Volume 5, Number 138
1 December 2005

In this issue
Book Notes

Flight of the Condor

The Indigenous Movement in Bolivia

Dear Friends,

From ancient times, the Aymara people have lived and farmed at 14,000 feet altitude in the southern end of the fertile altiplano valley, a large flat plain bordered on east and west by the massive snow-clad cordilleras of the Andean mountains. Further north, beyond the calm blue expanse of Lake Titicaca, lie the ancestral lands of the Quechua-speaking people.

Thousands of feet higher still in the thin Andean air, flying over Aymara and Quechua alike, soar the Andean Condors. These magnificent creatures, the largest of all flying birds in the world, keep watch over all the peoples of the Andes, since time immemorial a living symbol of the spirit of the region.

Two thousand years ago the condors looked down upon the civilization of Tiahuanacú, a great city built of stone on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Traders and merchants from Tiahuanacú traveled north and south the entire 4,000-mile length of the Andean ridge. Images of the condor can be seen everywhere in the stone monuments and inscriptions of Tiahuanacú.

A thousand years later, the soaring condors witnessed the rise of a second great civilization in the altiplano. From humble beginnings near Cuzco, in Perú, this new civilization expanded under the leadership of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui with a rapidity comparable in history only to the exploits of Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Genghis Khan. The Incan Empire ultimately united both Quechua- and Aymara-speaking peoples under their ancient symbol, the condor, in about 1450.

Then, just 80 years after the Aymara nation joined the Empire of the Incas, the Spanish arrived. By 1532 the entire empire, from Ecuador to Chile, was in Spanish hands. The 12 million inhabitants of this region passed into slavery and deadly forced labor in plantations and high Andean silver mines. As they passed from relative freedom into slavery, the symbolic meaning of the condors changed as well. Under the Incas the condors had represented the spirit of an expanding empire, but now they represented the hope of freedom from oppression and tyranny.

Although slavery was legally abolished in 1831, forced labor in Bolivia did not even begin to end until 1952, just two generations ago. I have personally seen Aymaran peasants working in conditions that I would call feudal serfdom, in central Bolivia, and Jack Powelson has described similar practices in TQE #103. The 2005 report by the US State Department on human trafficking is equally somber.

The Spirit of the Andean Condor Takes Flight

Today, after four centuries of nearly continuous oppression, the ancient spirit of the condors is stirring again. It can be said to have begun in 1952, but it is my belief that it takes from two to four generations for an enslaved people to throw off the psychological state of passivity that slavery induces.

In the fall of 2005, in a moment of extraordinary political and cultural symbolism, a politician of indigenous descent announced his bid for the presidency of Bolivia — and leadership of the entire newly emerging indigenous movement of the Andes. The politician was Evo Morales, an Aymara-speaking member of the Legislature of Bolivia who represents the coca-growing Chapare region near Cochabamba.

Adorned in power symbols of Andean culture and politics, Evo Morales announced his candidacy for President of Bolivia on Columbus Day, 2005.

It was in no way a coincidence that the announcement occurred on the 12th of October — Columbus Day, the day recognized by indigenous Americans as the beginning of five centuries of slavery and servitude.

Equally significant were the cultural and political symbols with which Evo Morales draped himself on that day:

  • In his right hand he gripped a silver scepter, topped by a condor, symbolizing his readiness to speak for the native spirit of the Andes, and to lead its people.
  • Around his neck he wore a garland of flowers and coca leaves. In this context, the coca leaves invoke the unique power of the ancient herb to allow the Aymara and Quechua people to survive at high altitude, and it also reminds us of a modern source of wealth in Bolivia. The flowers symbolize heroism and victory in battle.
  • On his head he wore a silver-colored hard hat inscribed with the letters YPFB, the initials of the nationalized mining company that, in his view, will wrest control of Bolivia's natural resources (metals and natural gas) away from foreigners, and return control and the rights of development back to the people of Bolivia.
  • He wore a woven poncho with the colors and design of the Quechua-speaking culture of the high Andes. In doing this he signaled his identification with the Quechua as well as the Aymara people.

Whether this particular Aymara candidate actually wins the presidency of Bolivia in the upcoming December elections is less important than the larger phenomenon of the emergence of a mature indigenous political movement. Individual political leaders come and go, but when an entire culture stirs then the world pays attention.

What will Happen Next?

