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What’s Next for Intercultural Bilingual Education in Bolivia?

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

by Jacquelyn Kovarik

A goal of Bolivia’s 1952 national revolution was to democratise education, making it accessible to all Bolivians. Implementing Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE) at the higher-education level has been a highly politicised and contested project. Over the last three decades, higher education IBE in Bolivia has taken various forms and worn different political hats.

Neoliberal reforms in the 1990s introduced radical IBE legislature: with it, Bolivia was the first Latin American country to enact an IBE model as state policy for all students, not just indigenous peoples (L.D. Drange, p. 32). More recently, reforms under former president Evo Morales rejected the neoliberal IBE model of the 1990s for new rhetoric that placed decolonisation and Indigenous knowledge at the centre of the curriculum. The November 2019 military coup that ousted Morales has not only put democracy in danger, but has also made the future of IBE in the country unclear.

Instituto de Lengua y Cultura de la Nación Quechua in Cochabamba, Bolivia (August 2018). Photo courtesy of the author

Bolivia was governed by Europeans for most of the last 500 years, and, as a result, higher education was modelled after the European tradition and excluded the majority indigenous population. Under neoliberal presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-1997) and Hugo Banzer Suárez (1997-2001), Bolivia saw a rise in legislation promoting multicultural, multilingual education, e.g. the Ley de Reforma Educativa of 1994 (LRE), which was seen as radical because of its intercultural curriculum and because of its emphasis on popular participation (L.D. Drange, 31). In fact, the LRE legislature of the 1990s grew out of intercultural education grassroots movements that had been brewing in Bolivia for decades.

Several important projects came out of the neoliberal multiculturalism reforms in the 1990’s, perhaps most notably, the international centre PROEIB Andes, founded in 1996 by a German NGO and housed in the Universidad Mayor de San Simón (UMSS) in Cochabamba. PROEIB provided master’s degrees in intercultural education to indigenous graduate students from a consortium of Andean countries (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia). The centre was considered an international leader in IBE higher education.

Yet, President Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party undermined PROEIB, as well as the 1994 LRE, with new IBE education reforms in 2008-2012. Morales’ reforms were in line with his larger decolonial political ideals, and made the Bolivian state figure prominently in all IBE reforms. For example, he created a new government postgraduate teaching programme and used it to justify invalidating degrees from private international projects such as PROEIB. Live Danbolt Drange, professor emeritus in the Intercultural Studies Department at NLA University College, argues that many of the LRE’s problems had to do with implementation issues: because of a lack of research, funding, and educational materials, the Department of Education was not able to adequately institutionalise proposed changes (Derange, p. 36). MAS supporters also saw the LRE as fundamentally neoliberal and capitalist, and therefore an example of recolonisation not in line with the Andean indigenous values such as reciprocity and collectivism. Morales, with his anti-globalisation and anti-imperialism “proceso del cambio” political rhetoric, wanted to rid Bolivia of all internationally-funded NGOs and development projects. Furthermore, the two neoliberal presidents behind the 1990s reforms, Banzer and Sánchez de Lozada, are often seen as symbols of the old, neoliberal, anti-Indigenous political model.

Morales’ 2012 Ley Elizardo Pérez y Avelino Siñani (often simply referred to as “la Ley 070”) is based on the concept of decolonisation, emphasising the need to strengthen indigenous knowledge of the Andes and the Amazon in Bolivian education. The law also emphasised community involvement, productivity, and protecting natural resources (Drange, p. 34). Morales had already founded three public indigenous universities in 2008, collectively known as UNIBOL.

“You don’t want to romanticise UNIBOL, they were not some radical thing,” said Bret Gustafson, Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. “But what they were was mostly Indigenous students, being taught by mostly Indigenous professors, doing mostly technical work inflected with Indigenous knowledge.”

Gustafson’s message — careful appreciation without romanticisation — is the stance many take towards Morales’s IBE education reforms. Some Bolivian educators see the Morales reforms as severely lacking the infrastructure needed for successful implementation. Some also see his reforms as mostly rhetorical: all indigenous political discourse, without pedagogical or structural change.

Professor Viviana Flores, Quechua Instructor in the Nursing Program at UMSS Universidad Mayor de San Simón and at the Maryknoll Institute in Cochabamba, feels disillusioned by the Morales reforms. She says that although it is good that public universities are, in theory, now open to receiving Indigenous students from rural areas, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. As a native Quechua speaker, Flores is frustrated that she has seen very little pedagogical or systemic change within her university.

Sandy Pinto, the representative of departmental education in the National Afro-Bolivian Council in Cochabamba, echoed Flores’ frustration. Pinto wrote her master’s thesis at the Universidad Privada Abierta Latinoamericana (UPAL) in 2013 on the importance of valuing Afro-Bolivian culture for social and economic development. Pinto had to fight with faculty and advisors to be able to include Bolivian and Caribbean authors and intellectuals in her thesis, despite the topic of her research.

“We learn about the French Revolution before we learn about the independence of our own country,” Pinto said. “Higher education was very western before Evo [Morales], and it still is today.”

Bolivia’s current authoritarian regime presents new challenges for IBE. Interim president Jeanine Áñez’s anti-indigenous rhetoric is a threat to the project of IBE in Bolivia, whether or not one believes that IBE improved under Evo Morales. Professor Carlos Mamani, professor of history at Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (UMSA) in La Paz, agrees that the current situation is worrying, but is hopeful.“[IBE] has a future for us here because we Indigenous people are millions,” he said. “We can continue this fight ourselves. We do not need Morales.” Many hope he is right.

Paeradigms is currently carrying out a Mid Term Evaluation of SAIH’s global higher education project, which focuses on equitable access to higher education as well as intercultural higher education. Their project partners are based in Myanmar, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nicaragua, Colombia and Bolivia.


Drange, L. D. (2011). Intercultural education in the multicultural and multilingual Bolivian context. Intercultural Education. Retrieved from

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