Evo phenomenon

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Bolivia’s “Evo Phenomenon”: From Identity to What?

Robert Albro
g e o rg e was h i n g to n u n iver s i t y I thank God and the Pachamama for having given me this opportunity to conduct the nation. President Evo Morales in an address to Bolivia’s congress (January 22, 2006) Everything is brought together not by an indigenismo, but by a way of reading the nation beginningwith an indigenous lens. Vice-president Álvaro García Linera (Gómez Balboa 2006)

t a moment of the coming to power for the first time of an indigenous political project in Bolivia, a predominantly indigenous nation, I consider the significance of the new president, Evo Morales, and his party the MAS (or Movement Towards Socialism), as they help us to understand Bolivia’s current indigenouspolitics. I am concerned with changing conceptions of how the circumstances of being indigenous can be legitimately represented. It is impossible to refer to a singular “indigenous movement” in Bolivia. But nor is the MAS just one among a variety of indigenous options. Instead, I emphasize how Morales and the MAS epitomize coalitional strategies of indigenous cultural and political engagement—strategiesthat have effectively expanded the possibilities for indigenous belonging. Put another way, the MAS represents an increasingly pervasive stance of the acceptance of “indigenous” priorities by increasingly large numbers of non-indigenous allies, particularly during the direct action protests of recent years.


Journal of Latin American Anthropology, Vol. 11, No.2, pp. 408–428. ISSN 1085-7025,online ISSN 1548-7180. © 2006 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permissions to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm.


J o u r na l o f L at i n A m e r i c a n A n t h ro p o lo g y

An Indigenous PresidentThere is little debate:Bolivia has recently been the scene of dramatic change. Coca and Indigenous leader Evo Morales, of Aymara descent, was elected president in December of 2005 with an unprecedented 54 percent of the popular vote—an outcome that a short time ago would have seemed wildly improbable. Against an immediate backdrop in Bolivia of water wars, gas wars, and tax revolts since 2000,1 theelection of Morales has understandably epitomized the winds of change for national and international pundits. Explaining his decision to support Morales, former Aymara presidential candidate Félix Cárdenas noted simply, “I have a commitment to the historical moment of my people” (Padilla 2006). Morales’s mercurial and by now well-known political trajectory—from humble origins in a ruralAymara-speaking community, to coca grower and local union leader, to Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state—has coincided with a sharp upturn of the political efficacy of indigenous and popular movements in Bolivia. It is also coincident with widespread popular recognition of the apparent exhaustion of the neoliberal paradigm instituted in 1985, and with the virtual collapse of the monopoly by the country’straditional political class, as exercised through the exclusionary deal making of political parties during more than twenty years of so-called “pacted democracy.” Bolivia, in short, is living a fundamentally transformational moment.

Figure 1 The president-elect Evo Morales thanks indigenous leaders of CONAMAQ for their support. La Patria, January 19, 2006.

Bolivia’s “Evo Phenomenon”

409 Morales, or Evo, as he prefers to be called, wasted little time putting an indelibly indigenous stamp on his administration in ways both symbolic and substantive. He appointed people with an indigenous background to 14 of 16 cabinet posts, and made it mandatory for civil servants to speak one of Bolivia’s three widely spoken indigenous languages:Quechua, Aymara or Guaraní. He has eliminated...
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