David Choquehuanca & plurinational Bolivia’s grassroots approach to diplomacy

With David Choquehuanca elected as Bolivia’s next vice president, I share here portions of an excised chapter from the manuscript of The Sovereign Street profiling Choquehuanca and the unique, bottom-up diplomacy he led as Foreign Minister from 2006 to 2017.

The New Face of Diplomacy

Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca was the first indigenous person to occupy his office, located on the corner of La Paz’s Plaza Murillo. The room was charged with an elite identity; by tradition the Foreign Minister’s chair had long been reserved for the country’s most illustrious individuals, invariably elite in their self-presentation. He spent two decades supporting grassroots indigenous movements—particularly the campesino confederation CSUTCB—before becoming a bedrock force within the Morales cabinet. His friendship with Morales stretches back to the 1980s; both men were early advocates for “the Political Instrument” that was to become the MAS–IPSP.[1] Only Choquehuanca, Finance Minister Luis Arce, and Vice President García Linera—an island of stability at the core of the cabinet—kept their offices for the first decade of Morales’ presidency.[2] Within the cabinet, Choquehuanca is the leading government voice of pachamamismo, a vision of spiritual transformation centered on the recovery of indigenous identity through a new ethical and ecological paradigm. His pachamamismo is carefully balanced by the industrializing developmentalism of Arce and García Linera, but has free rein within the Foreign Ministry.

Choquehuanca had served as national coordinator for Programa Nina (“fire” in Aymara), providing leadership trainings to the five organizations of the Pact of Unity, and his speeches incorporate a bit of the air of a teacher, regularly introducing words or phrases in Bolivia’s indigenous languages and providing a gloss that illustrates his points. When he was invited by Morales to join his cabinet just days before the inauguration, he had to give up his ticket to the World Social Forum in Caracas and make and shift to the other side of the line dividing movement and state. Fearing “I would be just one more piece of that system,” he pledged to himself to “be there without being there.”[3] Convinced he wouldn’t last in the job, he started off aloof: “The first year I had no desire to know anything,—‘For what?,’ I would say—I rebelled.” Then he threw himself into the work presiding over a very active period in Bolivia’s international diplomacy.[4] His ministry made Bolivia a well-known voice at the United Nations, sent him to present spiritual ideas of Vivir Bien (see box) and Mother Earth in international fora, and kept an open door to the grassroots left.

Choquehuanca describes himself as “in permanent meeting” with grassroots movements, reeling off district-level meetings he attended in a 2009 interview.[5] Esteban Ticona,[6] an anthropologist of Aymara background and radical public intellectual, took leadership in the Diplomatic Academy, offering master’s degrees in international relations to an unprecedentedly diverse corps of future diplomats.[7] Diplomacy, that most elite and creole-identified of Bolivian government professions, was being transformed. Just as in previous generation of revolutionary governments,[8] indigenous and grassroots movements have brought their own agendas into government offices. They coordinated with the Bolivian Foreign Ministry to place the Bolivian state at the forefront of long-running international campaigns on indigenous rights, climate, and water. The novel, but quite visible, role of social movements in Bolivian (and regional) diplomacy came to be known as “diplomacy of the peoples,” a phrase that suggests that people-to-people relations are as important as state-to-state ones, while quietly implying that multiple peoples live within one state.

Led by Choquehuanca, and with frequent prominent appearances by Evo Morales, Bolivian diplomacy backed a visionary agenda at the United Nations. It helped secure the 2007 passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which had languished in committee for twelve years. A series of initiatives introduced the Andean concept of Pachamama, the planet as a living being, into international diplomacy.[9] In so doing, Bolivia’s representatives broke a UN taboo on religious declarations, one deeply rooted in the United Nations’ secular modernizing origins. Bolivian Ambassador to the UN Pablo Solón shepherded UN recognition of the right to water and sanitation through the General Assembly, culminating in a 2010 resolution.[10]

Finally, the Bolivian government took a principled stand on climate change at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 2009 summit in Copenhagen, demanding steeper reductions in global North emissions and opposing carbon-trading schemes. This summit of 115 world leaders was met by some 50,000 activists, many of them participating in the Klimaforum countersummit or credentialed as advocates pressuring the summit. The Bolivian delegation found itself participating in both ways, backing protests outside even as its fiery critiques on the summit floor made international headlines. President Morales spent an entire day with the activists at Klimaforum and pledged to protesters that, “It is my duty to take our message to the heads of state here.”[11] Bolivia’s delegation joined hundreds of civil society representatives in a walkout from within the conference center, led by the indigenous people’s caucus.[12] From water to climate to indigenous rights, movement positions that had long held outsider status were suddenly represented by a state and its diplomatic apparatus. “In truth I felt more comfortable with civil society than inside, our perception is that there was more common sense,” reflected Ambassador Angelica Navarro, who led the country’s delegation. “If we’re going to move forward, the real problems of real people need to get in to the negotiations.”[13] This view explains the ambition of Bolivia’s popular diplomacy, and how it could take the risky step of opening its doors to the broader public.

