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In Conversation With Pablo Solon at SADED Resource Centre (Delhi)


19 MARCH 2013


Pablo Solón is the Executive Director of the NGO - Focus on the Global South based in Bangkok.  He was formerly Bolivia’s Ambassador to the United Nations and Bolivia’s chief negotiator on climate issues. He was also instrumental in organizing the People’s Climate Summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He was named the 2011 international Human Rights Award winner by Global Exchange.


Vijay Pratap gave a brief introduction of SADED, CSDS and Lokayan, and also made mention of the Right Livelihood Award received in 1985, mobilization of the first WSF in India, learnings from Adivasis, the indigenous communities, etc. He said that the topic of discussion for the evening was in the global context, and the experience of Pablo Solón could be used for preparation for the social movement at WSF 2013.

Each participant gave a self-introduction.

Pablo Solón:


I am Pablo Solón.

I was Marxist even though I lived in a country which had a majority of indigenous people. So I began to learn a lot from indigenous people.

One thing that I learnt was: I tried to put on a cap – ‘What you are – is what you think’. It is sometimes problematic, i.e., it puts a constraint on what you feel you are.

Questions put by Vijay Pratap before Pablo Solón, and the answers given by him:

Question: Suppose you were to meet a stranger for only 3 minutes and you had to use a label. How would you introduce yourself?

Answer: I would use ‘Social activist’.

Question: That is the generic category. Suppose you were in some political party, then would you say, ‘Political activist’?

Answer: ‘Social political activist’.

Question: But the next natural question would be, ‘Then what shade’?


Pablo Solón:

 Historical Background of Bolivia and their Indigenous People:

We have had a discussion in Bolivia - What is indigenous?

·         People and communities in India say that we are – Aymaras, Quechuas, etc., so that is the name of the culture and communities that they had before the Spanish came to colonize Latin America.

·         So, when we speak in the case of Latin America about indigenous, we speak ‘who we are, or who were we’ before the Spanish came to colonize us. We, the Aymaras have this particular territory, and we the Guaranís have that particular territory, and so on. In Bolivia we have 34 - tribes, ethnic groups, communities, nations and nationalities. They say we are not a nationality – we are a nation. After 500 years of colonization, all our nations (even if they have only 100 persons as such), in reality the definition is a convention – we agree on this. So, in the case of Bolivia we are all nations because we have recognized them. We are going to change the name of the country. Earlier it was the Republic of Bolivia; and now it is called the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Why the name ‘Plurinational’ – because firstly we do not give a ‘Republic’. Republic is something that comes from the French – from outside. So we say ‘Pluri State’. Because if you want to be recognized in the UN, you have to have the status of a state. We are a ‘Plurinational State’.

·         When I was Ambassador at the UN, I was asked – “Why you are Plurinational?” I mentioned that even though we are one state, in order to relate ourselves with the outside world, inside us we are nations. All these nations are part of one plurinational state, and every nation has the same rights.

You can say that in certain cases the Aymaras or the Quechuas, etc., have even developed modern culture. Some of the nations are nations of nomads – always moving from one place to another. The agreement was that if we call them nomad tribes, that will create a division. Everybody is a nation – equal rights for all nations. So that was the way the discussion was solved. It is an agreement of the society.

·         If you look at the history of Bolivia, some Aymaras (even though they were indigenous people) organized themselves and adopted the Marxist terms in order to have better relations with the trade unions and the citizens. They did not call themselves indigenous communities or Aymaras; they called themselves peasant community.

·         In 1952, there was a revolution – much bigger than what we are seeing now – the uprise of the mining workers and peasants destroyed the army. We did not have a law during 1952, but

only in 1955.

·         In short:

-          In the year 1492, the Spanish came and we were colonized.

-          We became Republic of Bolivia in 1955

-     We were in presidency - we were almost the same as before. So there had been no real change.

·         Indigenous people were not recognized, even though they were always in majority. They did not have the right to vote. One had to be a citizen, and then only one had the right to vote. In order to be a citizen, one had to know how to read and write; at the same time there were no schools for indigenous people. Indigenous people could not go to the centre of the city. They could only come up to certain streets surrounding the city.

