Engineering Individual and National Identities

By Dr Ana Margheritis, Politics & International Relations @Ana91224939

Bolivia carried out a national census in 2012. A regular statistical mechanism (and crucial input in public policy) became a political conundrum. Surprisingly, Bolivians learned that the majority do not have an indigenous background. President Evo Morales admitted he was perplexed and later downplayed the importance of the census. Discrepancies between preliminary and final results (with a difference amounting to 300,000 people) cast doubts on the transparency and rigor of the entire process. Criticisms went from the methodology to the qualifications of those who carried out the survey and ended in a reshuffle of technical cadres and top officials at the National Statistical Institute in charge of the procedure. In the light of the new demographic profile, several regions risked losing fiscal resources and seats in parliament. Social protest emerged and the government announced last month that there would be a technical revision of the census.

One of the most interesting “irregularities” of this census was the change in the categories of self-defined ethnicity: for the first time in recent decades, the government eliminated the label mestizo (person of mixed, white-indigenous background) on the basis that such identification was a “colonial and racist” legacy. As a result, the recent census indicates that indigenous groups do not form today the majority of the population, as they did according to the 2001 census when 62% of the population self-identified as mestizos. Back then, Evo Morales’ emerging coalition used that data to claim that groups historically marginalized were to become the new subjects of a re-founded “pluri-national” state. The 2006/7 Constitutional Assembly institutionalized some rights and reallocated fiscal resources accordingly, in a move presented as the end of the neoliberal, oligarchical order and the birth of popular, majority-based democracy. If indigenous are now down to 41% of the population, with the principal groups (aymaras and quechuas) amounting to only 36%, then the official discourse might need some revision and Morales’ quest for a third term next year might be at stake.

Besides becoming a boomerang to Morales’ coalition, the Bolivian census ordeal has at least two implications for scholars, policymakers, and constituencies.

First, we should take census data with a grain of salt, confront it with other, perhaps more reliable sources, and critically examine the politics behind the elaboration of certain categories that help define individual and national identities. This is not just a methodological question. Defining majorities and minorities by reclassifying mestizos or any other group is more than a mathematical exercise. It is a way of dividing the vital core of representative political systems: the demos. It could also be a political tool to boost party clientelism and provide a rationale for who gets what, as if a percentage of the population (non-clients, newly constructed minorities) were not entitled to public goods.

Second, researchers and practitioners alike should be aware of the shifting nature of census categories. The adaptation of census techniques to political needs has not been uncommon in Latin America and elsewhere. Historians have demonstrated that these categories change over time often in response to political and fiscal interests of the state and not in sync with individuals’ self-identification or race; they have also shown that mestizo as an official census category is a post-colonial invention, not a colonial legacy.[1] In other words, Latin American neopopulist governments would benefit from a closer reading of history.


[1] See Thurner, Mark. 1997. From Two Republics to One Divided. Contradictions of Postcolonial Nationmaking. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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