Episode 5 (June 2020): Mareike Winchell on Indigenous Citizenship and Political Action in Bolivia


This is entreVistas, chat about Latin American politics, culture and history. Featuring faculty, students and visitors at the Center for Latin American Studies at The University of Chicago.

Bolivia’s 1953 agrarian reform law saw to disperse land ownership, break up large holdings, and abolish unpaid labor. What followed—when high expectations were confronted with the limits of what the government would achieve—helps explain the skepticism of indigenous agriculturists toward ongoing efforts at land reform led by Evo Morales today. In this episode of entreVistas CLAS MA alum Ámber Miranzo and Mareike Winchell, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, discuss Winchell’s research in Bolivia, where she studies questions of indigeneity and governance and how histories of agrarian servitude have shaped the terms of citizenship and political inclusion in the present. These topics are explored in her book project, “After Servitude: Indigenous Critique and the Undoing of Property in Bolivia.”

Ámber Miranzo: Mareike Winchell, good morning.

Mareike Winchell: Good morning.

One of the key moments to understand your research is the abolition of forced labor through the agrarian reform in 1953, after the socialist revolution of Bolivia. In the province of Ayopaya, where you base your fieldwork, what changed with the abolition, and what did not?

Great. Thank you. Broadly put, in the course of my research, I found that this year—1953—kept on coming up again and again. And the ways that this came up as part of Quechua-speaking agriculturalist in central Bolivia where I work. The phrase that was used was ñawpaqpi, that means before or in the time before, and it was opposed to kunandia, these days, or tiempo de libertad, the time of liberty. At the beginning of my research, I learned that there was something about 1953 and that moment that was really a key event for my Quechua-speaking informants. I take this date as a broader heuristic for understanding transformations in national statecraft as well as rural Quechua political experience.

In my work, I focus in particular on what we can think of as the affective or emotive resonances of this moment, understood as one of a promised historical rupture and world overturning. But I also look at the ways that those expectations confront limits in terms of the transformation of everyday life in the countryside. And I also look at the ways that rural disappointment with the failures or inefficacy of this earlier moment of reform color contemporary Quechua approaches to recent political events following the election of Evo Morales in 2006.

Of course, part of the 1953 reform was the abolition of unpaid labor within these regional hacienda states. At that time, there was also universal suffrage, voting rights, but despite those promises and the subsequent redistribution of land that followed, there was a great deal of disappointment in the countryside. Today people see a familiar pattern in which ostensibly change gives way to the tenacious duration of earlier structures of indigenous disposition and political marginality. In my work, I look at how this has produced a great deal of ambivalence and skepticism toward the current Movimiento al Socialismo [MAS], or Movement toward Socialism party, which Evo Morales leads.

Continuing that, the very question of change is really tricky because it’s so politicized. It’s part of a political logic, part of a political promise. For the MAS party in power at this time in Bolivia, the key policy is the process of cambio, the process of change. That change is promised as a sort of key decolonizing device, but in the absence of the ability to transform entirely to upend these entrenched patterns of economic disparity and political marginality, the legitimacy of that very nationalist project is tenuous, it has waned.

During fieldwork, this is something that arose in a common refrain that people would say to me. Rhetorically they would say, mixing Spanish and Quechua, ¿Donde es el cambio?—where is the change?—and they would answer themselves and say manakanchi, there is none. Talk of change, its absence or its failure, its partiality, became a way to sort of register broader skepticism concerning state projects.

What do patronage relationships consist of and how can they help us understand current social conflict in the area?

On the one hand, it’s hard to define or fix patronage as such. But, in the Ayopaya case, I examine patronazgo as a set of exchange relations both among former hacienda landlords who were called patrones, or bosses, and Quechua villagers, and among villagers and patron saints. So there are these two ways that the figure of the patron and of patronage arise.

I look at the ways that these relations—particularly of the distribution of money, food, clothing, adoption, godparenting—these are all things that are folded into what I call patronage or patronazgo. I look at these relations in terms of their orientation by specific ideals of authority and honor. These conceptions of authority or honor rely very much on a recognition of differences in resources and life possibilities. It’s not that people expect there to be equality in these relations, but rather that they really ponder status as a constitutive dimension of people’s lives and ask what that demands of specific subjects.

In terms of understanding current social conflict, it’s interesting because we tend to think about political and economic conflicts, particularly among indigenous peoples, in terms of inequality or the failure to have an autonomous political organization. But in the Ayopaya case there have been many social conflicts that actually hinge on the reverse. They have to do with cases in which elite groups refuse to engage these earlier patronage relations and, in particular, I look at new economies of gold extraction.

Instead of thinking of patronage or patronazgo as a feudal holdover that comes from the past, I look at the ways that it operates as a domain of claim-making that rests on specific conceptions of authority and that maintains a hold in the present, even in a place that has been deeply sympathetic to Evo Morales’s decolonizing reform agenda. I am interested in patronage as a domain of claim-making that not only persists accidentally but is also renewed and extended to subjects who never experienced the hacienda themselves. In this regard, patronage arises as one element in a broader story that conflicts with a more monolithic account…something like neoliberalism or late capitalism. Can we think of patronage as it suggests the multiplicity of the economic present?

