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

Robert Albro

Read Part I here.

Andean democracy and democratic publics

One unstated goal of the government’s neoliberal structural adjustment beginning in 1985 was to dismantle the organizational structures of popular mobilization, including the ‘moral community’ of the COB, while at the same time installing new forms of state administration (see Nash, 1992: 289; Sanjinés, 2004: 206–7). But the 2000 Water War illustrated the political successes of popular coalitions, which García Linera (2003) has called the return of the ‘multitude’ and which I have described in terms of the ‘plural popular’ (Albro, 2005a). However, indigenous coalition leaders more often speak of the project to ‘refound the country’ in the cultural and cosmological terms of a ‘pachakuti’. Founded in 2000, Felipe Quispe’s Indianist political party is the Pachakuti Indigenous Movement.

Quispe’s on-again/off-again rival, Evo Morales,[11] has also publicly discussed adding the word – pachakuti – to the existing name of his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (founded in 1995). In both Quechua and Aymara, ‘pachakuti’ conceptualizes ‘relations among two elements or human groups, sometimes opposed and sometimes associated’ (Bouysse- Cassagne and Harris, 1987: 28). The concept implies a restorative inversion of time, when the past might productively become the future. In moments of popular protest, cultural heritage is not merely retrospective but potentially constitutive. Rivera Cusicanqui (1993: 53) has described the 1990 indigenous March for Territory and Dignity as a pachakuti, ‘the union of the fragmented parts of the indigenous body’. One way of describing the multi-sector popular coalitions of recent years is as pachakuti-like performative spectacles of protest.

The ‘return of the Indian’, as Xavier Albó (1991) once called it, has taken place under the sign of a potential pachakuti. The activist Aymara intellectuals of the Andean Oral History Workshop (THOA) have worked steadily to ‘reconstitute the ayllu’ among indigenous peoples.[12] The ‘ayllu’ has figured prominently in regional ethnography and ethnohistory (see Abercrombie, 1998; Isbell, 1978; Rasnake, 1988), as a characteristically Andean form of social organization, combining dimensions of kinship, collective ritual practice, symbolic and social structures, economic exchange, marriage and residence into a uniquely Andean political and territorial unit. Indigenous leaders like Felipe Quispe continue to advance the territorial claim of the ayllu as intrinsic to their political projects. But the ayllu concept, as anthropologist Andy Orta (2001: 199–200) reminds us, is also a concept with well-defined ‘connections to the past’ that offers an ‘opportunity for decolonizing Bolivian society and reimagining it as a pluricultural space’. It has thus become the focus of attention of indigenous intellectuals and cultural activists in Bolivia. Now under the sign of pachakuti, and as an orienting concept for indigenous-based social movements, the ayllu concept is less the subject of academic descriptions of Andean peoples and more a popular basis for imagining an alternative democratic future.

Carlos Mamani Condori (2001: 49) describes this opportunity in postcolonial, emancipatory, and democratic terms: ‘the pachakuti, the time of return’ is also ‘the return to a state of liberty’. For THOA member María Eugenia Choque (2001: 212), the ‘return of the ayllu . . . is understood as a pachakuti, which means the return of our self-esteem and identity’. The discourse of culture is an effective political resource in no small part because it directly addresses the historical terms of popular exclusion from national politics, as expressed in oft-drawn descriptions by the traditional political class of indigenous customary law as an anti-democratic cultural institution. At the same time, the concept of ‘pachakuti’ productively relates past to future to self-consciously frame a project of the reconstruction of a collective political subject through cultural agency. This subject is imagined to be newly reconstituted, superseding in pachakuti-like ways past antagonisms and rivalries of indigenous and national-popular projects, the fragmentation introduced by the neoliberal era, as well as the democratic deficits of accountability, representation, participation, and citizenship, identified by protesters.

