New Norm on Human Rights Emerging in Bolivia

Posted: June 8, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: June 5, 2009 at 4:38 pm

By James Greif

Anthropologist Mark Goodale at a political rally in La Paz, Bolivia, with a condor mascot.

Anthropologist Mark Goodale with a condor mascot at a political rally in La Paz, Bolivia.

Mason anthropologist Mark Goodale has been studying human rights, culture and conflict in Bolivia for the past 13 years. His latest research looks at the political and social dynamics that led to the election of President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, and the writing of a new constitution that passed in January 2009.

Goodale states that Morales’s rise was made possible by the explosion of humans rights discourse in the mid- to late-1990s.

“I spent over a year in one of the most remote areas of the Bolivian Andes, walking from village to village watching and asking people how they resolve conflicts,” Goodale says. “I picked this area because it was remote, but I found that there were also a number of nongovernment organizations and international development agencies working in the area.”

Goodale says that the presence of these organizations indicates an increased focus on human rights in an expanded sense because the right to food and clean air and water would be classified as basic human rights in Bolivia.

An anti-American poster that hangs on the wall of a national teachers union reads "Bolivia will not be a hacienda of the gringos."

An anti-American poster that hangs on the wall of a national teachers union reads "Bolivia will not be a hacienda of the gringos."

With a 67 percent vote of confidence from an Aug. 10, 2008, recall vote to determine whether the president and regional governors should stay in office, Morales had the political clout to pass the new Bolivian constitution in January.

“There are deep levels of poverty and injustice in Bolivia, and to correct these historic conditions, the government determined that structural changes in the form of a new constitution were required,” Goodale says.

Goodale calls the new constitution the most radical and far-reaching constitution in the world in terms of human rights.

“Before 2009, I would say that the constitution of South Africa was the most radical [in terms of human rights] in the world,” he said during a recent interview with Radio New Zealand. “The new Bolivian constitution goes many steps further. It is filled with every international norm that exists and, perhaps we might say, that doesn’t exist. In fact, it introduces new norms, new human rights.”

Bolivia is South America’s poorest country and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere, according to the United Nations. The gross domestic product of the country is increasing because of oil and natural gas revenues, but there is an ongoing debate over how those revenues are used.

An antigovernment poster. Images courtesy of Mark Goodale

What Goodale calls "extraordinary antigovernment propaganda" in a central plaza in Santa Cruz. Images courtesy of Mark Goodale

Goodale notes that Morales has already created a wealth distribution fund for the elderly in Bolivia and is trying to create a wider social welfare model that is similar to the system enacted in Scandinavian countries in the 1970s, where national trust funds were created.

Currently, Goodale is conducting the first ethnographic stakeholder analysis of the key actors in the debate surrounding the constitution and present government policies. The actors include government officials, union leaders, students, indigenous leaders and right-wing and fringe neofascist groups in the eastern province of Santa Cruz.

“Much of Latin America is in the midst of a period of profound transition and uncertainty,” Goodale wrote in a recent newsletter of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at Mason. “The end of the Cold War dramatically changed an important geopolitical calculation: the role and influence of the United States in the region.”

Goodale urges the United States and other dominant countries to recognize that perceptions or fears of a communist Latin America might be out of date and that a new discourse of human rights is making such countries as Bolivia a laboratory for novel experiments in law, politics and multiculturalism.

Goodale is the author of “Dilemmas of Modernity: Bolivian Encounters with Law and Liberalism” (Stanford, 2008), a chronicle of the social and political revolution under way in contemporary Bolivia. His most recent book, “Surrendering to Utopia” (Stanford, 2009), discusses the underlying political and intellectual currents that have shaped social change and the role anthropology plays in legitimizing new human rights. His current research, Conflicting Perspectives on Social and Political Dynamics in Bolivia, is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Write to mediarel at