Indigenous Participation and Social Fragmentation in Bolivia
On September 12, 2007, the Latin American Program hosted a group of Bolivian scholars to discuss the root causes of social fragmentation in the country and to analyze the consequences of increased participation of the country's indigenous majority in politics. Ambassador Gustavo Guzmán characterized the transformation taking place in Bolivia as a broad and intense struggle for the redistribution of power. The central protagonist in this process of change, he said, was the indigenous campesino movement. The struggle to forge a new democratic pact inclusive of social movements was being played out in the democratically elected Constituent Assembly, which seeks to reform the Constitution to allow for new actors in the decision-making process.
María Eugenia Choque situated the recent upheaval in Bolivia as part of a wider process of reaffirmation of indigenous rights and identity throughout Latin America and the world. While a primary aim of the indigenous movement in Bolivia is to defend the right to land, increasingly indigenous peoples are asserting their identity in urban areas, where they represent up to 35 percent of the population. Mobilization against the weight of centuries of discrimination and marginalization of indigenous peoples stood behind the election of Evo Morales, she said. While the indigenous movement is not homogeneous, groups are also beginning to address gender issues in Bolivia; despite the mandated quota of 30 percent female participation in local government and strong female activism in social movements, women remain invisible.
According to Mamerto Pérez, the issue of indigenous identity has not been sufficiently analyzed although it lies at the heart of the concerns that have overtaken the country. Bolivia is a majority indigenous country, with the 2001 census demonstrating that 62 percent of the population self-identifies as belonging to an indigenous group. This census also showed a growing number of urban dwellers identifying as indigenous, which is a phenomenon that has yet to be studied. Pérez argued that the Bolivian middle class is reluctant to accept that Bolivia is a country with a majority indigenous population. Bolivia's crisis has been prompted by the fact that indigenous movements with indigenous leadership are now questioning their access to power, against a backdrop of systematic racism in the country.
Manuel de la Fuente described two opposing visions for the future of Bolivia—departmental autonomy, called for by the "media luna" (half-moon) region and indigenous autonomy supported by the MAS. Within the Constituent Assembly, the country is negotiating the new mandates of the national and regional governments within the context of the autonomy debate. The central government is currently directing the redistribution of land and the management of natural resources. However, the Assembly has also considered proposals to recognize the autonomy of Bolivia's 36 indigenous groups, create indigenous districts, and establish a unitary, plurinational, communitarian state. De la Fuente pointed to three possible scenarios in the near term: the MAS could impose a constitution without coming to a consensus, permanently dissolve the Constitutional Assembly and work through other channels, or reach a consensus with the opposition—the best scenario for Bolivia.
Javier Hurtado Mercado offered an optimistic analysis from the point of view of the private sector, focusing on short-term conflicts and long-term prospects. For Hurtado, the single most important crisis affecting Bolivia, and indeed the world, is that of environmental degradation. Bolivia has a relative advantage in sustainable development and in protecting the immense ecological diversity which the country's large indigenous population has preserved for centuries. Fostering economic development in Bolivia while respecting ecological diversity requires new private sector strategies. Hurtado affirmed that economic activity in La Paz and most of the country is completely normal in spite of the chaos created by the departmental autonomy debate. Accordingly, the international private sector should see Bolivia as a promising environment for investment. He stressed the importance to Bolivia of U.S. trade preferences accorded the Andean region, and criticized the United States for stepping back from the Bolivian financial and economic scene when Morales came to power. This reaction allowed Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to occupy the space formerly occupied by North America and the European Union. Hurtado claimed that Bolivia is open to all potential allies, and asked the United States to recognize that Bolivia does not seek to indiscriminately nationalize business, but is open to collaboratively advancing democratic and environmentally sustainable solutions to develop its markets.
Ximena Soruco Sologuren emphasized that the traditional Santa Cruz elites have contributed to social fragmentation in Bolivia by pursing their own particular interests at the expense of people with an historic and legitimate claim to land ownership. Soruco pointed to the rubber boom of 1880-1915, the engagement of the hacienda elite in the international market, and the U.S.-supported establishment of an agro-industrial bourgeoisie as key points along the path to the elites' economic colonization of the eastern lowlands. In addition, these elites actively encouraged European immigration to offset the more numerous indigenous masses. In light of this history, Bolivia's indigenous groups face great challenges as they find their political voice and seek to construct a unified vision of the country's future.
Cynthia Arnson, Director, Latin American Program
Drafted by Sheree Adams and Jessica Varat