Saturday, May 03, 2008

An Apartheid for All Seasons: Bolivia and its Autonomy Movements

Almost 2,500 years ago Thucydides reminded us, in describing a bitter intra-ethnic way among the Greeks, that even the most powerful and evocative political terms, could be so stretched and distorted as to lose all meaning.
"Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. . . . "
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War Book III, Chp. X, 189-190 (John H. Findley, Jr., Trans., New York: Modern Library Editions, 1951).

I was reminded of this passage this week in reading the well spun article describing the current state of inter and intra ethnic politics in Bolivia from an establishment newspaper in the West. Both sought to empower their description by invocation of a word that, through these sorts of invocations, seems to have lost all meaning--or acquired a number of interesting meaning. That word is apartheid. Apartheid, itself, has had something of a curious history. Apartheid was once a descriptor of a very particular political culture created by the minority European-origin settler population of what became the Republic of South Africa, the term has morphed into a substantially more elastic concept. Yet, though its meaning has become dynamic, there has been an equally strong effort to keep the original level of opprobrium generated by its original application in South Africa. Apartheid, then, has changed from a description of a particular historically embedded system of governance, to a judgment that a particular set of uses of state power are always illegitimate. That judgment has been fashioned into international law binding on (willing) states. See United Nations (30 November). International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. An even more expansive understanding of actions constituting apartheid international criminal law binding on individuals and other organs against which state power can be asserted. See Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (defining the crime of apartheid).

But the term has also escaped its limits as a legal or historical term. It has come to mean any form of institutionalized race segregation. See Merriam Webster. More, it has come to mean any sort of segregation by a characteristic deemed suspect--and that list is growing. Anything from social or economic class, religion, ethnicity, to age and the like might, if the system for segregation on the basis thereof is sufficiently institutionalized (de facto or de jure), qualify as apartheid. In this popular sense, though, the word loses much of its power to describe a set of actions universally condemned in the current era. Ironically, though, the institutionalization of a legal structure of condemnation of a more precisely understood version might tend to conflate the moral horror of the South African race experience with situations substantially more benign. Worse, perhaps, it can be used as a sort of accusatory name calling to achieve specific political ends. Apartheid is thus now history, international legal obligation, universal criminal activity, and calumny. And effectively manipulative calumny at that--an accusation with all of the heat of awful historical practice and the weight of legal condemnation, but without the niceties of specificity, proof or a necessary conformity to the precise meaning of the term in law. Apartheid, in this sense, serves as a political tool, rather than as either a description or a judgment. It is meant to sway the passions and shut down reason. It legitimates the actions of the mob without the niceties of the process or judgment of law. Apartheid as calumny appears sometimes more powerful than either if only because it escapes the burden of accountability and the discipline of reason.

The story takes us to Bolivia, a country that has seen its share of invasions and ethnic struggles for dominance since well before the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century. The current version of that struggle divides the Bolivians along race, ethnic, religious and language lines. Each of these groups then struggle for control of the apparatus of the state for the purpose of gaining access to the power to distribute the country's wealth and to to set the dominant tone for the constitution of Bolivian culture. For a long time, the settler population maintained a constant dominance--sometimes aided by its mestizo elements, and sometimes not. Since the election of Evo Morales, however, indigenous peoples have sought the upper hand. This has led to the proposed adoption of a new constitution. See Larry Catá Backer,Democracy Part VII: Constitutionalism and Indigenous Peoples in the Bolivian Constitution, Law at the End of the Day, December 9, 2007. It now lead to the counter-thrust by the old elites and their allies--an autonomy movement designed to limit the power of the indigenous dominated central government to reach to local affairs. Autonomy movements, in themselves, have been quite useful to the left, and appear to be denounced only when the people seeking it are more distasteful to taste makers. See Larry Catá Backer, Kosovo: A Threat to China and Russia; a Great Benefit to Israel, Law at the End of the Day, March 14, 2008. For this purpose, the assertion of apartheid is meant to have an effect similar to the old blood libel against the People of Israel--it is meant to rouse fury and deaden the intellect in the service of the object for which it was deployed.

