October 12th traditionally was celebrated as the anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas. For the indigenous peoples of the continent, this “discovery” meant hundreds of years of genocide and misery. Now the day has been reclaimed as the “Day of Indigenous Resistance” in Venezuela and Bolivia, two countries with presidents of indigenous descent who are refusing to toe Washington’s line.
Back in 1992, governments in Europe and the American continent were busy organizing the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival. In Bolivia the indigenous population, who at the same time were statistically the poorest in the country, were busy organising and resisting attacks from the neoliberal government
In 1995 a new political party, MAS IPSP, was formed in response to the government of the time blindly following instructions from the IMF and World Bank. For instance, the policy for the eradication of the coca leaf came directly from the US government, and was a direct attack on the cocaleros, indigenous peasants who live in the most deprived areas of the country. Natural resources were privatised and state-owned companies sold off at ridiculously low prices. Trade unions, students and indigenous peasants resisted, but everything seemed to be in vain.
Indigenous people on the continent were aware that wealth would only attract trouble for the indigenous population. Humboldt wrote in his diary in 1806, during his expedition to Latin America, when speaking to an indigenous cacique in Cajamarca: "I asked him: you are poor, aren't you tempted to excavate this land to discover treasures? He answered calmly: 'We live in misery but we are tranquil. If we had trees and fruits of gold, we would be hated and persecuted.' I admired this indigenous moderation and my eyes filled up with tears."
For Europe, the new continent meant opportunities to accumulate wealth and expand territory, for the indigenous population it meant genocide and exploitation. The only resistance possible was survival. Our continent did not flourish and develop despite the natural wealth, wealth that is still yearned for.
In April 2000, after US engineering company Bechtel took over the state water company, water costs rose 300%, ending in a revolt now called the Water War, when city dwellers and indigenous people joined forces to reclaim the water. The unthinkable became reality, the poor, the underdeveloped, the powerless recovered their voice and their strength, because they had managed to unite. Their unity came under one single banner: "The water is ours".
This event changed the direction in which the continent was moving - if water can be recovered, why can’t we recover our natural resources? Why can’t we recover our own government? The 2002 elections should have brought the MAS party and Evo Morales to government, instead it was stolen by political rigging and given to Goni Sanchez de Lozada. Goni fled the country after mass mobilisations to oust him following the massacre of 67 people and the wounding of 400 in the city of El Alto in October 2003. He is currently hiding in the US.
In December 2005 Evo Morales-MAS won the elections with 54% of the vote. The demands of the people in October 2003 were the renationalisation of the hydrocarbons industry, a constituent assembly to re-write the constitution so as to reflect people’s wishes, such as land reform and education as well as the extradition and trial of Goni.
The implementation of these demands, which are demands of the people, has put the Evo Morales government in direct confrontation with the powerful establishment. Despite all the criticism, the nationalisation of the hydrocarbons industry took place in May 2006, much to the dismay of the business community, who claimed that Bolivia was making a huge mistake and all companies would rather leave than pay more for gas and oil. A year later and the companies are still there and are trying to sign more contracts.
Bolivia is not a developed country, for this reason most of our natural resources are exported, but we still have something to which Humboldt was referring when he said that we were “beggars sitting in a chair of gold”. He wasn’t just referring to natural resources, he was referring to our human resources, as Evo Morales put it in an interview: "I am convinced that indigenous people are the moral reserve of humanity."