Andean protesters resist death-marred Dakar Rally

The Dakar Rally Raid motor-race across the Andes has already claimed three lives since leaving Rosario, Argentina, on Jan. 4—a motorcylist and two "spectators" who were following the race in a vehicle. Progress was finally halted five days later when residents and municipal workers in the Argentine town of Juan Alberdi, Tucumán province, blocked the road to prevent passage. (Al Jazeera, Jan. 11; EFE, El Gráfico, Buenos Aires, Jan. 9) Meanwhile, the Chilean Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the motor-race brought by the College of Archaeologists of Chile, who site damage to ancient petroglyphs in a previous  Dakar Rally through the country. The group's vice president Paola González, told France24: "In Chile, a national monuments law considers this a punishable crime. Nevertheless, the destruction with impunity of our national heritage continues."

"In Chile, as in every country we race through, we abide by a simple rule: we completely comply with local legislation," replied rally organizer Grégory Murac of France-based Amaury Sport Organisation. But in fact, the case was dismissed on a technicality—Amaury had brought Chile's National Sports Institute on as a co-sponsor, and as a public entity it has immunity. 

Efforts to halt the rally through the law have also failed in Argentina. An alliance of environmental groups in November petitioned the Santa Fe province legislature to pass a bill outlawing passage of the race, citing threats to the fragile Andean ecology. (France24, Jan. 9)

But the biggest challenge may be in Bolivia, if the rally indeed progresses that far. This year, for the first time, it is to detour north though Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni—the vast and remote salt flats of Potosí. But Aymara indigenous protesters have pledged to block passage, and President Evo Morales is mobilizing some 3,500 National Police troops to the route.

CONAMAQ, the Aymara group leading the protest campaign, made clear it is opposing the race on ecological grounds, but also to press the government on talks. Said CONAMAQ leader Guillermo Mamani: "We want dialogue and to look after the place where we live." Popular organizations in El Alto, the altiplano city which is a stronghold of support for President Morales, are attempting to broker talks between CONAMAQ and the government, and head off a disruption of the road rally.

But Morales is an enthusiastic supporter of the rally, and is slated travel this weekend to the desert town of Uyuni to meet with motorcycle and quad racers competing in the rally and later host a dinner for them. (Auto and truck racers are taking a more direct route that does not include Bolivia.)

In a testament to how divided Bolivia's indigenous movement has become, residents of Tolapampa, a pueblo on the route through the salt-flats, said they would drop out of the blockade campaign after receiving "threats" from members of the Potosí Campesino Federation and Bartolina Sisa Federation of Campesina Women, two formations aligned with the government. (Fox News Latino, Jan. 10; FM Bolivia, ANF, Jan. 9)

Bolivian Aymara sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui seemed to speak for the protesters when she told a conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, Jan. 5: "There is still no indigenous government in Latin America… Nowhere do the indigenous hold power, we have to be clear about this." Speaking of Evo Morales, she said, "There is nothing indigenous in his way of being… He does not even speak an indigenous language… It is a rhetorical recourse to say that he is indigenous. Nor should we assume there has been a rupture with the hegemonic models consigning us to be in the backyard of the big transnationals."

The conference on "Strategic Ethnicity, Nation and Colonialism in Latin America" was called to explore the political uses of indigenous identity in the region today. (Servindi, Jan. 5)