Cholitas paceñas: Bolivia's indigenous women flaunt their ethnic pride

Aymara women of Bolivia show off their newfound upward mobility while preserving their traditional dress of full colourful petticoats and tall bowler hats

Sara Shahriari

Brilliantly coloured skirts and fringed shawls swirl and massive gold earrings and brooches glitter as young women sway up and down a room in a 17th century hotel in downtown La Paz.

It’s Saturday afternoon, and modelling class is in session. But these are not size-zero supermodels wearing the latest European couture; they are petite indigenous women dressed in rakishly tilted bowler hats, shawls – and layers and layers of petticoats and skirts.

They are dressed in the traditional costume of the Aymara Indian women of La Paz – known as cholitas paceñas – an outfit which once which denoted membership of a marginalised and downtrodden section of Bolivian society, but now reflects the growing confidence and spending power of the country’s emergent indigenous middle class.

The modelling school’s director, Rosario Aguilar Rodríguez, is a lawyer and local politician who says she is proud to wear the pleated skirt known as the pollera. She also points out that cholita style is a sound investment.

“The strongest market is in women who wear the pollera. They have the economic resources to buy a good mattress, good perfume, good furniture. So betting on indigenous and mestiza women as models means reaching a very important group,” she said
Bolivia is still one of Latin America’s poorest countries, but its economy has grown rapidly in recent years on the back of high mineral and gas prices, and the government’s pragmatic economic policies. That growth has helped a commercial boom in La Paz and the neighbouring city of El Alto, where Aymara merchants – many of them women – play important and lucrative role.

Nilda Virginia Gutierrez is a merchant and fashion designer, whose small store in La Paz is packed floor to ceiling with a rainbow-array of skirts and shawls. “We bring out new fashion every month,” she says. “We are always innovating, because there’s so much competition.”

Even the unpracticed eye can see that this fashion is not static. The crowns of the bowler hats that perch atop a cholita’s glossy black braids are getting lower and lower; high crowns now look very last year.

“Now people are spending more - people want a whole outfit, from the jewellery to the shoes to the hat,” said Gutierrez.

None of that comes cheap: a Borsalino – the most famous brand of bowler hat – costs roughly 300 pounds, and a standard outfit commonly costs another 300. No outfit is complete without earrings and a sparkling brooch to fasten the shawl and another adorning the hat. A fine set may run around 1,400 pounds - but the best can be well over 6,000.

These extraordinary ensembles are shown off at events like weddings, or La Paz’s yearly Gran Poder festival, which brings the cities’ wealthy Aymara merchants out in force. Some of the jewels women wear in Gran Poder are so pricey that they reportedly employ bodyguards follow them throughout the day.
This increased visibility is more than an exercise in conspicuous consumption: forced into servitude under colonial rule and later relegated to the margins of society, Bolivia’s many indigenous peoples were long excluded from mainstream society. Until the 1990s, wearing a pollera or a poncho to a government office would have been unthinkable.

But attitudes started to change with the election Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president who took office in 2006.

“Before even recognizing oneself as Aymara was difficult. Really the reverse was happening – because the less Aymara you were, the more social mobility you had. Today it’s very different,” said sociologist Germán Guaygua, who works at the ministry of foreign affairs.

Model and TV personality Maria Elena Condori Salgado embodies both the entrepreneurial spirit and ethnic pride of this new Aymara identity. “I’ve worn the pollera since I was very small. My mother wears the pollera, and so did my grandmother,” she said.

“For us this is an art,” Condori Salgado said of her clothes and the message they send to the world. “We are going to conserve it – at least I’m not going to change.”

Republished from Guardian

Bolivian Independence from the World Bank and IMF


Nate Singham

Bolivians’ popular uprising in 2000 against Bechtel put the issue of water privatization and World Bank policies in the international spotlight.

Debt and Austerity

Over the last 60 years, some of Bolivia’s largest resistance struggles have targeted the devastating economic policies carried out by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The bulk of these protests focused on opposition to privatization policies and austerity measures, such as cuts to public services, privatization decrees, wage reductions, as well the weakening labor rights.

