Indigenous Bolivians gathered on Friday in La Paz’s central Plaza Murillo to celebrate Plurinational State Foundation Day. This year’s celebration marks a decade since President Evo Morales came to power.
The national holiday celebrates Bolivia’s renaming from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia under the 2009 constitution, a move which recognized the importance of the country’s indigenous cultural diversity. The celebration is held on 22 January every year, the day Morales was elected president.
Quechua elders, or amautas, gathered in Plaza Murillo to ask permission from the Pachamama, the Andean Earth Mother deity, to celebrate another year of the Plurinational State, according to government news portal ABI.
A melting pot of cultures
Bolivia is home to a broad range of indigenous groups, languages, and cultures. The 2009 constitution recognizes 37 official languages including Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, and Guaraní. Public functionaries are required to speak at least two official languages, and bilingual signs are a common sight. La Paz’s cable car has signs in Aymara, the language spoken on the vast Andean Altiplano mountain plain, while signs in Cochabamba’s central bus station are in Spanish and Quechua.
Born to an Aymara family, Morales is considered to be Bolivia’s first indigenous president. He enjoys strong popular support: his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party was swept to power for a third term in 2014, obtaining 60 percent of the vote.
Before his leadership, Bolivia had witnessed the election of four presidents in five years. This included Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, known as Goni. This American-educated president is currently in exile in the U.S. after 67 people were killed by the armed forces as part of mass protests over natural gas exports made during his term.
Morales represents a marked shift in favour of indigenous culture. A former grower of coca, he has been a strong advocate of restoring the standing of coca leaves. These form an important part of Andean culture, as well as being a valuable cash crop.
In Bolivia, they are often chewed or drunk in a tea to stave off altitude sickness, fatigue, and appetite. Latin American history professor Herbert S. Klein has noted that historically, chewing coca was an “absolute necessity” for miners in high-altitude silver mines. Bolivian cities such as El Alto and Potosí count among the highest in the world, at over 4,000 metres. As the raw material for cocaine, the leaves are illegal in many countries around the world.
An indigenous celebration
Many Bolivians believe the MAS government has encouraged people to take more pride in their indigenous heritage. Pre-Colombian languages had in the past been marginalized as low-status, peasant languages. Juana Tambo, who organizes cultural festivals in El Alto, told Al Jazeera: “Because of the social situation, we moved our language aside. It was considered backwards.”
With native languages enshrined in the constitution and increased local language use in government, this appears to be changing. The wiphala, a flag of the native people of the Andes, was nominated as a symbol of the state alongside the red, yellow and green flag in the 2009 constitution.
Already set to stay in power until 2019, a referendum scheduled for 21 February will decide whether to amend the Bolivian constitution in order to allow Morales to run for another term. While supporters point to his achievements in terms of political stability and economic growth, his detractors view the move as an attempt to consolidate his position of power.