The latest controversy in Bolivia pitting Evo & Costas (the opposition/regionalist governor of Santa Cruz) is over style masquerading as substance. This Friday is 6 de Agosto, Bolivia’s national holiday. Instead of celebrating the event in La Paz (the political capital) or Sucre (the historical/constitutional capital), Evo’s government has decided to hold the official national ceremony in Santa Cruz. The dilemma, then, was over the use of the wiphala : whether or not it should be raised & whether or not it represents all Bolivians.
Clearly, this is a conflict between (at least) two distinct visions of the new Bolivia that haven’t been reconciled.
On the one hand, the wiphala is now officially recognized as an official national emblem in the new constitution. (In fact, the new policy/military uniforms combine the tricolor & the wiphala.) In that sense, then, Bolivia has two flags, which should be raised together at formal state events.
On the other hand, the wiphala is am emblem whose problems are rarely acknowledged. Contrary to popular belief, the wiphala is not the flag of “ethnic peoples” in the Andes: It is specifically the flag of the Aymara communities. Moreover, historically there was more than one wiphala: Different ayllus or regions used different patterns to distinguish themselves. Thus, the Bolivian wiphala is not truly a “National” symbol, but rather the symbol of a particular ethnic group (which makes up about 25-30% of the total population)—and it is only one specific design of the wiphala. In that sense, then, the wiphala doesn’t serve well as a unifying national emblem (particularly if it’s not acknowledged by a regionally concentrated minority), especially in a region not typically associated w/ the emblem’s historical legacy.
This means that both Evo & Costas have a point. Costas is right to suggest out that Evo is using the event to stir up conflict by appealing to his Andean base—otherwise the whole issue could’ve been sidestepped by holding the official celebration in either Sucre or La Paz (as by tradition). But Evo is also right to insist that the wiphala is a constitutionally recognized national symbol & refusing to raise it is a form of anti-indigenous (or anti-Andean) prejudice meant to appeal to a regionalist electorate—otherwise Costas could sidestep the whole issue & just raise the thing (what harm would come of it?).
The underlying problem, however, is that despite nearly two years hammering out a new constitution to “refound” the nation, no such thing happened. Instead, the 2009 constitution was grafted onto previous constitutions (despite a large number of controversial changes, the overall spirit & substance of the document is in line w/ the evolution of the 1967 constitution as revised in 1994 & 2004).
When Evo was elected, many made comparisons between him & Mandela. In part by making the analogy that Bolivia was an “apartheid” state like pre-1994 South Africa (which is a poor analogy that shows no understanding of what Apartheid really was & how it differs from social discrimination). But some of Mandela’s greatest successes were symbolic. We’re all familiar w/ the story of the Springboks. But a more remarkable—and lasting—symbolic change has to do w/ South Africa’s post-1994 flag. As a way of “refounding” their country, South Africans didn’t simply introduce a second, “African” flag to go along w/ the old one—they developed a whole new flag. The current South African flag incorporates various elements of the country’s cultural legacies, without privileging any particular one.
Bolivians had a chance to do likewise—at least if they truly wanted to do a “refounding” exercise. And it wouldn’t have been unprecedented. Between 1826 & 1851, the country had four different flags. The country has also had three different shields of arms (the most recent design was introduced in 1888 & was modified in 2004). Instead, the new constitution merely tacked on another item to the list of patriotic symbols—w/o clearly specifying if it was on equal terms to the national flag or not (the list of patriotic symbols also includes the kantuta & patujú flowers, but it’s unlikely anyone will insist that it be present at official events). Too bad. This just means there’ll be more symbolic conflicts as identity politics continues to dominate contemporary Bolivia.