Bolivia: Making the Leap from Local Mobilization to National Politics

September 25, 2007

Bolivia's indigenous peoples have already made significant strides in the national arena. To make further progress, they will have to go beyond the realm of eye-catching mobilizations and master the difficult art of the game of politics. About 700 men and women from a dozen low- route to the capital city to protest logging on indigenous land indigenous groups walked over 400 miles lands and to demand legal rights to these lands. Then from the northern city of Trinidad to La Paz in President Jaime Paz Zamora, accompanied by a delega- a historic "march for territory and dignity" in 1990. tion of cabinet ministers and parliament leaders, went Over the course of 35 days, they trekked from the to meet the procession mid-route at the small sub-trop- Amazon rainforest through the snow-capped Andes on ical hamlet of Yolosa. The marchers rejected the gov- ernment's offers, which they considered inadequate. Xavier Albo is a researcher at the Center for Research and They continued walking. Promotion of the Campesino (CIPCA) in La Paz, Bolivia. He is the They continued walking. author of 20 books on linguistics, and social and rural issues in As they crossed the Andean ridge at 15,800 feet, the Bolivia and the Andean region. marchers were greeted by their Aymara brothers and Translated from the Spanish by NACLA. sisters 15 miles from La Paz. In the midst of wiphalas Vol XXIX, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1996 15REPORT ON INDIGENOUS MOVEMENTS (Aymara flags) rippling in the wind and the sound of pututus (ceremonial horns), the two groups sealed a sol- idarity pact with the ritual sacrifice of a llama. Some divined a good omen in the sudden change of weather from rain and snow to radiant sunshine. That same afternoon, the marchers arrived en masse in La Paz, cheered on by thousands of city residents who lined the streets to welcome them. When they arrived at their final destination-the cathedral in La Paz's central plaza-the old drummer who had led the entire march dropped to his knees, kissed the ground, and collapsed In August, 1993, another milestone was reached: Victor Hugo Cardenas, an Aymara leader, became vice-president of Bolivia. exhausted. That 35-day procession managed to shake up pub- lic opinion in this country of seven million inhabi- tants, four million of whom speak Quechua or Aymara and some 200,000 of whom speak one of the 30 languages of the lowlands. The marchers also succeeded in getting legal recogni- tion of nine areas cover- ing over seven million acres. Ethnic conscious- ness in Bolivia was reawakened in the high- lands in the 1970s with the Katarista Aymara movement, named after Tupaq Katari, the eigh- teenth-century hero who led an anti-colonial upris- ing in the La Paz region.' Since the 1991 march, however, the indigenous move- ment has assumed a much more plural character, embracing the diverse smaller indigenous groups that inhabit Bolivia and championing the right to be differ- ent, even among indigenous people themselves. This more intense contact between indigenous peo- ples of the Andes and the Amazon lowlands refined the ideology of the movement. Andean indigenous organi- zations now recognize that "territory" signifies one's own space in which to live, not simply a parcel of land to cultivate. In turn, the lowland indigenous groups, for whom this broader meaning of "territory" was always more apparent, now better understand the legal impli- cations of the struggle over land. The subject of ethnic identity was also rendered more precise after heated debates about the validity of such terms as "indio" (embraced by a small more urban minority), "indigena" (used more by the lowland groups), "pueblo" and even "nation." This is how the new concept of "pueblos orig- inarias" (or "naciones originarias") was coined and began to be popularized. Since that 1990 mobilization, the indigenous move- ment in Bolivia has made significant strides. Bolivia now has an Aymara vice-president. In addition, the cur- rent administration has spearheaded a number of initia- tives, including a Popular Participation Law, which have the potential to further indigenous rights. Of course, the reality is always more complex than it first appears. The government's neoliberal agenda remains at fundamental odds with indigenous interests. The movement itself is divided about the wisdom of collab- orating with the government, and has much to learn about how to succeed at the traditional game of politics. W hat made this indigenous resurgence possi- ble? After all, just four decades ago, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) and its agrarian reform of 1953 discouraged the use of terms such as "indio" and "indigena" with the intent of encouraging all Bolivians to identify themselves as "campesinos" within a modern, homogeneous nation. Why did the president and his cabinet feel obliged to go to the jungle in 1990 to talk with the marchers? Since when have leftist parties been interested in not only proletarians, but indigenous peoples too? What impelled this transformation of the relationship between the government and Bolivia's indigenous peo- ples? One key change in the wider context was the collapse of the class-based model of the traditional left. Neoliberal economic policies have dismantled mines and many factories, debilitating the