Bolivia: Decolonisation or disintegration?

June 30, 2007

She stood out at the table crowded by journalists and onlookers who kept entering the room. Her white hat with an intricate band of weaving shadowed her face as she spoke out in the constituent assembly's Vision of the Country commission: "I will never forget how they killed our ancestors like Tupac Katari [an indigenous rebel leader], the way indigenous people have been treated like fleas, discriminated, excluded. That is why we are here, to call for profound change. We need a state that is plural, made up of many nations. But you, the slaves of multinationals, want no change at all."

After the meeting, I asked Esperanza Huanca, one of the assembly's 255 delegates, if I could speak to her. When Esperanza described where she was from, she identified not just with her community but an ayllu, a pre-colonial and still existing form of Andean community that stretched across large distances and ecological zones.

Esperanza, who comes from a community in north Potosi that had no running water, electricity or even a road to it, has been given the responsibility by her community to help forge a new Bolivia that includes them.

Clash of cultures

She explained the shock of coming to the assembly: her first time in a city; the debates, even within her own party, the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), between indigenous people who were accustomed to organising within sindicatos (labour unions), and her form of organising as ayllus.

"We have fully functioning economic, political social systems that work and which we practice", she said. "Our grandparents used these systems. They are perfect, correct. We have always had our way of organising ourselves collectively. Now the laws don't permit this. There is a choque [shock, clash]: that's why we are calling for profound change ... that recognises these different forms of organisation."

Esperanza didn't hesitate when I asked if she really thought it could happen. "The constituent assembly was a dream, now it's fact. We have direct representation in the government."

Colonialism under the microscope

In Bolivia I have felt like an observer of a complex and contradictory colonial legacy that is unravelling through the constituent assembly process, generating the call by indigenous people for a process of "decolonisation".

The passionate anger of the indigenous delegates conveyed a truth: indigenous people have never fully been part of a state that cut their peoples in half by artificial state boundaries, imposed political and economic structures that reflected alien values, and attempted to destroy their culture in order to control and loot their natural resources.

This "choque" as Esperanza described it has come to a head at various times in Bolivia's history, but most recently since 2000 when indigenous movements mobilised for collective control of Bolivia's natural resources. Among their demands was the reconstruction of the state, with a call for a constituent assembly, a demand first made by the indigenous peoples of Bolivia's east in a 1992 march for land redistribution.

The core proposals that MAS is putting forward are profound. Instead of a Western unitary nation-state based on individual human rights and a liberal state, they are proposing a "communitarian, plurinational, unitary state", meaning that each indigenous group would be recognised as a nation with a certain administrative control of resources and autonomy over areas of health, law and education.

"What are nations?", argued Pedro Alvarez, technical adviser to campesino federation CSUTCB, "but groups of peoples based on territory, culture, language and distinct values. So this state would recognise us for who we are." The communitarian aspect is recognised in the advocacy of collective rights of peoples over resources, and to govern using collective and participatory forms of democracy.

The right's resistance

The indigenous discourse that lies behind the proposals is an anathema to the right in Bolivia. The papers have recently been full of dark threats of huge mobilisations by the so called Pro-Autonomy Junta in four eastern departments (states).

Yet in Sucre, where the assembly is meeting, despite the rising rhetoric the right's leaders seemed surprisingly very calm, confident and coherent. It suggested that they didn't yet feel threatened. Ruben Dario Cuellar, head of the Podemos delegates, was typical.

He launched happily into a history of Bolivia whose message was clear: Bolivia wasn't working because it has never decentralised power to the people. He also painted a picture of a harmonious society like that in the village he came from, where he gets on with indigenous people and where class and race aren't issues. He explained that decentralisation (the right is pushing for strong departmental autonomy) was not a political project because a local government could be from the left or the right.

"The trouble, Nick, is that these indigenous proposals of MAS are a political project about division", he said. "Being indigenous is a political identity, one that is self-imposed. It doesn't give the right to special privileges. We have to find a point of union based not on our differences, but on being equal." He added: "The goal of the constituent assembly should be to reconstruct a social pact that is inclusive, that ensures that people feel Bolivian first. A society that is inclusive and does not divide. Do we construct a country of Bolivians or indigenous and non-indigenous?"

Where his apparently liberal discourse started to unravel is when he strayed into an analysis of indigenous cultures, in an attempt to show that indigenous discourse was false. He said the idea of "living well" trapped people in a state of underdevelopment and that "living better" should be the goal of society.

Worse, he cited what he admitted was a "crude" example of what would happen if his daughter was raped in a village with indigenous autonomy and a community justice system. "Where would my guarantee be that my rights will be protected?" His attitudes suggested that his picture of a harmonious society of indigenous and non-indigenous didn't extend to openness to learning and appreciating indigenous values as equal to his.

What emerged from the discussions with people from the opposition is that they are happy to talk about ending discrimination and racism and creating a multicultural society. However, they were not prepared to accept the fact that a modern state built in a form that systematically excluded and oppressed indigenous people required radical systematic change; or that indigenous communities might have different ways of organising and sets of values that should be integrated into the very structures of the state.

Fight over power

Behind the clash of values also lies a confrontation for power. It is quite clear that the move by business elites in Santa Cruz to assert autonomy in the last few years has been a response to losing power at the national level. The election of social movement leader Evo Morales as president only intensified demands by elites in the four eastern states of Bolivia to obtain executive and legislative autonomy.

When you read the proposals of the Unity Pact (the movements aligned with MAS) for indigenous autonomy, you can see why it makes the right so nervous. Most significantly, they state that indigenous communities would have joint control with the state over non-renewable resources and complete control over renewable resources. Given that much of Bolivia's natural resource wealth of gas, oil and minerals lies in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples, this could have a profound effect on the wealth of Bolivia's business elites.

Initially I was sceptical about the constituent assembly. It appeared far removed from building change from grassroots communities up. It also seemed a strange, very Western instrument for indigenous movements to use to change power relations.

Yet it is clear that the constituent assembly has become the focus for intense struggle in Bolivia and could have profound consequences. The debates within the assembly are opening up the divisions and distortions caused by centuries of colonialism and, more recently, neoliberalism.

Structures of power don't give up without a fight, and the rhetoric of the political and business elites and the response of the social movements suggests neither will give up even if the result is violence. The elites have too much to lose and the social movements too much to gain to step back. The question of whether profound change, particularly change that threatens economic power, can happen without violence is raised again.

The right may be correct when it says that many, especially mestizo (mixed race) Bolivians will not identify with the new constitution, and are therefore likely to be easily manipulated into believing it is about imposition of values and division.

It would seem that the process of the constituent assembly has been a profound opportunity for indigenous movements to recover the values that they hold to be important — values of solidarity, complementarity, living in equilibrium with nature, putting community above individualism, plurality.

One of the words that kept cropping up at the assembly was decolonisation. In Andean thinking that involves connecting ourselves to the past in order to re-imagine our future. Esperanza put it this way: "We need to ask where we are, where we come from, and where we are going. It is a task for everyone."

[Nick Buxton's blog Open Veins can be found at]

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