Everything Is Up for Discussion: A 40th Anniversary Conversation With Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui

April 10, 2008

Silvia Rvera Cusicanqui is a Bolivian sociologist, activist, and public intellectual who teaches at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz and advises President Evo Morales’s government on coca issues. She co-founded the Workshop on Andean Oral History and has taught throughout the Americas, most recently at the University of Pittsburgh. Her 1982 book, Oppressed but Not Defeated: Peasant Struggles Among the Aymara and Quechua in Bolivia, 1910–1980, is considered a classic in Bolivian studies. On the occasion of NACLA’s 40th anniversary, NACLA contributor Linda Farthing spoke with Rivera Cusicanqui about contemporary Bolivia.

How do you evaluate Evo Morales’s first year as president of Bolivia, along with his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS)?

The MAS confronts a series of paradoxes. One is the absolute attraction and fascination that power holds for middle-class intellectuals and mestizos, many of whom have historically carried out ideological pirouettes of all kinds in order to achieve or maintain power. Everyone who collaborated in previous governments is discredited, but certain mestizo sectors have considerable influence through NGOs and universities. The MAS has tended to recruit these people for the state apparatus, and in the process it has progressively lost its indigenous profile.

In addition, the MAS faces a structural inertia within the colonial state, which in recent years has been rearticulated in neocolonial forms. For example, the United States has superimposed its imperatives on the state apparatus through financing that is conditioned on adopting certain policies, like eradicating coca. The United States has invested a great deal in state management, not only in the ministries involved in the struggle against drugs, but also in a good part of the Justice Ministry. There is also considerable penetration through the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service’s P.L. 480 food donation financing. These mechanisms have created a structural dependency of the Bolivian state on U.S. mandates. Moreover, the MAS’s commitment to recovering Bolivia’s sovereignty has to deal not only with this colonial state structure, but also with a unionized state bureaucracy that is difficult to remove.

Another problem is the system of buscapegas, or job spoils, which degrades citizenship through providing benefits to party loyalists and fostering clientelist relationships. This predominantly masculine, clientelist inheritance facilitates the subordination of peasant and indigenous citizens, and persists despite there being an indigenous president. This is the dead weight that the MAS has inherited in terms of political culture, and it reflects patriarchal authoritarianism, vertical subordination, and a lack of transparency. So there is a dynamic of continuity with past neoliberal governments, along with efforts to bring change, efforts that are not always successful.

How has the U.S. war on drugs affected the Morales government?

The United States makes use of a particular pressure mechanism, which is to threaten to cancel the Andean Trade Preference Drug Eradication Agreement, which supposedly provides work to thousands of people in El Alto. The state calculates that if the agreement were terminated, it would need $7 million per year to pay for increased U.S. import duties. In addition, the right-wing political parties and the governors are constantly lobbying to sign a free trade agreement with the United States. This means that there are many complex battlefronts where the United States has very strong pressuring capacity. As a consequence, it has been successful in ensuring some coca eradication, as well as confiscation and intervention in coca markets.

On the other hand, the coca growers have increased the number of marketing licenses granted and have managed to broaden the traditional market. The price of coca has remained high despite the greater supply because of an accumulated unsatisfied demand and because coca is reaching more remote corners of the county. Neoliberalism itself has meant an increased number of unregulated productive activities, like logging and rubber tapping, whose workforce consumes coca. Coca grower leaders are now in charge of government agencies, and if the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy are indeed pressuring them, they are at the same time being pressured by their base, which is demanding even greater market openings.

The result is that the Bolivian state’s position is increasingly opposed to that of the United States, and to a growing extent, that of the European Union. The reaction to this can be seen in the recent comments by Philip Onagwele Emafo, president of the UN International Narcotics Control Board, who said chewing coca is damaging. This is a step backward to the standards of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, ignoring the progress made in the 1988 Regime on Coca.

For these reasons, we are now at an impasse in which if coca is going to enter the text of the new Bolivian constitution as a resource and as part of the cultural patrimony of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, and therefore subject to state protection, we have little choice but to fight for international decriminalization.

Thus we see a panorama in which there are certain initiatives that civil society can take to expand the legitimacy of coca, and in which there are different approaches to control and eradication. This is one of the few areas where there is now some agreement between the country’s regions, because the conservative, eastern department of Santa Cruz is precisely where an expanding workforce has made the demand for coca leaf the highest in the country.

