EDITORIAL - Reinventing Progress

14 Mar, 2013 | Amaru Villanueva Rance

Culture, Social issues and Politics

Things are quickly changing in Bolivia — some say for worse, some say for the better. But what does it mean for things to improve in the first place? This is precisely what’s currently being debated across the country. Félix Cárdenas, Vice-Minister for Decolonisation helps us understand some of these material and semantic changes.

Photo by Sharoll Fernandez

What do we mean when we talk about a country’s development? Up until the end of the century just passed, this was understood as an exercise in national income accounting, generally boiled down to economic statistics, which allowed us to place a country within a ranking of States in terms of GDP. A chart of numbers, dollar signs, and arrows in red or green. That is, an approach arguably better suited to comparing the might of different States in the context of international trade, than a meaningful indicator about the quality of life of its citizens.

Along came the Human Development Index (HDI), a measure based on the work of Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen at the United Nations, whose central concern was to shift the focus of development towards people; a composite of life expectancy, education and purchasing power. And so, States could once again be placed in a chart, alongside an HDI number ranging from 0 to 1, and their governments could correspondingly be judged according to how much, and how quickly, this number went up or down.

Beyond Progress
Dissenters who thought these approaches were still in need of re-examination, were driven to fundamentally rethink notions of why governments exist in the first place, and what their citizens can legitimately demand of them. In other words, these critics posed profoundly existential questions regarding what is good or valuable for us as human beings, and what constitutes a good life.

One unique example can found in Bhutan, a small South Asian landlocked country, which (both famously and infamously) remains the only state to use measures of happiness to guide state policymaking. Gross National Happiness, as it is called, is a measure steeped in Buddhist spiritual values, and whose calculation incorporates data on pollution, divorce rates, usage of antidepressants, as well as the country’s involvement in foreign conflicts. As an upshot of this approach, for example, its citizens had no access to international TV content until 1999, as it was claimed it ultimately made them unhappy, by making them chase after lifestyles unattainable to them.

At What Price Happiness?
To live in Bhutan before 1999 was to live in a bubble, in proverbial ignorant bliss. For critics, such a State is paternalistic at best, but more generally authoritarian and sponsored by perverse forms of censure — not to mention the country was an absolute monarchy until 2008. A vision of such a State couldn’t fulfill the most fundamental of liberal ideals: freedom, a value now politically and semantically appropriated by our friends up North. Yet in all its eccentricity, Bhutan’s approach wasn’t exactly lacking in external validation. In 2006, Business Week ranked this State as the eighth happiest in the world.

Spin the globe halfway, drag your finger down a few latitudes and you’ll find you’re looking at Bolivia, a country whose government is similarly challenging notions of what it means to develop, progress, and most importantly, to live well. Beyond socioeconomic indicators, the new emphasis seems to be on less tangible values such as sovereignty and identity, not as easily amenable to Excel spreadsheets, and certainly not straightforwardly measurable.

Reinventing Politics
The magnitude of this enterprise cannot be overstated. As Félix Cárdenas, Vice Minister of Decolonisation tells us,

We are in agreement that we’re after a new way of living, a new civilizatory paradigm. That’s what’s under discussion. There are people who think we need to build a form of communitarian socialism, or Andean capitalism. We propose neither one nor the other, but rather to take ourselves as a starting point. The name is not important, but rather what we’re after: a new type of society. We want to understand, conceptually, what it is we want as a country.

Cárdenas states that this initiative is given credence due to the failure of modernity, arguing that since Bolivia’s foundation we have always sought to understand who we are. To cite but one example, Rene Zabaleta Mercado, one of Bolivia’s most prominent political thinkers of the 20th Century, remarked that the thousands of disenfranchised indigenous soldiers who fought in the Chaco War of 1932, went to fight and die for a country which did not yet fully recognise them as citizens. In other words, they fought this war precisely to understand who they were; what it meant to be Bolivian.

Bolivia has been a country without an identity, a failed State that has tried to be modern. We are not seeking a modern society, we’re looking for a postmodern one.

Suma Qamaña
Depending on who you ask, 21st of December 2012 heralded the Summer Solstice, the Apocalypse, or, according to the Bolivian Government, the Pachakuti; the end of ‘non-time’; the beginning of a new era. Before anyone shouts Newspeak, it’s worth pointing out that Pachakuti does have a historical meaning; it is the cyclical term in Aymara used to denote the ‘turning back of time’. Central to this process is a political philosophy based on Suma Qamaña, an ideal which translates to ‘living well’, and which is emphatically contrasted to the individualist ideal of ‘living better’. Rather than having the individual at its centre, it is based on much larger political units such as communities, and Mother Earth herself, both of which are afforded with rights under Bolivian law and the Constitution.

