Wednesday: Anti-racism on the march, at least for a day, in Sucre

Monday night, I went to the well known scholars group Comuna on their biweekly meeting/event in La Paz. Instead of the usual talk though, they were hosting a video screening of a new documentary (by Cesar Brie–his poorly translated take on the events) rushed to production on the events of late May in Sucre…

To take a step back, the rapid advance of a largely indigenous grassroots left in Bolivia has been met by a polarizing of the politics here. Region (the highland west/center vs. the lowland east “the Media Luna”), race (native vs. mestizo-white), and divisions that capture both (Kolla vs. Camba) have been key dividing lines that are suddenly more visible. This is in part a reaction to the biggest line crossing of all, the presence of an indigenous peasant union leader, Evo Morales, in the presidency, but it goes beyond that.

In the east, particularly Santa Cruz, the white opposition has cottoned on to a long-running aspiration to autonomy for the department (think state in the US or province in Canada; provinces here are smaller divisions). This separatism has a youth wing, whose focus goes beyond separation to attacking and intimidating indigenous leaders and offices of the MAS party in national government. This wing, often with broader collaboration from the white opposition parties, have been threatening and carrying violence to disrupt what might otherwise be run-of-the-mill state functions involving Morales. This has reached the point where the President has been avoiding certain cities because regional governments are not guaranteeing his security.

So, back to the video. On May 24 in Sucre, Evo was set to preside over the awarding of ambulances to each province across the department of Chuquisaca, whose capital is Sucre. Right-wing youth and the anti-Morales mayor’s Inter-insitutional Committee urged Evo not to come, and threatened a confrontation. With local leaders from the countryside already on their way in, Evo backed down from attending. The rightists turned on the indigenous leaders, attacking with sticks and rocks. Several dozen fled to a house on the outskirts of town, only to be surrounded there.

They were escorted forcibly from there to Sucre’s main square, where a spectacle of public humiliation unfolded over the afternoon. Stripped to their underwear, forced to kneel, they had to endure insults, punches, and watch as their banners and the indigenous flag (or wiphala) was burned. The spectacle, captured by the mainstream media, continued for quite a long time.

In the judgment of the documentarian, the withdrawal of national police on the day happened because of a strategic decision to face and reveal what the rightists would do, rather than to confront them with force. If so, the price involved was paid by the indigenous leaders, whose pained after-the-fact interviews formed a key part of the documentary.

It was a hard film to watch, and left me in a pretty pensive mood Monday night. I had known that one in a series of racist outrages had happened in Sucre in May, and that the Women’s Summit would feature a public act dis-agression (desagravio) to repudiate it. But this was the first I had seen what was actually involved.

The whole situation strongly evokes what I’ve heard of the (US) Southern response to the Civil Rights Movement. How on front lawns, in jails, and with gunshots, the ugliest parts of a history of racism were revived to terrorize people organizing for equality.

As it happened, today’s desagravio was a complete success. Leaving from the ministadium where the summit is happening, a march of over 1,000 people traversed all over Sucre, including the plaza where local leaders were humiliated. As women filed through Sucre’s streets, wiphala and Bolivian flags in hand, shouting slogans for unity and against racism, scores of people came out in the streets: a few hostile but calmed by our numbers, and many visibly relieved and excited to have the march there–applauding as the march went past.

Campesinas on the streets of Sucre

The act was a defiance of fear. For me, a little, and for the movement a great deal. It’s hoped that it can change the dynamic in the streets and in this department. The section I marched with had a frequent chant: “Viva la esperanza. Basta de racismo. [Long live hope. Enough of racism.]” For now, I just want to convey that it happened, and happened in peace and providing some inspiration.

Indigenous, Feminist and Campesina Women March through Sucre

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3 thoughts on “Wednesday: Anti-racism on the march, at least for a day, in Sucre

  1. I think a difference between Bolivia and the US South is that the two sides are not so statically defined. Black vs White. Its ethnic: western vs indigenous. Look at the crowds in Sucre and at the Cabildo in Santa Cruz.

    Those who participated in the humiliations in Sucre should be punished, but so should the administration for pulling out the police and soldiers without even alerting their commanders so as to not allow an organized withdrawal. Can you imagine any gathering as large as that one without police not having some trouble makers? This was manufactured.