What are the power dynamics like now between the eastern elites and the Morales government?

The flooding in the eastern region in February provoked a crisis that demonstrated the incapacity and falseness of Bolivian right-wing discourse. For example, conservatives were distributing foodstuffs only to those who had party membership cards—this delegitimized the eastern oligarchy. Now popular civic committees are emerging, further challenging the elites. For these reasons, the hegemony of the eastern elites is receding. Moreover, the floods have put them on the defensive because the regions are forced to depend on the support of the central state to get through this crisis. Their biggest achievement is that, because of the flooding, the government has announced a delay in enacting the agrarian reform passed in 2006, which calls for expropriating land in the eastern areas where people work in slavelike conditions.

The east’s new dependency on the central government is without a doubt strengthening the position of the MAS, especially in the Constituent Assembly, which was elected last year to draft a new Bolivian constitution. Underlying all of this is the right wing’s lack of an alternative proposal for the country; they need a revolutionary agenda as powerful as that of the MAS in order to have credibility. So they are at a dead end. For them the best thing that could happen would be if the Constitution remained as it is now because the changes they propose are absolutely banal in comparison with the MAS reform agenda.

That said, despite the MAS’s tendency toward centralism and control over the national political agenda, the Constituent Assembly has a high degree of legitmacy, being the result of discussion and based on a real knowledge of the different sectors. For example, the Coca Commission is in the hands of the coca growers, a team that will perhaps only produce five lines in the Constitution, but on the basis of this an entire state policy will be built. The same is happening in every commission. It is not only the constitutional text; the Constituent Assembly is generating state policy under the leadership of the MAS, which in turn is influenced by grassroots sectors from the social movements. The Constituent Assembly is a far more accurate representation of Bolivian society than the Parliament.

What is your view of the role of coca in the process of decolonization?

Coca forms exactly one of those spaces that demonstrate long-standing indigenous modernity. It occupied a major space in colonial commercial activity, as the Peruvian historian Luis Miguel Glave has described. Through mule transport, indigenous coca merchants linked a vast physical space that today would stretch from the north of Argentina to Ecuador. But coca reflects a market memory that is both modern and a space of cultural resistance because the Indian in the market is not the same as others. Indians generate community reproduction strategies through the market, and while they were subordinated to a huge number of colonial requirements, they created a flourishing market that permitted them a modernity and a connection with the urban world. These commercial networks could not have existed without indigenous labor at the edges of circulation and production.

How do you think an indigenous-led government will change the future for Bolivia’s indigenous peoples?

An important change is just having Evo in that position: Indigenous people see themselves mirrored proudly every day. This has an immeasurable impact on self-esteem. It recognizes the value of their own culture, of their roots, of their forms of dress, and it allows many people who previously were ashamed to be Indians to lift their heads. And for the many acculturated Indians called cholos who have denied their cultural origins, having an indigenous president makes them turn around and recover their heritage. This is an important ideological and cultural phenomenon of symbolic decolonization that will have future effects without a doubt, particularly for children.

The straitjacket that most limits how much this can flourish is, I think, the educational system—the most colonized system in Bolivia. This is another of the great colonial legacies, and dismantling it is far from easy, as the MAS’s first education minister discovered.

In that regard, how do you see the MAS’s failed effort to insist that public services be provided in either Aymara or Quechua?

This failure is yet another reflection of the colonial legacy. For example, I am a postgraduate professor in a program called Intercultural Public Administration, which is an attempt to decolonize public functionaries so that they are capable of valuing the indigenous as equal to the Western, of overcoming discrimination, and of recognizing that indigenous peoples have their own forms of resolving conflicts and their own forms of distributing public goods.

Clearly you can’t decolonize an entire state apparatus that has existed for more than 175 years in a year and a half. But in some measure this problem that the MAS has had with Aymara and Quechua in public institutions demonstrates how deep the colonial roots are inside public institutions.

Can you describe how an indigenous presidency has affected the katarista indigenous rights movement that emerged during the 1970s?

I believe that katarismo has been fundamental to the changes we are now seeing. It was the first proposal from the indigenous world that articulated its own voice; prioritized overcoming colonial oppression, the negation of Indian selves, and political servitude; and promoted autonomy. Despite one of the most important katarista leaders, Genaro Flores, having fallen into disgrace with the Sole Trade Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, or CSUTCB) in 1988, the issues he raised were taken up by the coca growers who displaced him.

