The ‘problem’ of
In the world there are large and small countries, rich countries and poor countries, but we are equal in one thing, which is our right to dignity and sovereignty … (Evo Morales, Inaugural Speech,
Lacking size in all but territory and imagination,
This is stark stuff and never to be despised, but it is surely easy enough to understand? Very poor people, after all, are widely held to conduct bleak but essentially uncomplicated lives. The regnant ideas of our day postulate elementary remedies, in which a due dose of clear thinking, political will and decent behaviour will provide at least some deliverance from economic prostration. Adam Smith, the Marquis de Condorcet and Thomas Paine had ‘an end to poverty’ firmly within their conceptual compass (as ‘common sense’) in the 1780s, and 200 years later the indefatigable Jeffrey Sachs (not yet backed by Bono) was instructing the government in La Paz to the same end.
Accordingly, considerable indulgence was initially extended by the ‘big’ chancelleries of the world to the rather bumptious Morales and his entirely inexperienced cabinet comprised of indigenous activists (of all ages), sixty-something left-wingers from the 1970s, and forty-something radical intellectuals from the 1990s. Although protocol could so readily have been overlooked, George W. Bush did make a congratulatory telephone call, despite Evo’s description of himself as ‘
The nationalisation of gas–conspicuously conducted as a military operation to great media fanfare–was described by a normally sympathetic source as ‘almost infantile’. When, nearly a hundred years earlier, Alcides Arguedas published Pueblo Enfermo, a bravura historical essay of racially powered pessimism, José Enrique Rodó suggested to him that a better title would be Pueblo Niño because Bolivia’s ills, like those of Latin America as a whole, were transitory in their nature. In 2005, after half a decade of civil strikes and blockades of roads (bloqueos) with five different presidents seeking to manage the seemingly hapless affairs of the republic, the British ambassador to a neighbouring country asked me in genuine anguish, ‘Why don’t they just grow up?’ Perhaps we should add adolescence to smallness and poverty as an exculpatory variable? After all, nearly half of the population is under 20 years of age, and with a life expectancy of 63, relatively few Bolivians are making claims on the country’s precarious pension system, a fiscal fabrication at the heart of the privatisation (‘capitalisation’) experiment of the 1990s.
There are, in fact, evidence-based and plausible explanations for such phenomena. These range from accounts based on geographical determinism to those of historical revisionism. Nevertheless, understanding the country today is far from easy, even if we simply wish to comprehend the apparent disavowal of modernity by many of its citizens and their failure to thrive according to Enlightenment postulates of ‘progress’. As The Economist commented in July 2004, ‘Bolivia is not for beginners’. In recent years this defiance of the Zeitgeist has been most energetically expressed through a kind of retentive mercantilism or telluric protectionism, with an effort to withhold the second-largest reserves of natural gas in South America from external forces deemed to be the direct heirs and successors of Iberian imperialists and Anglo neo-colonialists who, from the 1540s onwards, pillaged the mineral wealth of what was Kollasuyo, then Charcas, then Alto Perú, and from 1825 the Republic of Bolivia. What might be termed ‘the Potosí syndrome’ may be historically justified and economically reasonable, but it is also at the heart of the ‘paranoid style’ in Bolivian public life, with all ‘the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and … feeling of persecution’ described by Richard Hofstadter for the United States.
The indigenous features of this phenomenon are the most perplexing for those of an upbringing dominated by European rationalism. Less than half the population today regularly communicates in the languages of Aymara, Quechua and Guaraní, but in the 2001 census some 62 per cent of respondents identified themselves as ‘indigenous’, and in the 800,000-strong city of El Alto, situated right above La Paz, that figure rises to 75 per cent. One of the leading popular organisations of recent years is the Confederación Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ). CONAMAQ is younger than the class-based peasant union, Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB), which emerged from the radicalism of the late 1970s and the 1980s, and yet CONAMAQ congregates pre-colonial social organisations under a title that raises a question about the very existence of
where there are no traitors, nor poor or rich, and we live in the same condition, without the political revenge that always comes with racism, because we don’t want to replace white mestizo racism with that of the Indian.
