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Bolivia at the Crossroads

The process of drafting a new constitution in Bolivia has set off a bitter power struggle between the elites and the combined forces of the indigenous and working class movements supporting the country's first indigenous president Evo Morales.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 28, 200835Bolivia at the CrossroadsR tathagatanThe process of drafting a new constitution in Bolivia has set off a bitter power struggle between the elites and the combined forces of the indigenous and working class movements supporting the country’s first indigenous president Evo Morales.The series of popular mobilisations against neoliberalism in Bolivia throughout the last decade and the election of the first ever indigenous presi-dent Evo Morales have challenged deeply entrenched racial and class hierarchies, which characterise the Bolivian social order. With Morales strongly demonstrating his resolve to implement some radical, if not revolutionary political programmes, to correct what he calls “historical injustices”, the dominant classes are desperately try-ing to safeguard their privileges. The most recent conflicts have been around the process of drafting a new constitution. Power StruggleThe formation of a constituent assembly had been one of the major demands raised by the indigenous and other popular movements since two decades. The Mo-rales government conducted elections to the constituent assembly in March 2006. His party, Movement towards Socialism (MAS) and its allies won 60 per cent of the seats. The working of the constituent as-sembly was hampered by several problems right from the beginning. The delegates of the right wing parties led by the Demo-cratic and Social Power Party (PODEMOS) insisted that every individual article of the new constitution be approved by a two-thirds majority. When theMAS and its allies refused to agree, the Bolivian right, led by four conservative governors in the eastern departments (provinces) of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija, civic commit-tees, associations of private entrepreneurs and big landowners, and the PODEMOS boycotted the constituent assembly and resorted to large-scale violence. They took over all major public buildings in the city using dynamite and Molotov cocktails. The cocktails were also thrown into the house of MAS politician Osvaldo Peredo, where many Cuban doctors used to stay. There was an assault on the president of the constituent assembly, Silvia Lazarte, an indigenous woman leader from the MAS. However, the popular classes were quick in countering the state of siege imposed on the constituent assembly. In September 2007, about 10 million peasants and indig-enous people came to the city of Sucre for a social summit in defence of the constitu-ent assembly. In November, a coalition of peasant groups, neighbourhood associations and teachers’ unions met in the Omasuyos province and asked the government to declare a state of emergency in Sucre where the assembly proceedings were held, to prevent the disruption of the assembly meetings. They threatened to mobilise more people into Sucre if the violence against the assembly members continued. The right wing governors of the four eastern departments demanded regional autonomy. They threatened to boycott the assembly and not accept any of its propo-sals if their demands for regional autono-my were not accepted. They staked claim to a greater share of the revenue from the hydrocarbons. President Morales had de-vised a new pension plan based on the revenue from the “nationalised” hydrocar-bon industry, which benefited large sec-tions of the aged population. The hydro-carbon industries are located in the east-ern provinces and the regional autonomy demand can be read as an attempt to en-sure the control of the provincial elites over those revenues. The venue for the constituent assembly meetings was then shifted from Sucre to Oruro. The new constitution was finally passed in Oruro on December 9, 2007 in the absence of the right wing members who boycotted the meeting. The entire constitution has to be approved by a na-tional referendum along with an article on land reform, which imposes ceiling on landholdings and empowers the govern-ment to forcibly expropriate and redistribute the excess land without compensation. The right wing questioned the legality of the draft constitution because it was passed in their absence. Meanwhile, the governors of the three other resource rich eastern provinces of Tarija, Beni and Pando and the two western provinces of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca called for referendums on regional autonomy in their provinces. They defined autonomy in terms of control over local resources and the right to deal with national and inter-national capital on their own terms, R Tathagatan ( is a research scholar at the Delhi School of Economics.
