The Culture of Democracy and Bolivia’s Indigenous Movements (Part I)

Robert Albro

Abstract - This article describes the participation of Bolivia’s indigenous movements in encompassing popular protest coalitions of the last five years. Pointing to the importance of cultural heritage in current social movement efforts to revitalize Bolivian democracy, this argument examines the importance of the ‘terms of recognition’ in the negotiation of the very meaning of democratic participation, between the traditional political class and popular protesters, but also within protesting coalitions. As both indigenous and popular traditions of struggle increasingly make common cause, Bolivia’s indigenous movements are providing the cultural resources that frame the terms of popular protest. At the same time, the terms of indigenous identity are also changing form, becoming more available to growing urban-indigenous and non-indigenous popular social sectors now willing to claim or reclaim an indigenous heritage. This article also explores key transnational and national networks now involved in this transformation of the terms of indigenous cultural heritage, making it the basis of an alternative democratic public in Bolivia.


‘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

On 6 June 2005, Bolivian president Carlos Mesa resigned for the second time, citing his inability to govern while mired in another round of largescale social mobilizations that had paralyzed the country since mid-May. Mesa’s government was beset by over 800 protests during his year and a half in office (Dangl, 2005). The protests of May and June were touched off by the passage of a new hydrocarbons law that did not grant national control of gas reserves to the satisfaction of popular leaders. Sparring with police, approximately 15,000 people filled the Plaza Murillo in La Paz on 30 May. On 1 June mostly Aymara peasants blockaded access to La Paz. Meanwhile, in the city of Cochabamba, peasants and factory workers led a massive march through the city center. By 4 June all of Bolivia’s major highways were blockaded at 55 points throughout the country, bringing it to an economic stand-still and provoking an exasperated Mesa to step down.

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 Mesa’s resignation, including a referendum on 23 May (see Gomez, 2005; Martin, 2005). After three weeks of strikes, marches, and road blocks, on the day of Mesa’s resignation hundreds of thousands of people converged on the center of La Paz, the capital city. And in what became a massive open-air forum (popularly called a cabildo abierto), the call went up to found a new ‘Popular Assembly’.[1] The proposed assembly would be composed of delegates from indigenous communities and urban neighborhood associations, along with worker, trade, and agrarian unions. Delegates would be elected in meetings of each grassroots organization according to their respective and preexistent ‘customary’ procedures (usos y costumbres).[2] The assembly’s first order of business would be to address two popular calls repeatedly raised in recent years: for the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas and for a referendum to redraft a national constitution that better represents the rights of the country’s indigenous majority. As I argue here, such efforts illustrate a deepening entanglement of indigenous with national-popular traditions of struggle (see also Hylton, 2005a). A former vice-president, Mesa himself came to power in October 2003 only after his predecessor, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, fled the country in the face of outrage over bloody efforts to control similar protests throughout that year, resulting in at least 60 deaths and hundreds injured (see Ledebur, 2003: 2). It is estimated that a crowd of up to 500,000 people assembled in La Paz the day Sánchez de Lozada’s helicopter took off. Prior to his own resignation Mesa’s exasperation was apparent, as he declared the El Alto protests to be a ‘carnival of lunatics’ (Mamani, 2005). The recent travails and premature end of Mesa’s government exemplify the kinds of concerns cited in a 2004 report by the United Nations Development Program, titled ‘Democracy in Latin America: Toward a Citizen’s Democracy’, which somberly concluded that democracy in the region is at best ‘fragile’.[3]

The almost routine inability of presidents to finish out their elected terms of office in Bolivia, and elsewhere, has renewed debate over the status and meaning of democracy for the region’s popular majority. The landslide election to the presidency in December 2005 of Evo Morales – leader of the coca growers and one of Bolivia’s more militant social movements – has raised fears among foreign observers that Bolivia’s democracy is heading in the wrong direction. Until very recently the US State Department identi- fied Morales as an ‘illegal coca agitator’ and as the leader of the ‘radial MAS’ (his political party) – part of a pattern of labeling Bolivia’s indigenous- dominated social movements as ‘anti-systemic’ (Lindsay, 2005: 6).

Bolivia continues to be a litmus test for the ongoing success of democratization in Latin America. The phenomenal popularity of Morales, as leader of a movement long in the cross-hairs of the US-backed War on Drugs in Bolivia, makes it increasingly clear that the terms of democracy in this country mean different things to foreign and national policy-makers and to the grassroots groups that have been actively participating in the largescale protests of the last six years.

