Bolivia’s Literate Political Culture

While sitting in the midst of the massive coca chew-in in Cochabamba’s central square, the overwhelming mass of people was cris-crossed by two types of vendors: sellers of cloths on which to dry coca leaves, and a ubiquitous Bolivian sight, the hawkers of copies of new laws recently passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. The hot seller of the day was last year’s Law 045, the Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination.

Bolivian laws are a widely circulated commodity. Newspapers, both broadsheet and tabloid, publish copies of both draft laws and their final versions as free supplements. Wednesday’s Los Tiempos had the draft statute of autonomy for Cochabamba Department stuck in alongside the sports and fashion sections. On the streets of downtown La Paz, Cochabamba, or Potosí, you can buy bound versions of all the major laws in Bolivia—the laws on criminal procedure, the labor code, and indigenous legal process, for instance—at all the main newsstands. Just by attending social movement conferences, I’ve accumulated three bound copies of the 2009 Constitution.

And that Constitution is surely the most cited text at Bolivian political rallies. You can count on the text of the constitution being referenced (though rarely directly quoted) when a series of political speakers lines up. Always referred by its formal name, the [New] Political Constitution of the State, it is a touchstone of legitimacy for protesters. It comes up as much as the so-called October Agenda, the combined political demands embodied in the 2003 Gas War, the first protests to topple a neoliberal government.

So, it was most surprising to read how America’s diplomats think about Bolivia’s political literacy, as revealed by the Wikileaks release of cables:

Although the opposition is making a mighty effort across the country to rally against the constitution, the forces of inertia seem to be conspiring against them, particularly in the form of a largely uneducated rural base in the Altiplano. Leading daily La Razon interviewed several community leaders from the Altiplano, and their supporters, and reported on January 18 that neither the leaders nor the supporters had read the Constitution.  Instead, the repeated message was that rural communities would take their marching orders from the MAS, and vote for the constitution. … In the countryside, the number of those reading the constitution is much lower.  Post suspects disinterest, blind faith in Evo Morales’ political project, and illiteracy, despite the Cuban literacy program, all play a role. (Cable 09LAPAZ96)

While the length of the new Constitution—literally hundreds of articles—no doubt limited the number of people who read it through, it’s clear that American diplomats have yet to clue in on Bolivia’s grassroots political culture. No one who has sat through a campesino rally, or the well-attended presentations on technical details of pensions or gas production, or who even sat with coca chewers ready and willing to buy the new anti-racism law, could look down so easily on alleged popular ignorance.

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