What Bolivia Can Teach Us About Confronting Systemic Violence

A dark-skinned person's fist is clenched and thrust into the air, in the manner of Black Power.

CN: extensive discussion of government sanctioned violence, racially motivated police brutality, and violence against women; brief discussion of of 45, sexual assault, torture, and immigrant deportation camps.

Living in the US, it can be easy to forget the ways our systems and political histories are mirrored by those of other countries, and as a result, we can potentially find wisdom in other political movements similar to ours. Guest writer Marie-Ève Monette does an excellent job connecting the recent protests in the US to movements in Bolivia that have fought against colonialism and gender-based violence, as well as looking at the question of when we should use which tools in activism.

The world is on fire. That fire spread through political buildings in Bolivia in October and November 2019, and police stations in Minneapolis and other cities in the United States in May 2020. In both countries, people struggle to agree as to who started the fires: the people protesting against injustice, outside agitators sent to incite further violence, or both. What is certain is that these events have been met with national, state, and city-sanctioned violence.

In Bolivia, the Bolivian Armed Forces and Police committed violent attacks against Indigenous peoples, leading to the death of over 35 citizens from October to November in 2019. Ongoing since the last week of May 2020 in the U.S., police have disrupted several peaceful protests across the country by launching tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters. Beyond an intense polarization of political opinions following the governance of the country by men of color, what these two countries have in common are 1) the fact that racial politics are at the root of these societal clashes, and 2) that the victims are always the same: people of color.

Despite not belonging to either country, my decade of professional and personal connections to both have led me to ask myself, time and again: if we are not Indigenous or African-American, what can we do to fight alongside them and others who face racial injustice, in dismantling systems of injustice? Women’s movements have been at the forefront of these fights in both Bolivia and the United States since their last fraught elections, and listening to the multitude of voices that come from these movements has led the way to new reflections and pathways for being active in these fights, while acknowledging the positionality of who participate in these fights. The commonalities that the women’s movements in both countries share have taught me more about how to position myself alongside them, and about ways of supporting and amplifying their respective fights.

Fighting a Violent Patriarchal System

The October 20th election results favoring Evo Morales for a 4th term as Bolivian president, considered legal by some and fraudulent by others, unleashed protests from all sides of the political spectrum around the country, as well as aggressive political discourse from Morales’ male opponents. Following the elections, feminist groups in Bolivia rapidly rallied to fight against what they saw as more than an attack on their democracy: to many of them, it was an attack on women coming from all sides of a political system run by patriarchal ideologies and policies. They mobilized quickly.

Mujeres Creando, a feminist group known for their women’s rights activism and social justice-oriented graffiti in Bolivia, led different types of protests, all of which were symbolic of the work that they have done for decades. One was particularly visual and performative in nature. Women gathered around the Monument to Unknown Soldier in La Paz and poured red paint all over it. By defacing the statue of this fallen soldier, Mujeres Creando was protesting against patriarchy, and against the figure of the caudillo, the well-known figure throughout Latin America of a male politician who presents himself as the savior of the nation, one who holds absolute truths and wields enormous military power.

Through this performative act, the women of this group were protesting against the toxic masculinity of the caudillo and linking the inherent violence of this figure both to the deployment of soldiers against the bodies of citizens and the rampant assault against women’s bodies. Their statement: no system could truly support democracy and the people of Bolivia as long as the caudillos, no matter what their political leanings, remained in power.

A line of Policía armed in black riot gear and a tank stand in the middle of the street at a protest in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Photo courtesy of Henry Juaniquina.

Although the caudillo figure isn’t well-known by many in the United States, it seems that it is precisely this type of figure that left-leaning women’s movements have been fighting since the 2016 elections. The man who was elected in November of that year employs, to this day, levels of demagoguery and absolutism evocative of some of the most renowned Latin American caudillos. Since May, his repeated calls to use force against protesters echo the calls for the use of force against Bolivian citizens by several of its political leaders throughout its history. Accused of rape by multiple women, he also represents some of the most threatening behaviors enacted by men towards all women.

It’s important to emphasize that women’s movements in the U.S. have been fighting against this caudillo figure across the political spectrum, pushing a Democratic senator to resign for sexual misconduct in 2017, and trying to hold the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency accountable for similar allegations. Just like their Bolivian counterparts, American women have continuously challenged the patriarchy.

You Can’t Fight Patriarchy Without Decolonization

Left-leaning women’s movements from Bolivia and the United States seem to agree: there is no hope of changing the current system without what is called despatriarcalización, or depatriarchalization. However, despite the initiatives led by movements in both countries, their approaches have also fed pre-existing tensions between different groups.

