 50 percent.

Arias told me that Morales, who was a highly visible congressman before he ran for the presidency, practices politics the way he plays soccer, one of his passions: "He is a great opportunist, so he knows how to convert goals." There are, in fact, among his opponents in both the indigenous and white communities those who say that for a politician who plays soccer, wears blue jeans, and now barely speaks his parents' native Aymara, to campaign for office as an Indian was in itself an act of skillful opportunism.

But what are the requirements for being Indian? And if one is Indian, is one Bolivian as well? If so, which identity has priority? In the new Bolivia these deeply philosophical questions are suddenly as common as the dispute over whether the winner in the most recent Miss Cholita (Miss Little Indian) contest could be authentic if her braids were false, and as serious as arguments between the military and indigenous groups over whether bright, checkered Indian flags called wiphalas can be carried in the annual military parade in Santa Cruz.

"In reality, for us Bolivia does not exist," said Anselmo Martínez Tola, a slow-spoken and affable man from the Potosí area who was, according to a sign above the door, the "mallku on duty" at the painfully bare La Paz headquarters of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of the Qullasuyu. The council's name refers to the "national federation of Quechua and Aymara communities of the quadrant of the old Inca Empire that once encompassed the Bolivian Andes," and despite its barren headquarters, it is one of the most powerful Indian organizations in Bolivia, with ten delegates to the constitutional assembly. "Bolivia is a name that was imposed only 183 years ago," the mallku, or traditional leader, elaborated. "I feel more Quechua than Bolivian, more originario than Bolivian." He acknowledged ruefully that he was not wearing traditional Indian garments, and I asked him whether his children would still be Indian if they were born outside the ayllu, spoke Spanish, wore jeans, and emigrated to New Jersey to look for work. "Of course," he said. "The same blood still runs through their veins. That blood cannot be changed."

Abel Mamani, a slight, alert man who until recently was the minister of water, had a different view. Before Morales's election Mamani was head of the Federation of Neighborhood Councils for the immense, 30-year-old city of El Alto, which lies just outside La Paz—or really, just above it, since it sits on the rim of the valley that gives shelter to the capital. El Alto is a chaotic city of migrants, most of them Indians from the countryside, and it is a center of political turbulence. It was here that the strikes and roadblocks that laid siege to La Paz were organized, starting in 2003, and it was Mamani who, as the head of the El Alto federation, led the strike movement in the acrid year of 2005. Water being one of the most volatile issues in Bolivian cities, and particularly in El Alto, Morales created a ministry for it. Mamani, 41, who had held a number of odd jobs, was its first head. (As poor when he took office as many members of the cabinet, and more talented than most as a politician, he was dismissed last year on grounds that he misspent public funds while on official trips to Europe.)

I asked Mamani if he was an Indian, and he smiled wryly. "I am an Indian leader who emerged from political movements protagonized by Indians and other poor people," he said. "But I do not come from the countryside. My grandparents did, and so did their ancestors. They could say that they were originarios. But my parents emigrated to a town, and I was born there. As for my children, they're completely citified." He shrugged, palms up. "There's another thing to consider: El Alto is one of the three largest cities in the country. There is a mix of people there from all over Bolivia, and from all the social classes. So, is a leader there who is surrounded by Indians and other kinds of people as well supposed to be a leader for Indians only?" A national politician who declares himself or herself an Indian faces some troubling moral questions, he said. If he were rich, would he be less Indian? Could one seriously say that skin color determines character? And yet, he went on, he was undeniably not a qarazinnia, a lanky avocado.

"When we say that I am Indian," he said at last, "I think we are talking about origins. Perhaps we are also talking somewhat about a way of seeing the world."

Away from the wheeze and roar and choking smog of a highway on the frayed edges of the wealthy tropical city of Santa Cruz, there is a dirt road paved with garbage. Just off that road lies Barrio Bolívar, a dozen or so mud-wattle shacks more or less identical to thousands of others ringing the city. The shacks are grouped around a dusty central clearing bordered at one end by a small evangelical chapel made of brick and at the other by the pride of the community—a two-room schoolhouse, also brick. Off to one side, a couple of loops of chicken wire enclose more dust and garbage and a few plants—a zinnia, a lanky avocado.

Next to this garden, and surrounded by dust, flapping plastic bags, and empty kerosene containers, three old, brown-skinned men sat one breezy afternoon, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, whittling strips of lumber into arrows. They were members of the Ayoreo ethnic group, who even in the 1960s were among the fiercest protectors of their homeland, the Chaco region, where the infant mortality rate is devastating and few job opportunities exist. For the Ayoreo, the cultural shock and displacement suffered by the Andean peoples during the conquest is happening right now.

These days they seem to be adapting more, if not necessarily better, to the capitalist way of life. The former hunters rove the streets of Santa Cruz selling their arrows, or in the case of some of the women, themselves, but they seem to have retained their pleasure in conversation, and soon the three men and I, joined by other community members, were attempting one, with the help of a woman from the community who spoke Spanish. We talked about anteaters, which they hoped to hunt for in their ever receding forests, and about how delicious they are and the fact that they have very long tails. We exchanged pleasantries about Mexico, which they had heard about because of ranchera music, of which they were fond, until at last everyone's vocabulary ran out, and we made our farewells.

Groping for a definition of what it is that distinguishes Indians from other human beings, Abel Mamani had said that they were bounded by a certain way of seeing the world, but it would not necessarily occur to an outside observer that the Ayoreo, whose introduction to the modern world is so very recent, have much in common with the hardworking, goal-driven Aymara and Quechua. The peoples of the highlands are in too many ways children not only of the Inca Empire but of the Spanish crown and the 1952 nationalist revolution. It was the Spanish conquistadores who saw "Indians" where there are still, in Bolivia alone, more than 50 distinct cultures and language groups, and it is the great danger of the current government to see the powerful Aymara and Quechua majority as representative of all the first peoples in Bolivia.

What did he aspire to, I had asked the president of the municipal council of Achacachi. The Qullasuyu had a simpler and more urgent goal. "We want help getting scholarships for our youths, so that they can leave the barrio and get a good education somewhere," she said. Between that hope and that need there is room for a better Bolivia.