Bolivia’s Indigenous People Come into Power

January 22, 2006 / This Saturday marked a watershed moment in the cause of indigenous politics in Latin America, and it's impacts may be felt further afield: Bolivia elected its first Indigenous president, Evo Morales. This event conincides with other political realignments in the region.

This Saturday marked a watershed moment in the cause of indigenous politics in Latin America: Bolivia elected its first Indigenous president, Evo Morales, on January 21st. This event conincides with other political realignments in the region. From the BBC (January 21):

“Latin America’s Winds of Change” (BBC News)

An indigenous Indian has been elected president of Bolivia for the first time and the people of Chile have elected their first-ever woman president. With elections looming in several other Latin American countries, Daniel Schweimler senses a change in the air.

According to the Monday’s Melbourne Age (“Indigenous Bolivia Rejoices Over New President,” January 23), the indigenous movement in Bolivia may have to contend with a hostile U.S. response. Ripples from the Bolivian event have already been felt in Washington which is edgy about Morales’ anti-American sentiments and his plans to re-nationalise the gas industry.

Touted changes in land ownership in Bolivia, and the implications for cocoa production, are also playing an important part in the wider political and media response. The New York Times (January 22) carries an in-depth story, excerpted here:

“Bolivia’s Leader Solidifies Region’s Leftward Tilt” (NYT)

Bolivia’s gas reserves, the continent’s second-largest, help power South America’s largest economies. Brazil has plowed $1.5 billion into energy investments in Bolivia and worries about rising drug and crime problems in its urban slums if Bolivia’s coca crop is not controlled.

Mr. Morales is at least the seventh Latin American leader to take power since 2000 from the left, a varied crop that ranges from Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador to Venezuela, with strong leftist contenders surging in Peru and Mexico, both of which will also hold elections this year.

His success is also the most prominent example of Latin America’s recent democratic revolutions. Throughout the region, the indigenous and the poor, increasingly mobilized by frustration with Washington-backed economic prescriptions, have used the ballot box to put in place a group of leaders more representative of their interests for the first time in nearly five centuries. With the exception of Mr. Chávez, who is bankrolled by Venezuela’s oil wealth, most of the continent’s other left-leaning leaders, like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, have pursued pragmatic policies once faced with the real task of governing.

In recent weeks, Mr. Morales has toned down some of his more strident language and struck a more accommodating note with American officials. But in Bolivia’s case, political analysts here say, it is far harder to know exactly how Mr. Morales might rule.

Winds of change indeed. Uncertain times as a fraction of the world’s indigenous people come into formal power. It will be interesting to see how this news is received by Indigenous groups in North America and Australasia, and especially whether it will assist Indigenous claims-makers in Australia in regaining some of the discursive ground lost to national security and immigration concerns since 2001 (a distinct possibility given the headline coverage the Bolivian election is receiving right now).

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