In official literature published by the Bolivian Foreign Affairs Ministry, it is suggested that ‘instead of talking of a National Development Plan, we maybe have to talk of a National Plan of Returning to Equilibrium, or a National Life Plan’. In what reads like a manifesto, they part ways with ‘intellectuals from the left’, arguing that theirs is not a fight for freedom, but rather a struggle for ‘complementarity’. Cárdenas tells BX,

For me, Living Well is a consequence rather than an objective. It will only come into effect when there’s true interculturality, when we can be proud of who we are and be strengthened in our identity. Socialism and capitalism are siamese twins. The only thing they concern themselves with is managing capital. Those on the right want the market to control it, those on the left want the State to be responsible. Yet they’re both industrializing and predatory.

Such an approach can be confusing to political philosophers used to categorising politicians and parties in terms of left, right, capitalist and socialist. Cárdenas tells us, ‘We have a philosophy which differs from Marxism in that it’s not based on the elimination of the opponent, but rather in our complementarity’. What’s perhaps most interesting is that this political discourse distances itself from traditionally socialist agendas, with which the government has heretofore been associated most frequently.

Who We Are: Realities and Projections

The corollary of this position is that in order to reinvent our statehood we must take ourselves as a point of departure. Cárdenas tells me ‘our task is to project identity as a political horizon’. In other words, we must adopt forms of government which reflect and correspond to our unique plurinational identity. To say this, though, is to conceal a deeply complex process through which bolivianeity is configured. The latest Constitution tells us the country is made up by at least 36 different nations, and this doesn’t even include the innumerable permutations that arise from a history of intranational and international migration. How can we know (let alone preserve) who we are if we’re constantly changing?

Tourism, a theme developed in this issue (p. 10), touches on these very questions. The government has set itself the goal of becoming a major worldwide tourist destination by 2025, a goal the Vice Minister for Tourism Marko Machicao, and Minister for Culture Pablo Groux (See Connor Larson’s piece on Cultural Development on p. 20) are responsible for setting into motion. The idea, we’re told, is to promote and sell what’s uniquely Bolivian: ‘landscapes, history and identity’. Yet this brings with it its own challenges. Cárdenas picks up on the problems with Bolivia’s historic projection of itself as an under-developed (or at best of times developing country).

Identity involves our capacity to strengthen ourselves. We cannot continue projecting the image of impoverished Bolivian indios searching among the rubbish, asking Europe for help. It’s to exploit the poverty of these people, instead of showing their lives and worldviews. Communitarian tourism would involve an equal exchange; for an English family, for example, to live alongside a Guaraní family, and for this process to be managed by the family itself, instead of a tourism agency. I believe that we have to show that we’re not a museum piece, we’re a reality.

For 500 years they have tried to make us disappear. But we’re saying ‘here we are’, and moreover ‘we are’. Insofar as identities are weak they will always run the risk of being penetrated and distorted. We mustn’t fear globality. Just because I’m Aymara it doesn’t mean I’m condemned to only dancing to my own music. That would be to close myself out. It’s precisely because I know who I am I can dance to Rock’n’Roll better than any Rock’n’Roller. I could live in New York but I don’t stop being Aymara. The churches here are built on top of our sacred places. We won’t do what colonisers did and tear down Christian churches. We must recover our sacred sites without destroying those which belong to others.

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Inequality Reinvented

The vision outlined by Cárdenas is true to the principle of complementarity mentioned earlier, and stems from a recognition of the multiplicity of identities which exist in a country like Bolivia. Contrary to the opposition’s portrayal of the government as ethno-centrist or even discriminatory, there’s a distinct recognition of the legitimacy of new hybrid forms of identity which exist alongside expressions with more ancestral roots.

Nonetheless, there remain very real forms of discrimination and inequality deeply rooted not necessarily in government, but in society itself (turn to p. 18 for Carlos Shah’s analysis of racial politics, or Felicia Lloyd’s piece on sexual diversity and discrimination on p. 16). To assess whether there’s been any tangible progress, (or development, or whatever we choose to call it) for the 10,3 million Bolivians counted in the 2012 national Census, we must look closer at day-to-day practices and attitudes. These are perhaps best explored anecdotally. Miguel, a friend we spoke to for this issue recounts a telling recent experience which highlights the tectonic shifts which are underway in Bolivia’s social structures. ‘I was having dinner at Megacenter with the relative of a former President the other day, with Cholitas and their families sitting on either side of the table where we were eating. Such a sight was unthinkable just a decade ago’.

Indeed, my personal experience involves numerous memories of restaurants and clubs where unstated but over-implied admission policies discriminated based on class and race; categories often equivalent in pre-Morales Bolivia. All public establishments are now forced, by law, to post visible signs on the walls which say ‘Todos Somos Iguales Ante la Ley’ - ‘We’re All Equal Before the Law’.