Bolivia’s economic dependence on the IMF and the World Bank escalated in the 1970s when the country contracted massive loans to finance the modernization of their mining and agriculture export industries, thereby meeting the needs of Northern countries and enriching a handful of transnational companies in the relevant sectors.

Gradually, IMF-driven reforms became the modus operandi for Bolivian elites; since upper class Bolivians did not suffer from the IMF-backed austerity measures, they had little sympathy for those bearing its costs.

By the mid 1980s, Bolivia had reached a severe debt crisis following a surge of foreign capital from mainly private international banks, recycling petrodollars in the aftermath of the oil shock in 1973–1974.

Between 1971 and 1981 Bolivia incurred more than US$3 billion of foreign debt.

Once in debt, the Bolivian government looked to the IMF for assistance in providing fresh loans with fiscal austerity stipulations attached in order to pay back private lenders.

Rather than deal with the short-term balance-of-payments crisis for what it was, the IMF forced the Bolivian government to divert much needed government funds away from social welfare programs, disproportionately affecting low-income workers who rely heavily on public services.

“IMF loans aimed to reduce the fiscal deficit through budget cuts which primarily resulted in the reduction of social spending,” Patricia Miranda from the Bolivian-based NGO Fundación Jubileo told teleSUR.

In Bolivia, the immediate effects of IMF policies have always fallen on the shoulders of the rural and urban working class, thanks to the government’s willingness to implement IMF demands such as income tax increases on low-wage earners.

“The increase of taxes on income without an alternative tributary reform proposal unleashed one of the biggest social crises the country had ever witnessed,” Miranda added.

This combined with the privatization of state enterprises and natural resources such as water and gas during the 1990s and early 2000s led to massive popular uprisings that posed a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the World Bank and the IMF.

Cochabamba Water Wars

In 2000, the World Bank encouraged the Bolivian government to sell the public water system of Cochabamba to the Bechtel Corporation.

The deal, which was negotiated behind closed doors between the World Bank and Bechtel representatives, granted the company control over the city’s water company for 40 years, guaranteeing them an average profit of 16 percent profit for each one of those years.

As a result of the Bechtel contract, monthly water bills skyrocketed by 43 percent for low-income households, according to the California-based nonprofit Democracy Center.

Public protests and revolts began immediately after this decision was made, forcing the Bolivian government to cancel the contract with Bechtel.

This outcome was regarded as a first victory of popular movements after 15 years of Washington Consensus-inspired structural adjustment policies.

The Cochabamba ‘water wars’ of 2000 united urban, rural, mestizo and indigenous populations, setting the stage for Evo Morales’ eventual election as president.

New Era of Relations

Over 15 years later, Bolivia’s relationship with the World Bank and the IMF has changed considerably as Bolivia is no longer subject to its conditions.

Since Bolivian President Evo Morales was first elected in 2005, the government has established a new set of guidelines which protects Bolivia’s economic autonomy from predatory lending institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank.

The Morales administration views autonomous economic governance as a central policy component to its larger political platform.

Therefore, it has aimed to ensure that external financial assistance corresponds with the objectives of the government’s domestic development and fiscal agenda.

Under President Morales, disaster risk management has been a priority for the Bolivian government, which is frequently impacted by climate change-induced natural disasters, even though Bolivia is among the world’s smallest contributors to carbon emissions.

Last November, the Bolivian government approved the Disaster Risk Management Law, following the impacts of the early-2014 floods, which led to 50 deaths, 411,500 victims, and damages amounting to approximately US$384 million in Beni, Chuquisaca, Cochabamba, Potosi and La Paz departments.

In what at first glance might seem a return to policies of the past in efforts to strengthen its disaster management institutions, the Bolivian government signed its largest ever loan with the World Bank in February, receiving $200 million for disaster and climate risk management.

