Bolivia and Ecuador: The State against the Indigenous People

By  |  19 / July / 2010

This post is also available in: Spanish

“These people are gringos who are coming here with NGOs. Take it somewhere else. These people’s stomachs are full enough”, said the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, in reference to the protesters who belong to the National Confederation of the Indigenous in Ecuador (CONAIE) [1]. Evo Morales said almost the same thing: “Since the Right can’t find arguments for opposing the process of change, it’s using rural, indigenous or original people leaders who have been paid off in special favors by NGOs”.[2].

It seems the presidents of both countries have neglected to realize that they are using the same arguments as their enemies when they accuse social movements of being part of the “international communist subversion” or of being financed by “Moscow gold”. They’re making two mistakes in one: believing that the indigenous can be manipulated, and believing that the manipulation comes from outside the country. It isn’t surprising that the indigenous have interpreted the statements of their presidents as insults meant to distract attention from real problems.

However, it is possible that USAID, a United States aid organization, has infiltrated some social movements and encouraged actors to protest against the government, as per statements by the Vice President of Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera. He notes that, of the 100 million dollars that USAID invests in his country, 20 million is used for technical costs and the rest “for their friends and their political clients, for sponsoring courses, publications and groups that promote conflict”[3].

The social organizations involved in the protests refused funding from USAID, though what is most striking is that this critique hasn’t come to light before, but just when people have begun to demonstrate against the government. The head minister of Hydrocarbon in Morales’ administration went even further and reminded the president that he owed everyone an explanation as to why he allowed USAID, the World Bank and European ONGs to design the current Plurinational State. In fact, “In 2004, USAID financed the Coordinating Unit for the Constitutional Assembly”, among other official activities[4].

The Indigenous March in Bolivia

On June 17, hundreds of indigenous people came together in the lowlands of Trinidad, the capital of the Province of Beni, five hours from Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Their intention was to ascend four thousand meters from the rain forest region, marching 1,500 kilometers on foot until arriving at La Paz. The Confederation of Indigenous People of Bolivia (CIDOB), which unites 34 nations from the orient which are organized in eleven regions, brought together protesters supported by the National Council of Qullasuyu Ayllus and Markos (CONAMAQ).

These are two of the main indigenous organization that formed the Pact of Unity during the Constitutional Assembly in 2006, and which have strongly supported Morales’ administration until now. The other three, the powerful Unique Confederation of Rural Laborers of Bolivia, the Confederation of Original Communities of Bolivia (CSCB) and the Bartolina Sisa National Federation of Peasant Women, continue to support the government.

Since the beginning of the year, the CIDOB has negotiated the Framework Law of Autonomy with the Minister of Autonomy, Carlos Romero. They have reached a consensus on 50 articles, though they continue to debate another thirteen[5]. Their disagreements rest on two basic points. Firstly, indigenous people have demanded that agreements be approved for uses and customs, whereas the State has asked for a referendum. The second point has to do with indigenous territories that cross departmental lines; the people have requested that their autonomy also cross these lines.

At its core, this is a matter of sovereignty. The people of the lowlands demand that the communities have the ability to veto the business ventures, particularly mining and hydrocarbon concessions, which affect their territories. They also want the number of seats in the Plurinational Assembly go from seven to eighteen. After coming into power, the government decided to negotiate separately with some of the regional branches of the CIDOB in order to divide the movement. This is why the march that left Trinidad on June 22 was held up few days afterward in Asunción de Guarayos, 400 kilometers from Santa Cruz, where an official delegation reached an eight point agreement with the CIDOB[6].

The second government strategy was to pit Indians against Indians. President Morales turned to an assembly of six coca leaf farmer unions who repudiated the CIDOB march and expressed their willingness to impede it[7]. Former government spokesperson, Alex Contreras Baspineiro, noted that “before finding a pacific and mutually agreed upon decision, the government began an expensive media campaign in an attempt to discredit the indigenous mobilization”[8]. “In five years of government, we have never seen this kind of division, not to mention the threats of violent confrontations”, he added.

The third government strategy was defamation, as the protesters were accused of being financed by USAID. The president of CIDB, Adolfo Chávez, rejected the accusation, reminding the government that the protesters have problems accessing sufficient food and medicine. He went on to present a challenge: “We dare the government to remove the USAID from the country, and then we’ll see who is affected” [9].

