In Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America, indigenous peoples have sought greater inclusion and more rights and freedoms for many decades. While it appears that they have been somewhat successful in doing so, in reality, their lives have not changed much. Political promises to act on their behalf have not been honoured and they remain excluded and marginalized. The link between poverty and being indigenous persists. In this article, Alvaro Deuer Cenzano, ISS 2018-2019 Alumni, shows why it’s important to study the role of elites in perpetuating these social injustices, arguing that the instrumental use of ethnic discourses to win elections may be strongly contributing.
In the past few decades, more attention has been paid to the plight of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, which form a significant part of its total population. This emerged following several global developments, including the United Nations’ approval in 1989 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples under the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (no. 169). And so, after years of discussing the rights of indigenous people, in 1995, the Bolivian Congress approved a Constitutional reform that redefined its state as a “pluricultural and multi-ethnic republic”. At that time, the country’s Constitution was considered progressive in that it recognized the importance of the indigenous population, and other countries in Latin America such as Ecuador followed suit.
While this Constitution meant the official recognition of Bolivia’s multi-ethnic and pluricultural society and the expansion of indigenous people rights, it did not make provision for territorial self-government, however. In other words, government policies in the 1990s failed to enact the territorial autonomy that was desired.
This observation prompted me to ask why proposed policies and the realities of indigenous peoples remain misaligned. As a Bolivian, I have witnessed promises being made by political elites while campaigning, their coming to power by claiming to represent the indigenous population, and their failure to act on their promises once they assumed office. Yet they retain power despite not delivering on their promises.
The need to understand how and why this is happening prompted me to register for a PhD study at the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya University. Last month, I managed to successfully present my research proposal titled ‘The instrumentalization of indigenous discourse as a political strategy to win elections’. Through my PhD research, I want to explain how the discourses that political elites use in representing indigenous populations help maintain their power. The study will focus on Bolivia, but its theoretical framework can be applied to other Latin-American countries where significant segments of the population self-identify as indigenous (e.g. Guatemala, Chile, Colombia, and Peru), as well as to European countries that have undergone ethnic wars linked to nationalist sentiments driven by the discourses of political elites.
Several people tried to convince me to choose a different topic, one linked to my work experience, for example in the fields of territorial planning, health governance, or even decentralized governance. In this article, I will explain why I decided to stick to this topic and what I’m planning to do.
Discourses, discrepancies, and disillusionment
For most of the 197 years since its independence from Spain, Bolivia has been governed mainly by political parties comprising representatives drawn from white or mestizo (mixed) ethnic groups. In this period, the rights of indigenous people were neither recognized, nor assured.
Things seemed to improve when the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS – Movement for Socialism) came to power in 2005 with the support of social movements and the votes of indigenous people. Among its first measures was to convene a Constitutional Assembly that dealt with the indigenous demand for autonomy, self-determination, and self-government. And thus, in 2009, the new Constitution granted indigenous people territorial self-government rights. They were also assigned a number of other political, economic, linguistic, and democratic rights.
Moreover, to keep the support of social movements, it combined indigenous and peasant identity categories, giving rise to the Autonomias Indigena Originario Campesinas (AIOC – Native Indigenous Peasant Autonomies), the second layer of Bolivian local governments. This would allow indigenous communities to become autonomous governments given the fulfillment of requisites overseen by the Bolivian Electoral Court and the Vice Ministry of Autonomies.
However, despite the government’s acknowledgment of indigenous people’s desire to rule their own territories, at present, only six indigenous territories have become AIOCs. Given that indigenous self-government constitutes the core of indigenous movements’ demands made to the Constitutional Assembly, a faster implementation of it would have been envisioned, which goes hand in hand with MAS power consolidation. This has raised questions about MAS’s commitment to indigenous struggles and principles despite its strong claims to represent the country’s indigenous population.
Conceptually linking ethnic and populist discourses
I therefore seek to analyze how marginalized groups’ demands for self-government, specifically the demands of indigenous peoples, are used by political elites to consolidate their hegemony and as a strategy to obtain electoral success. I believe that this results in societal polarization based on a process of ethnic identification (‘us’ vs. ‘the others’). While indigenous discourses allow so-called ethnic parties to succeed in the electoral arena, it likely also leads to the appearance (or deepening) of populist leadership traits, which represents a hazard to the consolidation of democracy. All in all, I hope to identify the mechanisms that enable ethnic parties to swing toward the populist side of an ethno-populist pendulum and its effect on the consolidation of democratic institutions.
 In 2021, Bolivia ranked second in Latin America when it comes to the percentage of people who claimed to be indigenous, with 41% of the total population self-identifying as such (Statista, 2022). The two biggest indigenous groups, the Quechuas and Aymaras, together represent just under 82% of the country’s indigenous population, comprising together 34% – or around one-third – of Bolivia’s total population.
 In the last years, Bolivia’s corruption perception index has worsened despite every candidate’s promise to fight corruption (Fides, 2022).
 Indigenous groups started to develop their own current of thought in Bolivia in the early 1970s when they realized that mainstream politics of the time used them and that Marxist parties were factually rendering them invisible. Thus, in the late 1980s, the first indigenous political parties were formed and started to participate in national elections, obtaining minor victories (Madrid, 2012)
 MAS was created in 1995 as a political instrument of different indigenous and peasants’ organizations, the latter with a strong union tradition, to access spaces of political power, initially at the local level and later, given its electoral success, on a national scale. (Valdivia, 2016, pág. 24).
 See Articles 30 – 32 of the current Constitution (Plurinational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia, 2009).
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About the author:
Alvaro Deuer Cenzano is a Business Administrator and Political Scientist with 10 + years of professional experience in public policy implementation in local development, territorial and institutional planning, and comparative research in decentralization, public finance, education, and ethnic politics. Currently, pursuing a Ph.D. in Development Studies at Nagoya University and looking for opportunities to expand his networks and join Think Tanks or NGO industries in the development and public policy-related areas.
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