once-powerful workers' movement organized in the Central Obrero Boliviano (COB), and weakening the organizational base of left-wing parties. The fall of "communism" in Eastern Europe erased the prospect of a socialist utopia, and at the same time, showed how ethnic problems could escalate if they were not confronted justly and promptly. As a consequence, certain leftist parties began to incorporate into their discourse an ethnic com- ponent, which Kataristas and lowland indigenous peo- ples had already been employing for some time. Other more centrist parties with greater prospects at the ballot box were quick to follow suit. Other factors have also been influential in sparking the indigenous revival. The consolidation of democracy in the 1980s opened up space for a greater spectrum of actors and perspectives. The environmental movement, which often sees indigenous peoples as its natural allies, especially in areas of virgin rainforest, has grown in global importance. International environmentalists have been able to use this power to pressure multilater- al lending institutions to require countries to demon- strate that they are taking indigenous and environmental NACI6A REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 16REPORT ON INDIGENOUS MOVEMENTS interests into account as a precondition for internation- al loans. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as sectors of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church have adopted a focus on indigenous rights. Within the indigenous movement itself, indige- nous organizations have grown stronger by forging alliances across national borders. In 1992, two years after the 35-day march, the "500 Years of Resistance"-the continent-wide indigenous response to uncritical celebrations of the Quincentenary -was commemorated. The central objective of the commemoration had been agreed upon over a year ear- lier by the United Confederation of Campesino Laborers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) and the Bolivian Indigenous Confederation of the Oriente, Amazon and Chaco (CIDOB), the principal organizations of the Andean region and the lowlands respectively. 2 They wanted to mark this year--during which indigenous issues were in the public eye-with the creation of an "Assembly of Nationalities" to better coordinate the indigenous movement. On October 12, 1992, the move- ment's ability to organize people in eye-catching events was truly impressive, especially in the Andean cities. Indigenous people marched from their communities on the periphery into the urban centers in Aymaras chew coca symbolic takeovers. The profusion of department of Coch wiphalas in the central plazas looked like forests, over- whelming the sparse presence of the Bolivian national flag. The wiphala no longer belonged to the Aymara alone; it had become the flag of the entire indigenous movement and the symbol of a new national utopia. With its checkerboard matrix of the seven colors of the rainbow, the wiphala nicely illustrates the idea of a pluriethnic and plurinational country. Despite the striking spectacle, the central political objective of all these mobilizations failed. Representatives of the lowland indigenous groups were present at the principal event in La Paz, which should have been followed by the first meeting of the Assembly of Nationalities. The event turned into a fias- co, however, with each group fearing the political manipulation of the other. Concrete political differ- ences also split the movement. The principal leaders of the CSUTCB were linked to the Movement for a Free Bolivia (MBL), a party of Marxist and progressive ori- gins that would later ally itself with neoliberal forces. 3 Other sectors were closer to political groups such as the Campesino Grassroots Movement and the Communitarian Axis (now the Pachakuti Axis), which had split from the Marxist parties and were less open to striking deals with the right. Before the groups had arrived at any kind of working agreement, a torrential downpour effectively ended both the gathering and the proposed Assembly of Nationalities, which has been shelved since then. The 1992 experience taught Bolivia's indigenous movement that conspicuous mobilizations were much easier to pull off than the slow work involved in creating a solid and representative organization. The movement continues to grapple with the question of how to translate together at a solstice celebration in Sipe Sipe in the highland abamba. Wiphala flags stand on the right. its local successes and attention-grabbing events into actions that have real impact at the national level. n August, 1993, another milestone was reached: Victor Hugo Cirdenas, an Aymara leader, became vice-president of Bolivia. Cirdenas was the head of the Tupaj Katari Revolutionary Movement of Liberation (MRTKL), practically the only remaining Katarista party of the many that existed in the 1980s. The mere fact that an Aymara was chosen to run with Gonzalo SAnchez de Lozada, the presidential candidate of the MNR-the same party that years ago argued for the "campesinoization" of the indigenous population- was an eloquent sign of the times. Bolivia's oldest and most powerful party finally appeared to realize the important role that the ethnic issue played at the nation- al level and among potential voters. The MNR no doubt selected CBrdenas in part because it feared the growing competition of the catch-all