On other days Quispe, who was jailed for five years in the 1990s for guerrilla activity, has felt able to call upon the indigenous poor to:
rise up in arms, hunt down and judge the bosses … burn the houses of the rich and starve out the cities that oppress and exploit us … Only that which is native is good; the rest is rubbish.
Such sentiments are assuredly at the radical end of the spectrum, and they only find resonance at times of crisis. Quispe’s Movimiento Indio Pachakuti (MIP) won barely 6 per cent of the vote in the 2002 elections and just over 2 per cent in those of 2005.
What, though, will be irreversible is a self-confident indigenous presence in the management of broad parts of public life. Indeed, this has been in evidence since 2002, when the MAS won over a fifth of the national vote, securing a presence in Congress that was, if anything, less conspicuous with regard to programme than to clothing and language–‘Ñoqapis munani parlayta’ (‘I too want to speak’). Vice-President Alvaro García Linera may have been over-ambitious in talking of ‘four civilisations’ existing within the space that is today Bolivia, but civilisations do not always trade under the same sign. For Fernando Molina, a leading liberal critic of both Evo Morales and the traditional political class that he has displaced from office, the conflict of recent years has been underpinned by ‘a very active mass presence, culturally resistant to any involvement in a common project with those who do not share the same identity’. Molina sees such a politics of refusal as underpinning a culture of immobilism, a deep and abiding obstinacy. On the other hand, a recent remarkable work of Aymara history in the early modern period by a group of European scholars reveals a far richer material and ideational culture, many cosmological and political motifs of which are still recognisable in our own day.
A key part of that culture is what might be termed ‘rogatory’, including a range of behaviours from formalist supplication to demanding with menaces, the practice of which may be as ethically satisfying as it is practically rewarding. Not everything is what it sounds to be in such a moral economy, which can move in and out of the Eurocentric ‘rational repertoire’ and which, as we shall see, is nowhere near as immutable as some fondly believe and proclaim.
Another, allied, factor complicating the analysis of
Few can seriously dispute this empirical record or question its corrosive effect. However, from 2000 onwards it is the bloqueo, not the coup, which is the primary mechanism of ‘disorder’. Notwithstanding the massacre of October 2003, it is the masses, not the armed forces, who are the principal authors. The exasperation caused abroad is, therefore, greater still. By March 2005, with social conflicts running at over 400 a year, even Carlos Toranzo, one of the calmest and wisest political commentators, was driven to write a column under the title ‘Demandas Legítimas’:
We demand the replacement of Aguas de Illimani by a social water company funded by the money that we demand from the World Bank and other international agencies … We demand that the fares of buses, microbuses, provincial and departmental transport are frozen for thirty years so that the government can demonstrate that it really has a genuine strategy for the sector. We demand the expulsion of the
We might do well here to recall de Tocqueville’s conviction that, ‘[t]he remedy for the vices of the army is not to be found in the army itself, but in the country’. That might be thought to be explaining away a state institution with a bland social determinism that cannot so readily be applied to wide sectors of society as a whole. However, René Zavaleta Mercado, who opened his study of the political crisis of 1979–80 with this quotation from de Tocqueville, postulates the existence of two distinct Bolivian armies, the first of which reflects the nationalist tradition:
This is the army that must feel those aspects of the nation that existed before the nation or that lie behind its particularism, such as the properties of the earth and the corporatist vision of the world.
This is the army that occupied the San Alberto gas field on 1 May 2006, Col. Rodríguez’s troops attracting great popular support, even from Santa Cruz where the fact that this was territory defended against Paraguay in the Chaco War (1932–35) momentarily overrode all other disputes. The second of Zavaleta’s armies is more widely recognisable:
… the classical army, the essential reason for which is the fear of the noche triste. The function of this army is to resist the siege of the Indians …, that atavism known as Tupaj Katari.
Here we encounter the armed forces of October 2003, when some 70 civilians were shot down precisely in order to break the ‘siege’ of La Paz from (and by) El Alto through the withholding of oil supplies.