Contreras is a recognized Bolivian social journalist who participated in the First March for Territory and Dignity in 1990. This march is credited with being the beginning of the reconstruction of social movements at the height of the neoliberal period. He was celebrated by the national media for his commitment and special coverage of indigenous marches. In the march that began in Trinidad he met Pedro Nuni, representative of the Mojeño people and currently a Movement for Socialism (MAS) deputy, who told him that “some of the ministers of the indigenous government are turning indigenous against indigenous” [10].

One of the results of the march is that the government lost its two thirds majority in parliament (111 votes over 166), as eight indigenous representatives decided to move away from the MAS. In short, Contreras believes that if the government continues to refuse to negotiate it could endanger the country’s governability. This is why he believes that “a confrontation between indigenous organizations or the demonization of leaders” is not the answer, rather, above all, negotiation and “rescuing a pillar of this process of change: the culture of life, of peace, of dialogue and social compromise” [11].

Nevertheless, the government rejected the primary demands of the CIDOB, arguing that if they put them into affect they would be violating the constitution. Minister Romero argued that some of these demands “fail to respect the rights of all Bolivians”, because they only benefit a particular sector, and cannot give the indigenous peoples greater representation than the percent of the country’s population they comprise[12].

CONAIE versus Correa

The presidential summit of The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America was held on June 5. The eight presidents convened in Otavalo, about 60 kilometers north of Quito, a city with a Quichua majority. Despite the issue at hand, indigenous organizations were not invited to attend. This is why the CONAIE decided to install their Plurinational Parliament in the same city, with the intention of insisting that there can be no plurinationality without indigenous peoples.

Around three thousand people participated in a peaceful march through the city. They sang and danced in honor of the Inty Raymi, the Andean New Year, and they also remembered the twentieth anniversary of the first Indian uprising, which began the mobilization process which finally brought Rafael Correa to presidency. Mounted policemen stood guard over the building where the summit was held, and their horses were frightened by the arrival of the protesters when they reached the door to deliver a letter to their “brother” Evo Morales.

The indigenous are in opposition to the government over water laws and concessions to mining companies. This has caused numerous demonstrations, strikes, blockades and uprisings[13]. The conflict between the CONAIE and the government isn’t new, though it has now acquired a more serious tinge due to judicial accusations against the leaders. On the next day of the summit, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Province of Imbabura, where Otavalo is located, began an investigation against the indigenous organizations.

According to this investigation, “a group of citizens of indigenous race” broke the police barrier around the ALBA meeting “shouting slogans which disturbed public order”, and the main damage occurred when a policeman was “robbed of his handcuffs”. On these grounds, the leaders of the CONAIE and Ecuarunari (the Quechua organization of the highlands) are being accused of nothing less than “sabotage and terrorism” [14]. This is a very serious accusation which aims to intimidate the leaders.

According to lawyer and university professor Mario Melo, at the heart of the problem is that the CONAIE’s presence outside of the meeting grounds “made evident, before national and international public opinion, that the organizations which represent the many nationalities and peoples of Ecuador are being excluded from the process of defining the political policies that concern best online casino them” [15]. There has been a political response disguised as legal action in order to “intimidate and demobilize” the movements.

The indigenous leaders reacted to the challenge. Marlon Santi, president of the CONAIE, came before the public prosecutor to hear the charges and give his version of the events. On July 5, a joint communication from Ecuarunari and CONAIE indicated that the accusations of terrorism lack legal grounds and are “a political persecution of the indigenous movement and its leaders for the simple act of disagreeing with government policies” [16].

The message contains a reminder that article 98 of the new constitution recognizes the “right to resistance” when rights are endangered. And it ends with a sentence that anticipates more confrontations: “The legal charges against the leaders only serve to make evident the mean spiritedness of the rulers, as well as a serious threat to the peace and democracy of Ecuadorians”.

Pérez Guartambel, president of the Azuay Union of Community Water Systems in Cuenca, was also accused of sabotage and terrorism because of a massive protest in his town, Tarqui, on May 4. The Women’s Pachamama Defense Front has made similar complaints. Though the phenomenon that is not so wide spread in Bolivia, all signs point to the fact that the process taking place in Ecuador implies a deep rupture between social movements and the government.

There is a chasm between the two, and the dividing line is the national project and so called “development”. Correa is convinced that the greatest threat to his project, which he calls “twenty first century Socialism”, come from what he calls the “infantile” left and from environmental and indigenous groups which he claims reject modernity. He criticizes those who “say no to petroleum, to mines, to using our non renewable resources. It’s like a beggar sitting on a bag full of gold”[17].

