In the field: Building a database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict

Earlier this month, I spent ten days in La Paz working on Ultimate Consequences: A database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict during the democratic era. This project is a compilation of detailed information about the human cost of political struggle in the country I have been research and writing about for over a decade. It includes people killed when movements challenged the state and the state responded with violence—the initial spark for my research—but also a variety of deaths associated with coca erradication and resistance to it, deaths caused and endured by guerrilla and paramilitary forces, prolonged inter-ethnic conflict (mainly the “war of the ayllus” between the Laymi and Qaqachaka communities), political assassinations (both due to partisan politics and patriarchal rejection of women coming to forma leadership), and the times when self-sacrificial protest (hunger strikes and prolonged marches under adverse conditions) claimed the lives of protesters and their children.

As of today, we have 512 deaths recorded, 477 of them with names. It has been a grim, if captivating tour through recent Bolivian history. While I’ve had the collaborative support of two research assistants over the course of the project, I think I’ve read every story of death, and the process has been at turns sobering, enraging, frustrating, and deeply informative.

Right now, I am focused on getting two things done with this database: ensuring that our dataset is as complete as we can make it, and making several of the many variables that we are recording—starting with location and the role of the state—as completely specified as possible so that we can share complete summary data, maps, and other statistical visualizations with the public. In La Paz, this meant taking my camera on a lot of trips to the Archive of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, which has decades of Bolivian newspapers bound into massive volumes, and coordinating with colleagues in a Bolivian NGO on a graphic visualization front-end for the database.

[2014] CONAMAQ in crisis: Pro-government faction seizes headquarters by force

This post was originally written in January 2014, and went unpublished while I was on parental leave with my first child. I’m posting it now to make it available for others to reference.

The highland indigenous movement CONAMAQ entered a profound organizational crisis in December over the organization’s relationship to the Evo Morales government. The group, whose full name means the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu, represents over a dozen highland indigenous communities dedicated to restoring self-governance through traditional community structures. It diverged politically with the government in 2011 over the right to exercise free, prior, and informed consent over projects in indigenous territories and its participation in the Eighth National Indigenous March in defense of the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). Soon after the march, CONAMAQ withdrew from the government-aligned Pact of Unity. In the past year, it has made preparations to run an independent slate in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

A faction of pro-government leaders within CONAMAQ, led by Hilarion Mamani of Chichas waged a campaign for new leadership of the organization, which included six attempts to occupy its headquarters. In December, Mamani’s faction and the existing leadership held separate gatherings of the Jach’a T’antachawi, a large gathering that is the organization’s highest authority. Late on December 10, after the pro-government gathering elected Hilarion Mamani, a crowd of his supporters burst into the organization’s La Paz headquarters and beat three CONAMAQ leaders and a member of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights. Bolivian police took control of the building for the next month, while supporters of the existing leadership maintained a vigil outside the building. Hilarion Mamani’s supporters attacked that vigil and took control of the headquarters on January 14. Both the Defensoria del Pueblo and the UN’s human rights office in Bolivia issued statements of concern following the violent takeover; the UN particularly criticized the failure of the police to safeguard the vigil from physical attack.

The Jach’a T’antachawi aligned with the incumbent leadership elected Freddy Bernabé as the new head of the organization on December 12 and 13. The regional indigenous confederation of the Andes (CAOI) and the Amazon Basin (COICA) recognize him as the leader of CONAMAQ. The government-aligned Pact of Unity, which also include the CIDOB faction led by Melva Hurtado, views Hilarion Mamani as CONAMAQ’s leader. The newspaper Pagina Siete and community radio network Erbol report that grassroots leaders in most of the organization’s base back Bernabe.

For Hilarion Mamani, the split is a repudiation of the incumbent leadership’s political alliances, including with CIDOB, the Green Party, and “free thinking” dissidents within the MAS. Conversely, the incumbent leaders have denounced his actions as nothing more than government interference in the organization. The government claims to distance itself from an “internal” conflict in the organization, but state media immediately recognized Hilarion Mamani as its leader and Vice Minister Alfredo Rada has blamed the split on the government’s critics in the movement. Dissident MAS legislator Rebeca Delgado denounced government interference, citing documentation of Rada’s Vice Ministry paying the logistical expenses for Mamani’s election (see also this signed budget posted online). Since his election, Mamani’s faction has vowed to mobilize for Evo Morales’ re-election as president.

Post-script: CONAMAQ’s headquarters before and after the takeover by the pro-government faction, as tweeted by a Bolivia journalist.

 

NYC lecture, October 26: Dense and Nimble Activisms in Bolivian Radical Politics

On Monday, October 26, I’ll be giving a talk on “Dense and Nimble Activisms in Bolivian Radical Politics,” hosted by the Department of Anthropology at Queens College-CUNY. The talk will be in the President’s Conference Room 2 at the Rosenthal Library (campus map) at 12:15pm. If you’re in New York City or someplace nearby, please join me.

Abstract:

This paper explores the radical political values that circulate and develop across Bolivia’s dense and nimble forms of activism, with a focus on the increasingly indigenous metropolis. Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical organizational structure and a countervailing ethic that subordinates leaders to the grassroots bases from which they emerge. This worldview separates an enduring, morally legitimate world of community organization (“the organic”) from a corrupted world of political parties, staffed by self-advancing, individualist politicians who engage in transactional, corrupt practices (“the political”). Inside the organic domain, unions and other mass organizations replicate and extend the ayllu, an Andean structure for community self-management of the lands inherited from ancestral spirits. They valorize ethical principles of complementarity, solidarity, anti-individualism, and obligatory participation, blending ethical and political life.

Conversely, other organizations structure themselves horizontally, without a formal hierarchy or official leadership. People join these efforts voluntarily and individually without a joint decision of the others with whom they live or work; the organization is defined by ideological and social affinity, its common purpose. They achieve their political effects by networking: that is, by interacting with a far larger numbers of people than just its membership, through public spectacles, training, writing, and open gatherings. While less internationally visible, these nimble activists participate in the global circulation of practices of decentralized decision making, ideas like the de-commodification of water, and transnational movement networks.

Rather than mutually opposed poles, organic grassroots and participatory network organizations interchange ideas and collaborate in common efforts. A former Marxist union militant in the mines explains, “Solidarity is what is called ayni, right?,” offering a translation between languages for political visioning. Across town, an urban anarchafeminist collective embraces an indigenous identity while pointing out patriarchal attitudes within both revolutionary movements and traditional communities. For at least a generation, Bolivian activists have conceptualized radical political values as of form of decolonization, as a return to ways of living that are inherently opposed to the colonial and capitalist state. At the same time, liberatory political praxis involves the incorporation of new ideas, in silent contradiction to rhetoric of cultural revival. Drawing on multiple experiences, I describe both the recovery and the innovation of ways of doing politics.