populist party, Conscience of the Country (CONDEPA), especially in the urban districts of La Paz populated by Aymara migrants. "Compadre Vol XXIX, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 199617 Vol XXIX, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1996 17REPORT ON INDIGENOUS MOVEMENTS Palenque," CONDEPA's leader, appealed to the grass- roots with his radio and television programs in Aymara. The party also cashed in on the ethnicity of CONDEPA's principal legislative deputy, Remedios Loza. A cholita (a person of indigenous descent who lives in the city), Loza was the first female national deputy to wear a pollera, the traditional clothing of indigenous women. From the perspective of the MRTKL, the offer of the vice-presidential post was enticing. An Aymara had never before been invited to assume such a high posi- tion, especially with such good prospects of success. A Chimani family stands outside their hut along the Mamore River the CSUTCB because of the arduous struggle they have waged against both the Bolivian and the U.S. govern- ments, which have been more concerned about eradi- cating coca crops than about capturing cocaine drug traffickers. s vice-president, Cirdenas has maintained an ethnic discourse, full of symbolic gestures. The presence of his wife, Lidia Katari, who also wears a pollera, plays perhaps an even more important role. Cdrdenas has taken advantage of the few brief moments in which he has served as interim president to play up this symbolism. At one event, he invited an old Aymara woman to sit in the presidential chair. On another occasion, the gov- ernment palace was inundated with children from the Quechua, Aymara and Guaranf terroritories in a cere- mony to mark the closing of the experimental phase of an intercultur- al and bilingual education program, which has since been extended to other parts of the country. This accu- mulation of symbolic capital is important, but will, in the long run, be sterile and frustrating if the indigenous imprint on national poli- tics doesn't go beyond that. In fundamental ways, Cirdenas' vice-presidency has been an exercise in the department in futility. First of all, he has been of Beni, located in the Bolivian lowlands. Cirdenas agreed to run, apparently believing that he nomic policy. 1 could strengthen the entire indigenous movement from neoliberal mod' the office of the vice-presidency. 4 nous communit Cirdenas' decision to join the MNR ticket should be is provide basi placed in the context of the complex relationship sectors (among between the state and Bolivia's indigenous movement. ties are the wor The leadership of the CIDOB and CSUTCB, the two the productive most representative indigenous organizations in biggest-and n Bolivia, have opposing attitudes toward the govern- ment and, becy ment. The CIDOB of the lowlands has been more will- indigenous Vic ing to collaborate with the government. By contrast, On the politi there is strong opposition to the government among the take advantage leadership of the CSUTCB of the Andean area, effective indige These divergent stances vis-ai-vis the state reflect the ure appears aln different histories of Bolivia's indigenous groups. The has not created indigenous peoples of the lowlands, who only recently him who coul entered the political game, are more pragmatic. The Perhaps Cdrden CSUTCB, on the other hand, has been broadly affiliat- has simply not ed with the left and in particular the COB since the time Cdrdenas sho of the dictators. The influence of coca producers is also it for a few rec more direct in the CSUTCB. The coca producers are favorable to th currently the most mobilized and radicalized sector of SAnchez de Lo powerless to influence national eco- ?he government continues to follow the el, which has been damaging to indige- ies. The most the government has done c social services to the country's poor which the rural indigenous communi- st off). The state has not tried to improve capacity of these sectors. This is the onst difficult-task facing this govern- ause he is part of the government, the e-President. cal front, Cdrdenas has been unable to of his position to build a unified and nous organization. His charismatic fig- host alone at the movement's apex. He an indigenous circle of advisors around d be groomed for leadership roles. ias does not see this as a priority, or he been able to do so. uld, however, be given some of the cred- ent government initiatives that are more .e indigenous cause. For instance, the zada administration created a National 18NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 18 >_ m NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASREPORT ON INDIGENOUS MOVEMENTS Secretariat of Ethnic, Gender and Generational Affairs. Headed by allies of the Vice-President, this government agency's principal function is to develop policies and legislative proposals in these areas. As vice-president, C.rdenas also serves as president of the Congress. From those two posts, he no doubt helped win approval for the modification of the Constitution in 1994. The first article now makes explicit reference to the pluriethnic, pluricultural and plurilingual (though not plurinational) character of the country. For the first time, the importance of indigenous roots was officially recognized in the Constitution, a big achievement in a country so marked by Spanish col- onization. The Congress also passed an