Bolivia’s Multiple Mini-States

buy sublingual viagra As nation-states emerged in Europe following the Westphalian peace, and colonial powers continued to penetrate the Americas, indigenous communities became little more than roadblocks in the establishment of the sovereign system of nationhood we now recognize. Despite their continued struggles to empower themselves against imposed state structures, they remain largely invisible in the broader public narrative. The process of emancipation in Latin America and the independent governments that followed were the outcome of the aspirations of liberal, Enlightened criollos who sought to abolish the rule of the colonizing monarchies. Nonetheless, these liberators transposed European blueprints for statehood on their homelands, and excluded indigenous peoples from most dialogue relevant to the process of acquiring sovereignty.

http://megatuce.com/wp-json/oembed/1.0/embed?url=http://megatuce.com/2014/11/flare-for-fall-floral/ Notwithstanding their general erasure from the social imaginary, indigenous groups have fought back in order to regain some measure of autonomy within larger nations. Across Central and South America this struggle has evolved within complicated national histories; mass state violence, debilitating civil wars, and insidious insecurity have plagued virtually every Latin American nation, and their indigenous communities have often been caught in the middle (although they have also been participants in some cases). Today, Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia all have the unfortunate distinction of being amongst the top ten most dangerous countries in the world by homicide rate. General insecurity is pervasive, and is a critical characteristic of the modern nation-state in which these indigenous communities exist.

For Bolivia, it appears that we need to begin reconsidering a number of these indigenous communities, not as components of the nation-state, but as their own mini-states. First, they often position themselves against the formal state, rather than as unique groups within the state, unlike other minorities (especially in the West). This is achieved by fighting for the transfer of institutional and formal authority to indigenous structures, most saliently, for matters of justice. But unlike autonomous regions, which often derive their ultimate sense of structure from the central state, these communities have also constructed entirely parallel mechanisms of rendering an otherwise chaotic environment into some coherent form. The use of violence (e.g., lynching) under the guise of community justice programs is an important example of the creation of such structure, and also serves to speak back against the state and challenge the very foundation of its sovereignty across the land. In the case of many Latin American countries, including Bolivia, violence is integral to the project of constructing the mini-sate; it is a vehicle through which communities often ritualize and systematize their experiences.

Indigenous communities are infinitely varied in their histories, compositions, and desires, and not all of them fit the description outlined above as either desiring sovereignty or moving towards it. However, many of them do, and are solidifying themselves in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and many other regions, despite the odds stacked against them. Assessing these communities, even if only within Bolivia, is never unambiguous; they are full of complexities and nuances. There are no clear answers in response to questions of sovereignty and statehood, but it seems to give us a better view of them if we approach them as mini-states rather than constituent elements of the larger meta-state that is Bolivia.

In the case of many Latin American countries, including Bolivia, violence is integral to the project of constructing the mini-sate; it is a vehicle through which communities often ritualize and systematize their experiences.

In Bolivia, a new constitution (ushered in by a 2009 referendum) recognizes broad indigenous rights, including the employment of traditional community justice practices. By and large, these new (yet concomitantly traditional) models place an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Much in the same way that truth and reconciliation helped bridge the gap in South Africa between apartheid and democracy, the decentralization of judicial authority to indigenous communities in Bolivia is intended to bring closure to a turbulent and painful past for the country’s various aboriginals. In reality, lingering violence and insecurity transfigure these intentions into a much more grim lived experience. Lynchings are a common expression of justice in Bolivian communities, and are rationalized using the language of community justice. Nonetheless, in both rural areas and on the margins of urban centres (in barrios, which are divisions of municipalities which do not necessarily have class-based implications) where many indigenous Bolivians preside, there are numerous community leaders and organizers fighting for the implementation of ‘genuine’ community justice practices (e.g., restorative justice). What is most important to recognize though, is that no matter whether these communities are able to effectively implement rehabilitative justice or if lynchings become the predominant form of ‘community justice,’ the official state is no longer the baron of justice.

The question is not whether practices like lynching indeed constitute community justice; it would be disingenuous to suggest that there is some coherent understanding of what community justice truly is across communities. In reality, as the anthropologist Daniel Goldstein describes, the process of ascertaining community justice is exceptionally complex, especially for urban indigenous populations; “Urban indigenous communities today do not so much operate under one particular legal system or another as they try to make do through the creative intervention of local leaders, who cobble together some form of judicial process—a legal bricolage—based on what they know or imagine to be part of some other existing legal system. In these marginal barrios, as in many rural communities today, what we find are not coherent legal orders that together comprise a plurally legal field, but assemblages based on imagination, memory, and pragmatism in the face of crime, vulnerability, and the threat of violence.” What matters here is that different communities make some system of order coherent that is distinct from what the state provides. (A more precise description of this phenomenon of community justice as providing social structure follows later.)

The argument is thus not that there is some universal parallel system of justice that all indigenous Bolivians have constructed, but that there are numerous alternative structures that provide order through ‘justice’ in the face of insecurity. Here, the use of the term ‘indigenous’ is even misleading because it masks deep divisions and a variety of lived realities. Not only are various indigenous groups—including the Quechua, Aymara, and dozens of smaller groups—entirely distinct from each other in cultural and historical terms, they also often operate in specific realms that do not overlap.

