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Sucre, Bolivia: Peeking into the Bolivian national psyche

No longer feeling like I’d been hit by, rather than simply sleeping on a bus, we ventured into beautiful Sucre.

Sucre is the heart of Bolivia even if most people think of La Paz as the capital. We’d added Sucre into our plans to help us experience and understand more of Bolivia, beyond the desolate salt flats and gritty La Paz which was going to be more of a convenient stopping point in our itinerary.

Sucre is at a lower altitude than Uyuni and it’s colonial roots give it the feel of an old European town; beautiful old crumbling architecture built around leafy plazas, encircled by mountains. It felt temperate, fresh and clean in comparison to dusty, dirty Uyuni, where rabid, bleeding dogs picked at piles of rubbish dumped in the street, which we could not wait to leave.

We headed to the Museo de la Libertad, the building, now a museum where the nation’s independence from Spain was declared in 1825. We were lucky to have a truly fantastic, knowledgable guide, who spoke brilliant English and she absolutely made our experience of Sucre. It was just what we wanted, someone to bring to life the history and help us start to understand the Bolivian psyche.

There’s no way I’ll do justice to all the fascinating things she told us, but here are a few nuggets that really stick in my mind.

Sucre has had many different names, one of which was La Plata, re-named by the Spanish (from native name “Charcas”) on account of the area’s huge wealth of raw silver.

At the beginning of the 1600s, the Spanish bought 1000 African slaves to work in the Potosí mines (the first of many shipments). They were bought from British slave traders and delivered on British-built ships that kept the slaves in shamefully inhumane conditions. Here you can see a model of a slave ship and a close up of the tiny suffocating compartments in which they were kept, no fresh air, with barely any water or food.

Of course, hundreds died. But rather than improve conditions on the next shipment of slaves they simply sent more, to compensate for those who would inevitably die during the journey. Things got even worse for the poor slaves when they arrived since they then had to walk for 4 months on foot (slaves weren’t allowed to ride horses) through unimaginably harsh conditions to the silver mines of Potosí, again with barely any food or water. Of the 1000 slaves transported on the first shipment, 600 slaves survived the journey to BA but only 50 made it to Potosí.

The ones that did make the long journey couldn’t survive working in the mines, in their weak physical state they couldn’t bear the altitude and the intense heat and cold.

Eventually, the Spanish gave up on mining with slave labour and the slaves were sent to work on farms in Santa Cruz. To fulfil the labour requirements in the mines, natives were coerced into the work, since in theory they were better adapted to the conditions. It’s interesting to bear in mind that it was this silver mining that created the huge wealth of the Spanish empire, enabling them amongst other things, to fund the counter-reformation in Europe.

Another interesting fact was that the Chiriguanos, a native tribe, actually managed to resist the Spanish. This was quite a feat since the Spanish waged not only a much more sophisticated type of warfare but also inadvertent biological warfare on the natives. Somehow the Chiriguanos resisted, only to be enslaved by the Bolivian nation itself, once it had declared independence from Spain. As our guide explained, the wealthy classes of Bolivia had got used to having slaves, and so when there were no longer African slaves as under the Spanish system, the natives were enslaved.

The injustices against the natives are quite astounding. There are a few native leaders who fought in the revolution memorialised in the museum such as Quechas leaders, husband and wife Tupac Catari (who was killed by being tied by each of his four limbs to four separate horses) and Bartolina Sisa (who was hanged). They were revolting because the Quechas had been enslaved, but still made to pay taxes and received none of the benefits of rights of the mainstream citizens.

In 1778 Tomas Catari, who had been the chief of the Quechas, and had his title stolen from him by a Spaniard, walked all the way to Buenos Aires (since he was no longer entitled to ride a horse) to protest to the head prefect about the treatment of the Quechas. He was publicly promised an inquest, but was betrayed and killed upon return to the highlands.

Another fascinating character that surely is worthy of her own Hollywood film is Juana Azurduy de Padilla. She is a real heroine of Bolivia, fighting and leading guerilla armies in many of the decisive revolutionary wars -she’s a kind of a Joan of Arc/ Boudicca /Daenerys Targaryen character. Her father was killed by a Spaniard, who faced no recrimination. She was married at 19 to her husband who shared her love of and belief in Bolivia’s indigenous populations. They had 5 children initially but unfortunately none made it to adulthood. She fought while pregnant with a 6th child and was injured in battle and tragically her husband was killed trying to rescue her. The royalists hanged his dead body. She fought unsuccessfully to recover his body in a counter attack, but had to flee again with her army. Many more sagas ensued before eventually, once the war was won, she was able to return to Sucre where she lived in poverty with her daughter. In 1825 the liberator Simon Bolívar (after whom Bolivia is named) visited her after hearing of her story and was ashamed to find her in such a bad way. He’s reported to have said “This country should not be named Bolivia in my honor, but Padilla or Azurduy, because it was they who made it free”. He gave her a pension and promoted her to office of Colonel. But for some reason this pension was taken away from her by a later president, Linares. Why!?