Part of what later became the MAS gained control over the CSUTCB until the end of the 1990s, when it was taken over by the radical katarista Felipe Quispe, known as El Mallku, who went on to achieve prominence in the blockades of 2000. There was a dialectical process driven by resistance to the aggressive neoliberal policies of U.S. domination, in which the coca growers achieved hegemony as the opposition during the 1990s. Here there is a clear katarista influence in the MAS discourse, particularly in its links with the National Council of Allyus and Markas of Qullasuyu (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas de Qullasuyu, or CONAMAQ). Kataristas were the first to unite the national with the ethnic in the context of a demand for independence and autonomy. As a result, they questioned colonial structures that are also transnational structures.

Through the MAS, the coca leaf has become the nexus between popular anti-capitalism, peasant and class analysis, and indigenous anti-colonialism. For example, since water and coca are gifts from the Pachamama (mother earth), an indigenous interpretive frame is formed that encompasses the notion of sovereignty over national resources: coca, water, and more recently, gas.

When I conducted interviews among social movement participants from 2000 to 2005, the argument in relation to gas was built around the idea that “our indigenous grandparents went to defend gas” in the Chaco War with Paraguay (1932–35). For this reason, they see the gas as theirs, not as belonging to the eastern departments of Santa Cruz or Tarija, where it is actually located, because highland indigenous peoples died in massive numbers in that war. In this sense, it is not a typical leftist framework for nationalization; rather it is an indigenous vision of recuperating the people’s sovereignty.

Can you explain your concept of “the permitted Indian”?

The “permitted Indian” emerged after the Venezuelan caracazo uprising against neoliberalism in February 1989, when some of the triumphalism of structural adjustment was broken, leading to an adjustment of the adjustment. The result was initiatives like the “social capital” concept promoted by the World Bank. In order to ameliorate some of the damage structural adjustment caused, a series of policies was promoted, including official multiculturalism, which seeks to place Indian expression in an acceptable form of ethnicity.

The permitted Indian allows for domination under the name of a multicultural alliance, which is really a form of tokenism. In Bolivia, they made an emblematic Indian like Victor Hugo Cárdenas the vice president in order for him to serve as a smoke screen for a series of profoundly anti-democratic and anti-indigenous reforms, such as the Capitalization Law that was passed when he held office (1994–97), as well as the liberalization of the economy—these policies destroyed the collective economies of indigenous peoples and their communities, which are only now recovering.

Additionally, the permitted Indian is one who can export values and resources. The term occurred to me when I saw an advertisement for Hewlett-Packard in one of those airline magazines. HP was distributing computers to communities that proposed projects, and the accompanying picture was of an Indian in his traditional chullu hat bottling water from his glaciers in order to sell it in the world market. This type of Indian is capable of selling his sacred gods—because the glaciers are gods—for Western consumption. For me this is the image of the “official multicultural” Indian, an exporter of handicrafts or values or medicines, but all under a scheme of subordination to the transnational corporations that ultimately bottle the water and put their logo on it.

The permitted Indian can be seen in all the hypocritical policies of today’s Latin America. An example is ecotourism, in which the Indian is like an extinct species, just like trees and birds, continuing to be an object of pillage while recognized as a cultural decoration. In Peru, the tourist industry is based on the exploitation of indigenous symbolic and cultural resources at the same time that Peruvian society is one of the most racist on the continent. This kind of racism is among the most tenacious because it is masked behind a discourse of valuing indigenous culture.

So this is the permitted Indian, in contrast to what I call the indigenous hegemony expressed by the MAS, which asserts that those who are not necessarily dressed like Indians, such as the coca growers, reflect a modern indigeneity. An indigenous product like coca breaks the scheme of the permitted Indian because it positions the Indian as a modern being who has a role in the world market. This is exactly what the struggle for decriminalizing coca is about—opening a world market for coca products. It is possible to think of a successful international circuit, given the enormous interest in organic, natural, and alternative products and indigenous remedies of all types.

In your work, you argue that civil rights and human rights are based in conceptions of citizenship that are Western and male. Do you think the MAS government is considering citizenship from a different perspective?