If such a dialectic can exist for the military, then why not for the rural and urban poor? They, after all, denominated the social conflict of early 2000 over Aguas de Tunari in
The overthrow of Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada and the ‘neo-liberal-patrimonial state’ (in García Linera’s words) did not, though, take the form of direct armed attack on the institutions of that state, either in October 2003 or in December 2005. Rather, it has two symbolic moments. The first was at on
Events such as these did not appear in the foreign press, and they would scarcely promote ‘the story’ that newspapers must perforce tell, explain and editorialise over. The simplifications inevitably required by such a narrative do, in their own way, also complicate academic understanding of the present crisis since we are faced with a series of necessary-but-insufficient accounts often written in high register in order to win an audience and hold a line. This is just as true of veteran commentators as of eager stringers:
When foreigners take an interest in
And the paradigm of untrammelled exploitation is matched by another of uncomplicated struggle:
In 2000 something remarkable happened. The Bolivian people rose up and expelled Bechtel from the country, keeping the water under democratic control. Over the past week the Bolivian people have risen again. They want to be allowed to grow coca without American interference, including–yes–for the huge global market in recreational drugs.
Richard Gott has known
One of the most significant events in 500 years of Latin American history will take place in Bolivia on Sunday when Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, is inducted as president … Morales’s victory is just a symptom of economic breakdown and age-old repression. It also fulfils a prophecy made by Fidel Castro, who claimed the Andes would become the Americas’ Sierra Maestra–the Cuban mountains that harboured black and Indian rebels over the centuries … False dawns are common in Latin American history, but the strength of the radical tide suggests that this time it will not be dammed, still less reversed.
Hold on. This is
Once again in
The decrying of delusion and treason was ever thus. Most folk abroad pleased at the election of Evo Morales will still have understood it in the terms used by Hilton, Hari and Gott, namely through a model of dichotomous relations: international neoliberals v. exploited nationals; whites v. Indians; oligarchs v. subalterns; global models v. local experiences etc.. Yet when voiced so starkly, the difficulties do begin to emerge. Sinclair Thomson and Forrest Hylton, as radical in outlook as they are knowledgeable about
We should avoid treating the crisis simply as a local effect of a predictable trans-national phenomenon. We should not take either ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘globalization’ as an autonomous agent that inevitably generates its own grave-diggers …
Thomson and Hylton are here picking up on an evident weakness of the left when it indiscriminately deploys the term ‘neoliberal model’ as if that were everywhere a beast of self-evident characteristics, something that Fernando Molina has tellingly criticised as the comfortable use of a rhetorical category to evade analytical responsibility. Roberto Laserna asks what, precisely, the ‘model’ is supposed to be in Bolivia: the 1985 stabilisation plan (decree 21060)? the political pacts? or maybe just the privatisations of the 1990s? He notes laconically that poverty, ethnic discrimination, violence against women and children, and environmental degradation were all integral to Bolivian life before 1985. In the same vein, Felipe Mansilla protests that it is thoroughly misguided to associate all Andean morality with collectivism and reciprocity and all European values as enshrined in possessive individualism.
It is, nonetheless, hard to arrive at a more fairly weighted and nuanced appraisal when so much of the local political discourse as well as the international depiction rotates about the idea of ‘two
Bolivians have two options. One is to carry on thinking that we’ll always be ripped off, so it’s best not to do any deal at all in order that in 20 years’ time we can enjoy the doubtful satisfaction of saying that nobody tricked us. We’ll be in the same pitiful poverty, staring at ourselves like flies but, to be sure, unfleeced. The other option is to be proactive, establish clear rules and demand compliance to ensure that the black history is not repeated …
What is presented in Tarija as a choice, albeit a tough one, is declaimed in
Even before October 2003 nobody could plausibly claim that the gas question was a simple matter in commercial terms. Moreover, it would not have been so even if the proposition of exporting to the Pacific had been viable in 1990 (when Law 1494 introduced shared risk contracts between YPFB and private companies as well as a profits tax), or 1996 (when Law 1689 ‘capitalised’ YPFB, radically reducing its reserved operating and regulatory powers, which were effectively thrown into the market-place), or 1997 (when two days before Sánchez de Losada left office for the first time, Decree 24604 greatly eased the contractual conditions for foreign firms). This has always been a highly complex area of commercial calculation as well as public policy. If there were some on the left who really believed that YPFB could be seamlessly transformed by edict into some kind of mega-ayllu, they discovered in August 2006 just how complicated it was to secure sufficient working capital to allow the company to operate with minimal efficiency (a little under $2 billion) and buy back the shares that had been ‘sold’ in 1997, let alone negotiate new export prices with neighbouring markets, or conduct professional audits of the foreign companies, or negotiate new operating contracts with them. And none of this addressed the issue of the payment of state pensions, the funds for which had been derived from Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) initial ‘capitalisation’. The whole matter was, as The Economist rightly put it, ‘a business dispute caught up in a social revolution’, and few on a left disproportionately opposed to capitalist enterprise in the hydrocarbons sector (including, of course, state companies such as Petrobras) were concerned to bother themselves with the technical terms of that dispute.