Vivir Bien The concept of Vivir Bien encompasses various ideals of indigeneity—complementarity, interaction with the land, sufficiency—and was developed within the process of indigenous cultural recovery in the 1990s and 2000s. Indigenous intellectuals used the Quechua and Aymara terms Sumak Kawsay and Suma Qamaña as poles around which to articulate an decolonial alternative to capitalist development.[14] Bolivia’s constitutional adoption of the term (in Article 8 of the 2009 Constitution), in parallel with Ecuador’s embrace of Buen Vivir, has spurred along international scholarly and activist conversations attempting to elaborate on the meaning of the term.[15]

To introduce the concept, an advocate of Vivir Bien will usually contrast it with the Western desire to live better than others: “To exploit one’s neighbor is not to live well.” said Minister Choquehuanca in at the 2010 Indigenous Caucus. “Possibly, exploiting one’s neighbor will permit you to live better [vivir mejor]. But we don’t seek that. What we seek is to live well.”[16] Westerners accumulate wealth, whereas those who live well have culture, community, and an interactive relationship with nature. It is an alternative “civilizational and cultural model,” the Pact of Unity explained in their draft Mother Earth Law: “alternative to capitalism, to modernity, and to development.”[17]

Plurinational Diplomacy

In his first address to the UN General Assembly, given in 2006, Evo Morales arrived in his signature style, wearing a black sweater inlaid with Andean weaving patterns and bearing coca leaves, to declare himself “here to represent my people, my homeland of Bolivia, and especially the indigenous movement.”[18] The redefinition of the Bolivian state as an indigenous space was demanded by the grassroots left and performed—in the most literal sense—on the domestic and world stage by its president. From that first speech on, the Bolivian government took up the diplomatic agenda of the transnational indigenous movement, which included the demand for indigenous self-determination and a new relationship with the planet, addressed as Mother Earth or Pachamama. In turn, the Morales administration fashioned its own indigenous identity around this role of representing the arrival of long-suppressed indigeneity onto the world stage.

But, except perhaps at the United Nations, Morales was never the lone symbol of Bolivia’s indigeneity. In essence, plurinational politics requires a plural performance that fills the space of politics with cultural diversity. Inside the legislature, the Constituent Assembly, and the Cabinet, grassroots leaders wore their ethnically distinct polleras and sweaters, bowler hats and miners’ helmets. Surrounding the state, metaphorically and sometimes literally, were vast gatherings of thousands of movement participants, organized by sector and full of demands. On the streets, the vigils and marches that defended the Constituent Assembly and demanded the new Constitution represented this diversity. The creation and defense of the Constituent Assembly had brought into being a new kind of social movement space, one authorized by the state but gathering multiple voices.

David Choquehuanca’s new approach to diplomacy, which de-centers the state as the sole actor in international relations, offered movements the opportunity to pursue their international agenda under an official aegis. Participants called this plural statecraft on the international stage “the diplomacy of the peoples [diplomacia de los pueblos].” Bolivian diplomats worked with transnational environmental, indigenous, and other grassroots movements and mobilized Bolivians by the hundreds and sometimes thousands into the privileged world of international diplomacy. Starting with the UN visit, diplomacy also became the venue for the Morales government to demonstrate its ethical grounding in left and indigenous causes. Several of Bolivia’s initiatives became a co-production of the Morales government and social movements. The government sought grassroots allies to amplify its voice on regional integration, environmental policy, and indigenous rights. If large state-sponsored summits were confronted by activist counter-summits in much of the world, these two elements shaded into one another in Bolivia.

Like the “exercise[s] in MNR showmanship” after the 1952 Revolution, these acts provided a veneer of unified purpose to the highly contentious relationships between the government and grassroots movements. While the state sponsored these events, it did not fully control them.  By asserting that spaces and practices that were traditionally the prerogative of the state now belong to “the peoples,” the Morales administration opened the door for contests over the direction of the government to be expressed in official gatherings. Shared language around indigeneity would not be enough to hide the growing tensions and fractures accumulating beneath the surface.

Just as social movements had used the Constituent Assembly to advance their agendas, they brought their multiple and, at times, conflicting agendas to plurinational diplomatic spaces. Inside these events, tensions between movements and the state were accumulating. Above all, the alternative economic and ecological vision championed by the global indigenous movement clashed with the more traditional leftism that guides Morales’ domestic policies. Morales could speak, as he did at the United Nations, of both “recovering our natural resources” and “living in harmony with Mother Earth,” and for years Morales government presented itself as the champion of both visions. Movements could then leverage the government’s celebration of its indigenous values to articulate their own claims.

La Paz 2010: The Indigenous Agenda at Work in Bolivian Diplomacy

The five indigenous organizations of the Pact of Unity acting as co-hosts for the hemispheric indigenous caucus.

