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]

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“Beyond Dichotomies”: One Bolivian voice on the present moment

I’ve translated the following essay by Roger Adán Chambi Mayta, a Bolivian living in Brazil, because it speaks directly to many of the questions that my friends following current events Bolivia are asking. I will be sharing multiple pieces here and linking to others. Not every thought aligns with my own, but I think it’s vita—now, more than ever—I that we hear from Bolivians who are wrestling with the future of their society. And that we slow down our desires to put the Bolivian situation into a pre-defined schema, at least until we understand it well and hear from those on the frontlines. This piece appeared on the Colectivo Curva Facebook page, which is filled with a vocal and diverse debate among grassroots Bolivian voices.

Beyond Dichotomies

“They have lost their best leader!” “Now the Right will come back!” “The poor indigenous!” These are some of the comments that I have received from my friends in Brazil after Evo’s resignation. For many here, Evo Morales represented a government that was of the left, progressive, anticapitalist, and above all: the principal defender of indigenous peoples and of the political vision of Vivir Bien [Living Well: in sufficiency, community, and harmony with nature]! The moment I utter my first criticism, they have already branded me as being a defender of the coup against the indigenous former president. “If the left goes down, the right comes back. Are you from the left or the right?,” a friend asks me on messenger. Once again arises the typical and simple dichotomy that seeks to put some on the “revolutionary” side and the rest among the reactionaries. As if things were that way, so simple, as if there was only a single question of taking on one ideological title. Well now, I understand that these readings respond to a Brazilian idiosyncrasy, my friends ask me questions and make their judgments in an exercise that is an analogy to what they have experienced with Temer and Bolsonaro, and I don’t judge them for it. But we are talking about Bolivia, a country that has a long tradition of indigenous struggles and where the left and right have always met the expectations of the white-mestizo sector, which is racist and discriminatory against its racialized others. That is why I tell my friends that, it shouldn’t be strange that there are Aymaras who are critical of the “left” government of Evo Morales and who are not because of that defenders of the right.

Are there reactionaries that want to claim hegemony of the current violent conjuncture for their own benefit? Evidently so. Aren’t Bolsonaro and Trump celebrating this context? I have no doubt. But, out of fear of that, should we have continued with Evo for fourth term? For that, did we have to keep watching as more white-mestizo become newly rich in the name of the indigenous government? For that, do we have to bear the instrumentalization of our history, of our culture for the benefit of a precious few?

“But think on the structural level, of the world system, of imperialism!,” my friend questions me, and it’s certain that we must think of the macro level. But the first to think of the consequences should have been the government! It was they who sacrificed the so-called “process of change” by not building new legitimate leaderships that could continue their government. A fourth term, besides being illegal was intolerable! Once I heard an Aymara grandfather say to me, “Evo says he’s indigenous, but he doesn’t carry out the practices of the community; the authorities must always rotate, for the health of all.” And now I ask myself, for all that they talk of being the government of Vivir Bien, To what degree would a fourth term bring us closer to Vivir Bien? Would my friends have asked the MASistas that question? Of course not! It wouldn’t even have mattered to them!

But now, Evo is no longer in the country and has left his people that he said he loved, in the midst of a fierce social convulsion. The wiphala, the historic flag of the Andean peoples, has been erroneously labeled as a synonym of the MAS. The people who supported it so much on social media now say nothing.

It seems that they are happy how the people carries on confronting one another after their manipulative tactics. The reactionaries who want to take advantage of the moment will not hesitate to burn the wiphala so as to strike fear in all those people who are racialized.

It’s important to say that Evo in his last days in the presidency called upon indigenous communities to protect his government (filled with non-indigenous people), and now that he is no longer in the country, left behind a people confronting one another, with pain and sadness in the streets.

But there is resistance, I see on the screen my Aymara brothers and sisters in the streets of El Alto, supporting demonstrations against the discourse of discrimination, and they shout: No more racism! Respect our symbols! El Alto on its feet, never on its knees! After the resignation of the president, the population did not stand back with its arms crossed. Evo is gone, but we won’t accept a Camacho either! “Evo is the hope of Latin America,” they say to me here. Was it just Evo? Was it the person? I think that this reading was wrong; it wasn’t that Evo, the caudillo, was the Latin American hope, but rather that he represented the beginning of that hope. A racialized person of the lower middle class, part of an indigenous nation with an insurrectionary tradition that arrived in power.

The hope of Latin America comes from those peoples who, like the Alteño people in this moment, have pushed beyond those simple dichotomies of left and wright and who go out into the streets to defend their rights, their family, their work, their symbols, their history, and their country.

Roger Adán Chambi Mayta, Brasil
12/11/2019