Education Reform Law on July 7, 1994, whose central objective is assuring bet- ter quality primary-school education in both the city and the countryside. Indigenous peoples have been particu- larly receptive to two components: the law's bilingual multicultural focus and its establishment of educational advisory boards at different levels that will make propos- als and give communities a measure of control over teachers. However, the teachers, who will be primarily responsible for implementing the new initiatives, have also been the most resistant. They distrust the law partly for political reasons (including the World Bank's involvement in formulating the law, and opposition from Trotskyist leaders of the teachers' union), but above all because they are afraid of losing the job security that they once had. The most important piece of legislation is the new Popular Participation Law (PPL), which in the short term could open the door for greater indigenous participation in the government. The law ostensibly decentralizes power and resources to new rural municipalities. While the leadership of the indigenous movement has been sus- picious of the new law, the response at the grassroots has been more varied. The PPL has awoken real interest in some groups, while others fear that it is a veiled attempt by the government to co-opt indigenous groups. On its face, the Popular Participation Law contains some noteworthy innovations. For one thing, it treats the diverse traditional organizations of indigenous and campesino communities-such as ayllus (broader Andean communities), tentas (Guaranf communities), cabildos (councils) and unions with their traditional authorities-as participating actors in Bolivian democ- racy. It does this by giving these traditional organiza- tions legal standing and by delegating to them the role of supervising the execution of municipal plans. The grassroots indigenous and campesino organiza- tions had been struggling to achieve this kind of power for many years. However, their involvement in the process was not automatic, especially in certain Andean regions, because of the organizations' wari- ness of the government's true intentions. A year after the law was approved, some 10,500 community orga- nizations had registered with the government, equiva- lent to only half of the estimated national total, and only 140 of the 308 municipalities had established their oversight committees. The great fear of many grassroots organizations was rooted in the law's use of the generic name Territorial Base Organizations (OTB) to refer to any of the tradi- tional organizations so recognized. The adoption of this new name and the creation of oversight committees have made many suspi- cious that the government really wants to liquidate traditional organizations and transform them into entities that would be com- pliant appendages of gov- ernment. Fueling such sus- picions was the memory that 30 years ago the same MNR had pulled such a maneuver on the unions. "Before, they wanted to convert us from Aymaras to campesinos, from first peoples to unionists," says Juan de la Cruz Wilca, a top leader of the CSUTCB and the COB. "Now, won't it be the same with the OTBs? We already have our own statute. Let them recognize us as we are. We don't need to become OTBs." The movement's fears of Some indigenous leaders fear that the Popular Participation Law is a veiled attempt by government to co-opt indigenous groups. co-optation have some foundation. In a number of places, the local authorities have wanted to control the oversight committees and have even set up their own OTBs linked to their party interests. In these instances, the already existing tradi- tional organizations have not been recognized. This, of course, runs contrary to the law's ostensible intent. To eliminate misunderstandings, the Secretariat of Popular Participation decided to scrap the term OTB in the reg- istration forms in 1995. As a consequence, the tradi- tional organizations' initial mistrust is gradually disap- pearing. The central innovation of the new law has been the creation of more than 300 municipalities, of which approximately three-quarters have a majority rural- and often indigenous-population. Twenty percent of state revenues is being channeled to these municipali- ties as a whole. These funds are being distributed in proportion to the population of each municipality. In Vol XXIX, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1996 19 Vol XXIX, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1996 19REPORT ON INDIGENOUS MOVEMENTS addition to this seed money, the government can grant additional funds earmarked for the execution of the municipal plans. Before, the only true municipalities in Bolivia were the important towns and cities. In concrete terms, the majority of the countryside was a no-man's land. Now, each square foot of national territory is part of a municipality, and those that live within its perime- ters have the responsibility to choose and control their authorities. The first practical problem is that these new munici- pal jurisdictions have been demarcated according to the boundaries of the old provincial divisions, which were fre- quently determined without taking into account the natural groupings of the local population. For example, the more than 20,000 Aymaras of Jesds de Machaga, where I live, don't constitute a municipality, as would be