Domesticating Democracy: The Politics of Conflict Resolution in Bolivia

Domesticating Democracy: The Politics of Conflict Resolution in Bolivia

by Susan Helen Ellison

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In Domesticating Democracy Susan Helen Ellison examines foreign-funded alternate dispute resolution (ADR) organizations that provide legal aid and conflict resolution to vulnerable citizens in El Alto, Bolivia. Advocates argue that these programs help residents cope with their interpersonal disputes and economic troubles while avoiding an overburdened legal system and cumbersome state bureaucracies. Ellison shows that ADR programs do more than that—they aim to change the ways Bolivians interact with the state and with global capitalism, making them into self-reliant citizens. ADR programs frequently encourage Bolivians to renounce confrontational expressions of discontent, turning away from courtrooms, physical violence, and street protest and coming to the negotiation table. Nevertheless, residents of El Alto find creative ways to take advantage of these micro-level resources while still seeking justice and a democratic system capable of redressing the structural violence and vulnerability that ADR fails to treat.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822371786
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/19/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 16 MB
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About the Author

Susan Ellison is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Wellesley College.

Read an Excerpt


Fix the State or Fix the People?

Azucena's Dilemma

Azucena is growing restless. The shared printer is down. With the integrated justice center (IJC) director away for a meeting at the Ministry of Justice, the interns are at a loss about how to do our work — which relies heavily on printing letters of referral to the forensic medical examiner, invitations to conciliation sessions, and memoriales (legal briefs) for those clients pursuing domestic violence cases in the formal legal system. Luckily it is a slow day, and we are approaching lunch, when clients rush home to prepare meals and claim their children from school. Azucena wanders around the emptying room as if lost, declaring herself useless.

On this chilly morning I want to take advantage of the center's emptiness to get Azucena's opinion. I had spent several days a week visiting one of the criminal tribunals in La Paz, trying to understand the kinds of problems that prompted foreign aid programs to focus their funding so heavily on judicial reform during the 1990s. Throughout Bolivia, the law and its accompanying institutional apparatus are widely perceived to be antithetical to justice, whether in their absence or their arbitrary and abusive presence. Azucena — who spent six years working as an intern in Bolivia's court system — knows I've been seeing her old stomping ground firsthand.

"You worked in one of the tribunals before," I say. "What do you think should be done to improve the administration of justice?"

Azucena folds her legs and gray scarf at the same time, tilting her head pensively. She rattles off a list of problems, ascribing blame: lawyers who don't orient their clients well because they care more about making money than poor people's needs; insensitive interns who constantly force people to correct their documents and come back later — so they can delay cases and thus lighten judges' workloads.

"I also hear a lot of complaints about notificaciones [process serving]," I offer. Azucena nods, consternation spreading across her face.

"Well, that I have seen with my own eyes," she groans. "Once, when I was working in the [main El Alto courthouse, one of the interns was attending to the accused in a contraband case. The [accused] said, 'Look, you aren't going to serve me the notification.' This is the way people delay justice," Azucena tells me, going on to explain a variety of "payment" options for securing the delay through bribes. "Afterward I asked [the intern], 'Why are you doing that?' And he responded, 'Everyone does this. It's normal.' These guys [who were paying off the intern] were functionaries of the deputy mayor of [a highland town]. They do everything they can to delay justice."

It is a familiar refrain for me: accusations of people slipping money to interns and state functionaries to avoid being served, delaying their court cases indefinitely. I had witnessed many such cases be "suspended" due to failed notifications while observing the La Paz tribunal. "Yes," I nod along. "I hear complaints about the Central de Notificaciones [notification headquarters]."

"The Central is a different issue," Azucena clarifies. "The Central has to notify jurors. Let's say you have to do a lottery of twenty-five people. And you have three cases. That's seventy-five people a day you have to notify. And then you maybe have other notifications. You just don't have enough time. I remember coming home at night when I was working for the Central in El Alto and I would just be pissed-off [renegando]. I would sit down at the kitchen table and invent things."