COMMENTARYjune 28, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly36Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, CalcuttaCULTURAL STUDIES WORKSHOP, 2009The Centre for Studies in SocialSciences (CSSSC) in collaboration with Ford Foundation and the South-South Exchange Programme for the History of Development (SEPHIS, Netherlands) will hold its 14th Annual Cultural Studies Workshop fromFebruary 1-6, 2009 atNorth Eastern Hill University, (NEHU), Shillong, India. The broad theme for this year’s workshop isUrban Cultures.Cities have historically been important spaces of opportunity, arenas for defining and rehearsing notions of citizenship, democracy, and caste, class, ethnic, gender or sexual identity. Equally, the city has been the site of intense conflict, regulation, criminality and deprivation/marginalisation. Both the desire for, and the dread of, the city, has inspired much literature, film and art. The abundance of what had been scarce (eg. food and commodities) and the scarcity of what had been abundant (eg. land, fresh water and air) in contemporary cities has called for new resources, regulations and laws in the conduct of everyday urban life. Contending with spatial practices, built forms and civic cultures of local, regional, religious or linguistic communities is global capital’s impulse to homogenize city space, and hegemonies consumption.Against this broad background, the Cultural Studies Workshop 2009 will focus on the following specific themes:1. Cities and Citizenship: How have contemporarycities nurtured new civic and democratic cultures? How are they shaped or regulated by the protocols of governmentality?2. Constructing sites and spaces: Architectural and planning styles; questions of history, conservation and heritage; cultural productions and representations.3. Cultures of leisure and consumption: The emergence of new youth cultures; the hyper-sexualisation of the visual space; festivities and public life; anxieties, pleasures and segmented publics.4. Livelihood, work cultures, and the right to the city: Questions of displacement, migration, and marginalisation; notions of rights and entitlement; disappearing industries, new services and technologies.5. Law, violence and securitisation: How have violence and crime recast the urban cultural fabric and reordered everyday life? When does violence become a way of laying claim to city space? With what consequences for gender and class relations?The workshop is intended to give young researchers an opportunity to share their work with senior scholars in the field, including some of the faculty of the CSSSC. It is aimed at doctoral or postdoctoral students (below the age of 35) whose ongoing or just completed work focuses on one or more of the themes listed above.CSSSC will bear the expenses of surface travel (AC two-tier and shared taxi) and accommodation at Shillong for all selected candidates from India. Priority will be given to students currently affiliated to Indian educational institutions.International participants who have studied, or have been working long term, in countries of the global South are also invited to apply. Their airfare and local hospitality will be covered by the CSSSC in collaboration with SEPHIS.Those wishing to participate in the workshop may apply with their current C.V. clearly indicating date of birth; current academic affiliation and current postal addresses and email IDs. Applications must include a brief description (no more than one typed page) of the paper they intend to present which draws on their dissertation research.Hard copies of applications must reach Madhuban Mitra, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, R-I Baishnabghata-Patuli Township, Kolkata 700 094. [email: CSW@CSSSCAL.ORG] by September 10, 2008.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 28, 200837independent of the central government. Though the National Electoral Court and the National Congress declared regional referendums illegal, the governors of Santa Cruz, Pando and Beni conducted regional referendums on provincial autonomy in May and June 2008. Amidst reports of fraud and abstention of over 40 per cent of the voters,1 the majority who participated in the referendums voted for regional autonomy. However, the Morales government stated that, as the referen-dum had no legal basis, it was in effect, only an “opinion poll” whose results are not binding. TheUS government has been support-ing the right wing elites. The new US ambassador in Bolivia, Philip Goldberg had earlier served in Yugoslavia and had overseen the break-up of the country. His presence in Bolivia at the time of serious internal conflict, that too when some fringe right wing groups in Santa Cruz are threatening secession, can hardly be seen as a coincidence. Through the United States Agency for Internation-al Development (USAID), theUS govern-ment has been extending financial assist-ance to the opposition parties and the right wing regional governments.2 How-ever, the governments of Brazil and Chile have continued to cooperate with the Morales administration. These conflicts lay bare the deep racial and class divisions in Bolivian society. References to race are very common in the discourse of the right wing leaders. Their political vocabulary is full of phrases like “the shitty Indian Morales” and “savage and ignorant Indians”. Manfredo Kempff, a former foreign minister asks, “What could a collection of sheep-herders, co-caleros and road-blockers, suckled by the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), have to offer the country? … verges on irresponsibility to claim that illiterates can legislate”.3 The mayor of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Percy Fernández, says, “from