Decolonial Translation Group


Towards a Decolonial History of Freedom in Bolivia

By Víctor Hugo Quintanilla Coro, Quechua, north of Potosí



Before the invasion of the Western world, the original indigenous cultures of Qullasuyu use a communitarian concept of freedom, whose foundation was life. The processes of Conquest and colonization attempted to dismantle this cosmovision with a “rationality,” that didn’t see in Life more than means to other ends, such as individual freedom, presupposed to be even more important than life itself. The wars of independence and the emergency of monocultural nation states politically sanctioned this western version of freedom, which explained the sacking, negation and discrimination of indigenous cultures, by the liberal colonialism of mestizos and criollos. However, in February 2009, the liberal freedom of the monocultural state was put into crisis, in order to give way to the process of the reconstitution of collective freedom, the other foundation of original cultures, and which today must be seen as part of the project of decolonization of Bolivian society.

 1. All of the original indigenous cultures of Qullasuyu were infinitely free before the invasion of the Western-Modern world. While it is true that we had problems, we also had many benefits. After all, what culture is possible at the margin of successes and errors? No one culture is that glass of milk.1 However, we have no doubt that it is a thousand times better to carry our own defects than to be obligated to carry the weight of the irrationalities of other “civilizations” such as that of the West. However, for the Quechuas and Aymaras, the freedom of Spanish culture obligated us to be exploited, dominated, controlled and conditioned. What kind of freedom is that which produces the oppression of other freedoms? Beyond that, what kind of freedom makes the existence of other concepts of freedom impossible? If one freedom is constitutively better than others, why wouldn’t it convince the other through an ethical route (such as dialogue) before simply violating them through invasion, slavery or racism? A freedom that has to make other conceptions of freedom submit or be destroyed cannot be a true freedom, nor can it be freedom. Us Quechuas and Aymaras, we were free and the collective foundation of this kind of freedom permitted us to be sure that we were also happy for the simple truth of being alive, and not because life was a medium to achieve ends that are supposedly more important than living itself. All of modernity, thus, is irrational because it teaches that there can be ends more urgent than life, such as a concept of freedom understood as “death before living as slaves.”

 2. The violent advent of Spanish rationality set the way for the dismantling of our cosmological conception of freedom, that which affirms that we were not only born to be free, but also to live-well-in-community. The Suma Qamaña and the Sumaj Kawsay2 pre-date individual freedom, including the collective, because life was – and still is – much more essential that any other end or project. It is not that collective freedom and individualist freedom are being put on the same level – To the contrary!!! The collective freedom of “us” is the foundation of all individual freedom. The Spanish of the 16th Century were incapable of understanding this, even given the advanced state of Western philosophy, and they still can’t, six centuries later!!! It is still believed that the only concept of freedom that exists is the liberal one, given by Reason, the individual freedom that is the stepchild of the western ethic, because without being its mother it was and is still obligated to control a stepdaughter that it has not birthed, a freedom whose drive is to liberate itself from everything, including its other apocryphal mothers: liberal policy, positive rights and Judeo-Christian-Catholic-Apostolic y Roman religion.

 3. Following the process of the “conquest” and colonization, and what were originally our Munay-Ajayu (spirituality), Yachay-Yatiña (knowledge), Ruway-Luraña (ethics) and Atiy-Qamasa (politics) began to become deconstructed, prohibited and demonized. The freedom of the rationality of our cultures is oppressed and enslaved by the liberty of an impenitent Christianity, by the luster of European education, by the economy of commodification and by a politics which – fetishizing power – only tries to serve itself, before the rest. Thus does western liberty begin to form the foundation of the emergence of a society of individualities, rejecting the project of a culture of communities. Western liberty begins to form the foundation of a concept of politics restricted to the exercise of power, but not to the promotion and reproduction of the life of all people and not only of those who decided to elect themselves to control and command especially the indigenous. One of the most nefarious consequences of the colonization of our imaginations, of the gradual substitution of our rationality, is the suspension of our knowledges and practices in the field of education, because it was necessary to prevent the reproduction of our identities. We should have stayed in the past and to begin to think morbidly in the future, in development, based on the western ethic of “save yourselves whoever can and wants.”