Azucena explains that she would return home, physically unable to meet her case allotment. Sometimes, she concocted the details: "I'd write, 'the house had a green garage,' because they all have green garages, right? 'It was located in front of a yellow house.' I felt bad about it, but I just didn't have enough time! Some days I also would have to go to the FELC-C [a special unit in the fight against crime], San Pedro [men's prison], Obrajes [women's prison] too. The first time I went to San Pedro — you won't believe it — I showed up and the officer asked for my credential and sent me in. It's a zoo. And I got robbed! Someone stole my cellphone. As I was leaving another officer said, 'Why did you go in? Just leave the notification at the front desk.' But I didn't know any better! So each day I would maybe manage to notify five people. Five people!" She moans, eyes wide.

"Five people out of seventy-five?" I gasp.

"Yes, five. Maybe it was supposed to be more than seventy-five. Let's see. How many jurors are notified? Twelve, right? And maybe I would have five cases. So you do the math."

Azucena's point was not about exact numbers. It was about larger patterns in the administration of justice in Bolivia and what it was like to be one person reproducing those patterns as she wandered El Alto's largely unmarked streets looking for juror residences, navigated the city's perpetual traffic snare, and descended into adjacent La Paz to visit the men's and women's prisons.

Azucena often expressed remorse about her participation in the very practices many Bolivians cite when they complain about the justice system. We talked about the practice of charging unofficial fees for paperwork (coima, a word for small bribes greasing the wheels of bureaucracy), as well as the pressures she received from both interns and even judges to do so. Azucena's recollections mirrored the angry testimonies I heard from people who had the misfortune of passing through the state legal system — whether as plaintiff or the accused. But other state bureaucrats also voiced dismay. Over several months I watched as one incensed functionary serving in a La Paz courtroom set out to extirpate her tribunal of the ordinary acts of corruption that occurred on a daily basis, openly calling out the other functionaries for accepting bribes. In a court system staffed largely by unpaid, university-age interns, several young people on her staff defended the practice of coima as reasonable; how else would they pay for their bus fares?

During her work at the IJC, I watched Azucena dutifully strive to embody the ideals of the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs: refusing to accept money when it was offered, treating clients with enormous respect and patience — even though she would shake her fists and vent frustration once certain "aggressive" clients were out of earshot. She was now a law student and often pondered what role she would play as a professional in the Bolivian justice system. Could she be different?

When I first met Azucena, she recommended conciliation to clients out of obligation — and insisted that it was the only reason she would do so; over many months, however, she developed the sense that it might, in fact, be a better option than the courts. After so much time encouraging center clients to pursue conciliation, por la víabuena, hablando (taking the good path, talking), she wondered if she should train to be a conciliator herself.

But there is another story concealed in Azucena's shifting views on conciliation. It's a story about foreign aid. It's a story about how multiple donor institutions came to promote conciliation as the solution to an unreliable and overburdened justice system, for foreign companies and ordinary Bolivians alike. It's a story about how ADR traveled from corporate boardrooms, World Bank policy conferences, the U.S. State Department, the Harvard Program on Negotiation, and even the notebooks of legal anthropologists, to the dusty neighborhoods of El Alto.

Azucena's professional trajectory has been profoundly marked by Bolivia's entanglement with a broad range of judicial reform agendas funded by foreign donors and guided by international legal experts. Those efforts include creating Bolivia's human rights ombudsman and reforms to Bolivia's criminal code that replaced the inquisitorial model — where judges ruled with little need to publicly defend their verdicts — with an adversarial system and juries. They also include Bolivia's counternarcotics laws (Law 1008) and training programs aimed at attorneys and judges — just to name a few.

How, then, did ADR become part of that reform agenda and travel to Bolivia, to El Alto, into Azucena's life trajectory and into the everyday encounters she had with center clientele? What was the analysis that drove such interventions, and what roles did particular policies and donor institutions play in promoting a shift from aid centered on institutional reforms to the formal legal system to the promotion of informal mechanisms for resolving disputes?