·         There was big divorce between the ruling class citizens (who were mainly descendants from the Spanish), and indigenous people.

·         What changed Bolivia? There was a war between Bolivia and Paraguay. For the first time, the Bolivian elites needed the indigenous people to fight against the Paraguayans. Suddenly, the indigenous people went to fight and got to know other leaders from the trade unions, mining workers, other workers, etc.  This was in 1930. A new class began in Bolivia. The indigenous people said if they have called us to die we have to have some kind of right. Almost 300,000 people died – some while fighting, some due to lack of water, etc. This also happened on the other side. It was a fight between two preparations in order to control the oil resource there – between Shell (Dutch) and Standard Oil (American). At the end of the war, Paraguayans and Bolivians just hugged each other and said - it is over! The Bolivians said we have nothing against Paraguay; they have suffered almost as much as we have. Paraguay also had a lot of indigenous communities.

·         At that moment many origins of people began to say that in order to be recognized, we need to organize ourselves into trade unions. But what is a trade union? It is just a change in name of what we are doing; so instead of calling him the leader of the community, let us call him ‘General Secretary’.

·         In 1952, Bolivia witnessed a revolution, an uprise – the army was defeated by the mining workers, despite their having military power. Mining workers were the only armed power in Bolivia. They organized militia and that was not hidden by the government.

·         The events that led to the revolt brought about distinctive outcomes for the indigenous people. Peasants and indigenous people took the land, and organized themselves in trade unions and the leader could be called as General Secretary.

·         Part of the indigenous people got their land back in 1952 and called themselves peasants. The most important organization of indigenous people in Bolivia is called the Confederation of Peasants. They added the name of their most important leader to show that they will come back to their roots. It is a combination of memory, but the point of the trade. So they call themselves peasants.

-          Besides the peasant group, there is a community which calls itself indigenous, and they have their own organization.

-          And yet there is another group which does not call itself indigenous (indigenous is the name that comes from India and they say we are not ‘Indians’, but are ‘originally from here’ – hence, the name Originarios).

·         So we have Peasants, Indigenous and Originarios.

·         Everybody (all communities, i.e., Aymaras, Quechuas, etc.) is recognized as a nation and each time a reference is made to indigenous people, they will be included all together, whenever referred to, as for example in the constitution – ‘The rights of the Peasants, Indigenous and Originarios are…’. For the first time we recognized a group, so we have an identity.

·         We have had a discussion to change the name of the state. Bolivia was named after Simón Bolívar, the famous liberator. Just because they wanted to form Bolivia, the upper class people of that time said that since Bolivar was coming, he would recognize them if they called themselves as ‘him’, and the people wanted to feel that they as a nation also represent him, hence the name Bolivia. Indigenous people have a right when they say only ‘Bolivia’. In reality, what the Bolivians did; but again this is all convention. There are middle classes, new people, more than the indigenous and they call themselves Bolivians, so the balance was maintained and the name was – Plurinational State of Bolivia.

·         He also spoke about the following:

-          Primitive culture of Bolivia.

-          Indigenous people began to look back at the history. History was re-written – struggle for territory for defense of cocaine from the peasants.

-          Fight for water, etc.

·         We are not poor – we have values (we respect Mother Earth)

People Present

Archis Mohan                  Ashok Singh                                    Asit Das                              Birodh Bohara

Daya Lalvani                    Gauri Shankar                                 K.K. Niyogi                         Manoj Sinal

Narendra Bastar             Ovais Sultan Khan                          Rajni Kant Mudgal            Ramesh Singh

Ritu Priya                         Trisha Aggarwal                              Vijay Pratap                      Vijayalakshmi           

Vincent Ekka


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Pablo Solón Romero served as Ambassador of the Plurinational State of Bolivia to the United Nations from February 2009 to July 2011.. He is now the Executive Director of the NGOFocus on the Global South.