The legacy of Bolivia's El Mallku: ‘Self-governance is fundamental’ for indigenous peoples

A screenshot of the video tribute to Felipe Quispe from the ‘Videos Bolivia‘ on YouTube, remixed by Global Voices. The original photographer is unknown.

In Bolivia, the slogan “Jiwaspachaw apnaqasjañasa” (“Self-governance is fundamental”) can often be heard in indigenous Aymara communities—in meetings, assemblies, city neighborhoods, conferences, in the media, and in conversations with the local people, especially young people.

The saying was popularized by the late historian, politician and peasant leader, Felipe Quispe Huanca and it has become an important rallying call for Aymara communities and other indigenous peoples of the region. All his life, the Aymara leader known as “El Mallku” (Aymara for “The Condor”) fought against the colonial and neoliberal state, until his death on January 19, 2021. Quispe's revolutionary ideology spread to the farthest corners of his homeland and internationally, and it has had a long-lasting impact. In fact, he foretold that after his death, his ideology would survive and thousands of “Mallkunaka” (“leaders” or “presidents” in the Aymara language) will emerge.

The current vice president of Bolivia, David Choquehuanca Céspedes, also of Aymara descent, believes this to be true: “Our brother Mallku does not die, he transcends beyond his death, he becomes eternal, he returns to our Pachamama [Mother Earth] to be a seed, to enlighten and lead the struggle of our peoples.”

In Bolivia, approximately 62.2 per cent of the population identify as indigenous. The Aymara nation accounts for about three million people in the Andean nations of Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina who speak the Qullan Jaqi Aru language (nowadays known as Aymara).

Even during his last days, at the age of 78, El Mallku talked about “Jiwaspachaw apnaqasjañasa,” as in this last interview in Aymara that he gave to me and Victoria Tinta for the SeoTV channel on January 7, 2021:

In this interview, El Mallku pointed out that the native peoples have had achievements during the 2000s, but that Evo Morales hindered their full self-determination. He also said that a politician must also be a philosopher and that every politician must teach and instruct the people instead of driving them like cattle, criticizing Evo Morales’ party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement for Socialism).

The phrases used by El Mallku are Aymara words: “jiwaspacha,” which means “ourselves,” and “apnaqasxañasa,” which means “self-governance.” A cultural characteristic of the Aymara people is that they always emphasize the inclusive first-person plural in most conversations. Many Aymara would also say “phuqhat tunu saphi amuyunakas luratanakas markaspachpankaskiwa,” which means “our structure, our fundamental ideological base, is in our people.”

But “jiwaspachaw apnaqasjañasa” was not El Mallku's only famous phrase. He was also known for his strong assertions against the political structure of “Bolivianity,” and in favour of his indigenous heritage. One example was during a television debate in August 2020 when he stated:

No soy boliviano… soy del Qullasuyu, de la nación aymara…tengo idioma, religión, territorio, filosofía.

I am not Bolivian … I am Qullasuyu, from the Aymara nation … I have my own language, religion, territory, philosophy.

This phrase inspired many Aymara in Bolivia to not commemorate the country's independence, which is celebrated on August 6 each year.

He also said:

Soy originario como la vicuña o el cóndor.

I am native like the vicuña or the condor.

No me gusta vivir bajo la manga del opresor.

I don't like living under the hand of the oppressor.

In reference to the interim government (2019-2020) of Jeanine Áñez, he said:

No puedo hermanarme con mi verdugo.

I can't fraternize with my executioner.

The need for the idea expressed in the phrase “Jiwaspach apnaqasiña” was made even more evident by the attitudes of the interim government of Jeanine Áñez. When Bolivians voted massively in favor of Luis Arce in October 2020 and ended the transitional government led by Áñez, her right-hand man, Arturo Murillo, and the former Defense Minister Fernando Lopez, immediately fled the country. Then, Áñez was arrested on March 13, charged with sedition, terrorism, and conspiracy, along with other former members of her cabinet, in relation to the ouster of former president Evo Morales.

For the Aymara, the government of Áñez was “a government of foreigners,” referring to Bolivian-Croatian Branko Jovičević who served as the Minister of Development Planning, and as Minister of Economy and Public Finance during the presidency of Áñez. Not only do the Aymara distrust politicians of foreign descent like Jovičević, but also the Bolivian political class in general. These events have allowed the majority of the indigenous population to reflect on self-governance, as articulated by El Mallku.

In addition, El Mallku asserted on many occasions that colonizers like Cristobal Colón, Francisco Pizarro, all the way to Evo Morales’ circles or those who raided the state coffers during the transitory government of Áñez, would always be the destroyers of the country.

Such governments exploited and wiped out natural resources only for the benefit of some family clans. To El Mallku, Evo Morales was only like a shining ornament as he did not rule based on his own ideology or thought.

Interviewed for an article in La Razón newspaper, Aymara researcher Carlos Macusaya said El Mallku's relevance may well compare to that of two indigenous heroes in history, Tupac Katari and Pablo Zárate Willca. The sociologist Pablo Mamani explained in the same article that, “The young people present today [at El Mallku's wake] literally swore to continue in the spirit of Felipe Quispe in order to achieve full freedom for their people. When I say this, I am referring not only to the Aymara people, but also to the Quechua and Guaraní peoples.”

Most of the indigenous population believe that “El Mallku” Quispe Huanca gave his life to fight for his village, his language, and his people. This is why the ideology of this indigenous peasant leader has been the subject of constant discussion since his death. In many writings and comments on social networks, users mention that his ideology has to be disseminated, discussed, analyzed so that indigenous people can truly achieve self-governance.

The following video, for instance, shows El Mallku speaking in Spanish of the new generations of native peoples who are scholars, thinkers, and writers, the corruption of the political class tainted by colonialism and fascism, and the necessity for the indigenous people to create our own government.


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