The Dilemma of Plurinationality in Bolivia and Latin America

Ideas and discourse are crucial in politics. In some cases, they explain a pre-existing reality; therefore, they need to explain it correctly. In other cases, ideas and discourse pre-exist reality and create it, so it is desirable that they produce realities beneficial to the general interest. But ideas and discourses taken to certain extremes are dangerous since they tend to clash with reality, which is almost always more elastic and heterogeneous than the rigid ideological molds to which they try to submit. And the danger is even greater when, before this clash, those fighting for power seek to impose ideology over reality. If the imposition of a major ideology is a conflictive phenomenon, let alone when it is a malnourished ideology.

The plurinational character of Bolivia is an ideological creation. Attention: it is neither more nor less than the unity of the Bolivian nation. Put in postmodern terms, both are social constructions. Unless a blood test of the inhabitants of Bolivia detects genes different from those of the rest of humanity, we will have to accept that their nationality (whether uni- or pluri-) is a category with arbitrary borders, drawn by the human mind. These are boundaries that can change and, in fact, often do.

Up to this point, there is nothing different from what is happening in the rest of the world. The differences begin when we see that it is a messianic plurinational ideology full of loopholes. Messianic because happiness is expected from it as if it were the arrival of the Messiah. Rather, certain political and social leaders have promised the people that plurinationality would be the panacea. Therefore, it is placed everywhere as an amulet. It is enough to review the Bolivian Constitution of 2009 to find a Plurinational State, Plurinational Government, Plurinational Legislative Assembly, Plurinational Constitutional Court, Plurinational Electoral Body, Plurinational identities, Plurinational diversity, Plurinational conscience of the people, Plurinational character of the ministerial cabinet… Like King Midas, plurinationality turns everything it touches into gold.

On the other hand, it is full of gaps because the Bolivian theory of plurinationality, since it appeared at the beginning of 1980 until now, has not managed to overcome certain contradictions nor has it established a series of solid bases with basic definitions. Without going any further, such theory has not explained the difference between a nation and a nationality, between an ethnic group and a people. It has not explained why some communities belong to a certain category and other collectivities to another. And this is not a minor issue: their status as a nation is what would (supposedly) grant them the right to self-determination. That is to say, it would have relevant legal and political consequences.

In fact, on this point the defenders of Bolivian plurinationality fall into the same error as the Catalan pro-independence supporters: they insist on justifying that their communities constitute a nation and that this nature confers on them the right to self-determination. However, the United Nations Charter does not speak of the self-determination of nations, but of peoples. With this in mind, perhaps it would be better for them to focus on other, more profitable goals and abandon the mantra of the nation, which is as sounding as it is useless.

Last March 29, the Bolivian Government approved Supreme Decree N. 4900 “approving the Manual of Use of the Commemorative Mark of the Bicentennial of the Plurinational State of Bolivia”. Thus, it insists on the use that came from Law No. 1347, of 2020: Law of the Bicentennial of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Bicentennial of the Plurinational State? Wasn’t it established in 2009?

One might think that the drafters of these texts have gotten out of hand with their enthusiasm for plurinationalizing everything. However, this is where the contradictions inherent to any ideology and the clashes with reality come into play. First, the body in charge of organizing the festivities is called National Council, and the guidelines it is to follow constitute the National Strategic Plan. Suddenly, plurinationality disappears, without knowing very well why the Council and the Plan are not plurinational.

Secondly, the bicentennial celebrations offer a scenario that it would be very difficult for any ruler to renounce. Not even if, as in the case of Bolivia, it means celebrating the birth of a European-style republic, which in many aspects adopted the institutional model of the United States, the bête noire of plurinational anti-imperialism. (It is interesting to ask, for example, why plurinational Bolivia today still has a president and a vice-president: these are not institutions copied from Aymara institutionalism, precisely).

This celebration implies celebrating the birth of a republic whose name was erased by the Plurinational Constitution of 2009, because “republic” connoted the oppression of the native peoples. The Republic was oppression, the plurinational state is dignity. But the plurinational State is only 14 years old, while the republic is about to turn 200. Undoubtedly, 200 has more grandeur than 14 years.

King Midas also turned the food he tried to put in his mouth into gold. Dead of hunger and thirst, he begged Dionysus for help, who had given him such power.

In 2022, Chile overwhelmingly rejected the Constituent proposal. One of the fundamental reasons was the plurinationality introduced by the text. Currently, the drafters of a new Constitution are engaged in the task of saving the (pluri)national issue in its draft. In the meantime, the Diaguitas are demanding Argentina recognize itself as plurinational. On the other side of the world, Australia is preparing a referendum to introduce in the Constitution an advisory body to give voice to Aboriginal communities. Nothing about plurinationality. It is not that the Australian option is better: what is relevant is that it indicates that there are other ways to address a similar claim. The imitation of plurinationality is tempting but dangerous: like any imitation, it announces cutting clashes between ideas, discourse, and reality.

Dionysus instructed Midas to wash in the river Pactolus. When he touched it, the river filled with gold nuggets.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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