Bolivian Vice President: “Bolivia Marked the Start of a Major Indigenous Awakening“

SANTIAGO – He describes himself as someone who was drawn to Marxism as a result of his commiseration with the plight of indigenous people in his country, and he is considered one of the most influential Latin American thinkers of the 21st century.

Álvaro García Linera, 51, is seen as the “right hand man” of Bolivia’s leftist President Evo Morales.

Bolivia’s 51-year-old vice president took part in the foundation of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army, whose aim was to support the indigenous insurgency. In 1997 he was released after five years in the San Pedro prison in La Paz.

He is also one of the main forces behind the lawsuit against Chile that Bolivia filed at the International Court of Justice in The Hague to reclaim access to the Pacific Ocean, which his country lost in the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific.

Bolivia has not had diplomatic ties with Chile since 1978. But during Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s first term (2006-2010), relations warmed with Morales – in office since 2006 – although they cooled again under the government of Chile’s right-wing former president Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014).

Now that Bachelet, a socialist, is back in office since Mar. 11, the Bolivian government wants to renew diplomatic relations. The Chilean administration has stated that while it is open to dialogue, the dispute will be settled in The Hague.

García Linera makes no secret of his hopes that “things could change.”

“If a dictator like (Chilean General Augusto) Pinochet (1973-1990) proposed access to the sea for Bolivia in the 1970s, we hope a democratic, socialist government could make that right a reality in the 21st century,” he said during a brief visit to Chile on Tuesday Mar. 25.

The vice president was in Santiago to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Art and Social Sciences, where he gave a lecture to an audience of 350 people.

In this interview with IPS, García Linera said Bolivia has taught Latin America a lesson by recognising, in its 2009 constitution, that it is a “plurinational” state. The 54-year-old Morales, a member of the Aymara community, is the first native president in the history of Bolivia, a country with a historically downtrodden indigenous majority.

Q: Given the experience of the indigenous government in Bolivia, how do you see the movements of other native peoples in Latin America, who also demand that their rights be respected and who hope to eventually hold political power?

A: What has happened in Bolivia marks the start of a major popular, indigenous awakening. No two experiences are ever the same, and we can’t expect something similar to happen in other countries. But what is common to the entire continent is that all Latin American societies are plurinational, but not the states themselves.

There is social and cultural diversity, a strong social presence of indigenous peoples to a greater or lesser extent. But the state remains monocultural, and to a certain point ethnocidal, because it kills the diversity of cultures. So Bolivia has been a pioneer in showing the need for plurinational states.

Q: Has the process in Bolivia provided lessons for the rest of Latin America?

A: In first place, in the case of Bolivia, the adoption of social concerns by the government was organised by the indigenous movement because it is a majority. And in other places perhaps the indigenous movement isn’t in a leadership position.

But any other social, cultural, labour-related, urban sector that wants to lead the struggle for equality, justice and recognition is obliged to incorporate among its issues the question of recognition of the plurinational society in the plurinational state. That is what is missing, and that is Bolivia’s message.

The second message is that popular issues can be a central focus of the state and the nation, and that it is possible for the leadership of a country and the definition of its goals to be based on the popular concerns set forth by social movements.

Q: What concrete role do indigenous people currently play in your country? Have they achieved political and economic predominance in proportion with their status as a majority in the population?

A: Yes. The subordinate sectors, which were previously dominated, discriminated against, considered inferior, unfit and incapable, are today in power in the government.

The indigenous way of thinking and organisational structures of mobilisation, decision-making and deliberation are now the core of the state organisation.

Social movements, at the head of the indigenous movement, now hold the power.

And since they achieved power, there have been changes in legislation to consolidate equal rights, equal opportunities, recognition of special collective rights for indigenous peoples, incorporation of the indigenous narrative in the Bolivian narrative, and use of public resources not only to reduce inequalities but also to empower economic and cultural activities of the indigenous sectors that were previously excluded.

Q: In the context of the cultural revolution led by Morales, what is needed to put an end to poverty and complete the programmes that provide assistance to the neediest segments of the population?

In eight years, that proportion has been reduced to 20 percent. That is still outrageous, but the reduction by more than 25 percentage points reflects an irrevocable decision to use the common assets or common property to put an end to the historical inequality of extreme poverty.

There is still much to be done. Social sectors, the rural and indigenous movement, that in the past were not taken into account in public policies are today the groups that are designing public policies in consultation with other sectors – but they are the ones leading the policy-making.

Now almost half of all public spending, the state’s resources, which have grown nearly ninefold due to the nationalisation of the country’s natural gas and oil, and which in the past went strictly to business-related segments, go to the sectors that were previously marginalised in our country.

There has been a growing empowerment of the indigenous economy, the rural peasant economy, the neglected popular sectors, which has made it possible for them to gradually improve their living conditions.

Before we reached the government, the average annual income was 800 dollars. Now it is 3,300 dollars. That’s still very low, but we have increased it nearly fourfold. And our objective, if we keep up this pace of stability and growth, is for the average real annual income of Bolivians to reach 12,000 dollars by 2020. That might still be low in comparison to the rest of Latin America, but it wouldn’t be so low anymore.

One fact: eight years ago, Chile produced 13 times more wealth than Bolivia. The gap was enormous. Today the difference is one to eight; by the end of this decade it will be one to four; and by 2025 it will be one to two. In other words, more wealth is being generated, and that wealth is being distributed among the neediest, and among those