From my outsider perspective, the intense mobilization accompanied by uncomfortable exchanges in Bolivia resonates with what I have seen and heard in the United States since the 2016 election. By listening to and observing these tense communications, I believe we can most learn about our roles, as outsiders, in supporting those who have been most negatively impacted by the injustices in our respective countries.

Returning to Mujeres Creando in Bolivia, the group led and filmed a series they called Parlamentos de Mujeres (Women’s Dialogues) throughout the country, to discuss the events that had transpired since the elections, and how women saw themselves moving forward. Various recognized feminist figures from Bolivia (such as Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui) – and from other Latin American countries (such as Rita Segato from Argentina), shared their thoughts, either during these dialogues or on Radio Deseo, the radio show hosted by María Galindo from Mujeres Creando.

These attempts at dialogue, held while Indigenous people protested and were maimed and killed by the Bolivian Armed Forces and the Police, reignited deep divides within Bolivia’s feminist movements. Tensions arose between feminist intellectualism associated with the middle and higher classes on the one hand, and feminist activism led by Indigenous women from urban movements, on the other.

A woman with dark skin, shoulder length curly natural hair, and blue mirrored sunglasses, is dressed entirely in black including a black face mask. She holds her hand in a fist in the air. Other protesters holding signs surround her.

Feminismo Comunitario Antipatriarcal and Feminismo Comunitario AbyaYala, two groups representing the latter movements, criticized what they considered to be the more intellectual feminist voices for not focusing on what was most important: the racial politics once again playing themselves out against Indigenous bodies, which led to the death and wounding of so many, and on how to fight against this most recent iteration of colonial violence. These groups focused on the need to decolonize the state, which upheld this violence.

When Words and Dialogue Aren’t Enough

Academics, from South and North America, were holding their own discussions as to how to bridge the growing polarization, between political viewpoints and between feminists as well. As a former academic, I reached out to colleagues and friends on social media, asking for suggestions on how to best connect people from such opposite viewpoints. I got called out. An Indigenous filmmaker from Mexico criticized me for focusing on intellectual debates while Indigenous people were dying at the hands of the Armed Forces and the Police in Bolivia.

Was this exchange uncomfortable? It was. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is:

She was right.

When people are dying, words and dialogue are not enough. We need to take action.

A banner ad for Kella's Etsy shop demonstrating social justice themed products: A brown apron covered in little baking illustrations and the words "Bake the world a better place," a sticker with five colorful intersecting circles and the words "The future is intersectional", a pink mug with a pair of ice cream cones making the shape of a heart and the text "you could never be ice cream you're too hot and a person."


Before she called me out, I thought I had been taking action. For the past decade, the motivation behind my work had been to support my colleagues and communities in the Andes. Among many other projects, I had been collaborating with a filmmaker on Cuartito azul (The Blue Room), a fiction film demanding justice for those tortured, murdered, and disappeared during the several Bolivian dictatorships of the 20th century. I had also been working on Antes de que nos olviden (Before We Are Forgotten), a short film about femicide and sexual assault in Bolivia, with that same filmmaker. But never had I been called to react, in real-time, without the benefit of hindsight, like I was last October when Indigenous peoples were being brutalized and killed by the Armed Forces and the Police.

And when I was, I failed.

There is a time for discussion and a time to act, and I chose the wrong one in that moment. The lesson seemed to be that moments of crisis are times to act, times to leverage our privilege in all the ways that we can to support the fights of those we care about, those we work with, and all of those we don’t and will never know.

Then I thought: when is this world not in crisis? Indigenous peoples are constantly being exploited and killed in South America, for their land and the resources they hold. African Americans in the United States fear they or someone they love will be gunned down by those supposedly sworn to protect them. Native Americans have been marginalized to small corners of the country, and still abandoned to die of disease, which has been made even more manifest by the COVID-19 pandemic in the Navajo Nation. Immigrants are being held in camps on the border and deported back to their countries or the countries of their parents, where the violence they fled was often incited by the United States government itself. Considering this, is there ever a good time for dialogue?

A closeup of an unbroken line of police wearing riot gear and holding shields.

Bolivia teaches us that both are possible. While Mujeres Creando was holding Women’s Dialogues throughout Bolivia, Feminismo Comunitario Antipatriarcal, Feminismo Comunitario AbyaYala, and several others were fighting against the violence perpetrated by the Armed Forces and the Police against Indigenous people. The tension between these different groups arose from the fact that one group focused on dismantling patriarchy, while the others focused on decolonization. Yet in Bolivia, within these same groups, there is a common saying that “No hay descolonización sin despatriarcalización” (“There is no decolonization without depatriarchalization). Striking a balance between both by choosing the right moment for action and the right moment for dialogue, seems key.

When Should We Be Silent, Speak, and Act?