Only partially. What predominates is the left mestizo perspective represented by Vice President García Linera, who has a liberal vision of citizenship. One citizen, one vote; formal equality. To date there has been no reconceptualization of citizenship that, for example, considers the collective rather than the individual. On the other hand, the formal recognition of indigenous forms of organization, like CONAMAQ and the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, can prove beneficial for indigenous peoples to the extent that they are already articulated collectivities. For example, the Association of the Guarani People can generate a collective citizenship and negotiate with the state for an autonomous space. But in places where this articulation is more precarious, such as urban indigenous sectors and the altiplano, this model is less viable.

There is discussion about this within the government. Most attention is focused on how to incorporate systems of community justice and how to turn jurisdiction over to indigenous communities. In other areas this discussion is poorly developed and to date has been very male because the union structure is very masculine and corporatist.

While the concept of citizenship represents a nexus between the individual and the collective, in Bolivia it has a “civilizing” element stemming from the revolution of 1952 that is completely masculine. The whole concept of the nuclear family, introduced with the 1952 revolution, transformed women into wives and mothers before anything else. There was a failure to see women as subjects. In this sense the modernization of representative structures went hand in hand with masculinization and the extension of patriarchy.

Do you see this changing?

Women have been undeniably present in the social struggles of the past few years at intermediate levels of leadership, and they have had a very strong capacity to articulate demands. There are visible changes: a coca grower woman as the justice minister and so on. And in the Constituent Assembly, where there are women in traditional dress from all over the country, you really appreciate the change that has occurred.

These women are symbolically confronting the oligarchy. For example, when a woman constituent member began to speak in Quechua, a representative from the right-wing party Podemos complained that she should learn to speak Spanish better. She continued to speak in Quechua, however, and ever since there has been simultaneous translation for both Quechua and Aymara speakers.

These are symbolic battles. Women have a lot to say, and they articulate the theme of cultural identity with considerable force, which makes their presence very important.

Given the conception of women as the passive bearers of culture, particularly in relation to children, finding their own voices can significantly strengthen the indigenous position.

That is absolutely true. Women in the public sphere have proven close to incorruptible. They were the ones who articulated the ethical base of the October 2003 rebellion. It was really impressive. There was a daily ethic of solidarity and commitment in the hands of women, in the formation of common cooking facilities, of sharing coca, of standing watch, of completing rituals. The women cast spells—I particularly remember ones directed at then president Hugo Banzer in the La Paz cemetery during the September 2000 blockades, shortly before he resigned. You don’t necessarily see the change in the MAS structures nor in formal politics generally, but you can see it in daily life, and at intermediate levels—municipal leaders, mayors.

How do you see the process of decolonization advancing within the world of the social sciences in Bolivia?

There is an accelerating process of recuperating our own thought, of mobilizing indigenous concepts to help understand society and conduct cultural critiques. There is a vision from the perspective of various indigenous intellectuals, a theoretical and conceptual project, to redefine ideas of nation, of pachachuti (the overturning of the existing world in a cosmic upheaval), and so on, articulating a discourse completely alternate to the Western vision. We no longer speak of development, for example, but rather of living well, what we call suma qamaña. It is a community-oriented vision that incorporates everyone and encompasses the capacity for redistribution, for a social pact. It is not based on consumerism or on individual achievement, but rather on the idea of economic rights, and social expenditure, social prestige as a motor of economic action.

There are a considerable number of indigenous concepts that are nourishing the discussion in the social sciences around the topic of decolonization. These have mostly been proposed within the public sphere by indigenous peoples, katarismo, and the thought of one of most influential indigenist theorists and intellectuals, Fausto Reinaga.

The main obstacle we face in combating colonialism in our work is the legacy inherited by the state, the internalized mentality of colonialism, which tells us that the enemy is within. Moreover, colonialism reproduces internally within the authoritarian structures found in left parties—Stalinism and clientelist relationships, for example.

How do you conceive the role of an activist academic in the context of a political process like the one Bolivia is undergoing?

Everything in Bolivia is up for discussion, which means that the present scenario is a very interesting one—all the efforts of social investigation and theoretical debate find a fertile terrain that links to political issues. We have to be available theoretically and orient our work to realigning the social sciences by rethinking our assumptions.

Linda Farthing is a longtime writer, educator, and activist on Bolivian issues. She recently authored, with Ben Kohl, Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 2006).
Tags: Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Bolivia, Aymara, indigenous, Evo Morales, interview

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