By Co-Editor Winston Ardoin

In a crucial victory for Evo Morales, Bolivia’s former leftist indigenous president, the state’s most recent constitution entered into force on February 7, 2009. The document reorganized the state around the concept of plurinationalism, defined by political scientist Michael Keating as “the coexistence within a political order of more than one national identity, with all the normative claims and implications that this entails.” Proponents of the new constitution saw the codification of plurinationalism as the institutionalization of their revolutionary struggle against the legacy of colonialism and long-standing inequality in Bolivia. Opponents, including some indigenous leaders, disagree, arguing that plurinationalism dilutes sovereign aims and maintains the unjust status quo.

Understanding Plurinationalism in the Bolivian Context

A uniquely Latin American idea developed in the 2000s, revolutionary Andean political leaders with indigenist convictions developed the concept of plurinationalism, defined by former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa as “the coexistence of several different nationalities within a larger state where different peoples, cultures and worldviews exist and are recognized.”

At its core, plurinationalism presents “an alternative model of state and citizenship” that emerged amid Latin America’s “Leftist turn” in the 2000s. In theory, a plurinational state formally recognizes different ethno-cultural groups within the structure of one nation state. The application of this concept has varied greatly; Bolivia remains the only state to “go all the way.”

Like other Andean states, the application of multicultural policies in Bolivia failed in the 1990s and early 2000s following discontent amongst the indigenous majority and corruption at the hands of international institutions and non-governmental organizations. Created during an economic and political crisis and pressured by powerful ethnic movements, the 2006-2007 Constituent Assembly, envisioned by Morales, officially re-established Bolivia as a plurinational state. Though the final product of the assembly, the 2009 Bolivian Constitution, does not define plurinationalism, a working document produced by leaders of the Unity Pact, an evolving association of allied indigenous and peasant groups, states: “The plurinational state is a model of political organization for the decolonization of our nations and peoples, reaffirming, recuperating and strengthening our territorial autonomy.” 

The intention behind Bolivia’s adoption of plurinationalism is clear. By enacting plurinational policies, Morales and his allies instituted a reformist political project with the intention “to mobilize traditionally marginalized social sectors, in particular peasants and indigenous populations, triggering a process of renegotiation of meanings, identities and political spaces,” according to Fontana. Morales and his Movimento al Socialismo (MAS) allies saw the adoption of plurinationalism as the fulfillment of their anti-imperialist promises, an important part of the “proceso de cambio” (process of change) and “vivir bien” (good life) on which they campaigned.

Plurinationalism in the 2009 Bolivian Constitution

Replete with socialist, indigenist, and anti-colonial messages, the preamble of the 2009 Bolivian Constitution reveals the revolutionary intentions of plurinationalism in its opening paragraphs: the upending of the legacy of colonialism and elite rule in Bolivia. In part, this process entails a redefinition of citizenship and the welcoming of indigenous peoples and cultures into the political structure of the state.

In its substantive chapters, the 2009 Constitution gives several indigenous languages, symbols, and moral principles official status. However, not only is the idea of ethnic plurinationalism presented as an aspirational goal or guiding principle, but it is actually applied to the reformed structures of government. For example, pursuant to art. 146, § VII, native indigenous peoples who constitute a minority in their department are entitled to vote in “special rural native indigenous districts” to ensure their representation in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. Art. 174, § II, also guarantees proportional participation for indigenous communities in legislative elections. With regards to the judiciary, art. 171, § I-II, grants rural native indigenous authorities legal jurisdiction over their own communities and ensures its equality with ordinary jurisdiction. Art. 197, § I, further stipulates that Bolivia’s highest court for constitutional matters, the Plurinational Constitutional Court, must consist of judges from both ordinary and indigenous legal systems. 

Beyond the structure of the national government, the Bolivian application of plurinationalism can be understood as granting autonomy to four distinct entities–the state’s nine departments, larger regions with cultural and historical ties, native indigenous campesina communities, and municipalities. This defies conventional practices of reserving autonomy for the state or granting it solely to territorially-defined sub-state entities. With regards to the indigenous majority, this autonomy not only recognizes the existence of various indigenous groups with pre-colonial ties to Bolivian territory, but also codifies their cultural customs and practices within Bolivian law. It renegotiates the relationship between law, culture, and ethnic identity within Bolivian society. 

However, this functional application begins to show the limitations of the plurinational concept. By conceding to the demands of non-indigenous groups, especially the conservative leaders of eastern region, the Constituent Assembly failed to make a clean break with Bolivia’s past, instead reinforcing racially-exclusionary neoliberal and colonial forms of citizenship and economic organization.

