Catholic News Service
Indigenous people take part in a dance competition Oct. 21 in Huatajata, on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. A new census will give Bolivians a chance to identify themselves as indigenous.
Catholic News Service
Indigenous people take part in a dance competition Oct. 21 in Huatajata, on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. A new census will give Bolivians a chance to identify themselves as indigenous.
LA PAZ, Bolivia — On normal days, the streets of La Paz are choked with snarling traffic jams, children walking to school and the bustle of Indian women selling everything from fruit and snacks to newspapers.

Nov. 21 will see a respite from the usual honking din and dangerous drivers. The only people allowed on the streets -- apart from emergency services personnel -- will be several thousand volunteers and university students. They have been recruited to carry out a census of the Andean country's 10.2 million inhabitants, most of whom will be grounded at home.

It will be the first census since Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, took office in 2006.

Many analysts see the census as an important stage in the consolidation of the 2009 Constitution, which set out the lay nature of the new Plurinational State of Bolivia. The constitution recognizes the co-existence of 36 different indigenous peoples throughout its territory and offers each autonomous rule. It is in sharp contrast with former constitutions, which only recognized the mestizos, relegating the Indians to secondary status.

Bolivia's bishops have been critical of the census, an exercise that will take approximately 40 minutes in each household. The bishops' conference has criticized its failure to include a question on religious beliefs -- in a country where formerly the official religion was Catholicism -- and they say it excludes the mestizo population, currently estimated at 30 percent.

"The census should be an instrument that reveals objective reality in all areas of people's lives and in Bolivian society, including issues as sensitive as religious and socio-cultural identity," the bishops' conference said in a Sept. 17 statement signed by its general-secretary, Bishop Oscar Aparicio Cespedes, Bolivia's military bishop.

"We consider that the spiritual and religious dimension is a fundamental part of Bolivian reality that cannot be neglected and undeclared, even in a lay state," the statement said.

The bishops also have joined in an increasingly polarized debate on whether the category mestizo should be used in the census.

A person born of a Quechua father and a white European mother can claim his or her race is Quechua, or can say "other," which means that person will be counted as mestizo. This would apply to any of the 36 indigenous populations.

The bishops see the exclusion of the mestizo category from the census as wrong.

"It is important to safeguard the right of the population to freely identify themselves, using the terminology that they believe the most adequate," said the bishops' September statement. "We defend the predominance in our country of a mestizo culture and the right of the population to identify with this culture."

For Godofredo Sandoval, a sociologist and director of Sinergia Consulting Services, the census' exclusion of mestizos is an attempt to correct a centuries-old subjugation of the Indian majority by the dominant mestizo classes.

"In the past, the category of mestizo was used to cover up the existence of indigenous peoples and exclude them, denying them their identities and rights, and to impose a cultural model alien to their vision, values and norms," he said.

Sandoval added that, historically, successive governments dominated by mestizos referred to Indians in rural areas as "campesinos," or peasants, which they considered pejorative. The 1952 revolution was the beginning of a process of struggle by the Indians in the highlands for recognition of their existence and identity, and this struggle culminated in Morales' presidency and the approval of a new constitution.

After the results of the census, some regions and some municipalities will adopt bilingual rules, with notices and official communications in two languages, Spanish and an Indian language, according to the majority who live there. Some Indian nations have begun drawing up their autonomy statutes.

The census will also reinforce the municipal and regional autonomies process that has already begun, with municipalities drawing up their own mini-constitutions.

Despite the government's efforts to empower the nation's indigenous people, several indigenous communities in a large national park area will be excluded, and others announced they will boycott the census.

Last year, the government failed to consult with the resident Indian communities before beginning a project to build a road through the park, known as TIPNIS. The failure to consult violated international laws that protect indigenous peoples.

The Catholic bishops opposed the project and have said that more recent consultations launched were equivalent to buying the approval of the communities.