Culture and Rights in Bolivia: Three Ethnographic Contributions by Nancy Grey Postero

Postero, Nancy Grey. Now We Are Citizens: Indigenous Politics in Postmulticultural Bolivia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. 312 pages; 6 illustrations, 1 map. $70.00 cloth, $26.95 paper.

Lazar, Sian. El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 344 pages; 19 illustrations. $84.95 cloth, $23.95 paper.

Goodale, Mark. Dilemmas of Modernity: Bolivian Encounters with Law and Liberalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. 264 pages; 7 tables, 27 illustrations, 2 maps. $65.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

The three texts reviewed here offer ethnographic insight into matters of culture, rights, and citizenship in Bolivia. The authors portray Bolivia at the historic juncture that led to the election of the indigenous president Evo Morales and is frequently described—among others by Morales's government itself—as the advent of popular empowerment through collective organization in the so-called social movements. The three books remain within this general interpretive schema, which lends credence to a social and political dynamic that some voices within the Bolivian social sciences critique for depositing popular sovereignty in the person of a leader with autocratic tendencies. As evidenced by the care with which the authors present popular social and political practice as conducive to the empowerment of the people, researchers based in the global centers of politics and economy have little room for scholarly disengagement. Even so, one of the merits of these three texts is their ability to see shades of gray in a situation that is all too easily depicted as the fight of a historically dispossessed and culturally authentic other against the dark forces of neoliberalism.

As the authors aptly show, much of what transpires in contemporary Bolivia is born out of the messy intercultures of a republican history that features political clientelism, but also the dissemination of notions of individual citizenship rooted in European liberalism as two of its core constituents. Nancy Postero's Now We Are Citizens argues that social and indigenous movements derive their shape and purpose from attempts to institute civil society undertaken by neoliberal governments during the 1990s. Mark Goodale's Dilemmas of Modernity pursues a similar argument further back into Bolivian history and locates the political-philosophical tradition of liberalism at the root of both the republican state and the political consciousness arising at its margins. Sian Lazar's El Alto, Rebel City shows that citizenship experienced through allegiance to nested collectivities, such as neighborhood committees and commercial associations, is not just a feature of indigenous culture, but an achievement produced by contemporary practices of social organization.

Postero's ethnographic work and the bulk of Now We Are Citizens is based in the eastern lowlands, in a community of Guaraní ethnicity just beyond the margins of the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the cover photograph of the paperback edition depicts a person donning emblematic indigenous garments from the Andean highlands rather than a local scene. After an introduction to the history of race and citizenship in Bolivia, and to the Santa Cruz region as a site of rapid economic and demographic expansion, Postero takes the reader to her field site, a town called Bella Flor. Originally a rural town with an agricultural economy and an ethnically homogeneous population, Bella Flor has increasingly come under the sway of the city. At the beginning of the 1990s, and partially on the impulse given by non-governmental organizations for the protection of indigenous rights and culture, the Guaraní inhabitants of Bella Flor began to reclaim traditional forms of social organization along ethnic lines, which had been supplanted, as elsewhere in Bolivia, by peasant unions (sindicatos) acting as mediators between the rural population and the state (chapter 2). Some of the local leaders used their position to become real estate brokers and effect the privatization of communal land titles. Postero shows how such behavior is consistent with some of the contesting models of leadership to which the Guaraní adhere (chapter 3). Chapter 4 and 5 constitute the core of Postero's book and describe the ways in which the neoliberal state of the 1990s, and the idea of multiculturalism that it promoted, molded citizenship for the Guaraní along the lines envisioned by liberal democracy. In particular the Law of Popular Participation, which summoned territorially-defined constituencies to propose projects for public funding through municipal budgets, induced the Guaraní to learn how to formulate their needs to meet the terms dictated by the state. In chapter 6 and the conclusion, Postero takes a step back from her ethnographic material to argue that indigenous people across Bolivia turned the newly assumed subjectivity promoted by the neoliberal expansion of citizenship against the neoliberal state. She provides a very useful and complete overview over the tumultuous years that led to the presidency of Evo Morales.

