Abstract - This article describes the participation of
‘Looking back, we will move forward.’ Carlos Mamani Condori (1992), Aymara activist and historian
‘We need a space where the people can talk not about the past, but the future.’ Oscar Olivera (2004), social movement spokesperson
As it has been since the first Water War of 2000, public assemblies convened by social movement leaders were instrumental in the run up to
The almost routine inability of presidents to finish out their elected terms of office in
What are the democratic stakes in
Given the apparent exhaustion of the neoliberal state in Bolivia, along with political scientist Patrick Deneen (2004: 27–8), the present analysis of popular protest efforts seeks to redress the potential ‘presence of tragedy embedded in democratic overconfidence’ as a ‘cosmic optimism’ in principles of liberal democracy characterized by an absolutist and uncritical faith in a fully liberal and democratic future. At a moment of rejection of neoliberalism as state policy in
Vicissitudes of neoliberal democracy
Eduardo Gamarra (1994: 10–11) has described the application of neoliberal democracy in
The general reaction to the upsurge of indigenous mobilization within
Vargas Llosa’s many assertions about the anti-democratic nature of indigenous peoples in the
Vargas Llosa’s position has been reprised during recent struggles in
Multicultural state democracy and social movements
Yet throughout the 1990s the Bolivian state invested collective cultural claims with constructive potential, in part through legislative interventions of indigenous peoples themselves. Representing the South American Indian Council (founded in 1980), Tomás Condori (2001: 43–5) participated in the drafting and ratification of the International Labor Organization’s convention No. 169, concerned with indigenous and tribal peoples and adopted in 1989. ILO convention No. 169 calls for states to work toward the full realization of cultural rights, which includes state recognition of the authority of customary law. In 1994 and partly through the interventions of katarista historian Victor Hugo Cárdenas as vice-president, the Bolivian government followed suit, instituting a controversial Popular Participation Law (PPL) that offers new possibilities for social inclusion in terms of the constitutional redefinition of the nation as ‘multiethnic and pluricultural’. The PPL was a sharp break with Bolivian state cultural policies dating from the 1952 Revolution, which relegated any indigenous future to assimilation into a desirable culturally and ethnically mixed middle class, referred to as a mestizaje. Under this regime citizens’ rights conformed to the ‘model of the mestizo citizen’, which Rivera Cusicanqui (2004: 21) has described as an individual ‘consumer and producer of merchandize, a speaker of Spanish and an aspirant to a Western ideal of civilization’.
The PPL, however, granted full legal recognition to already existing traditional and popular local political organization and leadership, according to what are called a group’s ‘uses, customs, and statutory dispositions’ (usos y costumbres), or customary law. In the process the downsizing state handed over resources and decision-making to the local municipality. With the state’s recognition of ‘uses and customs’, the PPL has magnified the importance of cultural heritage as a basis to advance political and legal claims. Supported by related legislation, such as the 1996 update of Bolivia’s agrarian reform law recognizing the pre-existent claims of originario (highland Indian) and of indígena (lowland Indian) communal landholdings, the application of customary law through the PPL established legal precedent based on continuity with the past. But the combined political, legal, and performative implications of heritage make it more than just the ‘retrospective expression of culture’ (Brown, 2005: 43) for Bolivian protesters.
In the last five years strife between
The politics of association
If the admixture of social sectors, indigenous, or popular groups is not always the same, a shared politics of assembly (política asambleística) has become a potent unifying strategy of social movements in Bolivia since at least 2000, leading to the organization of successive multi-sector coalitions (García Linera, 2001, 2003). Re-establishing a popular capacity to intervene in the public life of the nation, coalition-building has facilitated the meeting of social sectors, logistical planning for collective mobilizations, shared drafting of statements and agreements, and restored a more direct connection between political deliberation and action in contrast to traditional political parties. Political theorist and current vice-president Álvaro García Linera (2004: 73) highlights the nested relationship between the broad-based protest efforts and these more local plenary organizations: The multitude is an association of associations in which each person who is present in the public act of meeting does not speak for himself or herself but rather for a local collective entity to which he or she is accountable. García Linera’s description of protesting coalitions as an ‘association of associations’ suggests an effort to bridge the vertical disconnect of the state with society – popularly expressed as a desconfianza (disenchantment) for the years of democratic consolidation – with the local experiences of the politically familiar, immediate, and everyday.
As Sian Lazar (2006) helps to make clear with her description of the central role of residential associations, worker, and trade unions in the mobilizations in El Alto during the Gas War of 2003, local associational life has been the experiential ground for collaborations among popular social sectors. As Lazar shows, neighborhood committees (or juntas vecinales) and trade unions (gremios) at once make direct claims on the state and serve as the means for the state to channel resources to the local level. These ‘base organizations’ can also substitute for the state as collective political subjects (2006: 197), as with the civic strikes that closed markets and the organization of autonomous defense committees in 2003 (see Hylton, 2004). As confrontations mounted in 2003 and again in 2005, local juntas, gremios, and sindicatos collaborated to organize barricades, vigils, and communal cooking. Rather than an exception, the coordinated mobilization of ‘base organizations’ is an intensified expression of the everyday organic life of neighborhood associations in El Alto, including routine participation in meetings, demonstrations, civic parades, and other collective responsibilities. People’s daily associational commitments add up to a popular experience of democratic participation significantly different from the typical assumptions of voting in a formal political party system.
Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (1990) has written of the differences between what she calls ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘ayllu democracy’ in
This includes recognizing the extent to which the ‘networks of solidarity’ of El Alto’s associational life articulate a ‘rural-urban Aymara’ experience, emergent out of the migratory history and largely unplanned rapid growth of El Alto (see Sandoval and Sostres, 1989). Pablo Stefanoni (2004: 2–3) has described how the protracted efforts by in-migrants to obtain basic services such as water, paved roads, electricity, and trash pick-up transformed juntas vecinales into an instrument for the ‘politics of vital necessities’.
Evolving from associations of renters and clients of government land grant programs in the 1940s and 1950s, the communitarian and territory based politics of in-migrating Aymara agriculturalists transformed juntas vecinales throughout the city’s rapid growth in the 1970s and 1980s. These included an ongoing affiliation with one’s community of origin, the use of the assembly, such principles of exchange as ayni (that is, the strict exchange of equivalents), and the usage of kinship and fictive kinship (or compadrazgo) to organize collective participation in neighborhood improvement projects. But now rather than a given community, these cultural terms of engagement are focused on the urban category of vecino (neighbor).
Juntas were once again transformed after 1985 with the arrival of ‘relocalized’ ex-miners and their experiences with the vanguardist tradition of the mining unions (Gill, 2000: 67–85). Far from being a unitary expression of the interests of distinct social sectors, El Alto’s base organizations compose overlapping arenas of encounter and dialogue for the historical and generational experiences of the associational politics of multiple social sectors, brought together in moments of protest.
These experiences encompass the local political institutions of rural Aymara communities with urban renters’ and trade associations, together with the experiences of radical mining unions, through an organic associational life that is commensurate with ‘Andean’ principles of leadership, accountability, community service, collective work, redistribution, and consanguinity. Elsewhere I have described a similar convergence of diverse traditions of local association for the six coca grower federations of the Chapare, another central social movement protagonist of recent years (see Albro, 2005b). When characterizing Bolivia’s large-scale social mobilizations as the agency of a plural popular subject, I want to point to the translatable experiences of associational politics, which have brought the rural, the urban, indigenous heritage, and the leftist histories of popular labor movements, ex-miners, and ex-peasants, into constructive realignments of kinship, reciprocity, exchange, solidarity, and mutual recognition. The politics of assembly is a dialogical catalyst for cultural translatability and mutual recognition across comparable domains of popular experience, facilitating coalition-building across formerly distinct indigenous and popular struggles in the post-neoliberal period.
I do not want to minimize evident regional and rural–urban differences. But, to insist, as Rivera Cusicanqui does, on irreducibly different origins for ‘indigenous’ and ‘mestizo-creole’ political projects, and to interpret local union politics primarily as an extension of internal colonialism in Bolivia, makes it difficult to recognize the popular coalitional politics of the present. If not unaffected by problems of hierarchy, corruption, and the abuses of power, local associations employ a direct democracy that is transparent, horizontal, bottom-up, and non-hierarchical, with the right of all to speak (pedir la palabra). Whether or not these traits are always evident in practice, in principle they represent a more direct application of the popular will and an alternative to the failures of democracy as practiced through political parties. During
This is not the case only in El Alto. A union leader characteristically began a meeting I attended in
Robert Albro currently teaches anthropology at
Republished from Critique of Anthropology, 2006; Vol 26; No. 4, pp 387-410
 In part this call is a reference to
 Election by ‘usos y costumbres’ – where each social sector would elect a representative according to prevailing customary law for that sector – was also part of the proposals advanced by many groups for this year’s constitutional referendum.
 The UNDP report was not exceptional in this regard. Coining such terms as ‘democracy deficit’, ‘low intensity democracy’, and ‘democracy lite’, a veritable cottage industry of writers has proclaimed the inadequacies of democratic consolidation in
 Carlos Mesa was an exception to this, repeatedly underscoring his refusal to commit the same error as his predecessor by using state violence to maintain social control. However, during a public statement on
 An analogous distinction between a ‘deep’ and ‘modern’
 Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, public address at
 Daniel Goldstein (2004) has written extensively on the significance of lynching for the peripheral urban community of Villa Pagador in
 The term ‘ayllu’ refers to a uniquely Andean ‘social, ritual, and political formation’ (Orta, 2001: 198). There are many definitions of the term. For a thorough summary of scholarship on this key Andean concept, see Weismantel (2006).
 As Lazar (2006: 194) and others have made clear, the democratic organization of local associations in
 For more discussion of the ‘dialogical ground’ of culture see Tedlock and