In the hands of THOA and its partners, the ayllu is now the subject of historical, political, and testimonial documents disseminated through bilingual publications, videos, and radio programs or radionovelas (Stephenson, 2002: 103), including regular broadcasts on Radio Pachamama in El Alto. Aymara intellectuals have significantly publicized the ayllu as a mixed media and communicational event (see Ari Chachaki, 2001), and in ways comparable to the earlier television program ‘The People’s Free Tribunal’ of Carlos Palenque, which inspired the neo-populist political party CONDEPA in the early 1990s. As part of the program, the Open Tribunal typically showed ‘urban Indians’ speaking for themselves and offering testimony in face-to-face communication with Palenque (the show’s host) in order to make public announcements, or to resolve political, familial, legal, and medical problems (see Himpele, 1996). The show self-consciously aired as a forum demanding ‘justice’ for those unrepresented by the traditional political system. It also used informal cultural idioms of interpersonal solidarity to effectively project an imagined community of reciprocal, face-to-face, and affective popular politics, for a mostly urban and Aymara constituency. Javier Sanjinés (1996: 261) labeled CONDEPA a ‘talk show democracy’. CONDEPA’s political stronghold was also El Alto. As with CONDEPA, Choque (2001: 220–1) explains, ‘An objective that underlies the ayllu proposal is the establishment of communication: to sit at the table and talk among equals, in the common preoccupation of solving problems of a general character.’ This ayllu model is one important cultural resource available to popular protesters for framing local associational life as a democratic alternative.

THOA’s efforts to publicize the ayllu concept as paradigmatically ‘Andean’ have taken place in an environment of significantly international development support, which promotes ‘community self-management’ and actively facilitates the goals of indigenous cultural renaissance (see Healy, 2001). Accounts of THOA’s history and work highlight their long-term collaboration with sympathetic national and international NGOs (Andolina, 2001; Choque, 2001; Stephenson, 2002). As I have argued elsewhere (Albro, 2005a), the ‘return of the Indian’ in Bolivia has been notably responsive to transnational currents of indigenism represented by such THOA collaborators as OXFAM America (see Andolina, 2001: 2). Calling the ayllu an ‘ancient form of community organization that predates the Inca empire’, OXFAM America has supported THOA because it interprets the structure of the ayllu as a beneficial device of empowerment ‘to articulate and defend their rights’ (OXFAM America, 2005: 2). For international funders, the significance of the ayllu is as an authentic subject of global ‘rights talk’. This language of international human rights liberally informs Aymara activism as well (see Ari Chachaki, 2001), as a prevailing frame of debate and claim-making. Bringing a modernist human rights frame together with the pre-colonial ayllu in fact illustrates the practice of pachakuti. And as a cultural model of associational life, activists describe the ayllu as a public sphere-like communicative arena of political dialogue, debate, and the advancement of claims that fits well with prevailing conceptions of global civil society as an ‘arena for argument and deliberation as well as for association and institutional collaboration’ (Edwards, 2004: 55).

If perhaps indirectly, and if usually behind the scenes, activist networks like THOA frame the terms of intervention of protesting coalitions. Development agencies operating in Bolivia like OXFAM America have pursued their own cultural heritage goals, promoting representative ‘traditional authorities’ as desirable project interlocutors (Andolina, 2001: 2). THOA has itself assisted this process through leadership workshops (Stephenson, 2002: 112), which includes an ongoing relationship with CONAMAQ (the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu), founded in 1997 and variously described as a First Nations organization, native rights organization, and federation of Aymara and Quechua communities. Carlos Mamani Condori (2000: 16) has described THOA’s collaboration with CONAMAQ as a ‘sustained work between the indigenous intellectual and the elders [los ancianos] who have once again taken up the government of the ayllus and the markas’. CONAMAQ has also begun to supplant the CSUTCB as the public and international face of Bolivia’s indigenous movements, from the World Social Forum to the UN’s new Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (see Burnham, 2003). CONAMAQ’s protagonism has been informed, and framed, by its collaborations with THOA’s activism and by its increasingly international profile.

While designating its own mallku (traditional authority) of ‘cultural heritage’,[13] CONAMAQ has become an increasingly active participant in large-scale protest efforts. Their participation can be traced at least to CONAMAQ’s organization of a thousands-strong march in downtown La Paz to promote recognition of the traditional leadership of Qullasuyu (Bolivia) in March 2000. In 2002, representatives of CONAMAQ went on a hunger strike to demand the constitutional referendum. During the struggles of January 2003, CONAMAQ formed a part of the coalitional People’s High Command (see Hylton, 2003), which directed protest efforts. In March of that year CONAMAQ was among the 16 organizations to sign a ‘Unity Pact’, in alliance with the Coalition in Defense of Gas, again demanding that the referendum be advanced (Contreras, 2005), and went on to organize roadblocks in May and June. CONAMAQ’S proposal for a new constitutional assembly has been disseminated online by a variety of activist and documentation-based NGOs in Bolivia.[14] CONAMAQ’s particular proposal for participation in a constitutional assembly stipulates the representation of delegates directly based on ‘uses and customs’, as this is spelled out by article 171 of the existing constitution recognizing Bolivia’s multicultural identity, supported by international mandates such as convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.

