Anti-coup protesters outside the Bolivian embassy in Argentina.

Looking back to the future in Bolivia

  • November 23, 2019

Land & Liberation

Over the years, Bolivians dreamed of and struggled for a better world alongside, against, and beyond Evo Morales. But it was not supposed to end like this.

It was not supposed to end this way.

A white supremacist president and her right-wing allies were not supposed to replace Evo Morales in a coup earlier this month. A de facto regime was not supposed to absolve military and police of their crimes as they shot peaceful protesters. The wiphala flag, a symbol of Bolivia’s many indigenous nations, was not supposed to be burned and torn down by racists seizing power. The new minister of communication was not supposed to threaten to round up “seditious” journalists. And the blood from the more than 25 dead and hundreds wounded from military and police bullets was not supposed to flow in the streets.

The days of Bolivian right-wing dictatorships were supposed to be over.

I remember the dream before this nightmare. I remember the street barricades against neoliberal tyrants in the early 2000s, when people fought for and envisioned a Bolivia free of corporate looting, free of the military violence of the drug war, and free of racist presidents ruling over an impoverished majority. I remember the euphoria of Evo’s impossible rise to the presidency, when an Indigenous union leader arrived at the presidential palace to “govern by obeying” the people.

I remember the street fights to defend the new constitution against the violence of the right, the long meetings and marches against feminicides, environmental disasters, and government corruption. I remember talking with Morales supporters who cried when casting their votes for a president who finally, they said, cared about the poor and indigenous people, a leader who made concrete advances in empowering marginalized sectors of society.

Over these years, people always dreamed of and struggled for a better world alongside, against, and beyond Evo Morales. But it was not supposed to end with cities transformed into war zones, with wiphalas burning, fear filling the air, and the military massacring the people. State violence now threatens to eclipse many hard-won victories of past emancipatory projects and rebellions in Bolivia.

In an effort to see through some of today’s grief and rage, here is a look back to past moments of hope and revolution in the early 2000s, when a new political era was just opening up.

Aymara Hip-Hop

Street markets in El Alto, Bolivia writhe with activity at night. Light oozes out of storefronts onto the traffic-clogged streets. People sell coca leaves, Carnival masks, miner’s helmets, used blenders, calling out into the cold night for customers. Long lines of white vans cluster, their drivers’ yelling destinations like prayers. In the valley below, La Paz spreads out like a sleeping monster, lights flickering and flaring across its back. The constellation of city lights turns to blackness on the horizon where the Andes charges across the plains to its fierce mountains.

In the mid-2000s, I would often walk these streets with my friend, the late hip-hop artist Abraham Bojórquez, who rapped in the Indigenous language of Aymara about social justice and indigenous revolution. “We want to preserve our culture through our music,” he told me. “With hip-hop, we’re always looking back to our indigenous ancestors, the Aymara, Quechua, and Guaraní.” He worked with other hip-hop artists in the largely working-class and Indigenous city of El Alto to show “the reality of what is happening in our country. Through our lyrics we criticize the bad politicians that take advantage of us. With this style of hip-hop, we’re an instrument of struggle, an instrument of the people.”

At one performance, he rapped at the main offices of the neighborhood councils of El Alto, a network of powerful community organizations with a history of militancy. Abraham was nervous in front of these elders, who clapped weakly when he sang only in Spanish. “Then we sang in Aymara, and people became very emotional, crying.” Abraham said they sobbed when hearing his music about Indigenous uprisings and power in their own language. “This was a very happy event for us,” he said. “It made us think that what we are doing isn’t in vain.”

Coca Leaves

It is noon in the Chapare, a major coca-growing region in the central part of the country. Morales has just entered the presidency for the first time. In this tropical area, the air is sticky and everything is green. A field of coca plants spreads out in the sun, stopping at a border of trees that go on and on. We have reached the field with machetes, hacking away at brush and branches. The field is owned and farmed by Leonilda Zurita, a leader in a major coca farmer union and Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) political party. Zurita packs in a cheek full of coca leaves and tells me about how the MAS grew out of the coca unions, and how the party uses the coca leaf as a symbol of indigeneity and the fight against US-led militarization in the war on drugs.

While tending to the coca crop, which goes to the vast legal market in Bolivia, she tells me a goal of her struggle is “to bring the women ahead, by organizing, empowering and orienting them. Many women in the Chapare don’t know how to read or write. The best school for the women is the union. There we have empowered people. We learn about which laws are in favor of us and which are not. This has all shown us that the union organization is important to defend mother earth, defend the coca, and defend our natural resources.”

Street Barricades

At street barricades in Cochabamba in 2003, fires light up the night. Teargas stings the air. Barricades of rocks, logs, and tires litter the streets. Police and protesters battle. Gunshots and roman candles ring out. The cops violently round people up and stuff them into the back of their trucks. Some days and many deaths later, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada leaves the country in an airplane. The Gas War, a nation-wide protest against government repression and a plan to deepen privatization of Bolivia’s gas reserves, is over. The tearful barricades turn into parties. Dancing fills the streets.

Oscar Olivera, a key leader in an earlier uprising against corporate control of the city’s water, walks by the remains of a barricade. He is clear-eyed in the midst of the jubilation, and tells me, “The Gas War wasn’t the main victory; it was just one battle in a longer war.”

And the war continues.

If things weren’t black and white before the coup, they appear so now. Enemies as old as colonization now seem pitted against each other once again.

Across Bolivia, people are resisting the military and the Áñez regime, trying to open doors to what comes next, to walk through to the other side of this nightmare.

Which reminds me of my friend Abraham, who didn’t live to see these days of war, but in his life carved paths toward new horizons of peace and justice.

One night when Abraham and I were out in the streets of El Alto years ago, he picked up a stick to demonstrate how he tried to make social change through Aymara hip-hop. He used the stick to draw a line in the dirt on the ground.

“See,” he said, finishing the line, “it’s important to make a new path in the dirt, in the world, so that other people can travel more easily on that path, moving even further along.”

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