What are the democratic stakes in Bolivia? This is not as straightforward a question as former presidents would have us believe. In his analysis of contemporary Mexican democracy, Matthew Gutmann (2002: xviii) draws attention to the imprecise ‘elusiveness of the term democracy’, combining as it does a wide range of aspirations and multiple meanings. Observers of Bolivia’s current paroxysms describe the present crisis as competing concepts of democracy ‘locked in fierce combat’ (Hylton, 2005b). And protesting coalitions speak and act in the name of a ‘real democracy’, in their view betrayed by government caretakers. Bolivia’s predicament illustrates what James Holston and Teresa Caldeira (1998) have called ‘disjunctive democracy’, which draws attention to the daily experiences of democracy, its variable depth and uneven distribution, currently lived in Bolivia in unbalanced, irregular, and increasingly contradictory ways. Distinguishing the state’s caretakers from the state itself, the object of Bolivia’s current protests is to revitalize the very terms of democratization. As I develop here, this includes expanding criteria of recognition for inclusion in Bolivia’s democratic project, renovating the collective political subject of a national democratic process, and dramatically framing the cultural terms of this subject as a specific moral community.

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 Bolivia, the democratic alternatives of popular protest movements also self-consciously reject the ‘natural’ equation of the free market with democratic freedoms (Paley, 2001). In order to better appreciate the range of democratic aspirations in contemporary Bolivia, in what follows I examine contributions of Bolivia’s indigenous movements to encompassing popular mobilizations of protest in this country. I unpack how an Andean cultural heritage works as a constructive resource for the ‘democratic’ discourse and practice of Bolivia’s social movements, which seek to re-imagine and to realign the growing gulf between the experiences of actually existing democracy and the unrepresentative institution-building of democratization. I sketch out how cultural heritage is used as a political resource for popular coalition-building and in an effort by social movements to frame an alternative democratic public outside of Bolivia’s ‘politics as usual’.

Vicissitudes of neoliberal democracy

Eduardo Gamarra (1994: 10–11) has described the application of neoliberal democracy in Bolivia since 1985 as a negotiation between ‘technocrats, managers, and government officials’, on the one hand, and ‘distinct social sectors attempting to find a niche’ on the other. Reformists promoted a conception of democracy largely compatible with ‘effective and efficient management of the economy’ while the country’s popular sectors pursued the democratic promise of greater access to the policy-making process. These were different conceptions of democracy, with the goals of ‘order’ and ‘inclusion’ respectively. What Gamarra (1996: 97) labelled Bolivia’s ‘pacted democracy’ functioned through political party coalition building toward legislative majorities, institutionalizing a ‘largely executive centered’ and ‘undemocratic’ approach to governance with no room for ‘open debate about economic policy’. Political parties convened national ‘dialogues’, advertised as public referendums while functioning as a unilateral means to promote the policies of structural adjustment. Historically in Bolivia dialogue has been an executive tactic used to isolate social sectors from each other and to paper over the sharp fissures in democratic representation. During the 1990s, national dialogues organized by traditional political parties exhibited the form of dialogue without the function, as policy exchanges reproducing the ‘logic of forced negotiation’ (Laserna and Ortego, 2003: 5). Throughout this period, however, Bolivia’s pacted democracy illustrated a resilient ability to absorb diverse political interests into the formal political fold. But since 2000 when crises came to a head, the government has increasingly reverted to a ‘dialogue of rifles’, as one editorialist ironically noted (Puente Calvo, 2003).[4]