 4. In the 19th century, mestizos and criollos – and only they – decided to free themselves from European domination. To do this, however, required the blood of the indigenous. Visualize the emergence of nation-states where they, and no one else, can be free, that is to say, to do whatever they want, for example, to exploit and sell nature, including the reprobation of the sacred spirituality of Pachamama. Nevertheless, after the screams, battles and “liberating” proclamations, the liberty won by the mestizos and criollos did not bring with them freedom for our cultures. We all know this, especially the historians who narrate the glory of how “civilized” modernity ended up civilizing the “savages” of Tawaintisuyo. The liberal conception of liberty continued negating, ignoring, oppressing more and better the collective concept of our freedom, Andean cultures. For the criollos and the feudal señores it was still an era where they could kill indigenous people in order to be in peace with themselves. It was consistent with the idea of seeing the Indian as an obstacle to modernity and happiness at the “q’ara”: adoring God in public and on one’s knees, but abusing the quechuas and aymaras who stood up, hidden away and sometimes in public.

 5. Parallel to the struggles of the mestizos and criollos, it is also possible to find the struggles of our own heroes for the re-establishment of our freedom, our everyday Munay3 y Ajayu.4 The struggles for different forms of understanding freedom should have been realized without problem, but the mestizos and criollos, for example Pedro Domingo Murillo, but also many other mestizos and criollos, contributed to the struggle for the reconstitution of failed Qullasuyu freedom. Due to this, for us, it is very strange that today certain celebrations would like to have everyone believe that all of the mestizos or criollos of the 19th century, also fought for the freedom of the indigenous. It is even more strange when – despite the violence against the indigenous brothers and sisters – in Sucre on the 24 of May of 2008 – the institutions and certain authorities intend that we all celebrate the first “free” cry of mestizos and criollos who contributed to the oppression of Andean cultures, and which in the present continue to discriminate against our knowledge and practices, believing that our rationality does not contain a horizon by which to better govern today’s modern blind, where the one-eyed – which are the westernized intellectuals – are simple observers.

 6. Thus, the modern nation-states institutionalized themselves. The mestizos and the criollos won their republican liberty but the whole world knows – even the politicians of the Right – that the indigenous continue to be denied, over and over again. The individual liberty of the mestizos will never end where the collective, communal freedom of the original indigenous culture began. They moved more and more and more beyond their own ethical boundaries. It was thus that, especially after the “revolution” of 1952, the Quechuas and Aymaras were obligated to be free under the terms of Western-modern rationality. It was a liberty which crystallized under the figure of citizenship with credentials that, first, allowed the belief that the carrier existed and second, that he was obligated to be part of society, although society would not let him or her (the indigenous “citizen”) walk in its plazas. From our point of view, the blackmail was clear: collective freedom or individual citizenship with rights and obligations? All of a sudden, liberty had stopped being part of the natural conditions of the human being and became an obligation that was ensured by institutions, with armed forces prepared principally to not-die, but in order to kill in the name of this strange liberal liberty, which could once in a while be reached just by refusing to be part of what had cost centuries of cultural development. If this is not the case, let the first stone be thrown by he or she who decided at some point to be free and then began to be thus right away. The myopia of alienated intellectuals, in this case, is illuminating: they have no idea that they are forced to be “free.”

 7. Liberal freedom was converted into one of the strategies of the market economy which capitalism has developed at the planetary level, using the other “cultural” strategy of globalization. It is essential to be free in order to buy and sell everything, including dignity, female nudity or the truth, that before modernity it was not possible to buy in the market at sale prices, so naturally and protected by “justice.” This explains why the modern world and westernized businessmen – the righteous who are living better paying just enough to their employees, never more – renege against cultures, because not everything can be sold and bought by them and where what is just is that everyone has and eats the same and “equally.” What a strange liberty is one that tries to always be preserved and promoted essentially in order to feel, think, do and say alone – and only – what the system permits, that is to say, only what one culture permits one to feel, think, do and say to the rest! Anything more is considered a threat to the freedom of capitalism, to which everyone is obligated to go to hell or to be honored, that is to say, eternally poor, so that the church and foreign institutions – of the same modernity that has produced this poverty – come and do their good at the cost of a misery generated and preserved by the mode of production of their culture. The good Samaritan has contracted gangsters to beat up the innocent who later he himself will help, in the moment that his victim believes in his God, he’ll do the work for free, vote for him in elections or believe that he really knows nothing, in order to accept the type of education that the misery- and knowledge-loving Samaritan has prepared for the poor of spirit and the ones ignorant of the Other with such fruit.