It adopts the ayllu as the basic form of ‘indigenous community’ with a precolonial ‘historic continuity’. As a political institution, the ayllu is described in terms of ‘the rotation of responsibilities’ (cargos), ‘service to the community’ (thaki), and working through ‘deliberation and community consensus’ (kawiltu). The assembly will elect two representatives, a man and a woman, as an equal ‘pair’ (according to the principle of complementarity, or chacha-warmi). Any delegate who does not actively attend and participate in the work of the kawiltu, as well as account for their actions, will be replaced (see CONAMAQ, 2004). This proposal for a constitutional assembly certainly expresses the fact of ‘two Bolivias’ – indigenous and nonindigenous, the excluded and the elite. But CONAMAQ’s proposal is also non-exclusive, as part of a dialogue within the ‘plural popular’ arena of protest with the likes of the MAS party (which also cites the restoration of the ayllu as a goal), and including urban-indigenous and non-indigenous social sectors. As a cultural resource, the ayllu concept directly informs the efforts of multi-sector popular protest coalitions, providing the cultural terms of difference for an alternative democratic public in Bolivia.

The contemporary political relevance of the ayllu concept for popular protesting coalitions is that it promises a fruitful vocabulary and set of practices for constructing an alternative, and dialogic, democratic public, while dramatizing the reconstitution of this public as an assertive political subject.

The ayllu concept is readily available as a concept because of the work of Aymara intellectuals and NGOs, who have transformed it into a largely activist-driven, rights-based, discursive and significantly mass-mediated cultural heritage resource. As a construction of cultural heritage, for the country’s popular sectors, the ‘activist ayllu’ – to use Weismantel’s (2006) term – represents a departure from an earlier generation’s self-definition based much more directly on questions of livelihood, such as the ability to handle ox and plow, ownership of a truck, or selling in an open-air market (Lagos, 1994). As cultural heritage, an indigenous identity is now something that can be ‘claimed’ or ‘reclaimed’ by a rapidly growing public of indigenous-descended popular and urban social sectors. In her insightful account of THOA’s activism, Marcia Stephenson (2002: 103) describes their project as part of an effort to articulate a ‘new arena of public debate and contestation’. I would go further to suggest that, formulated as a cultural resource, ayllu politics help to constitute the collective subject composing this alternative public, with particular attention to the communicative efficacy of democracy.


Social movement spokesperson and labor leader Oscar Olivera describes the practices of protesting coalitions using the terms of democratic renewal:

Emerging from the united actions of people and the voicing of their desires and fears is an authentic, participatory, and direct democracy. In these spaces and organizations deliberation – discussion, decision, and implementation – takes place without intermediaries and between equals. (Olivera and Lewis, 2004: 133–4)

These spaces of deliberation, it is clear, refer fundamentally to the historical precedent of the collective and face-to-face politics of traditional and popular ‘base organizations’. As a communiqué circulated during the protests of 2000 put it, new popular options for the reform of national government are based on ‘assemblies of the neighborhood, the union, the ayllu, the factory’. As I have argued, local associational politics have been central to the coordination of large-scale protest coalitions since they have served as the most local dialogical ground of shared experiences of disenfranchisement throughout the neoliberal period, and as a basis for the reconstruction of a popular political subject largely dismantled throughout the process of neoliberal reforms.

But as Olivera has also often noted, the political class has insured that ‘for 500 years’ the ‘original inhabitants’ of Bolivia have been all but ‘excluded from participating in the democratic process of the country’ (quoted in Democracy Now, 2005). Though not himself indigenous, Olivera has removed the term ‘democracy’ to the moment of the onset of the colonial encounter itself. Protesting social sectors emphasize the need ‘to reclaim’ (reivindicar or recuperar) democracy as a collective political birthright, a birthright they actively ‘remember’ and rhetorically relocate as a cultural heritage upon which to build for the future. Olivera identifies this with an effort ‘to turn politics into a patrimony of the citizenry’ (Olivera and Lewis, 2004: 135). As I have developed with this argument, expressing democratic aspirations using the idiom of heritage is a protest strategy for traversing the gap between assertion and recognition, in cultural terms that make claims upon the state rather than against it. This is also a strategy that asserts an alternative political project in the local cultural terms of associational life, which at the same time adopts the form of a dialogical, or deliberative, politics promoted by global civil society in the terms of direct or participatory democracy (see Edwards, 2004: 54–71).

