Was Evo Morales Bolivia's First Indigenous President?

13Nov2019. Evo Morales Ayma (President of Bolivia from 2006 to 2019) has often been portrayed as Bolivia's first indigenous president. But was he?

Evo Morales (left, in the photo above) is actually mestizo. The literal translation of the word mestizo is "half-blood". A preferable term today might be "mixed race". The first documented origins of his Spanish last name (Morales) can be traced back to 1596 to a family, members of nobility, in Castille and Catalogne, Spain. The word "morales" in Spanish means "mulberry bushes". Morales is the 16th most common Spanish last name in the United States today. Ayma (his mother's last name) comes from the Aymara language. Many Bolivians, including a large number of those who identify as indigenous, are actually mestizos.

By this definition, Evo Morales was not Bolivia's first indigenous president. The first would have been Mariscal Andrés de Santa Cruz y Calahumana, also a mestizo, who served as President of Bolivia 190 years ago.

Andrés de Santa Cruz (middle, in the photo above) was the son of a Spaniard (José de Santa Cruz y Villavicencio). His mother was an indigenous woman named Juana Basilia Calahumana. She was from a somewhat wealthy Uru/Aymara indigenous family and served as the mayor of Huarina where Andrés de Santa Cruz was born. Huarina is a small town established by the Urus near the shores of Lake Titicaca, about 2 hours Northwest of La Paz. Andrés de Santa Cruz was born in 1792, when South America was still ruled by Spain, which had divided the continent into large regions called viceroyalties. Modern-day Peru and Bolivia together formed what was known as the Viceroyalty of Alto Peru. Andrés de Santa Cruz first served as President of Peru. Years later he became Bolivia’s 7th President from 1829-1839.

Although both men are mestizo, one highlighted his European heritage while the other highlights his indigenous origins. Why?

Both men chose to emphasize the part of their heritage that would best serve their purposes during the specific time in history in which they lived.

While both were born in tiny remote towns in the same general region of Bolivia, Andrés de Santa Cruz was educated at a private Catholic convent and universities and later attended a military academy. He was born precisely at the time when mestizos in South America were beginning to rise up against Spain and fight for independence. He participated in a number of significant battles, and was eventually installed as president – twice - of two different newly-created countries, as mentioned above.

Evo Morales, on the other hand, was born in the Aymara town of Orinoca, also near Lake Titicaca, 167 years later, long after Bolivia’s national borders had been defined and the country had been on its own for a century and a half. He lived in Argentina with his father for a number of years and later moved to the Chapare region of Bolivia (in Cochabamba) where the majority of the population is Quechua. There he was named president of the 6 federations of coca growers of Bolivia. At the time he became politically militant, the indigenous people of Bolivia had watched as the middle and upper mestizo classes prospered over the years, while they saw very few improvements to their own impoverished lives.

Andrés de Santa Cruz came of age at a time in South American history when the mestizos were very discontent because, as they were neither fully European nor fully indigenous, they were not afforded all of the rights enjoyed by their purely European family members and counterparts. They had little power of self-determination. The mestizo’s resentment over this was a driving factor behind the demand for full independence from Spain. Andrés de Santa Cruz was born at a time when highlighting one’s European heritage was more important in order to be taken seriously and to gain the support of “fully European” counterparts, without whom independence from Spain would not have been achieved. Santa Cruz was a Spanish loyalist. He initially fought to quash groups fighting for independence. Even after becoming President of Bolivia, he attempted to reunite Peru and Bolivia in the form of a federation, which was short-lived. Emphasizing his Spanish side afforded him the opportunities he was given to be in positions of power.

Evo Morales was born at a time when mestizos are already integrated into the population and have enjoyed many civil, political and human rights as well as positions of power for over a century, while the indigenous people still have not. He became president at a time when the country was prime for change with demands for a better life for the most impoverished classes and indigenous peoples. Together these two groups make up a large part of the population. Morales' indigenous heritage was important in order to gain their support for his election and the sweeping changes he planned in order to transform Bolivia into a socialist country. Without indigenous support, his socialist party would not have gained power in Bolivia. Emphasizing his indigenous origins afforded him the opportunities he was given to be in positions of power.

Did you know? Bolivia almost had three indigenous presidents.

Victor Hugo Cárdenas (right, in the photo above) is of Aymara origin and served as Vice President of Bolivia from 1993 to 1997. Like Morales and Santa Cruz, he was also born near Lake Titicaca, in a small town called Achica Bajo. His family's true last name was Choquehuanca. However, shortly before he was born his father changed their last name to hide their indigenous origins because he believed his son would have better educational and professional opportunities, and suffer less discrimination, with a Spanish surname.

Cárdenas is a highly educated man and has a PhD in Linguistics. He also did post-graduate studies in Spain and the United States. He speaks Aymara, Quechua, Guarani, Spanish and English. In 2009 he ran against Evo Morales in the presidential elections. However, because he campaigned on a platform of national unity and was willing to cooperate with opposition parties to achieve that, and because he had already served as Vice President of Bolivia, members of Morales’ socialist party accused him of siding with the wealthy. They blocked his access to dozens of indigenous towns so that he could not campaign, and on March 8, 2009, they attempted to burn his family alive in their home. His wife and two children, sister-in-law and nephew narrowly escaped but were ferociously beaten and bloodied as they fled the burning home. Cárdenas was defeated later that year and has not attempted to campaign since.

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Photo of Evo Morales: By Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores from Perú - Presidentes del Perú y Bolivia inauguran Encuentro Presidencial y III Gabinete Binacional Perú-Bolivia, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77018279

Image of Andrés de Santa Cruz: By Unknown - http://www.presidencia.gov.bo/Presidentes_Bolivia/pr_Bolivia.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7969165

Photo of Victor Hugo Cárdenas: By Ram.tex.13tex - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76464975











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