8. This is the reality of freedom in the 20th century in Bolivia: it defends and glorifies a type of liberty legitimated by a religion that does not allow for a paradise that could be reached collectively by all. There are the chosen, and they must exist. Politics and western positive rights are not left behind: the sanction a freedom that is eminently individualistic with a constitutional and juridical structure that tends to repress all who put in crisis the freedom won be the heroes of the mestizos, the same liberty which is the cause of a colonial monocultural nation-state which allowed itself to take advantage of the indigenous and the poor, to produce and preserve the happiness of the rich on earth, and the happiness of the poor and indigenous in a heaven which even now is not intercultural or plurilingual, because it is a heaven which must take much care to not fall into the “defect” of learning other cultural conceptions of paradise. But we also know that heaven can be bought by simply paying tithes in church, hitting oneself on the chest with a stone, walking crouched in a procession or by kneeling in a mass, after having committed some sin against God or men. (For the modern, crimes against nature are not sins and it is not necessary to repent those for any reason.) The pardon is something that will always come, especially if one is free to buy it. If this liberal freedom to buy and sell everything did not exist, not everyone would be able to reach the pardon or the paradise through collective means. It is precisely when one stops being free that one becomes truly innocent. The opposite is to stop being innocent in order to be always free.

9. In February 2009, the neoliberal freedom of the colonial monocultural nation-state is put into crisis by the reconstitution of collective freedom, through a plurinational state with a decolonial character. And then you didn’t have to wait for the protests and mobilizations of the colonized mestizos, of the colonial classes and the bourgeois or alienated intellectuals. And suddenly they began to feel perhaps the same that we had felt since we were made to submit and be educated – by force – by Europeans. Sometimes it seems certain that finally, the last will be first. They, the westernized, have discovered that their conception of freedom is in danger. For the reason the oligarchy is disposed to sacrifice the lives of others for this freedom that has cost them so much corruption, briery, shame and blackmail. Our ancestors, Tupak Katari, Bartolina Sisa or so many others, were inifinitely more honorable: they did not offer the lives of others but rather their own in order to reestablish freedom, whose destiny it was to always uphold Sumaj kawsay and the Suma Qamaña. Why don’t the oligarchs and politicians of the right do the same for “their” liberty? Why instead of offering the cheeks of others do they not offer their own? To what is it owed that they cannot sacrifice a little of their own blood for freedom, for all the many media lies and perverse journalism that it costs them? Their cowardice is a demonstration that perhaps their conception of freedom is not as valiant as they believe.

10. We, the Quechua and Aymara, believe that the era of Conquest and the colonization of neoliberal freedom with that of collective freedom by indigenous peoples. The question is if we should proceed “eye for an eye and tooth for tooth,” as in the Old Testament of Catholic believers, or better to accept that the hour has come in which the colonized mestizos, the middle class and the oligarchy must accept and learn also from us, about us, now that they do not have a culture historically of their own to teach. The second option is healthy and will not cost as much cynicism, hypocrisy of falsehood as that which was installed with the colonial freedom of the Western world in the republic of Bolivia. To fight for this kind of freedom, that which serves only to give glory to “me,” conducts one solely towards death, since one of the imperatives of their history is the move to suspend ethics in policy (collective, of course): the exclusion and/or elimination of other “I”s sometimes by honorable means. To be open to learning the collective concept of freedom, on the other hand, moves us towards Sumaj kawsay, Suma Qamaña or Living Well in society-and-community for all.

11. The time of mestizos and oligarchs to be terribly generous with us Quechua, Aymara and Guaraní must reach its end. The life of one mestizo or criollo hero is not worth more that the death of an Indian. In any case, several centuries of struggle for collective freedom, for us, are more important than one day of public recognition in the history of the mestizos, of the middle class and the oligarchy in the ex-colonial and neoliberal state of the 19th and 20th centuries. 


Translated by Diana Pei Wu

1 [i] The glass of milk refers to a saying of being the charity or gift that prevents the preordained or fated death of another. In this case, while the West often considers itself the savior of the rest of the world’s culture, most other cultures and civilizations view the West’s imposition of itself as the manifestation of a racist, sexist, patriarchal, colonial and imperial dynamic.

2 The Aymara and neo-Aymara words for the concepts that have been translated into Spanish as “Vivir y convivir bien” or “buenvivir,” to live well, as opposed to living better, where living better denotes the developmentalist, capitalist, materialistic version of the good life, while living well denotes the one of collective well being, fulfillment through relationships and non-alienation from self, community, society and nature.

3 The Aymara and neo-Aymara words for the concepts that have been translated into Spanish as “Vivir y convivir bien” or “buenvivir,” to live well, as opposed to living better, where living better denotes the developmentalist, capitalist, materialistic version of the good life, while living well denotes the one of collective well being, fulfillment through relationships and non-alienation from self, community, society and nature.

4 Aymara: the spirit or soul, also, spiritual well-being.