With the world record in coup d'états[i] and a modern history of revolution and repeated uprisings it can also too easy to dismiss Bolivia not only as a recent state in crisis, but an insurgent state in terms of its long history of political unrest. Earlier writing on the country even goes as far as suggesting that rebellion is embedded, cyclical and perhaps even embodied, in the ‘veins' of the country's political history, culture and society. Over the last five years international news coverage of the country has focused on nationwide protests, blockades and the militant ousting of two national presidents. Recent academic work on the country from across the social sciences highlight cycles of protest, ‘jammed democracy' and enduring processes of ‘forced negotiation' as symptomatic of Bolivia's hyper-active civil society. However, whereas there can be little doubt to the insurgent nature of Bolivia's politics, recent events and processes in the country also highlight that whilst enduring, this nature is not static or entirely representative of the country's political culture. Following years of protest, national elections in 2005 resulted in the election of a representative of the country's previously marginalised indigenous population as President, and a broadly approved legal and liberal democratic process introduced to reform the Bolivian state and constitution. In a country, renowned for rebellion, there are thus consistent signs of respect for a democratic rule of law, a liberal constitution and a desire in a period of post-crisis to press through reform, rather than revolt against the structures of the nation-state.
In this chapter, I study the background to this apparent contradiction and trace and discuss the opportunities and constraints produced by recent efforts to create a new constitution in a state of enduring insurgency. I will focus specifically on the significance of recent constitutional processes for Bolivia's largely indigent and previously politically marginalised majority indigenous population. These are processes of reform that have created as much division as they have inclusion, and as such the essay attempts to respond to the question: What value does constitutionalism have for legal empowerment in a persisting context of ‘insurgency'? I describe and consider the manner in which the country's plurality has become a part of the national political identity and an integral part of the constitutional process. Whilst far from free from controversy or opposition, I argue that important lessons - about the possibilities for the empowerment of the poor and acceptance of a place for plurality in law - can be learned from this important case study. With its history of insurgency and constitutionalism, but also of indigenous cultures, the case of Bolivia tests the limits of standardised approaches to development and legal empowerment. I also draw attention to the cultural pliability of ideas about democracy and the inevitability in Bolivia of a rapprochement between formalized legal norms and alternative legal systems. The chapter further highlights the validity of academic insights that highlight the social construction of state institutions and structures and the need to redraw definitions of a social pact. Drawing from an empirical base of anthropological study and historical reflection the chapter aims to contribute to recent discussions about pro-poor policy, highlighting the contradictions and possibilities of multi-culturalism and questioning the relevance and applicability of ideas of good governance.
[i] There were 157 coups between 1825 and 1982.
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