Academic journal article Ethnology

Political Institutions and the Evanescence of Power: Making History in Highland Bolivia

Academic journal article Ethnology

Political Institutions and the Evanescence of Power: Making History in Highland Bolivia

Article excerpt

The Bolivian Quechua community of Quirpini appears to be governed by a number of political institutions whose activities have little capacity for historically transformative action. An analysis of actions by each institution reveals that they either never mobilize people or are set up so that collective action is possible only with the assent and cooperation of the Spanish-speaking elite of the nearby regional capital. What appears to be Quirpini's system of self-governance is in practice the means by which the village is dominated. (Politics, Bolivia, power, mediation, action)

Until approximately 1984, the major political role of the kurajkuna (political authorities) of the indigenous Quechua community called Quirpini was to perform menial services for the leading officials in the town of San Lucas, the regional capital. Most of the authorities were required to go to town on a weekly basis to do tasks such as sweeping the mayor's patio, taking eggs to the authorities, and gathering and cutting firewood for them. One of the commonplaces of political anthropology about the Andes region is that a key, if not the central, role of communal authorities is to represent the community to those outside, particularly neighboring communities and to elements of the dominant Hispanic society and government (Abercrombie 1986; Rasnake 1988). Seen in this light, the services provided by the kurajkuna to the officials of San Lucas were not only perquisites enjoyed by members of the central town's Spanish-speaking elite, but an unmistakable representation of the subordination of Quirpini to San Lucas. By performing menial tasks and giving minor tribute to the authorities of San Lucas, the communal authorities were repeatedly concretizing, if not embodying, the submission of Quirpini to the regional center.

This was the state of affairs before a new priest was assigned to the San Lucas region in the early 1980s. He began a systematic program aimed to reduce the campesino(1) communities' subservience to San Lucas, a key part of which was to put an end to the kurajkuna's services to town authorities. In Quirpini, the form this change took was an attack on the kurajkuna as the institution then existed. He allied himself with the young head of the communal peasant union (sindicato), Justiniano Cruz. According to Cruz, who provided most of the information about these events, the official leader of the community at the time (the cacique) was ineffective. The union, with the padre's support, got the community to remove the kurajkuna (including the cacique) from their positions and declare that whereas in the past an incoming authority had been chosen by his predecessor, from then on they would all be chosen at a community meeting by popular vote. Furthermore, where in the past each authority changed at a different date, according to the cycle of fiestas, now all the kurajkuna would be chosen together, and take office together. There was no specific date on which the offices changed hands; rather, the transition was gradual, as marked by the presence of both old and new authorities at the weekly meetings of authorities for some weeks after the vote in January. Finally, the community unilaterally declared that the kurajkuna would no longer perform services for the town authorities.

The change was instigated by the church and union together, and made the system by which the kurajkuna were selected more similar to that of the union. It would be reasonable to suppose that the change initiated a period of union domination over the traditional authority structures, as happened in the ex-hacienda communities of the highlands and elsewhere (Rivera Cusicanqui 1990; Izko 1992). In fact, however, the union local had virtually no political significance at all, and the position of local sindicato head was a rotating one-year position treated as a rather minor requirement of male adulthood, comparable to a lesser position in the school or kurajkuna hierarchy. …

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