Global Policy Forum

Bolivia: Not Another 500 Years of Marginalization,


By Franz Chavez

Inter Press Service
June 13, 2007

"We prefer to defend our rights with bloodshed and die rather than wait another 500 years," says Esperanza Huanca, a Quechua Indian who is one of the 84 women in the constituent assembly that is rewriting Bolivia's constitution.

The cultural and ideological differences that mark this South American country are reflected by and heightened in the assembly.Bolivia, a country of 9.6 million people, is geographically diverse, with landscapes ranging from the Andes mountains, highland valleys and altiplano in the west to the arid Chaco and tropical lowlands of the Amazon jungle in the east. The country, South America's poorest, is divided between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the wealthy eastern departments or provinces, which account for most of the country's natural gas production, industry and gross domestic product (GDP). Much of the population of eastern Bolivia is made up of people of European (mainly Spanish) descent. Bolivia's 53 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves -- the second-largest in South America after Venezuela's -- are concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of the country. They are now the motor of the economy, a role that used to be played by tin and other minerals found in the west.

"We were the precursors of the constituent assembly, because we want profound changes, in order to live well," Huanca tells IPS in the sunny courtyard of the colonial Juní­n school, in the highlands city of Sucre. It was the country's indigenous communities who pushed for a new constitution to replace the one adopted in 1825, one month before Bolivia was declared a republic in Sucre, the country's constitutional and judicial capital, where the constituent assembly and its 21 committees are working against the clock. They have only approved a single article, with just two months to go to the deadline. Indigenous people -- mainly Aymara and Quechua Indians, as well as smaller groups in the eastern jungle region -- comprise more than 60 percent of Bolivia's population, but have historically been marginalised. Under Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, the constituent assembly was elected and given one year to redraft the constitution with the aim of strengthening the rights of and empowering indigenous people. Morales's party, the leftwing Movement to Socialism (MAS), won 137 seats in the 255-member assembly.

When Huanca says her people refuse to wait another 500 years to gain respect for their rights, she is referring to the half century that has passed since the Spanish colonialists took power in this area, founding Sucre in 1538. The rightwing parties and pro-business civic groups represented in the assembly see the positions taken by Huanca and the indigenous National Council of Ayllus and Markas (CONAMAQ), which she represents, as extreme and as a threat to Bolivia's territorial unity. The conservative sectors in the constituent assembly, where the rightwing PODEMOS coalition holds the second-largest number of seats, say indigenous groups want to break up the country into the 36 areas that their ancestors inhabited before the country was divided into regions by the Spanish crown and later by the new republic after 1825. However, it is actually the wealthier eastern provinces that have voted for autonomy, although an autonomy referendum was defeated at a national level.

Bolivia's 36 indigenous communities are opposed to the departmental autonomy sought by the rightwing members of the constituent assembly. They want instead a single decentralised plurinational state characterised by political, legal, economic, cultural and linguistic pluralism. "We are diverse; we must be tolerant and have mutual respect for each other, and after this gathering there should be no winners or losers," says Huanca as the winter sun shines down on her weather-beaten skin, which reflects the harsh climatic conditions in her hometown, located more than 4,000 metres above sea level in the northern part of the province of Potosí­, the country's poorest region. Her traditional garb includes a bright pink blanket and a white sheep's-wool hat decorated with a hand-woven ribbon and a small mirror. The colourful traditional dress of Huanca and other indigenous constituent assembly members contrasts sharply with the western-style suits of the wealthy business leaders in the assembly.

From a young age, Huanca was deprived of the traditions, mother tongue and customs of her people, which she is now proudly embracing. "With that bad name, 'indigenous', they enslaved us, and with that same word we must liberate ourselves," says the assembly-member who was elected by the native communities in the municipalities of Caripuyo, Sacaca, San Pedro de Buena Vista, Toro Toro and Acacio.

A study by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the non-governmental Social and Economic Policy Analysis Unit (UDAPE) shows that 96 percent of people in those areas live in extreme poverty and 43 percent suffer from malnutrition, while the infant mortality rate stands at 129 per 1,000 births. Huanca is all too familiar with that harsh reality. Abandoned by her parents when she was little, she was adopted by the family of a poor miner who was only 35 when he died of silicosis, a lung disease common among workers in the tin mines in the southwestern province of Potosí­. Scorned by her classmates and shunned because of her cheap rubber shoes, the only kind that poor highland families can afford, she remembers that one of her teachers pulled her hair roughly because of her difficulties pronouncing words in Spanish, and did not allow her to speak her own language, Quechua. As a girl, she hawked k'isa (a native beverage made of water, sugar and dried peaches), becoming a leader of the k'isa-selling girls in Llallagua, the mining town where she grew up. "I didn't understand why people looked at me with pity, and believed I was being exploited," she says. She only understood that the mistreatment she suffered at the hands of her siblings and other members of the family was due to the fact that she was adopted, which she only learned when she reached adolescence. On his deathbed, her adoptive father, Juan Huanca, told his daughter that his biggest wish was that she had been a son, "to keep our last name alive" -- reflecting the discrimination and lack of opportunities that indigenous women suffered and continue to suffer.

Her leadership abilities, as demonstrated among the k'isa-hawkers, and her activism in defence of the poor brought Huanca respect and popularity, and she was elected as a "mama t'alla" (a community leader position), while her husband, Cancio Rojas, was elected "cura mallku", another local position of authority. In an assembly meeting, the rural peasant and mining communities of the northern part of Potosí­ province elected Huanca and her husband as the top leaders of the territory of K'ara K'ara, with the mission of looking out for the interests of local inhabitants and taking care of the natural resources like water and minerals. In the debates on the new constitution, Huanca, who is now a national representative of her people, is fighting for legal recognition of their right to their ancestral land and of their traditional customs and governing practices.

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