After shepherding the indigenous rights declaration to passage, Bolivian diplomats remained active on the issue within the UN system. In March 2010, Bolivia became the first Latin American country to host preparatory meetings for the annual UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Indigenous campaigners worldwide have developed a tradition of meeting among themselves in an all-indigenous caucus within a wide variety of settings, while UN bodies structure their work with inter-state preparatory meetings. Something of a hybrid construction itself, plurinational Bolivia found itself hosting both types of meetings at once. The government and the five indigenous organizations in the Pact of Unity co-hosted Permanent Forum officials and Latin America indigenous activists in an Indigenous Caucus, with Andean, Amazonian, and Central American indigenous alliances as co-sponsors. The four-day session began in the small town of Huarina on the Lake Titicaca coast and then moved to central La Paz. The closed gathering in a lakeside Aymara town was a space for lateral discussions among indigenous leaders, while the events in La Paz were used to showcase indigenous issues to diplomats and the press.

What in the past would so often have been a gathering of outsiders took place in the Hall of Honor of the Foreign Ministry. While not exactly luxurious, the building is designed for grandeur, much of its second floor dedicated to meeting halls designed to host foreign dignitaries. The two days in La Paz, much of which I attended, illustrated the substantive and symbolic centrality being built for indigenous people and social movements in state spaces. Leaders of the five indigenous confederations joined David Choquehuanca at the main table, each rising alongside the government to offer welcomes to foreign visitors. “Brothers, This very forum,” Choquehuanca declared, “is an advance. At the highest level, we the indigenous people can be heard.”

The Foreign Minister used the occasion to get the various diplomatic delegations in La Paz to attend a virtual teach-in given by indigenous leaders and international experts. Choquehuanca’s opening speech defined the efforts of both his government and the forum as part of a pachakuti, which he gave the gloss of “a return to equilibrium” among peoples and between humans and nature. Technical experts within the Permanent Forum’s secretariat spoke expansively about the necessity for indigenous voices to intercede in global debates about ecological preservation and the direction of economic life. Transnational indigenous alliances, chiefly the Andean and Amazonian confederations CAOI and COICA,[19] put forward a frontal critique of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) and extractive industrialization. “The practices of the invaders yesterday are today the practices of the transnational companies who … impose on our territories the extraction and looting of natural resources,” they declared in concluding resolution of the Caucus. “States, international banks, and transnational companies cannot, in a unilateral manner, develop megaproject such as IIRSA and REDD, that affect the territories of indigenous peoples.”[20] (The role of Bolivia in sponsoring IIRSA went without comment.) These organizations, veterans of numerous struggles over resources, concentrated on the right to free, prior and informed consent over projects on their territories, while articulating a sweeping critique of both extraction and capitalism. As these positions came together, and as the hosts spoke of a “new paradigm” articulated around Vivir Bien, there was a sense of turning from defensive fights to being a voice in global debates on the direction of humanity. At the closing dinner of the gathering, held incongruously in a La Paz luxury hotel, one Bolivian movement representative noted, “Before, we were always the folklore” in international gatherings. Now, she said, we are making the agenda.


[1] Two versions of Choquehuanca’s recollection of his relationship with Morales and the rise of the MAS-IPSP appear in Svampa et al. (2010) and Quiroz (2015).

[2] Choquehuanca finally stepped down as Foreign Minister in January 2017, turning over the office to fellow Aymara Fernando Huanacuni, a lawyer and specialist in indigenous cosmovision. He became Executive Secretary of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, where he continues the practice of meeting regularly with grassroots movements. Paredes Tamayo, Ivan. “David Choquehuanca: ‘No hay que enojar al pueblo, porque puede patear a perro equivocado’ (interview).” El Deber, March 18, 2018.

[3] Estar sin estar, or ayra (Aymara) was a concept Choquehuanca took from the life of Juan Chocne, a participant in the sixteenth century Andean revolt known as Taki Onqoy. Interview in Svampa et al. (2010:225-226).

[4] Interview in Svampa et al. (2010:225-226).

[5] Interview in Svampa et al. (2010:226).

[6] Ticona (2010:199-211).

[7] See Interview in Svampa et al. (2010:199-211).

[8] See Bjork-James (2013:55-99).

[9] UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2010:3, 17).

[10] The resolution (A/64/292) passed 122–0 with 41 abstentions. While it represents a milestone in a political recognition of the right to water, that recognition remains contested by countries like the United States and the United Kingdom (Worsnip 2010). In legal terms, the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (2002) Comment 15, which declares the right to water to be a legal consequence of the binding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, has greater force.

[11] Hadden (2015:158).

[12] Reyes (2009).

[13] Huff-Hannon (2010).

[14] Examples of this conversation can be seen in Medina (2006) and Bolivia. Ministerio de Relaciones (2010b, 2010a).

[15] Acosta and Martínez (2009); Gudynas (2009); Radcliffe (2012); Walsh (2010).

[16] Speech at the Ministry of Foreign Relations, La Paz, March 19, 2010.

[17] Csutcb et al. (2010:12).

[18] Morales Ayma (2009b:9).

[19] The Andean Coordination of Indigenous Organizations (Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indígenas; CAOI) and the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica; COICA) are transnational confederations of Andean highland and Amazonian lowland indigenous peoples’ organizations.

[20] “Caucus Indígena Boliviano, Centro y Sud América Para ‘Vivir Bien,’ La Paz, 19 y 20 de Marzo 2010,” http://www.fondoindigena.org/apc-aa-files/documentos/items/Caucus_Ind_gena.pdf.

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