Whereas Postero's book provides impressive ethnographic detail and coherence, Mark Goodale's Dilemmas of Modernity explores ways of thinking about law and liberalism in Bolivia by presenting a series of loosely connected scenes of legal encounter. His fieldsite, the Norte de Potosí region, is very far removed from the centers of political power and oppositional unrest, but this does not mean that law, liberalism, and modernity have not arrived. To the contrary, Goodale finds them in a range of encounters that vernacularize law and liberalism according to the specific patterns of intention―to follow Goodale's choice of terms―that are channeled by the respective participants. Goodale argues that liberalism, as codified in the first republican constitution and used as a frame of reference for all sorts of liberal and anti-liberal projects ever since, is an essential part of these encounters. To the extent that the political discourse of the Morales administration rests on the notion of universal human rights, it owes its own foundations to liberalism. Somewhat against the grain of the current anti-neoliberal conjuncture, Goodale concludes that Morales and his party do not pursue complete societal change but “simply demand an expansion of the categories of modern Bolivia, the universalization of the liberal subject, and a commitment to equality of rights” (179). To explore processes of vernacularization of law and liberalism, Goodale describes a variety of sites and scenes of legal practice. There are, for instance, the provincial hierarchies of legal institutions (chapter 3); the striking juxtaposition of a court hearing on domestic violence in an indigenous family with the pornographic calendar images used by a judge to embellish his courtroom (chapter 4); the organic liberalism of local human rights activists (chapter 5); and the local appropriations of the ideals of development and modernity as they materialize in the latrines built by international development agencies (chapter 6).

If Postero and Goodale find traces of inherently individualistic liberalism in social movements and rural society, Sian Lazar's argument points in the opposite direction. El Alto, Rebel City describes the symbolic and pragmatic work that goes into the creation of collectivities among Aymara inhabitants of El Alto, the indigenous twin to the administrative capital city La Paz. Lazar's book gives a compelling account of some of the practices through which the inhabitants of Rosas Pampa, a neighborhood of El Alto, and traders in a fish market claim citizenship and participation in the political process while pursuing their own social and economic lives. Lazar argues that the style of citizenship they practice is mediated by complexly nested collectivities, and she proposes to address the issue of “how citizenship can be constructed and experienced in ways completely different from those envisaged by more Eurocentric perspectives” (3). Lazar walks the reader through a series of citizenship practices, some of which do not appear particularly likely to bring social justice to Bolivia. These include corruption and political clientelism, and talk surrounding it, in neighborhood associations (chapters 2 and 3); dance and alcoholic consumption as forms of creating spatially defined collectivities in religious festivals (chapters 4 and 5); the often selfish acts of leaders of merchants’ associations (chapter 6); and a clash between two competing groups for control over a fish market (chapter 7). Lazar makes the very valid point that it is in these contexts where Bolivians enact the styles of democracy that underlie Bolivian challenges to neoliberalism and economic globalization. Most of the citizenship practices Lazar describes will look familiar to observers of Bolivian public life across social, regional, and ethnic divisions. Lazar, however, presents them as specific to place and sociocultural background, a move that resonates with the tendency to erase social and historical contexts―such as the ones described by Postero and Goodale―that might dilute the coherence of the challenge mounted by what the book title introduces as the “rebel city.”

All three books conclude with an attempt to explain and contextualize the rise of Morales and the social movements. In all cases, however, the underlying fieldwork was carried out before 2005, the year of Morales's first election. Consequently, none of the three books accounts for the first years of the Morales government, and for the transformations in the articulation of civil society and the state that these may have brought about. As ethnographic documents that add depth and refinement to our understanding of the restive first years of the 21st century in Bolivia, the three books are invaluable. In their theoretical contributions to the topics of citizenship and the relation between rights and culture, they will be of interest to a wide range of scholars concerned with the global dissemination of liberalism, civil rights, and democracy.

Tobias Reu completed his PhD at the Department of Anthropology at New York University. His research interests lie at the intersection of expressive culture, narrative theory, democracy, and civil society, and he has conducted extensive fieldwork with the folkloric confraternities of the religious festival of Urqupiña in Quillacollo, Bolivia. In present-day Bolivia, political participation of the masses is generally identified as the domain of the so-called social movements representing marginalized sectors of society. However, dancing confraternities provide a symbolically and economically salient field of activity in which Bolivians from many different walks of life participate. Reu's work aims at elucidating the political practices of Bolivian mainstream society, and at providing an ethnographic contribution to the theorization of civil society.