Along the Andes, Indians Agitate For Political Gain
Radicals Topple Governments, Test U.S. Regional Policy; Rising Clout in Bolivia
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- In 1781, rebel Indian armies shook the foundations of the Spanish empire when they laid siege to this city surrounded by snow-capped mountains on the Andean plateau.

The siege of La Paz lasted 109 days, reducing the white population to eating rats and boiled shoe leather. A Spanish army eventually broke through and executed Tupak Katari, the leader of the Aymara Indian army. "I will return, and I will be millions," the rebel leader said, according to legend, before he was tied to four horses, drawn and quartered.

Two centuries later, the memory of that uprising is haunting the Andean region -- and inspiring its native Indian underclass to become powerful political players. Indians make up about 40% of the population of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia -- among the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere -- but they have long been politically marginalized and socially shunned. Yet in the past four years, first in Ecuador and now in Bolivia, Indian-led movements have helped topple governments and are bedeviling U.S. policies promoting free markets and the eradication of coca, the prime ingredient in cocaine. Radical Indian movements have become an increasing source of instability in the region.

In October, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada fled the country, toppled by Indian-led protesters who laid siege to La Paz. In the country's presidential election in 2002, an Indian candidate placed second with 21% of the vote. Throughout the Andes, the Indian movement is becoming a magnet for radical groups and allying with anti-American leaders such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

The movement is riding a continent-wide backlash against free-market reforms that many believe have further impoverished the poor. The antiglobalization movement has helped local activists gain credibility and political savvy. Rising Indian consciousness -- spurred by the heated debates surrounding the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas in 1992 -- is feeding the rediscovery of Indian history, often one that is selectively told.

The movement reaches as far south as the tip of Chile, where the Mapuche Indians have become major political players fighting timber companies, and as far north as Mexico, where Zapatista Indian rebels staged a bloody uprising in 1994 and continue to agitate for autonomy. Mass demonstrations in Ecuador by Indians furious with price increases and government corruption were instrumental in toppling President Jamil Mahuad four years ago.

Nowhere is the Indian movement as radical or as powerful as in Bolivia, the poorest nation on the continent, where at least six out of every 10 people are Indian. The country's economy has stagnated for the last six years. A succession of corruption scandals has discredited traditional political parties.

In September, radical Indian leaders seized upon a dispute over tribal justice to mobilize thousands of protesters. They eventually blocked roads and laid siege to La Paz, much as Tupak Katari did in 1781. One of their leaders was Felipe Quispe, 61, a self-styled Mallku, or chief, of many of Bolivia's more than two million Aymara Indians. The president, Mr. Sanchez de Lozada, fled into exile in the U.S.

"History is repeating itself," says Mr. Quispe, his shoulder-length hair streaming out from under a fedora hat. Aymara women in shawls and sun-baked men sit silently chewing coca leaves in his smoky office. Between fielding phone calls from lieutenants, Mr. Quispe, a former guerrilla who now heads Bolivia's powerful peasant union, declares that his goal is nothing less than turning back the clock on history itself. He wants to overthrow the government, do away with the nation-state of Bolivia and return to a past that he believes existed before the Spanish conquest.

"Then we can scrap this capitalist system that has failed and change it to a system of communal property where there are no poor and no rich, like during the years of the Inca empire," says Mr. Quispe, drinking coca tea.

Indians have been treated as an underclass since the Spanish conquistadors overthrew the Inca empire in the 16th century. During colonial times, all male Indians were forced to supply three years of free labor in Bolivia's Potosi silver mine, then the richest mine in the world. Thousands died there. Independence in 1825 didn't bring much improvement; the Bolivian state's main source of income in the early decades was an "Indian tax" from which whites and people of mixed blood were exempt. Until the 1952 revolution, Indians were considered by many to be almost like chattel.

Other governments have tried to redress historic wrongs. During his first term in office from 1993 to 1997, President Sanchez de Lozada pushed for teaching the main Indian languages alongside Spanish in schools and vastly increased the money available to local communities. The emergence of an Indian elite has increased their numbers in government. Nearly half of the country's legislators and mayors are Indians.

Big Gulf

But a yawning economic and social gulf remains. Households in non-Indian neighborhoods are almost three times as rich as Indian ones, according to United Nations statistics. Hunger for land is a driving force behind dissatisfaction. Many peasants from the hardscrabble highlands are moving east to a fertile swath of land between the Andes and the Amazon forest, often leading to violent clashes with mostly white or mixed-race landowners.

Bolivia's Indian movement seeks to recreate in the 21st century a communal Eden that proponents say existed before the Spanish arrived, and where there was neither poverty nor oppression. Fused to this utopian vision is a mix of populist, Marxist, anti-American and antiglobalization beliefs. The movement, says Mr. Quispe, would replace capitalism with an economic system based on three pillars of ancient Aymara society: "Don't be a rat, don't lie, and don't be lazy."

