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Peasant Power in Bolivia

A fragile government in La Paz is further weakened as more and more indigenous people rise up and take control of their villages.

March 31, 2004|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

SORATA, Bolivia — The police won't return to this village in the Andes unless the peasants promise not to throw rocks at them.

The peasants rose up and chased the police out months ago, along with the local representative of the provincial government, the judges and even the army. The authorities fled Sept. 20 in the face of a crowd of Aymara Indians armed with little more than sticks and stones, enraged by an insult uttered by an army general hours earlier, and moved by centuries of pent-up frustration.

Since the uprising, this corner of Bolivia -- where the dry Altiplano, a high plateau, around Lake Titicaca meets lush tropical mountains -- has become a kind of an Indian liberated zone.

"Before, they were the bosses. They made us work, they would run everything," said Felix Puna Mamani, a resident of the neighboring village of Viacha, referring to the people of European descent who have dominated Bolivian society since the 16th century Spanish conquest. "But people realize what's going on now. It's not like it was before."

As many as 1.5 million people -- almost a fifth of Bolivia's population -- live in areas where indigenous authorities have replaced at least some government functions, said Alvaro Garcia Linera, a university professor in La Paz who has studied the popular movements of Bolivia's two main indigenous groups, the Aymara and the Quechua.

"Since 2000, we have seen an enormous, continual uprising of indigenous people, with a strong element of Indian nationalism," Garcia Linera said. "In many places, the institutions of the Republic of Bolivia have begun to fade away."

Bolivia's new president, Carlos Mesa, is attempting to lead a sharply divided country and a democracy teetering on the brink of collapse a generation after the last in a series of military dictators stepped down. His government has shown little inclination to confront the peasants.

Guido Arandia, the chief of police for La Paz department, says his officers won't go back to Sorata and the other towns in rebellion unless they are welcomed.

"It's not that we don't want to return," Arandia said. "But as long as there are no guarantees from the community and its leaders, we cannot place our people at risk."

In Sorata as in other towns of the region, the locally elected mayor and City Council remain in office -- most of them are Aymara speakers and appear to have the support of the town's non-Indian minority. But Sorata's connection to the federal and provincial governments in La Paz remains tenuous at best. The City Council recently considered a hunger strike to force provincial authorities to free up education funds.

With the police gone, "peasant union police" are the only forces of order. They wear the tasseled chicote staff that is an ancient Aymara symbol of village authority.

The Aymara are redistributing land in communal assemblies called Open Councils that issue edicts in the mode of government pronouncements. At some public schools, the rainbow-colored Indian wipata flag flies in place of the Bolivian flag.

People in villages such as Sorata feel that Bolivia's highly centralized government has failed them. Even before the uprising, the long, slow decline of that government -- which seems more cash-strapped and corrupt with each passing year -- had led the Aymara to rely more on their own, pre-Columbian forms of communal rule.

For Sorata City Council President Eulogio Soto, government neglect is just another example of "that racial discrimination and social injustice which has always been practiced against the Aymara."

Last year, the federal government failed to disburse half of the $500,000 in public funds promised to Sorata in the annual federal budget, Soto said.

For decades, council members have been asking the government to pave the muddy, winding, avalanche-prone road that is the mountain town's only link to the outside world. The single government bulldozer assigned to the route is so overmatched by the constant mudslides that groups of children have taken to working on the road themselves, hoping that passing drivers will give them a few coins in thanks.

In the face of the central government's broken promises, City Council members and Indian leaders in Sorata and elsewhere routinely organize "methods of pressure," such as blocking roads. Since 2000, such tactics have become commonplace throughout a wide swath of South America, from Lima, Peru, to the northern Argentine provinces of Jujuy and Salta.

Indigenous Movements

In the Aymara villages of the Altiplano, the most vocal leader of the rebellion is Felipe Quispe, a heavyset former professor and president of the peasants union. Known to the Aymara as "el Malku," or the Condor, he has promised to set off a guerrilla war if his demands on behalf of Bolivia's indigenous people are not met.

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