Yet this apparent change in social attitudes to race may equally be a reflection of the growing purchasing power of elite members of social and ethnic groups which were previously impoverished. Lower discrimination may not be a direct result of state policies, but of market forces. While income inequality (measured by the Gini Coefficient) has been gradually declining over the past decade, the most significant change is that the categorical equivalence between social background and economic power has now been broken. The rise of a new bourgeoisie, in large part successful merchants of Aymara descent, is apparent in Prestes, parties where opulent displays of wealth are materialised in lavish costumes, and where legendary musical acts such as Bronco and Sonido Master are payed to fly over from Mexico and play at private functions, with some parties allegedly costing upwards of $50,000. There’s also a reported increase in the number of second-generation indigenous rural migrants who are now able to access education at private institutions such as the Universidad Católica, previously a reserve of white wealthy elites. Finally, it’s no longer a truism that El Alto is a place where only poor people live. Nonetheless, it might be too early to celebrate just yet; what we may be witnessing is not so much the end of social injustice, but the ascent of a new breed of elites which may eventually give rise to unsuspected forms of inequality and discrimination.

It may also be insightful to reflect upon the mismatch between the ancestral values on which the so-called Andean Cosmovision is said to be based, and the present-day expressions of this ethnocultural group in urban areas. Those who romanticise the Aymara as a communitarian, austere and Mother-Earth-respecting people, too quickly overlook the reputation they have developed as extraordinarily successful merchants and, paradoxically, expert capitalists. It is not unusual to see wealthy members of these elites driving gas-guzzling Hummers and throwing the aforementioned parties, where alcohol consumption and extravagance are the norm. In the eyes of some (such as the Bolivian philosopher HCF Mansilla, whose views I don’t share but I believe deserve attention), these Aymara merchants can even be said to have successfully colonised other regions of the country.

Whither Democracy?

Evo’s election in 2006 with 53.7% of the popular vote, and subsequent re-election in 2009 with 63% gave him and his party an overwhelming majority, and an unprecedented mandate to govern (Read Frans Robyns’ opinionated analysis of Democratisation and it’s developments on p. 6). What’s worried some opposing voices is the feeling that in its decolonisation efforts, the government has swung the balance of power completely in the opposite direction, and that the reinstatement of indigenous identities and policies to favour underprivileged have come at the expense of middle- and upper- classes. Others have accused them of favouring particular (Andean) forms of indigeneity. In Tocquevillian terms, they sense a ‘tyranny of the majority’ has been underway since his reelection.

The fundamental problem with many of these criticisms lies in the entitlement they imply. Large-scale social shifts (along with the redistribution policies, and reshuffling of political and economic elites that come with them), bring about inevitable social tensions, something the South African experience has been teaching us for the past two decades. Equality is a correlative term, and those who feel the gap between themselves and those below them narrowing, will also feel understandable unease at seeing their social, political and economic power slip away from their hands.

Reinvention of politics aside, the country paints a healthy and positive macroeconomic picture, even by the most traditional of measures. As Manuel Canelas, a political analyst and host of the TV programme ‘Esta Casa no es un Hotel’ tells us: ‘GDP has been growing 5% year on year, tax revenue collection has been on a steady increase, and the ratio between national reserves and GDP is currently among the highest in the world. The welfare funds the government has implemented reach 3 in every 10 Bolivians, and poverty has gone down by 13%’. Of course, there have been influencing factors, such as high international prices for natural resources the country exports (such as gas, and minerals), yet the government can still be credited for ensuring a majority of the revenues from these exports go into the treasury rather than to multinationals (see p. 12 for Caroline Risacher’s piece on Bolivia’s opportunity to become a Lithium superpower).

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Bolivia is changing in all sorts of unexpected ways, there’s no doubt about it. There’s increased wealth spreading its way across society, but we’re also experiencing a new wave of consumerism most blatantly reified by monstrous American-style multiplex shopping centres. There’s positive macroeconomic growth yet segments of the population fear the government now has too much power, that in the absence of any credible or coherent opposition, democracy runs a risk of being hijacked.

The key issue, as I see it, is the debate surrounding what’s fundamentally good or valuable in a country such as ours, and who gets to decide on these matters: individual citizens or government high-priests. On this point I’m undecided - while I share the government’s vision of what kind of society we should aim towards, I’m not convinced anyone should have the right to determine which states of happiness and wellbeing are more legitimate than others; more worth having. These ideals, valid as they are, ought to come from our spiritual leaders and cultural figures, rather than our politicians; they might then gain supporters independently of political allegiance. Cárdenas is refreshing and humanistic on this point, projecting his ideals beyond the country’s borders:

We’re like a flower that’s blooming after a long winter. I think our indigenous communities offer hope to the rest of the world. We have a philosophy to share. In the same way they came to evangelise us and show us a new way of life, today we have the mission to evangelise the rest of the world, to show them there is a different way to live.

Overall, the main development seems to be that our understanding of development itself is changing. We’re being forced to rethink what it means to live in society, and what responsibilities we owe each other, not as citizens but as human beings. This can only be a good thing.


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