This chapter offers a bird's-eye view of larger shifts in donor-backed governance strategies concerned with democratization, judicial reform, and governability. I argue that the IJCs and allied programs targeting Bolivian civil society reflect a larger shift in donor governance strategies and democratization priorities. It is a shift from a primary focus on institutional capacity building to capacitación, or skill-set training, centered on individual citizens and the ways they are embedded in "conflictual" interpersonal, social, and political spaces.

I could translate capacitación as capacity building or simply "training." The open-ended term suggests practical instruction that targets individuals and groups for information sharing, guidance, and strengthening abilities, whether institutional or personal. But here I use capacitación (rather than the English capacity building) to mark a shift in donor priorities. I do not mean to suggest that something called capacitación was not an integral part of previous waves of aid intervention. Indeed, during the 1990s many donor platforms encompassed training programs seeking to equip judges, legislators, and bureaucrats with knowledge and technical skills that, donors believed, would enable them to enact the kinds of institutional reform that many good governance and democracy-assistance programs sought to promote. Additionally, Bolivia's Law of Popular Participation (LPP) spawned many NGO projects and workshops capacitando (training) people in how to make claims on state resources through new institutional channels. However, in utilizing the term capacitación analytically, what I want to underscore is the ever-greater emphasis on the person and the interpersonal as the locus of political transformation rather than the agents or institutions of the state — whether national, regional, or municipal.

The anthropologist Nancy Postero (2007) has noted that Bolivia's process of neoliberal restructuring included remaking, expanding, and strengthening democratic institutions — not simply the contraction of the state, as critics often characterize neoliberalism. As Carol Greenhouse explains, "Neoliberalism endorses the expansion of the private sector as the basis for governance, but neoliberal reform as a process requires extensive state action" (2009: 5). My argument here is that the emphasis on capacitación represents a sharper turn in neoliberal rationalities and reform priorities, away from remaking institutions toward rehabilitating interpersonal behavior. Advocates envisioned ADR as a mechanism for deescalating conflict by actually responding to people's pressing needs (giving them a more satisfying experience with a statelike entity) while also transforming the way they relate to such bureaucratic institutions: If you can't fix a broken system, keep people out of it. Take away their desire for it in the first place; replace it with a sense of being empowered to care for oneself.

Critical development scholars and anthropologists studying policymaking have suggested that Latour's concept of the "assemblage" reflects the "real-world heterogeneity of the things that actually go into the making of public policy" (Greenhalgh 2008: 12). Tania Li speaks of the "multiple authorities devising improvements," a vast "assemblage" that becomes, if only briefly, "stabilized as a discursive formation" that "supplies a complex of knowledge, and practice in terms of which certain kinds of problems and solutions become thinkable whereas others are submerged, at least for a time" (2005: 386). Ethnographic work can illuminate how, "despite fragmentation and dissent, heterogeneous actors in development are constantly engaged in creating order through political acts of composition" through acts of translation (Lewis and Mosse 2006: 14).

The ways that particular policy problems are identified "do not simply reflect a reality that exists in nature," the anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh argues. "Instead they may actively constitute a new reality by shaping what is thinkable in the domain of population" or other sites of intervention (2008: 10). Once "embedded in public policy and bureaucratically enacted," Greenhalgh explains, "a powerful problematization can remake the world in which we live" (2008: 10). Such framings of a problem in need of intervention become "sticky" and can be difficult to dislodge.

My aim here is to trace the emergence of a donor policy consensus that promoted ADR in Bolivia. Attending to how donors identified what was "wrong" with Bolivia forces into the light processes that are often "black boxed" or obscured from view (Latour 1999: 70). The residue of those efforts sits in conference documents and project evaluations and in the memories of people who participated in their design. Accordingly, this chapter examines the historical contingencies and policy shifts that went into declaring ADR a promising solution for Latin America's — including Bolivia's — legal woes.