However this loan agreement grants the Bolivian government executive and administrative control over the allocation and distribution of the capital, which is indicative of the current set of relations between the two parties, Fundacion Jubileo’s Miranda explained to teleSUR.

Despite the recent capital loan, overall Bolivian public debt to the World Bank has fallen from 37 percent in 2005 to 9 percent in 2014.

In recent years, the Bolivian government has successfully managed to lessen its dependency on the IMF and the World Bank through increasing government royalties from the country’s hydrocarbon reserves (a policy that the IMF and World Bank opposed), which provided the government with sufficient financial independence in order to promote its own economic model.

Today the state is the main wealth generator in the country. Since Morales came to power in 2005, the Bolivian government has increased its hydrocarbon gas production from 33 million cubic meters to 56 million cubic meters in 2013, which has led to a jump in revenues from hydrocarbons from 9.8 percent in 2005 to 35 percent in 2013.

As a result, since 2006, social spending in the area of health, education, pensions, and poverty alleviation programs has increased over 45 percent.

However, if commodity prices continue to fall, Bolivia will then likely be forced rely on alternative sources for fiscal revenue in order to sustain its economic independence from institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF.

In the meantime, Bolivia can rely on its massive buildup of international reserves which has allowed it to avoid the often-harmful conditions that come with IMF and World Bank borrowing.

Bolivia’s success in recent years indicates a newly found independence for the country, which is now able to pursue economic and social policies without the influence of the IMF and the World Bank.

Republished from TeleSUR

Bolivia - A glance to the most important achievements of the economic social communitarian productive model


Since 2006, under the direction of the President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Evo Morales Ayma, we, the Government and the people, have worked designing a new State and a new economic model based on an analysis of the structural crisis of capitalism and a commitment to change our reality up to then characterized by economic and social exclusion to most Bolivians since the colonization period. Exclusion got worse during the twenty years of neoliberalism before 2006. The Economic Social Communitarian Productive Model was built based on sovereignty of our economic policy.On these grounds, a historic decision about nationalizing the Bolivian hydrocarbons was taken, in accordance with the people’s mandate, adopted after overcoming neoliberal policies. 

By means of that important decision, the State began recovering the control over strategic sectors of the economy, which allowed us, Bolivians, to take control of the economic surplus previously deprived from us; and apply a policy of income redistribution through Conditional Cash Transfers programmes (Juancito Pinto, Dignity Rent, Juana Azurduy,) public investment, inversely proportional wage increases crossed subsidies, among other measures.

Through the Economic Social Communitarian Productive Model, we engaged in strengthening the role of the State that now directs the economy for the purpose of transferring the economic suplus -from strategic sectors-to income-employment generating sectors in order to put together existing structures of economic organization in Bolivia (State, community, social, cooperative and private) under the principles of complementarity, reciprocity, solidarity, redistribution, equality, legal certainty, sustainability, equilibrium, justice and transparency.

In the same vein, we recovered sovereignty on fiscal, monetary, financial and exchange rate policy in order to make them available for the economic and social development of the Bolivian people. Since 2006, for each year we self-design our Fiscal-Financial Programming. Since then, the fiscal policy is focused to achieve growth with income redistribution, output incresing, industrialization, food sovereignty and job creation. We drove de-dollarization of the economy which was before highly dollarized; and we also transformed the financial system in order to go along with the Government’s social objectives. The Government also enhanced and diversified the productive matrix.

It is also important to highlight that because of the implementation of social and income redistribution policies, supported by higher levels of public investment; we managed to stimulate domestic demand now is the main growth engine, which is oriented towards developing productively and industrially our natural resources and eradicating the multiple dimensions of inequity and poverty.

In this document, we describe the main achievements reached since 2006, by means of the implementation of the Economic Social Communitarian Productive Model, which are outcomes from a collective effort to improve the quality of living and reach what we call El Vivir Bien (To Live Well) forBolivian people.

Luis Alberto Arce Catacora
Minister of Economy and Public Finance