Bolivia’s cultural two step
by Nick Caistor*
Bolivia has the largest proportion of indigenous people in South America – making up around two-thirds of the population – but will a new law giving indigenous communities the right to administer their own justice systems make it harder for them to live alongside each other?
It was a parade unlike anything I had seen before.
For the entire day, some 30,000 dancers and musicians poured down from the highest slopes of the Bolivian capital, La Paz.
These were the Aymara people, one of the most important indigenous groups among Bolivia’s 10 million population.
They were venerating a figure of Christ known as El Gran Poder, the Great Power, which is taken out of its church once a year to head the procession, as it winds its way down through the heart of the city.
The women sashaying by wore the brightest possible coloured shawls, layer upon layer of petticoats, and were topped off with their typical felt bowler hats. It is said that a quick-witted salesman from Manchester sold such hats to women in Bolivia back in the 19th Century as the height of fashion for elegant ladies in Europe.
The bowler hats, perched jauntily on top of their long black tresses, have become the Aymara women’s trademark.
The men in the different fraternities wore quantities of white plastic and braid that would have put Elvis Presley to shame. Others, in addition to everything else, wore tin facemasks with beards and pipes, which were said to represent evil authority in the form of slave overseers.
Millions of dollars spent
Behind each group of dancers came their brass bands, struggling to find the breath to keep going on their pipes, trumpets, trombones and even euphoniums under a cloudless sky at more than 11,000ft (3,350m) up in the Andes.
Millions of dollars have been spent by the Aymaras on costumes and other preparations for the procession and the days of festivities surrounding it, in this, the poorest country in South America.
Most of the money comes from donations by rich patrons, who are keen to see their indigenous traditions on display at the heart of Bolivian culture.
A respect for the many different indigenous traditions is integral to what President Evo Morales, himself an Aymara farmer, means by the “plurinational” Bolivia he has been striving to create since first coming to power in 2006.
According to the new constitution passed earlier this year, from now on the country will recognise 36 distinct communities, which will be allowed a far greater say in running their own affairs, with much less emphasis on the central government in La Paz.
The first of the new governors have been sworn in during the first days of June, although the process of this new autonomous system will take at least a year to complete.
But another event that has taken place in Bolivia recently has shown that this respect for indigenous traditions and outlook on the world can involve more difficult considerations than colourful folklore.
The whole country has been in an uproar caused by the lynching of four policemen in an Aymara community near the southern city of Oruro.
This, however, was not a mob running out of control and hanging the men while in a rage. Apparently the local indigenous authorities captured the four men, tried them for the murder of a local taxi-driver, extracted confessions which they say they made recordings of, then swiftly carried out the death sentence.
All of this was done without any recourse to Bolivia’s official legal system, in the name of traditional community justice.
Since the men’s deaths, the Bolivian press has been full of speculation about what really happened in the village of Uncia.
Some journalists have suggested the policemen were involved in trying to get their cut from the trade in cars smuggled in illegally from neighbouring Chile, and were killed because they became too greedy.
Several reports pointed out that the men, suspiciously, were a long way from the district they were authorised to patrol in.
The official police view is that the indigenous communities in this part of Bolivia are involved in more than just smuggling cars.
They claim they also actively take part in the extraction of cocaine from the coca leaves grown locally.
The police authorities have suggested that the killing of the four policemen was in retaliation for the fact that, some months earlier, the police discovered four cocaine “laboratories” in the area, and demolished them.
In the days since the lynchings, no police or other government representatives have dared to go anywhere near the area.
It was more than a week before the bodies of the policemen were returned to their families, and even the Catholic church has called for a military occupation in order to re-assert the government’s authority.
This is an extreme example. It is a clear warning though that giving Bolivia’s wide variety of communities a much greater say in their own affairs will require a lot of negotiation and mutual understanding if all the groups in Bolivia are to dance in harmony.
* This article was first broadcast and published by the BBC’s Radio 4 in the ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ programme. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/8729971.stm