NEW MULTICULTURALISM IN BOLIVIA?
25 Jul, 2014 | OLLIE VARGAS
Since the social struggles of the early 2000s and the election of Evo Morales, Bolivian identity has taken on a new importance. For the first time, the State has sought to recognise and incorporate marginalised indigenous communities in the new Estado Plurinacional.
However, there’s a continuity with the old order, characterised as a period of multicultural neoliberalism. It’s comparable to the situation in post-apartheid South Africa; in both countries, an anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggle preceded the election of the new ‘progressive’ governments. Yet, these were ultimately contained and transformed into a struggle of ‘stages’—a ‘cultural’ stage where a new bourgeoisie drawn from the oppressed racial groups emerges and existing power relations stay intact, and a separate stage of socialist transformation, promised some- time in the undefined future. An example of this, in the Bolivian context, is the notorious claim by Vice President Álvaro García Linera that socialism is not possible for 50 to 100 years and, instead, the task is to build ‘Andean-Amazonian’ capitalism.
What this arguably shows is that, while there is a discourse of indigenous liberation and rhetoric of constructing the ‘plurinational’ state on the basis of Bolivia’s many indigenous communities, this project is not seen as running parallel to a wider transformation of material relations. The key task is seen as building a capitalism of the indigenous, rather than locating the roots of indigenous oppression in capitalism itself. In short, there is a separation of liberation struggles with anti-systemic struggles.
This kind of identity politics has a history in Bolivia, especially since the end of General Hugo Banzer’s dictatorship in the 1980s. This spawned an important political tendency known as Katarismo — the brainchild of urban Aymara intellectuals who sought to grapple with a new neoliberal Bolivia of highly racialised capitalism, but in which the traditional agent of change –the organised working class– have suffered debilitating setbacks. These new intellectuals looked to ethnic nationalism over class-based struggle. But, like all forms of nationalism, it vacillates between playing a progressive role but also a potentially reactionary one.
For example, Victor Hugo Cardenas, Vice- president from 1993 to 1997 and the first indigenous politician to reach such heights, came from the katarista movement. However, he lined up behind the neoliberal right in enforcing the sweeping privatisations of that decade — measures that hit the indigenous poor the hardest. Even today, in the upcoming national elections, figures in the indigenous movement have sided with right-wing business interests and architects of 1980s neoliberalism. When the struggle against indigenous oppression is falsely separated from exploitation rooted in capitalism, reactionary distortions such as these take place.
To understand the multiculturalism of today, one has to look back both at the dynamics of the leftist indigenous movements before the electoral success of President Evo Morales’ MAS party, and at how the MAS then responded to the aspirations of those movements that swept them to power. Despite rhetorical commitment to both racial and economic liberation, separating the two into distinct ‘stages’made the realisation of either impossible and led to the continuation of the neoliberal multiculturalism that the leftist indigenous movements fought against.
Politically speaking, the early 2000s a period of indigenous insurrection. The period can firstly characterised as a bid to break with the old neoliberal multiculturalism. The period was, secondly, a bid for political power that would transform the indigenous communities from being me- rely recognised by the elite, to being real historical actors forging their own future. There were two main demands that came from these groups.
The first of these demands was for a Constituent Assembly, which was brought to centrestage after the ‘indigenous march for territory and dignity’ in 1990, led by movements in the department of Beni. The idea was to break from the liberal notion of representative democracy, in which power is kept in the hands of the elite political parties, and to create assemblies comprising social movements, indigenous organisations, trade unions, and the like. That way, power is not held by unaccountable political parties, but wielded directly by people.
The second was the demand for the nationalisation of the country’s hydrocarbon resources. This demand is characterised by recognising that empowerment and democracy require natural resources to be in the hands of the people rather than transnational companies and foreign imperialist states.
The synthesis of these two demands recognises two things: the need for those at the bottom to take political power rather than handing it to elites claiming to act in their name; and the inseparability of political/racial liberation and economic emancipation.
Despite supporting these demands while it was in opposition to previous governments, on coming to power the MAS failed to usher in this transformation. A Constituent Assembly was in fact created, but it was gutted of the revolutionary content the indigenous movements advocated. Instead of being an aggregation of the social movements, elections to the assembly had to be either through established parties or citizen groups. More worryingly, a clause about minority protection meant that any organisation achieving over 5 percent of the vote was entitled to a third of the seats in its district. This gave the far right, which in many areas would not have won representation, a disproportionate amount of seats. Furthermore, the ‘nationalisation’ of the hydrocarbon resources was anything but that, with virtually nothing expropriated and the issuing of new contracts to 12 foreign companies. All that changed was the level of tax revenue and tightened regulations. On both these counts, the government didn’t meet the movement’s demands for political and economic power as a means of emancipation; the indigenous remain onlookers to the state and foreign capital.
The MAS strategy of building ‘Andean-Amazonian’ capitalism is incompatible with the aspirations for a mass transformation of power relations. In reality, it has meant the emergence of a privileged layer within the indigenous communities, or as some say the new ‘chola’ bourgeoisie of El Alto and elsewhere that have grown rich through commerce. This doesn’t represent a new era for the indigenous or a new multiculturalism. The success of a few comerciantes cannot elevate the whole people to political and economic power. In El Alto (where over 80 percent self-identify as indigenous), where the new Aymara bourgeoisie is emerging, 90 percent of workers are in jobs described as ‘precarious’, a figure virtually unchanged since the 1990s.
There have undoubtedly been gains; an indigenous president has emboldened many and contributed to a cultural shift against racism. However, the power structures that replicate racial oppression remain intact and ‘multiculturalism’ is limited to its neoliberal form in which ‘diversity’ is celebrated but said communities remain powerless.