Impact of Boliva's Spanish Heritageby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Explore the initial attitudes of the Spanish and the Indians in present-day Bolivia to each other, and trace the change in that relationship and its causes to the present time.
In 1537, amazingly, Pope Paul III found it necessary to issue a bull stating
that native Americans definitely had souls and were not “dumb brutes”.
This statement was a response to the cruel, repressive treatment that many of
the Spanish conquistadors, as well as the Portuguese, had given the Indians
as they blazed through the new world searching for riches. This essay explores
the relationship between the Spanish and the Indians in one country chosen as
an example, Bolivia, from the appearance of the Spanish to the present day.
Paul III’s announcement coincided with Spain’s conquering of the area that would become present-day Bolivia during the 1530s. The territory was populated by several Indian tribes under the rule of the Incas, and they suffered the same fate that befell the Incas. The Pope’s edict did little to help the Indians. The Spanish conquistadors were out for their own benefit -- the Spanish throne itself could hardly control them, much less the Papacy. After Pizarro’s initial conquering, the Indians suffered several abuses. As always, they were decimated by European diseases. First, as was the Spanish practice, the highland area of Bolivia was divided into encomiendas, large farms owned by Spaniards with Indians as practical slaves working on them. Soon the discovery of silver brought hordes of Spanish in and Indians were forced to work in the mines. Thirdly, the Spanish established a system which levied heavy tribute from the Indians, and (unsuccessfully) attempted to forcibly move them into villages to facilitate collecting this tribute.
However, the Spanish were unable to conquer the tribes in the eastern lowlands, the Gran Chaco. There was a continually hostile relationship between them, with frequent Indian raids. And the subjugated Indians did not submit. Rebellions were extremely frequent, but the Spanish viciously put them down, mercilessly slaying the leaders of each one. This cruelty only inspired more rebellions. These uprisings failed because each one was quite small and did not unite the Bolivian Indians, who altogether far outnumbered the Spanish.
The work of Spanish missions and the Jesuits did little to counteract this. They did manage, however, to convert most of the Indians to semi-Catholic beliefs that blended in the traditional religions of the region. In 1667 the Jesuits were expelled from Upper Peru, the Spanish designation for present-day Bolivia. The Spanish regime in Upper Peru, in remarkable contrast to human rights abuses in other areas, was remarkably tolerate in the area of religion and did not force conversions. But the reason for this is hardly commendable – they simply hardly cared about religion at all, as was seen earlier with their disregard for the papal bull of 1537.
Time did little to stop exploitation; only the form of abuse changed. A group of people half-Spanish and half-Indian, the mestizos, grew up, but they were oppressed just as the full-blood Indians were. In 1825 the country gained independence from Spain with help from an army sent by Simon Bolivar. The political intrigues of the 1800s between the greedy elite of Spaniards are quite complex and did little to change the fortunes of the Indians, so don’t fall under the scope of this report.
By this time the silver supply had trickled to a stop, ending the Indians’ enslavement there. Still, their condition as serfs on the encomiendas and large farms was horrible, and the levying of tribute had actually increased and would increase throughout the 18th century. Indian revolts grew bigger with increased oppression, and oppression increased with bigger Indian revolts.
However, the developing Spanish middle class showed some glimpses of sympathy for the Indians. These descendents of Spanish lived off of their own work, not off of exploitation of the Indians. And at least one of the many dictators of the 1800s, Manuel Isodoro Belzu Humerez, tried to break up the farms of the elite and incited the Indians to revolt during his reign from 1848 to 1855. Though he was forced out by the Spanish, his precedent of taking note of the Indians as a political force at all was a step in the right direction.
In addition to the addition of the Spanish middle class, another complexity emerged in the Spanish-Indian relationship. By the 1880s the Pacific War (against Chile) and the increase on the international market of the value of silver and tin led to a new political elite taking power: the owners of the silver and tin mines. Industrialization had reached Bolivia. From now on, the plight of the Indians would take on the new dimension of a struggle between industry and workers. The first National Congress of Workers was held in La Paz in 1912. Unions were formed and the Indians first began to use labor strikes.
Meanwhile, Bolivia lost the Chaco War in 1936 to Bolivia. Severe political unrest continued until 1952 when the National Revolutionary Movement, primarily representing miners, overthrew military rule. The Indians and mestizos now had a chance to redress the wrongs they’d suffered. The elected government that the National Revolutionary Movement formed survived twelve years, and instituted many radical changes. These included state control of the larger mining companies and land redistribution to the Indians through the Agrarian Reform Law of 1953. With this law the peasants and Indians in general also received the right to vote. Miners’ wages were more than doubled by government decree.
Unfortunately, these socialist-influenced reforms were economically untenable. The complete and immediate righting of wrongs simply was not possible with the resources Bolivia had at hand. The military eventually intervened in a coup that led to a more realistic economic policy that was laced with cruelty, visible in violent put-downs of labor strikes. In 1980 elections were shortly followed by a return to military rule, but elections were held again in 1982 and Bolivia entered a period of democratic rule that still continues today.
A period of nearly 480 years has not returned the Indians to equality with the Spanish-descended people of Bolivia. But the barriers have been weakened, and today the main barriers are economic and linguistic. The people of Bolivia are beginning to assimilate; today about a third of the population are descendents of both Spanish and Indians, and the language barrier (Bolivia has three national languages) is increasingly being broken down, generally in the favor of Spanish. Indians have yet to conquer the economic divide between them and the Spanish Bolivians, but with the right to vote and the legal basis of repression removed, this too may gradually become a thing of the past.
Racism and ethnic oppression has lasted long in Bolivia. The Catholic Church’s early efforts failed to curb the racism of the Spanish conquistadors. The development of a middle class of working Spaniards who demanded their own rights helped the cause of the Indians. Industrialization and urbanization brought the Indians together and with greater unity, made their struggle for equality fruitful. The very straightforward attitudes of contempt leading to exploitation on the part of the Spaniards and hatred because of exploitation on the part of the Indians have, in a long and complex path, come to a much better understanding of each other and better treatment of each other.
“Bolivia History”; originally from Library of Congress country
studies; published 07/04/01; http://workmall.com/wfb2001/bolivia/bolivia_history_index.html
“Bolivia People 2001”; republished from Library of Congress country studies; published 12/21/01; http://workmall.com/wfb2001/bolivia/bolivia_people.html
“Bolivia”; World Book Encyclopedia; © 1995 World Book Inc.
“SIM Country Profile: Bolivia” author n/a; published 2003; http://www.isaiah.sim.org/country.asp?CID=15&fun=1
“Liberty and Morality”; transcript of address by Leonard Liggio delivered in 1996; accessed 01/23/04; http://www.townhall.com/phillysoc/cancun.htm
“Library of Congress / Area Handbook Series / Bolivia”; accessed 01/23/04; http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/botoc.html
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