What is universal, is that the formal nation-state has ceded control over large portions of the justice system, as well as education and land; this process has not been organic either. It has been demanded and fought for. Whether through successful integration of community justice or by illegal lynchings, groups are re-fabricating their own sovereignties. While minority groups in other Western states are happy (or at least acquiesce) to abide by state rule, these communities demand sovereignty.

Similar struggles are being fought in Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and many other countries. Whether successful or not on a formal level, what is of note in almost all cases, is that indigenous communities are juxtaposing themselves contra the state, as opposed to merely describing themselves as unique groups within the state. Gang and mob violence, although abhorrent, provide their own forms of structure. Political anthropologists have widely described practices of community justice—both in its ‘genuine’ forms and in its ‘perversions’ (lynching)—as acts of speaking back to the state. As Goldstein describes, “amid the insecurity and uncertainty of barrio life, barrio residents deploy the discourse of community justice as part of an interpretive frame through which they try to render meaningful the chaos of the world around them.” Locating the source of structure, on both a discursive and material level, as external to the formal state, the case for the existence of the mini-state fully comes into focus. Although not always happily, autonomous regions still operate underneath a central power, whereas the exercise of various forms of indigenous justice—whether that be ‘Mayan law’ in Guatemala or lynchings in Bolivia—are, as Rachel Sieder (another anthropologist) notes, forms of “exercising sovereignty and thus constituting the state.”

While these mini-states are often characterized by violence, they are mini-states nonetheless. An attempt at stabilizing a community’s experience through patterns and institutions of conflict is an important marker that the formal state exists either only on the peripheries or not at all. Importantly, this process of pushing the state away is much more deliberate in Bolivia and other Latin American countries in comparison to places like Libya, where there is no state to speak of anywhere. The fact that there is some formal recognition of the mini-states’ demands also indicates a coherence of the alternative structure, at least in principle.

Bolivia is a curious case though, as it is the Latin American country with the highest proportion of indigenous citizens. That is to say, nearly two thirds of Bolivians are broadly self-identified aboriginals. This would imply that perhaps the aggregate of mini-states (i.e., all of the individual indigenous communities taken together) have collectively become the meta-state and, by any demographic indication, fit well into the traditional model of the nation-state initially described. Of course, nation-states all have within them a range of communities, ethnic groups, and neighbourhoods; the existence of disparate groups in and of itself is not sufficient grounds to claim that mini-states exist. However, as was noted earlier, it is the unique convergence of the factors described above that make the case so much more compelling than it is in relation to other rural groups, ethnic minorities, or autonomous zones.

A fractured Bolivian state does not merely represent a prolonged failure of centralized power. Rather it points to layers of sovereignty that have been demanded, and the creation of sub-political structures that have emerged in opposition to the nation-state.

Here, it is worth pausing to invoke the great Nobel Laureate, Gabriel García Márquez, in order to ground my perspective as a Western writer; I must accept that my assessment of the indigenous experience in Latin America is structurally constrained by my background.  In attempting to argue that the plurality of indigenous communities in Bolivia represent emergent mini-states, I am cognizant that “It is only natural that [Westerners] insist on measuring us with the yardstick that they use for themselves […] The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.” I have thus done my best to contextualize these communities through appropriate patterns, yet there will always be nuances that are lost on me. Indeed, a critical goal of this piece is a deconstruction of the predominantly Western conceptualization of sovereignty and statehood; the imposition by the criollos of an adapted European model was an ill-fitted tool to measure the lived reality of many Latin American communities.

A similar convergence of the decentralization of official state functions along with a construction of an alternative order (often through violence-as-justice) can be found in communities across Central and South America; an elaboration of examples in Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Nicaragua would reveal similar conclusions. Importantly, the argument that we should consider these Bolivian communities mini-states is not a normative claim; it is divorced from the implications of applying the same logic to FARC enclaves in Colombia, for instance. Rather, it is merely a re-calibration of the way that we speak about these communities, engage with them, and conceive of them in relation to nation-states. Indeed, closing the gap between our discourse and the lived experience of these communities will likely enable us to better deal with any negative sociopolitical consequences of that reality.

Slowly but surely, through formal petition and pressure as well as informal reorganization of order, these communities are becoming increasingly autonomous. They are providing their citizens with the material services that we normally use to identify formal state structures, as well as the constituents of the social imaginary around which people construct order, if only a precarious one. Taken together, these are essential characteristics that we otherwise use to describe a nation-state. It is not only that many countries fail in fulfilling these roles, but that these communities have actively taken them over.

The jargon, focus, and bias of our dialogue on states prevents us from seeing these communities more clearly for what they are. A fractured Bolivian state does not merely represent a prolonged failure of centralized power. Rather it points to layers of sovereignty that have been demanded, and the creation of sub-political structures that have emerged in opposition to the nation-state. Referring to Bolivia, or any other place where this process is underway, as a singular entity obscures the more complex arrangement of polities and experiences. Moreover, it seems reductive and far too simplistic to simply describe the post-2009 Bolivia as a decentralized state. We would all benefit from a linguistic and analytical reconfiguration of the way that we think and talk about nation-states and the communities supposedly captured within them.