The article purported to report on the tense political situation in Bolivia, where elites representing a variety of social, ethnic, religious and class elements have been seeking to rework the national arrangement of power dispersion since the election of Evo Morales. See Rory Carroll and Andres Schipani, Revolt Against the Peasant President, The Guardian, May 4, 2008. The authors reported on current efforts to thwart the Bolivian central government's efforts to shift power to certain indigenous elements, in part, through a radical change in the Bolivian Constitution, by securing autonomy for the less indigenous (and richer) Santa Clara region of the country. The efforts for autonomy in Santa Cruz is reported in negative terms. First the set up:
The tide of left-wing and indigenous movements sweeping to power across South America is about to hit a wall of resistance. In country after country the old order has collapsed, ending decades, and in some cases centuries, of rule by white elites. Their time is supposed to be up. Santa Cruz, however, did not get the memo.
Id. The region is described as a "wealthy lowland region" that is seeking to repudiate the leftist agenda of the Bolivian central government, "the so-called "pink tide." Id. There is a sense of bathos in the description of those behind the autonomy move.
"The insurgents are a coalition of rich ranchers, establishment politicians, right-wing militias and ordinary voters. They want to defend Santa Cruz's economic interests - its cattle, soy crops and gas reserves account for almost 30 per cent of GDP - as well as a sense of identity at odds with indigenous political ascendancy."
Id. These people, the reporters tell us, are engaging in an "an audacious - and illegal - challenge to Evo Morales." Id. And then the climax of condemnation, placed in the mouth of a foreigner involving himself and his organization.
Others see less noble motives for the initiative. 'Bolivia essentially used to function as an apartheid state, and the psychology of the elite is very defensive,' said Jim Shultz, director of the Democracy Centre, a Cochabamba-based think-tank sympathetic to government aims.
Id. This notion is elaborated by a member of Morales' government:
Until a 1952 revolution, indigenous people were not allowed near the presidential palace in La Paz, let alone to vote, and their empowerment under Morales has discomfited many pale-skinned Bolivians. 'Racism and exclusion is a part of this autonomy process,' said Gabriela Montano, the President's envoy to Santa Cruz. In a recent interview her boss was more forthright: 'They do not accept a peasant and an indigenous person as a President of the republic.'
Id. The Los Angeles Times version of these events, more discrete, also noted the core issues of assimilation and the fight for control of the cultural foundations of Bolivia--to establish the dominant foundations for Bolivian culture, language, politics, etc. "Each side has accused the other of recklessly dealing the race card. Morales calls himself a champion of indigenous rights, but critics here say he is fostering a volatile struggle of race and class in South America's poorest nation." Patrick J. McDonnell, In Bolivia Autonomy Vote Deepens Divisions, Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2008. Still, the underlying objective was hard to hide: there can be only one dominant group to serve as the normative standard in Bolivia --as tolerant as it might be of others.

Racism, exclusion, apartheid. The connection from one to the others is easy enough to build. Time is both of the essence and non-linear. 1952 was yesterday. But who is doing what to whom? And is the measuring stick for the legitimacy of what is done today that which was done yesterday? It seems that the answer is laced with irony. The response to this challenge from the reactionary forces of the indigenous central government in Santa Cruz is both simple and effective: "several thousand government supporters have converged on Santa Cruz in the past 48 hours, vowing to disrupt a referendum they view as an attempt to destabilise their champion in La Paz." Id. See also, Cortes de ruta contra el referéndum separatista en la zona más rica de Bolivia, La Nación, May 4, 2008 (" Santa Cruz, la próspera región boliviana que hoy realiza un referendo autonómico, amaneció con cortes de rutas en poblados aledaños en rechazo a la polémica consulta tras una noche de rumores sobre ocupación militar, que resultaron falsos").

Apartheid? The autonomy proponents--white, mestizo and wealthy for the most part suggest that their actions are grounded in economics and local control over resources. These are also great objectives of progressives--especially when the objects of these efforts are indigenous or populations more easily influenced by the international community and its values. The autonomy opponents--indigenous, dependent and poor see this in race and ethnic terms. But also in terms of power. Having gone to all that effort to wrest power from the European and mestizo elements of Bolivian society at the national level it seems that the fruits of their victory will be snatched through a political device once valued for its use in aiding powerless subordinated groups. The irony runs deep.

But there is more. The autonomy movement also has been condemned by leftist foreign states, with a deliberate reference to Kosovo--"Chavez has labeled Bolivia's autonomy vote "Operation Kosovo," referring to the breakaway former province of Serbia. He and Cuba's Fidel Castro have said Bolivia faces a grave danger of breakup." Patrick J. McDonnell, In Bolivia Autonomy Vote Deepens Divisions, Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2008. Kosovo reminds the builders of multi-ethnic states from out of the detritus of empires and colonial adventurism that an alternative to living together is living apart. Those who hold power in the remnants of these failed experiments in imperialism and boundary drawing face the need to acknowledge the reality of a necessary vertical relationship among communities making up a state, especially in the current anti-assimilationist climate. Some groups will be subordinated to the dominant elements of the social order and that subordination will be expressed in politics. At the same time, because of the nature of 19th century state creation, many subordinated groups live in a coherent territory. The same forces that produced Czechoslovakia from out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 20th century, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia out of Czechoslovakia at the end of that century, has become a stronger force in the 21st century. Charges of apartheid, thus, is a sword that can as easily plunge into the heart of multi-ethnic multi-racial states, as it is a weapon for controlling taboo behavior within states.

Bolivia presents a glimpse at a possible future for the conduct of politics in multi ethnic and multi racial states. This is a future in which apartheid plays a part. It is also a future in which clarity becomes a more difficult condition to maintain. And the utility of apartheid shrinks as a useful and effective international tool of control of state power wrongly used.

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