Taking the Plurinational State to Task

The social and political processes in both countries are like two peas in a pod. Both approved a Plurinational State and new constitutions, but when it came time to apply their ideas they were faced with serious obstacles. The indigenous base groups and the urban popular sectors brought Morales and Correa to power, and those same groups are now protesting against “their” governments. In both cases, the governments opted for mineral and petroleum extractivism in order to ensure fiscal profits, instead of working toward the Buen Vivir, as per their promises.

The Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto (FEJUVE), one of the most important social organizations in Bolivia, published a harsh document called the Political Manifesto of the Sixteenth Ordinary Congress[18]. It states that “in spite of having an indigenous president like Evo Morales, the State continues to be governed by a creole oligarchy” because “it continues to maintain a capitalist economic system and a neoliberal political system”. The document goes on to say that the poor people continue to be “politically dominated”, “economically exploited” and “racially and culturally marginalized”.

Even more troubling, “The MAS government, after stepping into power, has merely used the indigenous peoples and members of popular sectors for their political campaigns, but they continue to be excluded from political decisions and are only used by the government to legitimize itself and as stepladders to their seats of power”. Furthermore, it demands that the government not interfere in social organizations, that there be a change in the behavior of Vice President Álvaro García Linera and his colleagues, who are defined as “enemies of the peasant and indigenous class”, and it supports the march of the peoples of the Orient.

Both the tone and the content are intense. The FEJUVE isn’t just any organization; it was one of the protagonists of the Bolivian gas conflict, in October of 2003, which led to the fall of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and caused the collapse of neoliberalism. Right now, the group is considering asking for the resignation of Morales. In Ecuador, the CONAIE is also very important; it has been the protagonist of a dozen uprisings since 1990, and has toppled three governments. Breaking off with any of these organizations is very serious for any government, and is especially serious for those that rely on them for support.

What can be seen here are the first cracks in the Plurinational State, a building which still hasn’t been fully constructed. These cracks are appearing because there is a potent dispute for power. The original peoples have no reason to accept the framework of the Nation State, which is what the Plurinational State is based on. Two perspectives can be noted which attempt to shed light on this process.

Albert Acosta, Ecuadorian economist and former president of the Constitutional Assembly, posits that it is crucial that laws be passed in language that is rooted in everyday life. If this doesn’t happen, no matter how advanced the Constitution is it will mean nothing. The problem is that President Correa believes that laws about water and communication aren’t important, which, for Acosta, is the same as saying that “the Constitution is neither fundamental nor a priority”. He wonders: “Could it be that President Correa sees the Constitution as a straight jacket?” [19]

He believes that opposition from the right, which opposed the Constitution, is setting up road blocks for the laws in order to impede change. Oh the other hand, “Correa’s method of governing, which is, essentially, a knock down and run over leadership, leaves no room for debate”. His conclusion is that the Constitution that was meant to rediscover the government “is tied up in a political bundle that doesn’t guarantee its validity”. At the government level “there is a sort of legal counterrevolution” which is not supported by society at large.

Bolivian writer and philosopher Rafael Bautista maintains that rediscovering the Bolivian State without strengthening the participation of original nations implies no change whatsoever or can be seen as “pure cosmetology”. But if there isn’t a rediscover which is to say, decolonization, “what happens is nothing more than the reconstruction of the feudal aspects of the State” [20]. To put it briefly, the rebuilding of a colonial State founded on the belief in its superiority over the Indians. This structure is perpetuated in the Plurinational State, because it is a model which has not changed at any basic level.

Bautista says that “change no longer consists of the transformation of the content of the new State”, but has become “a subordinated adaptation of the plurinational to the functional needs of the State’s institutionality”. This is precisely what the response to the march has revealed: a sentiment of superiority over the Indians (they are manipulated, they don’t act on their own accord, says the government) and the impossibility for the State to be anywhere other than “on top” and in the center.

The essence of plurinationality is rooted in the opening up of the decision making arena, which is an opening up of power. “Plurinationality doesn’t refer to a quantitative sum of actors, but to the qualitative way in which decisions are made and enacted: we are effective at being plural when we open up the decision making arena”. And this is what isn’t happening; this is why Bautista says that the current government “governs not by obeying, but by giving orders”.

The government hasn’t restructured power to include original peoples, but has shuffled it around between local governments and mayor’s offices. That is, it reproduces the logic of privilege, because these have been the spaces of the local elite since the colonial period. The march demonstrates a refusal to transform the State in a limited way solely in order to improve its “performance”. This is what Bautista means when he talks about “the feudal paradox put into practice”. The indigenous protest is a clear indication of the transparency of the so called decolonization of the State.

