HAHR Forum on Contemporary Bolivia and History

E. Gabrielle Kuenzli is an associate professor at the University of South Carolina. Her article “Acting Inca: The Parameters of National Belonging in Early Twentieth-Century Bolivia” appeared in HAHR 90.2.

Citizenship, Decolonization, and Historiography in Bolivia

Important historical contextual factors in understanding contemporary Bolivia are definitions of citizenship, decolonization, and historiography. Now that Evo Morales Ayma is in exile, how will he be remembered and recast? Did the Morales presidency represent the culmination of an autonomous Indian political agenda, as Pablo Ramírez would suggest, and an extension of what Ramírez refers to as the Zárate Willka Movement of 1899? This interpretation locates indigenous politicians on the historical margins of the nation, an intrusion with the intention of advancing a specifically Indian political agenda rather than as central protagonists of national political reform. It is significant to note that Morales had a clock installed on the exterior of the congressional building in La Paz on which the hands turned counterclockwise, symbolizing his political project intent on decolonizing Bolivian politics and society. If you stand at in the Plaza Murillo and look up at it, it is a striking message of change. In this sense, Morales advanced a political project from the center of national politics. It is worth reconsidering if Zárate Willka’s political project also envisioned national change rather than solely Indian autonomy, thereby identifying a history of indigenous political involvement in national politics from 1899 to 2019.

Will he be remembered specifically as the Indian president, rather than as simply a Bolivian president, the subject of hagiography and nostalgia written mostly by foreign scholars while critique within Bolivia mounted against Morales, in light of multiple crises and his desire to seek a fourth presidential term?

Will Evo Morales be a success story of national processes of dislocation and transition? When the mines closed in the 1980s, Morales and his family were forced to make a new life in the valleys surrounding Cochabamba. Morales gained political traction in the valleys through labor organizations rather than through organizations that broadcast a specific indigenous identity. In this sense, Morales is an excellent case study for looking at the politics of identity, as he reinvented himself (or built upon a reinvention by scholars and journalists) as the first Indian president, ironically when many Bolivians chose not to identify as indigenous in the 2012 census.

Alternatively, authors may interpret Morales as part of the “new Latin American Left,” lifting Morales out of an Indian identity to compare his brand of socialism to that of Michele Bachelet of Chile. Or analysts might look at Morales’s achievements in comparison to Bolivia’s past. Significantly, the United Nations just announced that Bolivia is in the “high” level of the Human Development Index for the very first time, a measure calculated using life expectancy, education, and standard of living. This statistic, in addition to Morales’s achievements in nationalizing the airlines and gas industries, among others, plus the installation of the efficient, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective cable car system to connect neighborhoods in the city of La Paz, is testimony to the real advances in quality of living introduced by Morales. The success of Morales’s economic policies constitutes a threat to promoters of strict neoliberalism, who condemned Morales in unprofessional articles lacking evidence, best represented by the Wall Street Journal article by Mary Anastasia O’Grady.

Finally, Morales’s decision to run for president a fourth time provoked concern, outrage, and critique, given that the constitution did not warrant running four times. Opposition mounted while some supporters remained behind him. Morales did win 47 percent of the votes in the last election, before communication ceased for 24 hours and resumed only to announce that Morales had won. Infuriated Bolivians protested, accusing Morales of compromising Bolivian democracy. Violence quickly ensued, and democracy appeared all but absent except as appropriated and defined by the opposing public. Many demanded his resignation. Morales went into exile in Mexico, but instead having a calming effect, violence escalated in Bolivia. Was the violence against Morales or also against the decolonization of Bolivia he had put in practice?

Time will tell how Morales is remembered, and hopefully, the hands on the clock hung on the congressional building in La Paz will continue to turn counterclockwise, symbolically reversing colonialism and inviting new understandings of Bolivian historiography.

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Top image: Mercha a favor de Evo Morales – Buenos Aires. November 18, 2019. Photograph by Santiago Sito, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Find the original here.)