Social Inclusion

Split identity

Political tension over social inclusion in Bolivia is enframed by two competing standpoints. One holds that control of the state should be in the hands of the indigenous population, to which the majority of Bolivians belong. Its most radical proponents demand that the non-indigenous minority accept and comply with indigenous notions of economic and social development as well as indigenous understanding of law. The opposing view is that any such reforms would threaten the peace and the country’s territorial integrity.

[ By Iván Égido ]

The social fabric of many countries is under strain because of high levels of poverty, extreme income disparity, various forms of discrimination and social exclusion. In most cases, two political terms are inseparably linked: “social inclusion” and “social cohesion”. In Latin America, “inclusion” stands for as many people as possible participating in both society and economy, while “cohesion” relates to what holds people and state together.

The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) believes that social cohesion can be achieved only if governments pursue policies which promote social inclusion, and if they do so with broad popular support. Such support can become evident in trust in institutions, a mutual sense of belonging in society and the acceptance of social norms.

Greater indigenous influence

In Bolivia, conflicts typically revolve around the position of the indigenous peoples in state and society. For centuries, institutions shaped by the country’s colonial past have spawned social inequality. The indigenous majority, in particular, has been at disadvantage – not only in terms of income but also in terms of access to social services such as education and health care as well as participation in political decision making.

In January 2006, Evo Morales became the country’s elected president. He pledged to bring about institutional change, promising to eliminate inequality and help the indigenous population play a more prominent part in political and economic life. He also spoke of empowering the indigenous population and their “right to be different”, in the sense of Bolivia’s cultural diversity of indigenous and non-indigenous people being reflected in the legal framework and the institutional set-up of the state. Among other things, that implies recognition of collective indigenous rights.

According to conventional constitutional principles, however, all citizens should be equal before the law. Accordingly, dispute rages on over whether granting a special legal status to some segments of the population is compatible with the principle of equality – and if so, to what extent. This controversy can be summarised in two terms: inclusion or integration, with inclusion emphasising diversity and integration homogeneity.

Plurinational state

In its current Plan for National Development (PND), the Morales government refers to the goal of creating a “plurinational, decolonised state”. Such a state is meant to recognise their own rules and procedures of indigenous peoples in their territories, incorporate them in all areas of economic and political life, and thus create a collective identity based on diversity (REPAC 2007).

The concept of plurinationalism is not new. Before Morales assumed office, however, the discussions were predominantly theoretical. Today, academics agree more or less on the concept’s meaning, but the question remains of what a plurinational state signifies in practice. How Morales intends to implement this concept in practical terms can be illustrated with the two much-discussed issues of social justice and the right to difference.

In May 2006, Morales announced the “nationalisation” of gas and oil resources. In practice, this step only amounted to renegotiating contracts with international corporations. As a result, the governments’ revenues increased by 270 %. Some of the money is now used for redistribution policies. For example, financial assistance is being given to children and old people to improve the living standards of the poorest in the indigenous population – in order to promote inclusion and cohesion.
One problem, however, is that oil and gas revenues will not flow forever. Among other things, they depend on world-market trends. Moreover, the forced renegotiation of the contracts has unsettled international investors, and it may have reduced their preparedness to invest long-term in the extraction of natural resources.

Right to be different

Another controversial issue is defining the right to difference. Morales sought to achieve the political and cultural inclusion of the indigenous population by convening a Constituent Assembly – something indigenous groups had been demanding since the early 1990s. After Morales took office, the Constituent Assembly was elected and started work. The ruling government party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) not only intended to write a new constitution; it wanted to re-invent the state. However, it failed to secure the necessary consensus in the Assembly. The final vote was held without the opposition being present; only the deputies of the MAS and its allies endorsed the draft constitution. Many therefore doubt its legitimacy.
Nevertheless, the draft defines the base of the plurinational state the MAS wants to establish. The draft approves of the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination in their territories, including through traditional authorities. It also allows them to decide about the use of natural resources in their territory.

At the same time, the term “citizen” was re-defined. It is no longer based on homogeneity, but rather stresses “inclusive citizenship” (Rivera, 2006). The first article of the draft constitution reads: “Bolivia is a unitary, plurinational, free, autonomous and decentralised, independent, sovereign, democratic, intercultural state of communities based on the rule of law and social justice.” The article also mentions “political, economic, legal, cultural and linguistic pluralism”.

In effect, such principles are reflected in the collective rights that the draft constitution guarantees indigenous peoples. These rights include collective land ownership, an entitlement to cultural identity, the rule of customary law as well as traditional practices and self-administration. Ways to participate in politics are to be extended. At the municipal level, for instance, that will imply that indigenous minorities are entitled to representation in municipal councils even if the majority votes otherwise.

Back to the 1950s

The recognition of collective rights remains controversial. “We are all mestizos,” say those calling for all Bolivians to be treated as equals. But that view is questionable itself. It fails to acknowledge that large parts of the population have been put at disadvantage for centuries. Those who take the “mestizo” stand are rekindling Bolivia’s homogenisation debate of the 1950s, ignoring the fact that people may not only be different in theory, but are indeed so in social life (see article below).

The emphasis on formal equality in an objectively unequal society is prompted by fear – fear of the country breaking up and fear of reverse racism by indigenous people. This is not surprising. The dominant strata of Bolivian society have long thought in racist categories, though they were not necessarily aware of it. “I am not a racist ... I have always treated my maid well,” is a widespread attitude that highlights how a part of the population is unconcerned about racism so long as indigenous people play subordinate roles.

Prior to the political triumph of the indigenous movements, racism and identity were no issues for many members of the upper and middle classes. It is a different matter today, however. The head of state is a member of the indigenous community, and indigenous movements have considerable influence in the government and the Constituent Assembly.

Since the shift in political power, racist remarks and assaults have become more frequent. On both sides, the political culture is getting rough. For security reasons and because of the incapability of reaching a consensus, the first version of the draft constitution was passed in military barracks. Social movements close to the MAS, however, also undermined confidence by besieging Congress and preventing the opposition from attending parliamentary sessions. Moreover, the Constitutional Court was practically strapped of its powers, which fuelled more fear of the “new” state among non-indigenous upper and middle classes. In December 2006, radical upper and middle class groups set ablaze offices of indigenous organisations and chased and beat their leaders in the department of Santa Cruz.


In view of ECLAC’s stand on social inclusion, three points must be made about Bolivia:
– Since 2006, mechanisms have been increasingly introduced to facilitate the indigenous community’s participation in economic, political and cultural life. However, there are still many questionmarks over practical implementation. For example, the relationship between customary law and formal legislation has not been clarified. The draft constitution so far does not provide a satisfactory answer. If it were approved in a national referendum, considerable legislative work would still need to be done.
– Since 2003, crises in Bolivia have been dealt with in ad-hoc solutions that frequently exceeded the bounds of constitutional acceptability. When mobilising popular support, the present behaviour of both the government and the opposition reflects the trend of growing disregard for the normal rules of democracy and constitutional legality. The result is ever-greater polarisation and increasing distrust of “the other side”. There is thus a risk of the Bolivian people moving even further away from any sense of unity. Ironically, efforts to promote inclusion and cohesion are making differences and divides ever more evident.
– On the other hand, citizens’ activism – expressed, for instance, in rallies, assemblies and general strikes – is about more than only risks. It also provides opportunities. Issues such as exclusion, discrimination and racism are finally being openly debated, and that is to be welcomed. Maybe that debate can pave the way for setting right wrongs of the past and the creation of an “inclusive citizenship”. No doubt, relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people have changed irreversibly. On both sides, a willingness to cooperate is necessary now.

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