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In Bolivia, Protesters Rally Around an Embattled Indigenous Symbol

Evo Morales made the Wiphala one of the country’s two official flags in 2009. Now, forces that have taken over Bolivia desecrate the emblem, while the resistance waves it proudly.

The Wiphala flag, center (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Following the resignation of former Bolivian President Evo Morales, opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho entered the deserted presidential palace holding a Bible and a tricolor national flag. He knelt to the floor in a moment of bizarre ceremony, vowing to eradicate the Native influence in Bolivian politics and restore Christian rule. Soon after, videos emerged on Twitter of his supporters burning a rainbow-colored flag and chanting that the country belongs to Christ. That flag, the Wiphala of Qulla Suyu, bears the emblem of the first Andean people. Its checkerboard design dates back thousands of years to the Incan Empire. Desecration of this cultural heirloom is an attempt to erase the historical significance of Indigenous cultures in Bolivia.

Opposition gangs overtook La Paz that evening, attacking Morales supporters and burning the houses of Movement for Socialism (MAS) party members. In the resulting power vacuum, Senator Jeanine Áñez stepped in and declared herself interim president, proclaiming that the Bible had returned to the palace. Police officers then cut the Wiphala from the dual-flag patches of their uniforms and issued threats against Morales defenders. This new coalition — influenced by former President Carlos Mesa and backed by the Organization of American States (OAS) — longs to negate the 2009 constitution passed by Morales. Establishment media outlets around the world still refuse to call this a coup, either out of cowardice or denial.

When religious fundamentalists and government authorities come together to tarnish the banner of Native nations, they demote plurinationalism to plain nationalism. Photographs of Camacho supporters reveal an unsettling sea of uniformity in red, green, and yellow. Compare them to pan-Indigenous demonstrations around La Paz, El Alto, and Cochabamba. Recent videos show crowds of protestors running through the street carrying Wiphala flags and occupying the main international airport. The Wiphala appears en masse alongside national tricolors and flags of the MAS, while Bolivians march alongside Chilean Mapuche groups to defend their oppressed neighbors. The interrelatedness of Indigenous struggle is now recognized globally, with similar protests appearing across Latin America and abroad since the coup.

Originating from Tiwanaku, the Wiphala garnered a reputation as a banner of Aymara resistance during working-class and peasant struggles over the last 50 years. In the 1970s and ‘80s, various Katarista political parties vehemently opposed the Bolivian state under the banner of the Wiphala. These groups drew inspiration from the 19th-century insurrectionist martyr Túpac Katari, whose dying words were immortalized by former Vice President Álvaro García Linera in a recent press conference (Volveremos y seremos millones, or “We will return and we will be millions”). During the Cochabamba Water War of 1999-2000, peasant irrigators — or regantes — marched under the Wiphala to protest privatization of the municipal water supply company. Notably, the flag became a pennant of victory for protestors in the 2003 gas conflicts, which saw 60 civilians killed by government troops. This series of protests would result in the election of Morales, who hoisted the Wiphala proudly from every campaign vehicle.

As Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, Morales empowered the Aymara people and Afro-Bolivians with political equality for the first time. He established the Wiphala as the country’s dual flag alongside the tricolor, affirming Bolivia as a land of tribal multitudes. Morales’s success at the ballot box clearly posed a threat to the corporate elite, many of whom lost money in the re-nationalization of natural resources, such as oil and gas. Backed by police and military forces, they use oppositional dissent as a proxy to justify violence. Clashes between protestors and security forces have already resulted in numerous deaths.

More than ever, the Wiphala stands as a symbol of antifascist resistance. Anti-coup demonstrators now wave the flag outside the White House and 10 Downing Street, while Chavista demonstrators express support in Venezuela. On social media, Morales followers use the emblem in their profile pictures. The colorful flags and banners stand for Indigenous rights beyond national borders, encouraging universal recognition of plurinationalism — even from members of the military. As the opposition closes in on the state, the resilience of Bolivia’s Native communities shows that power is fleeting, but the movement is returning stronger.

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