Domitila Chúngara, an important Indigenous activist from Bolivia who fought against state-sanctioned violence, attended the World Conference on Women organized by the United Nations in 1975. As a result of her encounters and the experience of being silenced by North American, European, white, and middle-class feminists during the conference, the testimony of her activism was compiled and published in 1977 by Moema Viezzer with the title Si me permiten hablar (Let Me Speak!).

Chúngara’s words invite us to consider the power and the power dynamics that can be found in both silence and speech. As outsiders to the communities most impacted by systems of injustice, we need to learn 1) when and in which spaces to listen in silence to the voices of those leading the fight against the injustices they live every day, 2) when, where and how to speak up to amplify their voices, and 3) when, where and how to act to dismantle the systems against which they fight. Leveraging our privilege will look different in different settings, whether that means using our bodies to stand non-violently between the police and African American protesters, or talking to our own communities and families about the need for bail-out funds for those most likely to get arrested during protests. We can be silent, act, and speak; we just need to learn to choose when and how to do them all.

Joining and Amplifying the Fights Against Systemic Injustice

For a lot of people in the United States, all of this seems very new. In the 5 years that I have lived here, I have heard many say that until a tragic incident made the news, they simply didn’t know. I have observed too many join the fight for a few days, then return to their comfortable lives. Finally, I have seen and heard so many others who knew, wanting to do the right thing, but without knowing how.

The thing is, for too many people in the United States, and across the world, none of this is new at all. People of color have been protesting, writing, singing, dancing, etc. for centuries about demanding rights. Following the recent series of violent and fatal crimes against African Americans, along with their grotesque mediatization, these excuses, which were frustrating before, have now become unacceptable.

We have to take it upon ourselves to join this fight, and learn how to be in it.

a group of protestors of many skin-tones closely packed, wearing blue face masks. The person in front has two tight braids falling in front of their face that are a mixture of very dark & very blonde hair. They hold a sign that says "Fight Systemic Racism" with the Black Power fist below.

Many of us are arriving late to this fight, and have a lot of catching up to do. As a result, we must enter it humbly. Read books and articles, watch films, listen to podcasts by people of color, get to know our neighbors, support Black-owned, Indigenous-owned, etc. businesses, volunteer in support of Latinx-led organizations… these are only a few things we can do. We need to listen to their voices, all of them, even those that make us feel uncomfortable. We need to ask ourselves why some particular voices make us uncomfortable, question our perspectives, and where we learned them. We may not like the answers that come up, but they will point us towards the path to be taken to join this fight.

We can’t limit ourselves to the voices and perspectives of the people of the countries where we live, though. We should also learn from people fighting for different forms of social justice beyond our borders as well. There are people from around the world, such as those in Bolivia, who have also been fighting patriarchal and colonial systems for centuries. In Bolivia, they have deposed caudillos, and have kept fighting for depatriarchalization. They may use different words: Indigenous Bolivians fight for decolonization while African Americans fight to dismantle the white supremacist system. Although it is important to acknowledge these linguistic and contextual differences, we may find that we have more in common with them than we think, and that we can learn a lot from them too.

Once we have started learning and changing perspectives, it will be all about putting our new knowledge to the test, about pushing our boundaries, and about surfing the waves of trial and error.

We will speak up against injustice, with family or at our places of employment, we will join protests and learn what behaviors are appropriate, and/or we will be silent to witness other people’s experiences. These attempts will look different for everyone, depending on where we are on this journey.

Many of us will get called out like I was. What that says is that we are never done learning. Let’s not be afraid to acknowledge our errors. Let’s embrace the discomfort. Let’s push through it. Learn from it. Listen better to do better. Be ever more mindful of how and when we take up space, and when it’s best to stand silently in support. Continue to educate ourselves. Try. Fall down. And then try again. Always try again. For African Americans in the United States, and for Indigenous peoples in Bolivia, the fight against systemic injustice is a life-long endeavor. It should be ours too.

a woman with medium skin, her dark hair in a short bob, and a black swoop-neck shirt, smiles happily at the camera.

About the writer: Marie-Eve Monette is a Québécoise film producer, writer, and translator who has been working alongside people in the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes since 2010, and living in the United States since 2015. After earning her Ph.D. in Hispanic Studies at McGill University in Canada, and spending four years as an Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Alabama, she decided to leave academia so that she could dedicate herself to social justice-oriented initiatives in the Andes and in the U.S., where she currently lives. In order to continue supporting filmmakers and projects that amplify Andean voices, she started a production company, Viewing the Andes, LLC. You can find more information about her on the company’s website Viewing the Andes, and about her current film collaborations on the following websites, both of which are available in English: Antes de que nos olviden (Before We Are Forgotten), and Cuartito azul (The Blue Room).

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