An Associated Press photo by Natasha Pisarenko shows an indigenous Bolivian woman standing amid clouds of tear gas, holding the national flag and at its tip, the Wiphala flag of the nation’s indigenous peoples. Her society is again a victim of history. Its dreams vanished in acrid smoke. The photo’s aesthetic is both human and brimming with intensity.
It is said that sometime in the late 19th century the British ambassador to Bolivia deeply offended local custom by refusing a cup of “chicha,” a local indigenous drink. The diplomat was then made to consume a giant bowl of cocoa and be paraded around on a donkey. In a rage, Queen Victoria promptly grabbed a map and with a giant X marked off the South American nation, declaring that “Bolivia does not exist.”
The same claim has now been issued again by U.S. imperialism and the modern-day Bolivian oligarchy through the overthrow of Evo Morales’s government on Oct. 10. Morales, elected in 2006 as the first indigenous president of a predominantly indigenous nation, shook both the old Bolivian system and the region with his brand of democratic socialism. Even when other Latin American countries governed by the left fell back into the hands of the right-wing, most prominently Brazil with its ascendance to power of proto-fascist forces, Bolivia stubbornly remained not only leftist but a positive symbol of progress. A healthy GDP and the lifting of millions of its Aymara indigenous community into the middle class proved that an alternative to rabid neoliberal capitalism was possible even in South America’s poorest nation where skin color, in particular that of those descended from the old Spanish masters, defined class and opportunity. For the U.S. and regional capitalist powers, the nationalization of natural resources and other such measures were what made Morales truly dangerous.
Was Morales unwise to go for a fourth term of office? Maybe. The recent elections sparked a major backlash. But when right-wing factions, mostly based in the bastions of the old elites, incited violence and the Bolivian military “advised” Morales to step down, the curtain dropped. Now Bolivia’s first indigenous president sits exiled in distant Mexico while racist gangs prowl Bolivian cities targeting indigenous locals and threatening members of Morales’s “Movement Towards Socialism” party with terror. The old world returns to strangle the new. It is a drama that has repeated itself many times on the stage of this region, if not the developing world as a whole.
So we return to this image, which is itself a portrait of heartbreak. Not only heartbreak in the sense of rage at an oppressive injustice, but a realization that progress was but an illusion and now it has been snatched back by the claws of reaction. This Aymara woman’s stance is heroic, yet the face reveals the ache of 500 years.
First, the Aymara, like every other indigenous community in the Americas, were subjugated by the steel of Spanish Conquistadors. The territory’s silver soon filled the Spanish Empire’s coffers. When the Andes were aflame during the wars for independence of the 19th century, Bolivia as an entity was born, named after the liberator Simon Bolivar. Yet liberation for the Aymara was a mirage, for a new ruling class would cement itself. Since then, the country has endured cycles of coups and revolutions, and in the Cold War becoming yet another regional pawn in the U.S. obsessions to maintain dominance of its southern neighbors. In 1967, it was in Bolivia where Che Guevara died attempting to stoke a guerrilla uprising. He was executed by a military being advised by the CIA. In the 2000’s, Bolivians, in particular the Aymara, rose up against corporate plans to privatize water resources.
Now this woman and many others stand as witnesses to a cruel twist of fate. 14 years of emancipation have been swept away in only two weeks. And then, into the presidential palace ironically christened Palacio Quemado (Burned Palace) after an uprising in 1875, steps self-proclaimed president Jeanine Anez. She is a radical right-wing evangelical, holding aloft an ancient Bible, proclaiming the end of Indian socialism. She has been instantly recognized by the mighty power to the north.
But outside the streets are burning, an Aymara woman weeps while holding the nation’s history in her hand. And we may ask ourselves in the comfort of Fortress USA, what the social ruptures of Bolivia have to do with us. We forget this is history being lived in the Americas, in our hemisphere, so it is our history too. This is an American woman in the photo. She is telling us that it is time we stop thinking in terms of mere borders, but in continents. The struggle of the Bolivian-turned-rebel is our struggle too. What has transpired in these ancient streets where this woman stands, where long ago the Inca Empire once ruled, connects to the vein of the entire hemisphere’s history. It is the old world seeking to prevent the birth of a new one. Soon, North Americans will sit down and partake in the rituals of Thanksgiving, pretending to acknowledge a mere spec of our own indigenous heritage while further down the map that heritage and history are experiencing blood-spilling realities.
An image of Bolivian heartbreak becomes a reminder that the ghosts of history cannot be banished. They are always in wait, their shadows pulling us ever forward into the familiar past. The question is, when will the smoke clear and lamentation become a fiery call for renewal once more?