the look of things, we’ll have to paint our faces and use feathered arrows to be able to ex-ist in this country”.4Historical Background This whole process in Bolivia is rightly seen all over the globe as part of the rising pink tide in Latin America. However, it is also important to understand it against the background of centuries of political struggles in Bolivia against the dominant elites. In other words, it is necessary to place the current events in the context of the quite complex history of politico- discursive struggles in Bolivia. Right from the 18th century, Bolivia has witnessed a wide range of struggles against multiple forms of oppression and social subordina-tion based on imperialism, class and race. Hylton and Thomson (2007)map out two broad traditions of resistance in Bolivia – the “national-popular” and the “indige-nous”. The “national-popular” sectorwas comprised of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) and the two com-munist parties, the Partido de Izquierda Revolucionario (PIR) and the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR). The dis-courses of these movements were based on common elements − anti-imperialism and working class and peasant empower-ment. However, these movements differed in the way these elements were conceived of and combined. In 1952, the MNR led a revolution, which restructured the political, economic and social life of the country. The mines were nationalised, agrarian reforms were implemented putting an end to the feudal hacienda system and univer-sal adult franchise was introduced for the first time in the country. ‘Mestizaje’ was the cultural ideal of the national popular project. It refers to racial mixture. The idea of a mixed race person was at the centre of the new national ideal. There was a focus on mixed heritage, but the focus was on the indig-enous past rather than the contemporary indigenous peoples. In Canessa’s words, “Indigenous culture was glorified, but as folklore rather than contemporary culture” (2006: 245). As Hale points out, “The mestizo cultural ideal appropriated important aspects of Indian culture…. to give it ‘authenticity’ and roots, but European stock provided theguarantee that it would be modern and forward look-ing” (2006: 267). Therefore, the education system was designed in such a way as to assimilate the indigenous people into a national mestizo Spanish speaking culture. It was this cultural ideal of mestizaje, which dominated allnationalpopular imaginaries in Bolivia. By 1970, an indigenous movement emerged, which challenged the ideal of mestizaje. This set in motion a process of reindigenisation. The ideology of mestizaje which was based on cultural and biological mixing was replaced by an ideology which laid emphasis on and valourised difference [Warren and Jackson 2005]. The indigenous movement raised various demands, including the introduction of bilingual education and the declaration of the indigenous languages, Aymara and Quechua as national languages. The indigenous movement had a strained relationship with the national-popular movements, including the communist movement. Initially, the Marxists opposed the ethnic-cultural demands of the indig-enous movement and called the indigenous activists “racists”, “reactionaries” and “counter-revolutionaries” [Cusicanqui 1987]. The indigenous activists also distanced themselves from the mainstream left. After a period of mutual suspicion, the working class and indigenous movement started cooperating with each other from the mid-1970s. They conducted a united struggle against the military dictatorship. This unity got consolidated in the early years of the 21st century, in the context of the movements against neoliberalism. The successful movement against the privati-sation of water in the province of Cochabamba (popularly known as the “water war”) captured global attention. This was followed by the “gas war” for the nationalisation of the hydrocarbons, which led to the forced removal of three presidents from office. It was this extra-ordinary mobilisation of all popular sectors, which culminated in the landslide victory of Evo Morales in the 2006 presidential elections.Hylton and Thomson (2006) rightly point out that these struggles against neoliberalism have led to a conver-gence between indigenous and national-popular identities. Thoughboththe indigenous and the working class move-ment still retain their distinct identities, they affected mutual transformations on each other’s political praxis. There was a rethinking of the ideal of mestizaje within the working class movement. On the other hand, indigenous identity expanded into a broader popular identity based on opposi-tion to neoliberal economic policies. While
COMMENTARYjune 28, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly38Foundation Books
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 28, 200839the indigenous movement, in its earlier stages, rejected any kind of socialism as a European imposition, the contemporary indigenous movement has acknowledged non-indigenous Marxist political leaders like Ernesto Che Guevara. As Albro observes, “Indigenous advocacy in Bolivia now takes the form of broader and plural civil society coalitions rather than pursu-ing a marginal, if more exclusively autonomous, identity politics of its own” (2005a: 436). This was reflected in the election campaign of Morales, in the ad-ministrative reforms he initiated, the new policies he introduced and also in the new draft constitution.Convergence of TraditionsSoonafter taking over office, Morales put an “indigenous stamp” on his administra-tion, in both symbolic and substantive ways [Albro 2006]. He appointed people with an indigenous background to 14 of the 16 