She died, aged 82, unknown and uncelebrated on May 25, the anniversary of the day back in 1809 when the people of Sucre initiated the first outbreak which resulted in the war of independence. She was buried in a communal grave. 100 years later she began to be recognised again, her remains were exhumed and she is now recognised as a national hero.

In 2015 a massive statue of her was unveiled (by Evo Morales of course) replacing a long standing one of Christopher Columbus, which in a way perfectly sums up the Bolivian zeitgeist.

In these two pictures you can compare the weapons used by the natives, with the more advanced weapons of the Spanish. Each time a patriot would kill a royalist they would take their arms and armour).

In an interesting post-colonial twist however, the typical outfits that you see the Bolivian women proudly wearing: mid-calf length, full, layered skirts, accessories with shawls and hats are fashioned after the dress of the colonial Spanish upper classes. Go figure that one out! Here you can see a pic showing the type of aristocratic Spanish dress from which it derives (and an epic piece of tortoiseshell headgear for good measure).

Bolivia has had a tumultuous time with 75 presidents including 37 coups!!

Only since 1952 has there been a universal vote, including enfranchising the native people, thanks to President Estenssoro, and only since 1982 has a stable democracy been established.

One interesting bit of history is that of their only female president Lidia Gueiler Tejada who presided from 1979-1980.

She wanted to implement democracy but was overthrown in a cocaine-cartel backed coup by her very own cousin, Luis Garcia Mesa (a character and story straight out of Netflix’s Narcos), who took power from 1980-81. He is notorious as one of South America’s most brutal dictators. He was also implicated in Operation Condor (which we’d heard about when learning about Pinochet) which was a campaign of political oppression and state terror officially implemented by a group of South America’s right-wing dictators on their people from 1975 until the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the aim of brutally wiping out any socialist or communist tendencies.

Luis Mesa is now in jail for his brutal crimes committed during the period and has also been charged as a war criminal under international law relating to his involvement in Operation Condor. So when he is released from Bolivian jail in 2025, if still alive, he will then be extradited and imprisoned in Europe for those charges.

Bolivia seems to have had terrible luck with its presidents. In 1864 they had a guy called Mariano Melgarejo who was an alcoholic that many believe couldn’t read or write. His legacy includes not allowing natives to cultivate their own land, and idiotically agreeing that Chile could exploit Bolivia’s Salt Petre mines without paying any kind of tax or dues to Bolivia.

He coerced a woman to marry him, who eventually escaped to Lima with all his wealth. He somehow tracked her down but was accosted by his brother in law, who promptly killed him.

A few presidents later, one called Groselle, finally said that the Chileans must pay taxes to the Bolivians in exchange for exploiting their salt petre (duh!) which is one of the direct causes of the bloody Pacific War: Chile against Peru and Bolivia. (Peru and Bolivia had signed a secret treaty saying they would ally against Chile in the event of a territorial conflict). Both Bolivia and Peru lost a lot of resource-rich land in this war, and it resulted in poor old Bolivia becoming landlocked.

What about their current President? Evo Morales is a controversial character.

He’s the first president from an indigenous background and unsurprisingly has really championed native rights and empowerment.

However he’s had several subsequent terms and it seems that he’s trying to implement some kind of democratic dictatorship. He has amended Bolivia’s constitution to allow his rule to continue (despite previous limitations on subsequent terms in office) and this year he held a referendum to ask the people whether he could make further constitutional amendments to stand again. He lost in a 49%/51% result, a close call. However he wasn’t happy to accept this result, blaming a scandal about a pregnant woman he was involved with, that broke just before polling day. He wanted to hold another referendum, but the people protested. Yet somehow he has managed to fix things so that he can not just stand again, but win; by winning a human rights case in the courts, claiming that the limitation on his subsequent terms is a human rights violation on him (!!!) by preventing him from holding office in his home country. Unsurprisingly, the result appears to have resulted from the judiciary not being independent, as though the magistrates are all voted into office, Morales has managed to fix things so that all the candidates are people picked by him. We heard that most people decided to void their ballot papers in protest.

Another sinister element is that free speech does not seem to exist in Bolivia. We heard of two teenagers who posted a meme making fun of Morales who were jailed, along with a guy who recently posted a satirical video. They are now released but still… His Vice President has also bought the two main newspapers and a TV station. We heard many people in Bolivia say he is already a dictator.

He has also reportedly spent a lot of money building a self-indulgent museum in his native town, where they are in desperate need of basic infrastructure like water systems and hospitals. Meanwhile, when Morales has required medical care he has flown to Cuba.

Yet support still remains staunch amongst much of the Bolivian population, as he continues to support and empower indigenous communities, with a focus on education for the young and pensions for the elderly.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens at the election!

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