The general reaction to the upsurge of indigenous mobilization within Bolivia’s ‘traditional political class’ – as it is called – has been predictable. ‘Democracy’, they regularly warn, is ‘under siege’. This includes the charge that Bolivia’s recent upheavals have been driven by left-wing demagogues manipulating heterogeneous groups of the uneducated, poor, indigenous, and disillusioned (see Laserna, 2003). For unsympathetic international observers, this quickly turns into an account of protests dominated by the ‘perverse annual tradition’ of Bolivian ‘mobs’ (see Fantini, 2005). In a Washington Post editorial after his ouster, Sánchez de Lozada (2003) charged: ‘Mob rule overwhelmed respect for Bolivia’s democratic process.’ And since then the ex-president has kept up a steady drumbeat of allegations associating Bolivia’s social movements with unsavory and undemocratic foreign patrons, from Colombia’s FARC guerrillas or Venezuela’s Chávez to a resurgent Shining Path in Peru and to Cuba’s Castro (see Los Tiempos, 2005). Most recently he has insisted that Bolivia now runs the imminent risk of being transformed into a ‘new Afghanistan’ (see Bolpress, 2005), a comparison meant to suggest the potential disintegration of Bolivia into a fundamentalist narco-state. One sinister outcome of such charges has been a growing concern among US policy-makers that South America’s indigenous movements constitute a potential criminal and terrorist insurgency best dealt with through an expansion of the ‘war on terror’ (Feiler, 2004; González, 2005; Hylton, 2003). Equations drawn between foreign agitators, home-grown demagogues, and the threat of mob violence displace the agency of protest efforts from protesters themselves and eschew any need to acknowledge the self-consciously ‘democratic’ discourse and practice characteristic of the mobilization of Bolivia’s social movements. Bolivia’s traditional political class understands the promise of liberal democracy as the reigning fantasy of modern prosperity. This conviction is often expressed among Latin American elites, and well represented by one of the more vocal advocates of liberal democracy from South America, the celebrated writer Mario Vargas Llosa, himself an erstwhile presidential candidate in neighboring Peru. In a characteristic statement at an international seminar in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2003, titled ‘The Threats to Democracy in Latin America’, Vargas Llosa categorically singled out current indigenous movements as a threat to democracy because of ‘the political and social disorder they generate’. But he went further, insisting that indigenous movements are categorically ‘incompatible with civilization and development’.

Vargas Llosa’s many assertions about the anti-democratic nature of indigenous peoples in the Andes have deep, and well-publicized, roots in a specific kind of past. His point of view has been spelled out in the Vargas Llosa Report (unpublished, but discussed in Vargas Llosa, 1983), the result of a commission organized to investigate the deaths of eight reporters at the hands of highland peasants early in the Shining Path war, later the basis for his magical realist novel Death in the Andes (1997). The Peruvian anthropologist Enrique Mayer (1991) insightfully analyzed the Vargas Llosa Report, which described indigenous Peru as ‘traditional, archaic, secret, and frequently in conflict with official law’ (Vargas Llosa, 1983: 32). As Mayer shows, and as Vargas Llosa’s most recent comments continue to confirm, this ex-presidential candidate imagines the Andes in terms of two contained and largely antagonistic cultural worlds – an indigenous ‘deep’ Andes and a modern Andes in which a ‘culture of human rights and democracy’ thrives.[5] In Vargas Llosa’s version, a backward looking and collectively enacted ancestral or ‘customary law’ – in direct conflict with ‘official’ state law – insures that so-called traditional peoples in the Andes remain stubbornly, and ignorantly, opposed to modern democracy.

Vargas Llosa’s position has been reprised during recent struggles in Bolivia in a variety of ways. Analysts critical of the social movement effort have pointed to the ways that urbanites of indigenous descent ‘idealize the rural and communitarian tradition of their ancestors in order to oppose it to a present in which they have achieved less than they hope’ (Laserna, 2003). In a speech after his removal from office,[6] Sánchez de Lozada charged that Bolivia’s social movements ‘don’t believe in democracy’, and he contrasted orderly ‘representative democracy’ to an ‘authoritarian communalistic democracy’ that is based on the supposed ‘assemblies’ of Bolivia’s indigenous societies. For Sánchez de Lozada, liberal democracy currently is waging a battle for survival with ethnic ‘collas’ (highland Indians), a social sector that ‘rejects modernizing itself and which clings to archaic notions’ (Bolpress, 2005). This view also prevails in the official response to lynchings, a kind of vigilante ‘community justice’ which, according to police authorities, is carried out ‘under the supposed umbrella of customary law [usos y costumbres] and which deepens the loss of state authority’ (Los Tiempos, 2004), where this authority is epitomized by the orderly consolidation of state institutions.[7] Political elites, in short, refer to the collective indigenous politics of face-to-face assembly as a point of departure for characterizing marked cultural practice as decidedly undemocratic, located in a past with no productive relationship to a democratic present or future.

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.