Evo Morales is the candidate of a party known as Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). Unfortunately, there is little in the MAS platform to inspire confidence in their ability to build a healthy modern economy in Bolivia, let alone to provide leadership to the larger community of Andean peoples.

If he wins, will Mr Morales opt for police-state socialism, as in Cuba and North Korea? Or will he choose something more like the modern democratic socialism of western Europe, with regulated markets? No one knows for sure. He might display the independence and financial sobriety of Brazil's left-wing president, Luis Ignacio Lula, or he might fall into financial dependence on Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez. There are traps here at every turn.

Even more critical than the question of socialist versus free-market policies is the question of whether a MAS government would, for the first time in Bolivian history, step away from the corrupt system that allows the president's party to appoint friends and political allies to positions at every level of national and regional government. In my opinion it is this system, more than any other, that has worked like a toxic infection to spread and perpetuate corruption throughout Bolivian government, and to reduce the continuity of the civil service across administrations to nearly zero. Alas, the outlook for movement away from this system is bleak.

The Peruvian Experience

Four years ago, Perú elected its first president of indigenous origin, Alejandro Toledo Manrique. One of a family of 16 children in northern Perú, his father was a bricklayer and his mother a fishmonger. With encouragement from local Peace Corps workers, he attended college and eventually earned a PhD in economics from Stanford University. As a consultant in economic development, Toledo worked for many elite international institutions, including the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Labor Organization, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Thus in many ways President Toledo of Perú is about as far from Evo Morales of Bolivia as could be. Yet both men became focal points for the aspirations of the indigenous people of the Andes. In the elections of 2001, candidate Toledo promised that a geyser (Spanish: chorreo) of prosperity would follow from his economic reforms. In reality economic growth in Perú has averaged 4% — not bad, but certainly not a geyser. His popularity has plunged down into the single-digit region (7% in August of this year), due, I think, to too many unfulfilled promises and a continuous stream of corruption and nepotism scandals.

A similar fate may await whoever wins the presidency of Bolivia this year, whether it is the socialist Aymaran Evo Morales, or the sophisticated conservative candidate Jorge Quiroga. The twin dangers of corruption scandals and unfulfilled campaign promises loom at least as large in Bolivia as in Perú, threatening to overshadow debates on the vital strategic questions of the day.

In Bolivian national strategic seminars and exercises that I have attended in recent years, we have seen titanic struggles over substantive policy questions:

  • Whether to acquiesce to or resist US pressure to suppress coca, the basic ingredient of cocaine.
  • Whether to auction off production rights to natural gas, or keep them for domestic development.
  • Whether to reverse prior sales of natural resources, on which a suspicion of high-level corruption has fallen.
  • Whether to address governmental corruption as a moral problem, or a matter of structural reform.
  • Whether and how to address land reform, and how to provide land to the many landless peasants.

Two years ago, Jack Powelson wrote this in TQE #85:

Bolivians must learn good policy by their own experience, through trial and error — and learning may take centuries of suffering, corruption, and wars. It took centuries for Western society to learn to deal with each other with freedom and democracy (to the extent that we have learned), and we are still suffering wars because we force our policies on others. Why not allow Bolivia the same experience?

Even now, on the eve of a possible presidential victory by the first Bolivian of indigenous descent, I can find no fault with those words. The only certainty we have about the next government of Bolivia is that, as always, the Andean Condor will be soaring and wheeling overhead, a symbol of irrepressible spirit and hopes for a new awakening for the Andean people after five hundred years in the shadows.

Sincerely your friend,

Loren Cobb


The Quaker Economist announces with pride and pleasure the online publication of A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why Some Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by Jack Powelson.

Originally published in 1994 by the University of Michigan Press as Centuries of Economic Endeavor, this new electronic edition is now available to the public at no cost. Click here to see the Table of Contents.

Traducimos esta obra en español, abajo del titulo Historia de Riqueza y Probreza. Esperamos la finalización en enero de 2006.

Readers' Comments

Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer!

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Your article truly portrays the reality of both Bolivia and Peru. It has been long over due for an indigenous leader to reach the top of the mountain. My gut feeling is that this momentum is not going to stop just in these two countries. A similar future lies ahead for other neighboring countries, too.

An interesting aspect of President Toledo's term is how he has had to face the harsh reality of trying to "democratize" a country that is plagued by hollow democratic institutions. Without these being consolidated, and with corruption at all levels, democracy remains the uphill struggle that you well wrote about.