It would do away with nation-states such as Bolivia, which Mr. Quispe and his followers see as artificial entities that arose from the foundations of the Spanish empire. In their place they would like to redraw national boundaries to set up an Indian nation run according to traditional customs. Mr. Quispe and other Aymara leaders also defend the extensive growing of coca as Indian tradition, calling U.S. policies to wipe out the crop an attempt to control the Indians.

While such declarations seem far-fetched, they are appealing to a good number of Bolivians. U.S. officials are struggling to deal with the movement. "It's like Alice in Wonderland," says one worried U.S. diplomat.

In 1988, Mr. Quispe, a leader of a radical political party, penned a manifesto calling on followers to burn down Bolivia's congress. In the 1990s, he spent five years in prison for blowing up power stations in a failed attempt to overthrow the government. He garnered 6% of the vote in the 2002 presidential election; another radical Aymara leader, Evo Morales, placed second with 21%.

In September, Mr. Quispe began a hunger strike to protest the jailing of an ally for killing a cattle thief; Mr. Quispe argued that the man had merely been applying tribal justice. The hunger strike spawned a chain of protests and morphed into a national strike against a proposed natural-gas pipeline.

Landlocked Bolivia has enormous stores of natural gas, but no easy way to get it out. A consortium of foreign companies led by Spain's Repsol TPF planned to spend $6 billion to build a pipeline and a plant in Chile to convert the gas into liquid form to ship in tankers to the U.S. For Bolivia, the payoff would be enormous: as much as $400 million a year for the next 20 years, or close to a fifth of Bolivia's annual government budget.

Radicals attacked the pipeline as the latest foreign attempt to exploit Bolivian workers, drawing parallels to the pillaging of silver and tin mines in past centuries. They didn't want the gas shipped through Chile, a long-resented neighbor. They argued that the natural gas should stay in Bolivia and be piped into individual homes or farms. Mr. Quispe and others assembled an army of Indian slum dwellers, miners, farmers and coca growers to march on La Paz. Army troops killed dozens of protestors in bloody clashes. The spiraling violence pressured Mr. Sanchez de Lozada to resign. The vice president, Carlos Mesa, a respected intellectual and former television news anchor, was sworn in.

Grace Period

Mr. Quispe and other Indian radical leaders say they are giving Mr. Mesa a few months' grace period to deliver on a wide array of demands. Mr. Mesa has already met with the aggrieved people of El Alto, a sprawling slum city on the main access road to La Paz where dozens were killed in the fighting. There are plans to hold a constitutional convention, which could redraw the country's charter to give Bolivia's Indian groups more autonomy.

In a speech Sunday, Mr. Mesa said Bolivia will hold a national referendum in March on how to develop the country's gas reserves. But that may be a moot point. Last month, U.S. power company Sempra Energy, which was going to buy Bolivia's gas, signed a 20-year agreement to buy liquefied natural gas from Indonesia.

"We are paying for a large historical bill," said Mr. Mesa in an interview late last year at his ornate office in the presidential palace. "The racist underpinning of Bolivian society is still there, while the possibility of an ethnic confrontation is latent."

Some 50 miles north of La Paz, an Aymara nation of sorts is beginning to take shape in the provincial capital of Achacachi, Mr. Quispe's political stronghold. There haven't been any police or federal prosecutors living here since 2000, when the local people drove out all federal authorities in fighting which left three townspeople and a soldier dead. "The police left, but I tell you, who needs them?" says Pedro Carisaya, the acting mayor.

Now, village councils detain culprits in crime cases and mete out justice. Punishments are in the form of paying damages to the victim or, in some cases, a whipping.

Down the street from the mayor's office works Alberto Romay, a nervous prosecutor in a worn tweed jacket. Four years ago, he left town fearing for his life. These days, he commutes daily from a nearby village. "Everything is excellently normal," he says cheerfully, then quickly reverses himself: "There's always fear."

A block away, the members of the local dairy farmers' association know fear. Believing they would be a target for protestors because of their perceived wealth, they took down the sign identifying the association when the disturbances began in September. They reluctantly stopped shipping milk to La Paz in support of the siege even though it cost them 8,000 liters of milk a day.

"There's no law here," says Robert Gonzalez, a local veterinarian, standing in the association's spare office. "You can die like an animal and no one will care."

Mr. Quispe might rule the high plateau, but Evo Morales, 44, holds sway in the lush semitropical coca-growing region of the Chapare, 250 miles southeast of La Paz. The baby-faced Aymara politician heads the powerful coca-growers' union. Between 1998 and 2001, the Bolivian government, under heavy U.S. pressure, eradicated nearly half of the country's coca crop. That created thousands of disaffected farmers loyal to Mr. Morales, who is now a federal congressman who placed second in last year's presidential election.

Mr. Morales has close ties to Venezuela's fiery leftist leader, Hugo Chavez. Fidel Castro has also been welcoming Indian leaders. At a congress in Havana in October, Mr. Morales urged Latin countries to join together and oppose free trade.

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Write to Jose De Cordoba at [email protected]

Updated January 8, 2004


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