Specifically, Bolivia’s multicultural legislation depends upon an understanding of ‘heritage’ as ‘patrimony’ (patrimonio). The term – patrimonio – is often on the lips of Bolivia’s indigenous activists. Bolivia’s legal process of state decentralization grants local municipal ‘control over the exploitation of their patrimony’ (patrimonio propio), while also ‘promoting cultural development and the defense of autochthonous cultural values’ (Ley Orgánica de Municipalidades, article 39). The etymology of ‘patrimonio’ derives from the medieval Spanish legal parlance stipulating property inherited from one’s father. Specifying rules of family estate inheritance, for modern Bolivia patrimony refers to inherited legal jurisdictional rights over land. The combined effects of this state-driven multicultural legislation, then, has been to formulate ‘popular participation’ in terms of a correspondence of ‘customary law’ – assumed to be a unitary set of meanings and practices – to separate and discrete traditional cultural units labeled ‘territorial base organizations’. As a condition of state recognition, the ‘pastness’ of indigenous heritage potentially limits direct participation by indigenous peoples in the political realities of the present, by circumscribing their political relevance within what the state imagines to be the boundaries of their ancestral territories. Understood in this way, multicultural legislation illustrates the agency of the state in setting what Povinelli (2002: 3) has called the ‘limits of recognition’.

Bolivia’s recent developments, however, complicate this picture in a variety of ways, suggesting how indigenous and popular movements use international and state-based rights instruments to transform the meaning and ground of citizen participation. The terms of legal circumscription of indigenous identity – of the state’s own condition of political recognition – are being appropriated to new ends by protesting coalitions. And during the Water War of 2000 the rallying point for this multi-sector and largely urban movement was the defense of the traditional use and distribution of water as a collective cultural right based on usos y costumbres (see Albro, 2005a; Laurie et al., 2002), which it forced the government to recognize with a legal amendment. Customary law continues to inform large-scale protest efforts. Indigenous movements in Bolivia have sought to expand the state’s limited concept of ‘land’, understood simply as a factor in agricultural production, to a larger conception of ‘territory’ as the location for the social reproduction of collective identity. During the Gas War of 2003, protesters understood the defense of Bolivia’s gas as a question of the ‘recuperation’ of the country’s ‘national patrimony’. Such a claim rested directly on the precedent of the pre-existent ‘territorial sovereignty’ of indigenous people’s communal land holdings, a position most developed by Felipe Quispe and the national agrarian union, the CSUTCB. Quispe has consistently promoted a traditional conception of Aymara land use defined by a culturally specific relationship of ‘the people’ to the ‘land’, which Quispe refers to as usos y costumbres, including the soil, water, air, and subsoil resources (like gas). The insistent popular call for a new constitutional assembly to ‘refound’ the nation – perhaps the most frequently advanced demand over the last five years – specifies that representatives to the proposed assembly be elected directly through the usos y costumbres of a given group or organization (see CENDA et al., 2004: 2). Popular representatives frame the terms for a new constitution using the convening power of customary law.

In the last five years strife between Bolivia’s social movements and government caretakers has unfolded within the gap between the assertion and the recognition of the claims advanced by Bolivia’s popular sectors. This contentious gap is at once a space of cultural, political, and legal negotiation for different terms of recognition within the multicultural state. If Charles Taylor (1994) brought to our attention the importance of the ‘politics of recognition’ in multicultural states, recently Arjun Appadurai (2004) has suggested we pay more attention to the negotiated ‘terms of recognition’, in this case the instrumental potential of the legal authority of cultural heritage. Using Appadurai’s (2004: 62) parlance, in order to articulate new democratic aspirations, Bolivia’s social movements are staking a claim to ‘recover the future as a cultural capacity’. If we can point to the ways that law and the legal process help to constitute ‘the facts’ of cultural identities (see Cowan et al., 2001: 11), in this case the idiom of customary law, or usos y costumbres, has been used by Bolivia’s social movements to transform the limiting political precondition of ‘pastness’ to transcend a politics of irreconcilables through a dialogue between the state’s multicultural legislation and the expressive, instrumental, and constructive potential of local cultural practice.