cabinet posts and made it mandatory for the civil servants to know at least one of the three major indigenous languages, Aymara, Quechua and Gurani. He de-clared his plans to introduce new multi-culturalist legislations like the legal recog-nition of traditional indigenous collective practices of community justice as an alter-native to the court system. At the same time, he also took some crucial decisions in the interest of all popular sectors in Bolivia, which includes the non-indigenous, the most important being the nationali-sation of gas. Nationalisation of the com-manding heights of the economy has been a major demand of many national-popular movements since the 1920s and 1930s.5 He passed a new land reform law and repealed the Supreme Decree 21060, which declared the adoption of free market principles. In 2006, Bolivia withdrew from the International Monetary Fund and the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, a World Bank body that referees contract disagreements between foreign investors and host countries. With the assistance of Cuba and Venezuela, the Morales government has made significant strides in health and education declaring 109 municipalities freeofilliteracy and establishing 900 medical clinics, some of them mobile, in order to go to very remote areas. This convergence of indigenous and national popular political traditions can also be seen in the draft constitution. The text of the proposed constitution begins by declaring that Bolivia is “a unitary, pluri-national, communitarian, free, inde-pendent, sovereign, democratic, social decentralised state, with territorial autonomies” based on “plurality and political,economic, judicial, cultural, and linguistic pluralism”. It recognises four types of autonomy: departmental, regional, municipal and indigenous. It guarantees indigenous people collective land rights, their own communication networks, intel-lectual property rights over traditional knowledge, proper consultation on use of non-renewable resources and complete control over renewable resources.6 There are also special provisions for the protec-tion of the lands of “uncontacted” indig-enous peoples. Every region is required to grant official status to at least one indigenous language. At the same time, the draft constitution also reflects concerns that are not exclu-sive to the indigenous people. The privati-sation of water and the inclusion of water in trade agreements are prohibited. The use of strategic resources like gas and mining should be regulated and control-led by the state. The state is required to give special support to the small scale and cooperative sector, community organisa-tions and rural organic producers. The constitution recognises a variety of citi-zen’s rights including the right to social security, housing, health and education. The rights of labourers to form unions and conduct strikes are recognised. The eco-nomic value of household work (mainly done by women) is officially recognised. It asserts that international relations should be based on equality of states and stipu-lates that any treaty involving structural economic integration, like free trade agreements should be approved in a national referendum. It also contains pro-visions for the protection of gays and les-bians from discrimination.The constitution and the government in general has been criticised in left circles as well, for not going far enough on land reform and nationalisation. Many of the criticisms are serious and valid. It is pointed out that articles in the constitution are vague and open to multiple interpreta-tions. In other words, it is not necessary that the ideas espoused by it translate into concrete gains for the popular sectors. As Buxton notes, that would depend on whether proper procedures are followed and efficient institutional mechanisms put in place for the implementation of these provisions, which are quite radical in nature.7However, as Edgardo Lander points out, in the context of the struggles for the new constitution, it is not the document as such, but the whole process which holds importance.8 Vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera states, “Either we now consolidate the new state…with the new dominant forces behind us, or we will move back-wards and the old forces will again pre-dominate”; or as a trade union leader, Edgar Patana says “The final battlehas begun, and the people are prepared for it”.9 Bolivia is indeed at the crossroads.Notes 1 See Jeffery R Webber’s article entitled ‘Bolivia’s Autonomist Right’, available on 2 This is openly stated in a declassified message from the US embassy in Bolivia to Washington. See Benjamin Dangl’s article in 3 4 5 Sinclair Thomson interviewed by Jeffrey Webber in http://boliviarising. 6 Nick Buxton’, ‘Constituting Change in a Divided Bolivia’, /2008 /01/constituting-change-in-divided-bolivia.html 7 Nick Buxton, ibid. 8 Nick Buxton, ibid. 9, Robert (2006): ‘Actualidades Bolivia’s ‘Evo Phenomenon’: From Identity to What?’, Journal of Latin American Anthropology, 11 (2), pp 408-28. – (2005a): ‘The Indigenous in the Plural in Bolivian Oppositional Politics’,Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol 24, No 4, pp 433-53.Canessa, Andrew (2006): ‘Todos Somos Indigenas: Towards a New Language of National Political Identity’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 25(2), pp 241-63.Cusicanqui, Silvia Rivera (1987):Oppressed but Not Defeated: Peasant Struggles among the Aymara and Quecha in Bolivia, 1900-1980, United Na-tionsResearch Institute for Social Development, Geneva.Hylton, Forrest and Sinclair Thomson (2007): Revo-lutionary Horizons: Popular Struggle in Bolivia, New York, Verso.

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