These development and judicial reform projects have influenced the personal and professional trajectories of people like Azucena and her peers. Later chapters will explore the experiences of ADR "translators" or policy "brokers" who have helped expand conciliation's reach, as well as the ways these programs impact the lives of El Alto residents. Or, to quote Tania Li, "what happens when those interventions become entangled with the processes they would regulate and improve" (2007: 27). For now, let me begin with a brief history of Bolivia-U.S. Cold War entanglements.

From the Alliance for Progress to the Washington Consensus

Since the nineteenth century the United States has shown its interest in and a willingness to shape and even strong-arm the political and economic life of its southern neighbors. Early U.S. diplomatic efforts toward Bolivia were driven by an interest in the country's mineral wealth and a concern with stemming the tide of economic nationalism, which threatened those interests. Starting in the 1940s, foreign aid interventions in Bolivia frequently involved technical assistance and technology transfer, infused with a healthy dose of anti-indigenous bias that blamed Bolivia's indigenous cultures for impeding modernization. By the 1950s, anticommunist agendas were the primary force behind American aid programs in Bolivia, as the United States sought to defuse the revolutionary fervor taking root in Latin America.

Bolivia's 1952 revolution intensified American concerns over economic nationalism and leftist influence in the region. Yet rather than rely on overt military intervention that it had elsewhere in the region, the United States employed an economic development strategy. The historian James Siekmeier has argued that the United States chose to support the more conservative-centrist elements within Bolivia's Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) party in an effort to prevent the rise of a potentially more leftist, less U.S.-friendly regime (2011: 5–6). Bolivian political elites, for their part, largely embraced this developmentalist orientation; officials welcomed Western aid even as they tried to court both sides of the Cold War scramble to win allegiance among so-called Third World countries. Centrist MNR officials "discovered that they could increase the flow of assistance," Siekmeier explains, "either by claiming outright that more assistance would prevent the nation from falling to communism or by quietly reaching out to the East bloc" (2011: 5). Following a military coup in 1964, Bolivia was wracked by frequent coups and countercoups over the next decade, and each military regime sought to suppress dissent and to crush labor movements with the help of American economic and military aid.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, U.S. financial aid was driven largely by concerns over leftist movements in the Americas, as the Kennedy and later Johnson and Reagan administrations funded counterinsurgency efforts in the region. The Kennedy administration's Alliance for Progress aimed to foster U.S.-friendly, stable democracies in Latin America through economic development. The United States intended for economic development and infrastructure projects to help undercut the appeal of labor unions and other movements for more radical/leftist political regimes, winning hearts and minds to the U.S. cause.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
Uprising  31
1. Fix the State or Fix the People  37
2. Cultures of Peace, Cultures of Conflict  64
3. A Market for Mediators  95
A Brief Recess: Conciliating Conflict in Alto Lima  121
4. Between Compadres There Is No Interest  134
5. The Conflictual Social Life of an Industrial Sewing Machine  163
6. You Have to Comply with Paper  194
Conclusion  221
Notes  235
References  255
Index  275

What People are Saying About This

Owners of the Sidewalk: Security and Survival in the Informal City - Daniel M. Goldstein

Domesticating Democracy is an original, timely, and important book. Susan Helen Ellison provides a fascinating study of alternative dispute resolution as a form of neoliberal governmentality, and her experience as intern and ethnographer in the institutions she studies shines through. Well-researched, clearly written, convincing, and full of rich ethnographic detail, this book will find an audience among anthropologists and legal scholars interested in Latin America, urban studies, and democratization.”

The Paradox of Relevance: Ethnography and Citizenship in the United States - Carol J. Greenhouse

"With deep insight, Susan Helen Ellison maps the confluence of U.S. investment in Bolivian democracy and liberalization policies that steepened personal debt for many Bolivians. She shows in rich detail how the alternative dispute resolution forums backed by NGOs in the name of democracy have become materially central to the form and substance of interpersonal relations. Her trenchant analysis of what she calls political intimacy is compelling, convincing, and moving—a major contribution to democracy studies."

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