Opposing Views and Concerns 

While the adoption of plurinationalism became controversial among elite conservative groups, some of the most outspoken opponents hailed from indigenous campesino communities. Most notably, ardent Aymara nationalist Felipe Quispe argued that the new Bolivian government remained colonized, going so far as to call the presidency of Morales “neoliberalism with an Indian face.” 

Other indigenous leaders, especially Aymara nationalists like Quispe, found plurinationalism too weak to uproot the oppression faced by indigenous communities throughout Bolivian history. Rallying around ethnic solidarity, Quispe and his supporters from the Pachakuti Indigenous Movement (MIP) and Unified Syndical Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) reasoned that Morales’ “proceso de cambio” maintained the status quo in which indigenous peoples remained separate from, inferior to, and in service of the white-mestizo elite. A contradiction in itself, plurinationalism could not liberate indigenous peoples from the oppressive neoliberal state constructed over time to empower white-mestizo cultures and traditions over that of the indigenous. Autonomy only served the preexisting nature of the Bolivian state. For these critics, full ethnic and economic liberation could only be achieved through self-determination rooted in katarismo (Andean indigenous nationalism) and full sovereignty in the form of independent Quechua and Aymara states.

Though proponents of plurinationalism may consider Quispe’s vision extreme, Bolivia’s recent history has shown the limits of plurinationalism. For example, some might consider the 2019 overthrow of Morales’ government the most prominent failure of plurinationalism. However, the 2011 TIPNIS protests provide a better insight into indigenous opposition to plurinationalism. 

Failures and Limits: A Review of the 2011 TIPNIS Protests

In 2011, Bolivia’s two largest indigenous movements, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) and the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), abandoned the pro-Morales Unity Pact and formed an alliance to protest against the construction of a highway linking the country’s highlands with the lowlands. This road, known as the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos Highway, was planned to run directly through the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), upsetting indigenous communities who feared environmental destruction and a violation of their autonomy. In response to the project, the organizations planned a 400-mile march from the Amazon to the Andean city of La Paz where they faced by violent repression from the Morales’ government. 

For indigenous leaders, this was a clear violation of the autonomy they gained with the state’s 2009 plurinational reformation. In 2011, the leadership council of CONAMAQ clearly expressed this stating, “[T]his march expresses our historical claim of respect for the land territory, prior consultation and prior consent, environment, to the original indigenous autonomy, respect for our ancestral territories and respect for the territory of the TIPNIS.” A proponent of plurinationalism and indigenous rights, many people were baffled by Morales’ persistent disregard for pleas of indigenous communities. 

However, this is no surprise to many. Morales’ ambitious development goals were bound to eventually contradict his environmentalist and indigenist progressivism. Critics argue that the TIPNIS situation confirms the view that plurinationalism is insufficient in achieving its stated revolutionary aims. Though Morales held that the highway was necessary for the social and economic development of indigenous communities, it seems rather that the TIPNIS situation led indigenous leaders to reevaluate his commitment to their cause. In fact, CIDOB leaders went far enough as to label Morales and his government “enemies of the indigenous peoples and nations of the East, Chaco, and Bolivian Amazon.”

Plurinationalism: A Mixed Outcome and an Uncertain Future

Overall, despite the successful adoption of plurinationalism in the 2009 Bolivian Constitution, it is clear that the concept faces legitimate scrutiny from the indigenous communities it was originally conceived to benefit. 

On one hand, the 2009 Constitution not only explicitly expanded indigenous protections but redefined what is meant to be Bolivian by accepting the legitimacy and importance of indigenous heritage, cultures, and customs. For the first time, indigeneity was no longer a legal barrier to the full promises of citizenship. However, the 2009 Constitution remained riddled with contradictions–especially with regards to economic and territorial provisions–that inhibited its ability to completely revolutionize the neoliberal and colonial foundation of the state. This inability has led to widespread disdain among indigenous communities, most of whom were supporters of the original plurinational idea. 

With the exile of Morales, the future of plurinationalism looked uncertain following the 2019 election. However, despite criticism from indigenous groups, Morales’ ally Luis Arce and the MAS party were able to regain power in 2020. Though scholars have advanced several different opinions, perhaps Bolivia’s indigenous majority found the controversial plurinational approach, despite its imperfections, more acceptable than the right-wing alternatives offered by other political front-runners.

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