obvious. Instead, they belong to the distant city of Viacha, some 50 miles away, which is almost an annex to metropolitan La Paz. The government has dealt with the most glaring disfunctions by creating subordinate "sub- mayoralties" (six of them are classified as "indige- nous," in which the traditional authority is at the same time the submayoralty). The root of the problem will only be resolved, however, by making each municipal jurisdiction better fit the sociocultural and economic reality of the area. Jt's still too early to evaluate how the new munici- palities are working. The municipal elections in December, 1995-the first under the new law- served, however, as a preliminary test of the degree to which the new structure gives indigenous peoples greater access to at least local power. There was a significant increase in the number of indigenous candidates (including many women) running for local office throughout the country. The number who were actually elected, however, was fewer. This out- come is in part the result of the fact that consciousness about political participation and skill in the political game are not acquired overnight. The main limitations, however, are structural, which have historical roots. First of all, difficulties in the registration and voting process dissuaded many from casting a ballot. Because of the distance from residences to polling booths and the many bureaucratic tangles, rural absenteeism was between 40% and 60% of registered voters (compared with 35% of the national total). According to the 1992 census, more than 50% of Bolivian women were not even registered to vote. The second difficulty was more political in nature. When the legislative deputies decided to modify the Bolivian Constitution three years ago, they agreed not to touch a constitutional restriction which required that all candidates for political office be presented by an accredited political party. The legislators left the restriction alone because no political party wanted to give up a privilege that it already had. As a result, in some places, the political initiative has remained in the hands of the parties and, in others, the candidates pre-selected by local organizations had to negotiate with one or another party to be accepted as part of its ticket. Because of this requirement, we can only know how many votes and coun- cil members each "party" got. Almost nobody, not even the Electoral Tribunal itself, knows how many of those elected are really party members and how many are indigenous people preselected locally who had to strike deals with some party in order to be legally eligible to run. The clearest case of new indigenous participation was the quasi-party Assembly for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (ASP), created by Quechua campesinos in the department of Cochabamba in association with the coca producers. When the ASP was denied recognition by the Electoral Tribunal, it had to borrow the acronym of the deterio- rating United Left party in order to participate in the elections. The group won 16 of the 40 municipalities in Cochabamba, and came in second in five others. It's also known that the MBL, now a junior partner in the governmental alliance, showed a great deal of flexibil- ity in allowing Quechua candidates in the south of the country to run on its ticket. As a consequence, the party won 15 of the 25 rural mayoralties in the department of Chuquisaca. Months before the December elections, I asked Carlos Hugo Molina, the independent director of the Secretariat of Popular Participation, what changes he would incor- porate in the new law if it were in his hands. He pointed out two: not demanding party affiliation in municipal elections, and facilitating the creation of indigenous municipalities. Will legislators accept these? With or without these changes in the law, the indige- nous peoples of Bolivia now have new ground rules which-for better or worse-have transformed the playing field. Their best prospects of success are at the local level, where it is not inconceivable that they will be able to take control of municipal government. But for that to occur, and to make even further progress, Bolivia's indigenous peoples will have to go beyond the realm of eye-catching mobilizations, where they have already shown such skill. They will need to mas- ter the difficult art of the game of politics. Bolivia: Making the Leap from Local Mobilization to National Politics 1. See Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, "Aymara Past, Aymara Future," in NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 25, No. 3 (December, 1991). 2. The United Confederation of Campesino Farmers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) has deepest roots and the strongest support among Quechuas and Aymaras. While its name reflects the historical inertia of an earlier era, its current discourse has a strong ethnic component. 3. After the 1993 elections, the MBL entered the governmental coalition and lost influence in the CSUTCB leadership, which is now in the hands of groups such as the coca growers. 4. See Xavier Alb6, "And from Kataristas to MNRistas" in Donna Lee Van Cott, ed., Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America (New York: St. Martin's Press and the Inter-American Dialogue, 1994).

Tags: Bolivia, indigenous movement, mobilizations, politics, PPL

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