Lastly, polls in early December in Bolivia reveal that the MAS party is favored by 51% in Santa Cruz, with an assurance of 14 seats in the Senate. Six months ago, who would ever have thought this might happen? However, his alliance is united in principle but not in substance. This may well be the achilles' heel of Evo Morales.

— Mike Gonzalez, Miami, FL.

I am unsure about your characterization of a "mature indigenous political movement" in Bolivia. Evo Morales' rise coincides with Bolivia becoming a semi-ungovernable state. Is it two or three of the last presidents who resigned in either disgrace or disgust, depending on the circumstance. The "mature indigenous political movement" uses violent tactics to close highways and other communications, have not worked through the (somewhat fragile) policital processes, and there have been riots and other extensive civil disorder.

To suggest that the nationalizing the mining/extraction industries will "wrest control of Bolivia's natural resources (metals and natural gas) away from foreigners, and return control and the rights of development back to the people of Bolivia" is to buy into the same kind of ridiculous rhetoric that George the "W"orst speaks when describing the "improvements" in Iraq and the "liberation" of Iraqis. State-run extractive industries have consistently led to cronyism, corruption, and sub-optimal allocation of resources to the extremely wealthy while trashing the environment. This is Bolivia's history, and will be the future again under re-nationalized schemes.

A critical current development is the emergence of the eastern lowlands as an economic and political center separate from the traditional power structures of the altiplano. These citizens want more foriegn resource development, more agricultural expansion, and a more open trade regime. This new dynamic may have been part of the recent trend towards significant destabilization.

And I also agree with Jack Powelson's assessment that it may be just these trying political gyrations, with instability and violence, that help establish the social infrastructure and citizen expectation that is necessary for Bolivia to assist its citizens to escape poverty.

— Christopher Viavant, Salt Lake (UT) Monthly Meeting.

Reply: Extremely unstable governments, road blockades, and civil disturbances predate Evo Morales by more than a century. Evo Morales and his MAS party invented none of that, they are merely the latest practitioners. There was a five-year lull in the action during the presidency of Hugo Banzer, which is why it seems that this is a recent development. However, that impression is illusory.

It is also an illusion that Bolivia is a violent country. In fact it is very peaceful. Even the road blockades and noisy street demonstrations are remarkably free of violence, and everyone goes home at night. The country has an inner stability that most outside observers fail to appreciate.

On your second point, about the rhetoric of nationalization, of course you are right in this. I did not make it sufficiently clear in the text that I was simply repeating the rhetoric and dreams of the Bolivian left wing. I have changed the online TQE to make this clear.

On your third point, it is true that the eastern lowlands region is the dynamic engine that is powering Bolivia forward, and that they have become a separate power center in Bolivia. However, there is a darker side to the eastern lowlands that we need to be aware of. Neo-nazi parties are strong there, and large parts of industry are apparently controlled by secretive right-wing "lodges" that function beyond the reach of the law. Underneath the surface run currents of fascism and racism.

— Loren

Readers are likely to be interested in the work of Quaker Bolivia Link. Note that there are more links which appear by mousing over the headline tabs on this page. See particularly the historical summary in the section entitled Why Bolivia (under the "About QBL" tab).

Members from this Meeting visited and worked in a QBL project last year. In Friendship,

— Theo Tulley, Pickering and Hull MM, Hull PM. [March, 2006]

Book Notes

Registered readers of TQE are cordially invited to send us notes on books they have read. Please send us the book's title, the author, the publisher, and a single informative paragraph about the book. All notes will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Send to: [email protected]

Logical and Linguistic Problems of Social Communication with the Aymara People, by Iván Guzmán de Rojas. Ottawa, Canada: the International Development Research Centre, 1984. The entire book is now freely available on the web, at <http://www.aymara.org/biblio/igr/igr.html>.

This book puts forth a provocative thesis: that the Aymara language is unique among human languages in its use of trivalent logic to convey finely shaded connotations of uncertainty. In an eloquent introduction, the author claims that this unusual logic creates problems for mutual understanding between the Aymara-speaking populations of Bolivia and all others. Issues of logic aside, it is rather remarkable how efficiently the Aymara language can qualify statements of fact. They simply append single-syllable particles to words. These particles convey the extent to which the event in question is reliable, possible, probable, feasible, backed by evidence, controversial, or eventual (among others). Finally, the author argues that the Aymara concept of symmetric doubt is unique to their culture. — Contributed by Loren Cobb.

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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting, Editor.
  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2005 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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