The former Bolivian president is credited with lifting many out of poverty and for spurring economic growth, but some in the indigenous community believe his legacy is not as rose-tinted as is portrayed.

When former president Evo Morales won the 2005 election, he became Bolivia’s first indigenous president from the Aymara community, the indigenous community, which existed before Spanish colonialists invaded around five centuries ago.

 A former left-wing union leader and coca farmer, his success was viewed as a triumph for the country’s 40 percent indigenous population, offering radical change to end centuries of disenfranchisement.

Morales was regarded as a defender of Mother Earth, or Pachamama, legalising coca production. In 2009, Bolivia became a plurinational state, elevating indigenous rights around issues like collective land titling, prior consultation on development projects, and intercultural education.

The exiled leader partly nationalised both the gas and oil sectors, adopted market-friendly policies and with high commodity prices he invested in social welfare programmes - raising around two million out of poverty. In total, poverty rates fell from 59.9 percent in 2006 to 36.4 percent last year.

Unlike other Latin American countries, Bolivia’s economy grew on average 4.6 percent per year.

But Bolivia has experienced a deep political crisis following allegations of voting irregularities and with a rise in violence, 30 deaths and hundreds injured, the country has been hit hard since October 20.

Morales in exile in Mexico criticised the “manipulation of the racist right-wing, coup participants and traitors” saying they seized power in a coup - the view held by his supporters. 

Indigenous critics

There are concerns for the indigenous community but opinions are not universal.

“Evo Morales is not the only indigenous person. We’re also part of Bolivia,” said Tomasa Yarhui Jacome, who was Bolivia’s first indigenous government minister in 2002 and later a vice-presidential candidate in 2014.

“We’re diverse,” she told TRT World of the 36 different indigenous peoples of Bolivia.

”I’m a Quechua leader. Others are Aymara, others are Guarani leaders. Each zone has its way of living. There are issues which unite us and there are issues which are specific to each community.”

She added: “This struggle of the indigenous communities has taken place for many years. I’m 51 years old. I’ve been fighting since I was 12 years old. I’m a union leader. I’m always on the side of my community.”

Jacome says the recent upheaval has been difficult and is critical of what she saw as an attempt to consolidate power by Morales.

“What Evo left totally destroyed our country on many levels - the institutions had been taken over,” she claimed, alleging they were no longer independent.

During Morales’ time, divisions emerged regarding issues of development and the preservation of indigenous lands.

“It’s not like what president Evo Morales tried to show to the world during his administration that indigenous issues had advanced,” said Jacome.

“He violated many rights of indigenous communities due to certain interests,” she alleged of the case of TIPNIS.

The government planned to develop a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous reserve, resulting in protests in 2011 - both for and against the proposal.

“They [the government] have to offer us a prior consultation.  The prior consultation has to be respected. In the previous government things were manipulated,” she alleged.

There were allegations of misappropriation of funds for indigenous communities and political persecution.

Supporters of Bolivia's ousted President Evo Morales attend a memorial for a fellow supporter who died after clashes with security forces, at the entrance of Sacaba, near Cochabamba, Bolivia November 18, 2019.
Supporters of Bolivia's ousted President Evo Morales attend a memorial for a fellow supporter who died after clashes with security forces, at the entrance of Sacaba, near Cochabamba, Bolivia November 18, 2019. (Marco Bello / Reuters)

‘Many trials’

Adolfo Chavez, the former president of the Confederation of Indigenous People of Bolivia (CIDOB) allegedly fled from Bolivia to Peru due to persecution. During the protests the government was accused of using excessive force against indigenous protestors, which Morales denied.

“As indigenous people we had many trials. Some of us had to go abroad,” said Jacome.

This year over four million hectares of biodiverse forest burnt in TIPNIS.

“They didn’t declare a national emergency to receive international help,” said Jacome.

“If the government were indigenous, the first thing they would have done is protect it,” she said.

After a turbulent time, Jacome is now reflecting.

“We don’t want to have hatred, division or confrontation which has happened,” said Jacome.

“Institutions must be respected. Democracy must be strengthened and in this way the rights of the indigenous community. We’re part of this.”

There are other concerns.

“It’s difficult to understand and comprehend, especially outside of Bolivia, when it has political implications at a regional level,” said Oscar Campanini director of a Bolivian social and environmental NGO, the Documentation and Information Centre (CEDIB).

Internationally there is a split between countries who recognise the interim government and those that do not.

“It has been an awakening, in terms of mobilisations and rebellion from this sector of the population, mainly due to the desire of Morales to continue a fourth term in government,” he said.

Controversial referendum

Morales planned a fourth term as president but Bolivians voted against him in a 2016 referendum. A court ruled against the referendum, saying his political rights were violated.

CEDIB have been documenting the deaths and say it has been difficult for rights groups covering events.

CEDIB compiled a public declaration signed by almost 80 professionals and rights campaigners, following the increased violence.

According to Campanini: “It’s a type and form of violence and degree of violence which haven’t been seen at least in the recent history of Bolivia, in the last 30 years.

“Usually there have been conflicts with the state, with acts of repression from the police and at times, acts of repression from the military.”

Campanini describes it as a “national conflict”. 

“It was carried out by sectors of civil society who have clashed,” he said.

CEDIB raised concern about various violent acts allegedly perpetrated by armed groups to “ensure its sectoral interests”.

Campanini alleges there has been a “distortion of protests”, undermining a "tradition of social protests” in Bolivia.

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales gestures during an interview with Reuters, in Mexico City, Mexico, November 15, 2019.
Former Bolivian President Evo Morales gestures during an interview with Reuters, in Mexico City, Mexico, November 15, 2019. (Reuters)

He describes it as “a use of violence for political ends which we haven’t seen in the past in Bolivia and it regretfully generates much fear in the wider part of the population”.

Alongside international rights groups, CEDIB criticised a decree issued by the interim government, saying it offered impunity to security forces.

“This is something which worries us. It surprises all of us Bolivians due to previous experience,” said Campanini, regarding a previous president now residing in the US who has faced protracted legal battles.

“During the conflicts of October 2003 to expel Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada the armed forces operation transporting fuel from the city of El Alto to La Paz cost dozens of people’s lives,” he said.

Human Rights Watch (HWR) said nine people died and 122 were wounded in Chapare on November 15.

CEDIB has requested an independent and credible “monitoring commission” during the “process of social pacification”.

The decree was repealed on Thursday.

“What has happened in Bolivia amongst sectors of the civil population clashing, has encouraged, promoted and deepened a polarisation of civil society. What it has left are lines or divisions within civil society which are very severe and pronounced,” said Campanini.

Police officers burnt and removed Bolivia’s indigenous flag, the Wiphala from their uniforms.

According to Campanini, “there is an exacerbation of racism”.

The interim President Jeanine Anez said “the Bible has returned to the government palace”, despite Bolivia being a secular state.

She is accused of sending historic racist tweets, which she denies.

“There is an exacerbation of different kinds of radical positions on different issues which undoubtedly are going to remain,” said Campanini. 

He says these will mark the new elections, campaigns, candidates, confrontations and results, adding “it will last many years”.

Source: TRT World