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  2. I’m always fascinated by distinctions among racisms… What do they mean exactly for the people who cite them? That the racism matters more, or less? That it’s more confusing? Over the long run, deep racial distinctions have been imagined between English and Irish, Israelis and Palestinians, Europeans and Gypsies, Europeans and Native Americans (after a century or so of Europeans seeing their skin as basically white), French and British colonizers and Arabs, and so on. When one “looks at the crowds” in each of these scenarios, doesn’t seeing race require prior training in which differences are important and which are not? Which of these situations was static? Are they morally different from those that weren’t? When white Americans had children with enslaved Africans, they enslaved the child, while Netherlands/Indonesian children were put in an intermediate category. In the US, a one-drop rule for blackness defied the obvious definition, and so did passing.

    Back to Sucre… The Civicos (ACI) have nominated a former MAS member, with indigenous heritage, as prefect. And yet, they shouted “Shitty Indians, get on your knees!,” in the main square.

    On the cops… you must have missed the part where they were confronted by a dynamite throwing crowd earlier in the day, and made the judgment that they couldn’t guarantee the safety of the President. The story gets longer and more complicated as one looks back. There was, of course, the option to more agressively confront the crowd, or try to carry out what would have been a hostage rescue operation on a couple hours notice. As I tentatively argue, it probably seemed better to have this heinous act on the hands of the ACI than several dead Civicos on the streets of Sucre.

    Again, to look back at the American South, it took the federal government years to intervene while local police and mobs confronted African Americans with firehoses, beatings, torture in jail, and so on. Were they “manufacturing” Southern racism, or just failing to rise to its challenge with sufficient force?

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  3. I am just saying that you shouldnt try to shoe-horn Bolivia’s politics into an North American or European model. This is not racism against who has the darker skin. Its not about race for most people its culture.

    A kolla can move to Santa Cruz or another city, live a western lifestyle and be recognized as a Camba. Most cambas are actually sons of kollas.

    Bolivia’s divided, regionally, into three different “cultural” groups. The eastern, lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando are considered camba dominated departments. The western, Andean departments of Oruro, Potosí, La Paz, Cochabamba, and Chuquisaca are considered dominated kolla departments. People from the southern department of Tarija are known as chapacos and are neither camba nor kolla.

    President Morales is racially Aymara but he does not speak Aymara he speaks only Spanish. He hooked onto the movement relatively late (2000 or so). His politics was mostly in support of the coca farmers until recently. The new oppositon prefect of Chuquisaca speaks Quechua and is Kolla.

    The percentage of indians in Bolivia that people cite is from the last census. In that census for the first time you had to choose white or indian there was not mestizo category.

    The conflict has its roots in cultural differences. Attitudes towards property are also very marked. The kolla campesino is more familiar with the tradition of the ayllu, a form of communal farming. The camba & chapaco campesino isn’t. Private property is private property.

    In school, Cambas learn about Melchor Pinta Parada & el once porciento — the bitter struggle to win the right to keep 11% of the oil profits in Santa Cruz (the rest all went to the “national” treasury, that is, La Paz). Such history of political marginalization left deep scars among both cambas & chapacos. This has led to a great deal of mistrust against La Paz (the center of political power) in particular and the poor western departments (Potosí & Oruro) that receive large chunks of economic support from the state while producing less than 5% of the national GDP (Santa Cruz alone produces more than 30% of Bolivia’s GDP). In essence, cambas & chapacos frequently see themselves supporting the nation economically while getting little back, and being politically ignored to boot.

    Both the international & paceño press portrayed the guerra del gas as having pitted all of Bolivian political society against an unpopular government. Of course, cambas & chapacos are well aware that there were no anti-government protests in their cities, but rather pro-Goni rallies. Here, again, Santa Cruz & Tarija felt specifically slighted. The debate over what to do w/ their oil & gas resources was being debated in La Paz, w/ little interest in what the eastern half of the country felt about the issue. Remember that Bolivia is very centralized, so until recently even their governors were appointed.

    I am just saying that the opposition isn’t made up of Dr. Evil characters as some would say whether you agree or disagree they have their reasons.

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