If the question of recognition has become a basic consideration for the quality of liberal democracy, far too little attention has been given to the ongoing negotiation of the terms of recognition for the process of democratic consolidation. As Charles Hale (2004) has argued, we should pay attention to the ways neoliberal democratization, as itself a cultural project, shapes everyday political participation. Throughout Bolivia’s ongoing crisis, the concept of cultural heritage has become one such key fault line of democratic recognition – at once treated as antithetical to democracy but also as a basis for democratic alternatives. Bolivia’s traditional political class construes cultural heritage in the terms of customary law, on the one hand excluding it from the content of a party-based, consumer-driven, orderly, rational, and individualistic neoliberal democracy, while still inscribing it as the collective basis for legal recognition and representation by the state. As customary law, in short, cultural heritage composes a problematic limit and point of engagement for popular protesters to expand the possibilities for democratic recognition.

For social movement spokespeople, as well, the discourse and practice of cultural heritage have become the basis for an alternative non-party based democratic project. This is not a serendipitous fact. First, popular protest coalitions are engaging with the state in the cultural terms set out by state reform (that is, the precedent of usos y costumbres). Second, the cultural heritage concept has been transformed into an instrumentally useful cultural, political, social, and legal resource, a result of the convergence of top-down state multicultural reform, and the pervasiveness of the language of international human rights, with collaborations between transnational and national NGOs, indigenous activists and intellectuals.

Common essentialist and primordialist approaches to cultural heritage tend to obscure this diversity of sources for its contemporary political efficacy. Third, cultural heritage is an effective means to frame and revitalize the moral community of a popular, collective, politics fragmented by the state’s own structural adjustment policies. For the large-scale work of coalition-building what Rivera Cusicanqui has called ‘ayllu politics’ participates in the dialogical ground of local associational life, in recognition of the fact that ‘indigenous Bolivia’ is an increasingly migratory, displaced, and urban category of cultural identity. At the same time, and fourth, indigenous revitalization is formulated by activists and movement spokespeople as a spectacle-driven, discursive, mixed-media, and rights-based cultural heritage resource – an identity frame no longer directly connected to the exigencies of livelihood and more easily ‘claimable’ by indo-mestizos of indigenous descent, or who are now generationally once or twice removed. Heritage has become an effective coalition-building device across historically indigenous and popular political projects. Fifth, and finally, taking seriously the identification of social movement coalitions as an ‘association of associations’, local associational life has been constructed by international and national activist networks as the source for an alternative democratic project based upon principles of powersharing and communicative efficacy such as dialogue, debate, and deliberation, epitomized by the ayllu as a state-sanctioned expression of cultural heritage and a recognizable democratic ‘public’. Over the past six years in Bolivia, it has been indigenous politics that has come to frame popular efforts of democratic revitalization rather than the other way around.

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

For a full list of references visit here.



[11] During periods of intense social mobilization, the leaders of different social sectors, including Quispe and Morales, have cooperated with each other. But over the years, Quispe and Morales have vied to control the CSUTCB, historically the most important expression of indigenous political organizing. They have also competed against each other in successive national elections in 2002 and 2005, and are sometimes bitterly critical rivals representing different ‘indigenous’ options.
[12] Although among the best known, THOA is not the only, or first, activist Aymara NGO. A short list would include such research and activist organizations as MINKA, or Qhantatu, and more recently, the Kuechuaymara Foundation, as well as online efforts such as, among others (see Ari Chachaki, 2001).
[13] Given recent UNESCO attention to international conventions to protect tangible and intangible cultural heritage (see Brown, 2003), CONAMAQ’s creation of a ‘mallku of cultural heritage’ is an indication of the responsiveness of Bolivia’s indigenous groups to an emphasis upon indigenous self-representation in international forums like the UN.
[14] A short list includes, ‘dedicated to giving voice to indigenous culture’, and Bolivia’s Documentation and Information Center (CEDIB), based in Cochabamba, both of which have given substantial attention to CONAMAQ’s particular proposal.

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