The original peoples, who have created new conditions for their liberty, will not continue to tolerate political marginalization. They know that the State needs to exploit natural resources to pay its bills, but they also know that this logic leads to destruction. This is why they have decided to protest; they were strong enough to bring neoliberalism to a standstill, and now they refuse to lose their opportunity.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (

Translated by Jenny Marie Forsythe


Alberto Acosta, “Rafael Correa nos invita a violar la Constitución”, diario Expreso, Guayaquil, June 26, 2010.

Alex Contreras Baspineiro, “Indígenas contra indígenas”, ALAI, June 29, 2010.

Andrés Soliz Rada, “Evo y Usaid”, Bolpress, July 3, 2010.

FEJUVE El Alto, “Manifiesto político del XVI Congreso Ordinario”, June 27, 2010.

“Lucha Indígena” No. 47, July 2010, Cuzco.

María José Rodríguez, “El iceberg tras las luchas por los recursos”, Bolpresss, July 2, 2010.

Mario Melo, “La justicia penal como arma de represión política”, Red de Comunicadores Interculturales Bilingües del Ecuador, July 1, 2010.

Patricia Molina, “Crónica d ela VII Marcha Indígena por la autonomía y ladignidad”, Bolpress, July 7, 2010.

Rafael Bautista, “Bolivia: ¿Qué manifiesta la marcha indígena?”, Bolpress, June 30, 2010.

For more information:

Indigenous Peoples in Brazil: the Challenge of Autonomy

One Year since the Bagua Massacre: New Actors Facing a State in Crisis

[1] Telesur TV, source: June 25, 2010.

[2] “La mano de EE.UU. en el conflicto indígena”, source: July 2, 2010.

[3] La Jornada, June 26, 2010.

[4] Andrés Soliz Rada, “Evo y USAID”, Bolpress, July 3, 2010.

[5] Patricia Molina in Bolpress, July 7, 2010.

[6] “Detienen temporalmente la marcha indígena”, Bolpress, July 7, 2010.

[7] Agencia Boliviana de Información (ABI), July 5, 2010.

[8] “Indígenas contra indígenas”, ALAI, June 29, 2010.

[9] Idem and agencies.

[10] Idem.

[11] Idem.

[12] Agencia Boliviana de Información, July 8, 2010.

[13] See: “Ecuador: Se profundiza la guerra por los bienes comunes”, Americas Program, October 19, 2009.

[14] Mario Melo, “La justicia penal como arma de represión política”, July 1, 2010 source:

[15] Idem.

[16] “La ‘revolución ciudadana’ persigue a los dirigentes indígenas y sociales del país”, CONAIE and Ecuarunari, July 5, 2010.

[17] Reuters, July 6, 2010.

[18] FEJUVE, June 27, 2010 source:

[19] Interview with Alberto Acosta in Expreso, Guayaquil, June 26, 2010.

[20] Rafael Bautista, “¿Qué manifiesta la marcha indígena?”, Bolpress, June 30, 2010.

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  1. I agree that the indigenous peoples of Bolivia have every reason to feel betrayed. Evo has proven to be a standard politician, kissing babies while stealing their candy. He used his own ties to the community to get elected and bring MAS to power. As soon as he got there, he turned his back on any group that didn’t directly bring him more influence, solidify his power, and enhance his stature.

    Unfortunately the idea of a plurinational state where the bulk of the power resides in autonomous communities is directly at odds with much of the Bolivian mentality. The Bolivian people always turn to the government to cure their ills, fix their economy and improve their lot in life. This requires a strong central government not a weak government with many different regional authorities.

    Also some of the desires of the Bolivians are contradictory. They want wealth, prosperity, and all the trappings that come with it, but they aren’t willing to accept the price, the use of the natural resources of the country to get there.

    All the G20 countries went through a developmental phase where they were exploited and someone else got rich. What the successful ones did, is learn how to do it themselves then begin to take the reigns of their own industries. Bolivia doesn’t do that, they invite foreign investors, wait until it is fixed, then nationalize it rather than learn and do on their own.

    Without a change in mentality from then central government, basically an attitude that the government is supposed to work for all the people, and without a change in the attitude of the indigenous, that some sacrifices may have to be made for their end goals, then nothing but heartache is in the future.

    Comment by pete on July 20, 2010 at 9:09 pm


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