What happens when elites refuse to participate in these relations?

In my own research, there have been two sorts of entailments. The first is that the legitimacy of authority itself degrades and this shouldn’t be surprising. It’s been key to Frantz Fanon’s work on racialized formations of hierarchy. There’s a way in which authority is contingent upon its interplay with the oppressed, as it were. In the cases that I examine there is a way in which certain elites, if they refuse to engage in these patronage relationships, their very status and economic arrangements become subject to critique.

In my own work, I look at a case in 2012 where a new gold mine owner refused to uphold some of the expectations of an older system of agrarian patronage. For instance, giving people rides in his truck, or paying for electricity or water turbine. In that case, there was a mass labor protest and people blocked roads and would not allow him to enter and also undertook a very involved process of legal contestation in which there were denuncios, or public denunciations, and legal petitions were filed. Eventually, that mining owner left the region and did not continue to work there. I think this is important as it reminds us that conflict does not arise only from extraction as such but from extraction that lacks a certain texture or form that groups expect of it in this region.

There’s really a system of legitimacy that exceeds that of governmental recognition of property rights. To hold formal property is very different to being able to operate a mine and operating a mine relies upon certain relations of exchange or holding certain relations of exchange. This teaches us something about power. Power is not just given, implemented, or claimed, or inhabited. Power is vulnerable to this relational dynamic and, in the absence of these specific practices, it can also be undone or be made unsteady or tenuous.

With this case of patronage relations and economies of obligation, how does this case surpass more common ways of understanding power inequality?

Put simply, the case in Ayopaya in particular and the conflicts that have arisen with the absence of patronage obligation really ask us to suspend the presumption of an exemplary equality that precedes subjects or society. This idea has a long historical trajectory about the notion of natural equality within a European political tradition of liberalism. But this case suggests that assuming people’s equality constrains our understanding of how people can maneuver within lives that are constitutively unequal. People are very much aware of hierarchy as a defining quality of everyday life, instead of seeing inequality as a perversion from a natural condition that should be more egalitarian.

I think the interlocutors with whom I worked in Ayopaya have asked me to take serious inequality as it opens up new forms of political and ethical action. As you mentioned just now, it’s precisely elites, who do not wish to engage with their impoverished neighbors, who are most likely to invoke a language of equality or of citizens’ rights per se. “We’re equals, we’re both citizens, what do I owe you.” In a sense the fact that scholarly discourses of equality parallel these elite refusals accounts for some of the sufferings of impoverished Quechua groups. That very fact suggests to me a shortcoming in our analytic categories, so I am really trying to linger with other orientations to power and to inequality in which elites— and I take that term broadly to mean not only mine owners in Bolivia but also ostensibly global elites like ourselves as scholars in the United States— might be refracted or affected by certain demands or notions of obligation that ask us to destabilize our own conceptions of equality.

I think particularly in Bolivia there’s a second component to this question about power and inequality, which is of course the long tradition of Marxist political thought and the ways that state socialism there since the 1940s has tended to dismiss and infantilize the poor and to understand particularly “peasants” as somehow lacking political consciousness or political agency. If we reconsider how people inhabit inequality without presuming the perversion or the ostensible lack of that category, new forms of political claim-making come into view. We then can talk in a more generous way about the texture of claim-making and political conflict and account for the political dimension of practices that are otherwise often dismissed as mere culture or seen as psychic oppression or false consciousness. I think it really demands of scholars a more generous engagement with questions of vulnerability and dispossession that recognizes the agentive workings of the ways people strive to inhabit inequality.

If we’re thinking now about the reforms that have happened in the twenty-first century by the government of Evo Morales, what effects have a land reform had on these relations and how have they taken into account these inequalities that are not just culture but also part of the social setting?

This is a complicated question. One the one hand, processes of land titling began in 1996 and were renewed by Evo Morales and his government, particularly in 2012 and since with a new land reform law. These efforts are aimed at redistributing land that has remained in the hands of certain elites who come from these hacienda landowning families. On the one hand, this agrarian reform program has sought to disrupt entrenched patterns of indigenous dispossession and economic marginality. But, in my work, I look at the ways in which there have also been unexpected effects of this agrarian reform agenda, which included the recalibration of existing orientations to questions of injustice in history.

For agrarian reformers, the patronage ties that I’ve been describing are very problematic because they are seen as holdovers of a colonial era that need to be uprooted, that need to be displaced. So in this regard, paradoxically, the contemporary reform which seeks to improve the lives of rural Quechua groups has also supplied support for certain elite’s refusal to engage these patronage demands.

More broadly I would say that this agrarian reform under Evo Morales belongs to a broader decolonizing government agenda which also institutionalizes the questions of justice in a new way. The question of how one should act in account of a violent past becomes a problem that the government promises to resolve, and increasingly the answer to that question becomes one of land ownership that is property. So there is a way in which this multitude of ethical orientation to past violence is converted partly into questions of property ownership, which can risk impoverishing a more robust conception of justice that people seem to be mobilizing and demanding on the ground, [as I witnessed] in the course of my own fieldwork.

Mareike Winchell, thank you for joining us today.

Thank you so much for having me.

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