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Censorship in Bolivia: The Llajtaymanta case

Llajtaymanta couldn’t have dreamed of that: In early May, a wave of raging chauvinist comments broke out about one of Bolivia’s most famous folklore groups. A Facebook-based protest group already has over 13,000 members. Even the Bolivian Minister of Culture called the musicians into the ministry.

What had happened?

The group had composed and recorded a dance for the Centro Cultural Andino for carnival – which professional musicians do to earn money. The title is called “Mi corazón está contigo” and is composed to the rhythm of the caporale, a traditional Bolivian dance borrowed from the Afro-Bolivian tradition, which is performed every year by countless groups at carnival. The dance symbolizes the oppression of the workers during the colonial period: the lead dancer (“Caporal”) “motivates” the other dancers, his “subordinates”, with whip and bells to the ever faster dance.

So why the excitement? The Centro Cultural Andino is located in Puno, a city in the Altiplano on the shore of Lake Titicaca, which Bolivia and Peru share, only just, and this is the “problem” that triggered the outcry in Bolivia, on the Peruvian side.

On the Facebook page “Llajtaymanta te aplazaste – te vendiste al Peru” – “You have sold yourself to Peru” the group is accused of being a “traitor to the people”, whose records every Bolivian who is a bit self-respecting should “destroy”, etc. and so on. The fact that there are chauvinists in Bolivia who never miss an opportunity to insult the neighbouring country, with which Bolivia has a lot in common culturally, and Bolivian “deserters” in this way, is already worrying.

However, the reaction of the Bolivian government is extremely worrying. The Bolivian Minister of Culture, Zulma Yugar, herself a well-known folk singer, described Llajtaymanta’s collaboration with the Peruvian Centro Cultural Andino as a “mistake” and appointed the musicians to the ministry. There, lawyers of the group presented a warning with the request to change the text line “Caporal genuino” on the grounds that the group had violated the “norms that protect Bolivia’s cultural heritage” with its commissioned work for the Peruvian cultural center.

The singer of Llajtaymanta first clarified

Of course we made the recordings, but at no time did we claim that the Caporales was Peruvian… the Centro Cultural Andino liked our interpretation and that’s why we recorded the title for them. That’s our work.” But in the face of the waves of criticism, “Bolivian culture for sale”, he gave in a few days later: “The title will not appear on our new CD. Next time we’ll be more careful.” The group also signaled that it would follow the Ministry’s request to change the text.

The Llajtaymanta affair is not an isolated case: the popular women’s folklore group ‘Grupo Bolivia’ also faced similar criticism last month after recording a morenada for a Peruvian cultural association in Puno. She was also quoted by the Ministry of Culture.

The behaviour of the Minister of Culture has a simple name: Censorship. Nobody questions the fact that caporales and moradas were created in Bolivia. But to claim that the dances belong to Bolivia and that the government can decide by whom, when and under what circumstances they can be performed is absurd. Everyone knows that the tango was created in Argentina, but would the Argentine government therefore take action against the thousands of tango dancers and musicians in Berlin? It is alarming that the Bolivian government is officially taking this absurd position and intervening in the work of Bolivian musicians.

This position is particularly questionable in the case of Bolivia, since under the new constitution the country sees itself as a plurinational state that wants to distinguish itself from the neo-colonial state model. The Aymara, one of Bolivia’s most important ethnic groups, including President Evo Morales, have lived for centuries in the highlands around Lake Titicaca – on both sides of the Spanish border between Bolivia and Peru. Culturally, Puno has much more in common with Oruro than La Paz with Santa Cruz. The fact that Morales’ government uses the colonial borders as an occasion for polemics about Bolivia’s “cultural heritage” is not compatible with the concept of the Plurinational State. It is inconsistent to propagate the integration of nations within the country, but in this way to impair, rather than promote, the grown cultural relations with neighbouring countries.

Fortunately, many people in Bolivia take a similar view, for example the commentator of the daily Los Tiempos on 20 May:

“It is worth thinking about this case because it shows a dangerous understanding of culture and the rights that the Plurinational State claims for itself to regulate artistic expressions. If the Minister’s unfortunate statements and actions reflect the official attitude of the government, we should not be surprised if, as in other cases of authoritarian power, officials decide what may and may not be created, published and recognized, and that these officials set limits to the free exchange between peoples. We hope that this is not the way of the government.”