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’[8] in Bolivia, from the perspective of Norte de Potosí. For Rivera Cusicanqui, each works on a fundamentally different basis. Ayllu democracy operates as nested Chinese boxes, from the smallest residential unit (or cabildo), through intermediate levels, to that of a regional federation. Fundamental ayllu principles of community-based direct democracy include the requirement of service, a rotating leadership, extensive consultation, with the goals of communal consensus and an equitable distribution of resources (1990: 102–3). These principles, Rivera Cusicanqui is clear, are in direct conflict with those of liberal democracy, based on the individual citizen as both rational and proprietary, and as the logical subject of national economic advancement (1990: 117). Most importantly for our discussion is Rivera Cusicanqui’s assertion that organized agrarian unions, particularly since 1952, are ‘foreign, imposed structures which prolong and reproduce colonial forms of domination over the ayllus’ (1990: 109). If superficially comparable local associations, she tells us, ayllus and unions promote largely incompatible models of political subjecthood. This is a claim, however, that makes increasingly less sense for an expanding ‘urban indigenous’ experience (e.g. Riveros and Alvarado, 2001), where the popular affinities between local associations serve as a collaborative political starting-point. To understand the persistent fact of large-scale social mobilizations in Bolivia over the last five years, as I have argued elsewhere (Albro, 2005a), we should recognize the agency of a ‘plural popular’ subject rather than privilege any particular culture or class identity.

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.[9] 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 Bolivia’s recent turmoil the ‘organic life’ of residential, indigenous, and trade associations has galvanized an alternative collective politics outside of the political party system and as a basis for cross-sector cooperation.

This is not the case only in El Alto. A union leader characteristically began a meeting I attended in Cochabamba in 2001 saying, ‘We are here to practice democracy. It is not a question of impositions. . . . We must talk, argue, ask, and reach agreement.’ Associational life figures so importantly as a model of and for popular broad-based coalitional efforts because it composes the most immediate experience of collective political action, serving as the ‘dialogical ground’[10] for multiple historical encounters with the negligent state and alternative considerations of ‘the desirable form of our collective life’, in the words of Oscar Olivera (Olivera and Lewis, 2004: 36). Bolivia’s popular majority conceives of participatory democracy as a dialogical public of collective interests. Far from antagonistic to this process, ayllu democracy is one constructive cultural resource available for breathing life into this restorative desire.

Robert Albro currently teaches anthropology at George Washington University and serves as Chair of the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association. His current research explores the relationships between transnational indigenous and cultural rights advocacy networks, discourses of cultural citizenship, and global cultural policymaking.

Republished from Critique of Anthropology, 2006; Vol 26; No. 4, pp 387-410



[1] In part this call is a reference to Bolivia’s 1970–1 Popular Assembly government of radical general Juan José Torres, which attempted to establish an alternative popular government, led by radical mining unionism and consisting primarily of worker and peasant organizations. An effort to radically transform society from below, the 1971 Popular Assembly succumbed to ideological differences of the left, giving way to the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer (see Dunkerley, 1987: 155–72).
[2] 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.
[3] 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 Latin America
since the 1990s, declaring it to be ‘incomplete’, ‘shallow’, ‘skin-deep’, ‘hybrid’, ‘imperfect’, ‘illiberal’, ‘unconsolidated’, ‘paralyzed’, ‘unsettling’, ‘destabilizing’, ‘divided’, ‘inchoate’, and ‘disjunctive’ (e.g. Aguëro, 1998; Dresser, 2004; Holston and Caldeira, 1998; Paley, 2002).
[4] 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 21 June 2005
, Bolivia’s ambassador to the US emphasized that one of the first tasks of the new administration would be to ‘regain the state’s monopoly over the use of force’ ( Jaime Aparicio Otero, public address at the Inter-American Dialogue, Washington, DC).
[5] An analogous distinction between a ‘deep’ and ‘modern’ Andes
was the basis for a debate among Andeanist scholars in the early 1990s regarding the status of ‘lo andino’ (explicitly Andean belief and practice) in modern Andean nationstates (see Starn, 1991, 1994).
[6] Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, public address at American University, Washington
, DC, 5 November 2003.
[7] Daniel Goldstein (2004) has written extensively on the significance of lynching for the peripheral urban community of Villa Pagador in Cochabamba
, which he understands as a spectacular communicative performance by community members to contest their social marginalization from the benefits of urban life.
[8] 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).
[9] As Lazar (2006: 194) and others have made clear, the democratic organization of local associations in Bolivia
also has authoritarian features, most evident in obligatory participation in protest actions. The fact that people can be fined if they do not participate is often used as evidence for the ‘undemocratic’ nature of local associations.
[10] For more discussion of the ‘dialogical ground’ of culture see Tedlock and Mannheim
’s (1995) excellent collection.

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