Equally, not many on the right and the commercial circuit–and certainly those within what must be deemed the very clumsy local management of the TNCs–seemed to have grasped just how much their high-risk, expensive and vulnerable business had become politicised, how deeply unpopular they had become in the valleys and the altiplano, and how a stubbornness on the part of the highland population might eventually translate into a much more rigorous fiscal climate and competitive pricing structure. The political paradox revealed from mid-2003 onwards is that a ‘Two Bolivias’ strategy of the type promoted by
Here the observer of contemporary
The first group is led not by Evo Morales, part of whose personal industriousness involves a concern with new ideas, even if he is an unschooled and instinctively uncurious man. Rather, it is headed by Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, who proudly announced upon taking office that he had not read a book for sixteen years and did not seem minded to start now that he had a new job. In fact, despite initially ordaining that the language of Bolivian diplomacy would be Aymara, asking for non-diplomats to be nominated for ambassadorial posts, and suggesting that schoolchildren would be better off with coca instead of milk in the morning because it contains more calcium, Choquehuanca’s militant anti-intellectualism was a mix of ludic bravado and disconcertedness at the unknown demands of office. Since this was true for almost all 16 ministers, 40 vice-ministers and 120 directors-general–the Bolivian executive is as ‘small’ as the country itself–some playful provocation was broadly cathartic. Certainly, for Abel Mamani, leader of the campaign against Aguas de Illimani in El Alto, appointment to a newly-created Ministry of Water represented an immediate translation from opposition activism to responsibility for national policy, with the effect of stilling a voice of regular complaint but irregular proposal.
Another current, of older radical professionals, such as Carlos Villegas, in charge first of development strategy and then hydrocarbons, and Nila Heredia at health, had already held prominent positions in the public sector and were widely respected for their technical accomplishments. But when in his inaugural speech Morales expressed a respect for ‘middle class intellectuals’, he was identifying in barely coded fashion the small but busy group around his vice-president, Alvaro García Linera, an indefatigable explainer of what he is doing, why he is right and–now he is engaged in real politics–why other people are wrong.
At one level this is a complete boon for commentators. Intellectuals who occupy public office are unusual prey to charges of hypocrisy as they scale speedily down from the heights where theory and sheer high-mindedness inevitably locate them, but apart from the tell-tale loquaciousness of the guild, they bequeath plenty of evidence of ‘where they come from’. However, the present group is not so easy to ‘map’ because its scholarly commitments are very sophisticated and take in a range of influences from post-structuralist theory (Raúl Prada, leading the MAS contingent in the constituent assembly) to the often difficult and allusive work of René Zavaleta Mercado (Luis Tapia), and, in the case of García Linera himself, to sources as different as E. P. Thompson (to whom we shall return) and Jürgen Habermas (to whom we shall not).
García Linera is, as Pedro Shimose wryly notes, so gargantuan a reader that he readily neutralises the back-biting bibliophobia of Choquehuanca. This is a man who claims to have read 960 books during three of his years in jail (pretty much one a day), and who now possesses a library of 10,000 titles. Irrepressibly curious about the lacunae in Marx’s published work in Spanish, he travelled to
There’s the great challenge–to uphold the long tradition of the Latin American and Bolivian intellectual and break with that false, germ-ridden ideology of the Vargas Llosa type.
García Linera’s writings are too theoretically infused and sinuous in style to be given here an appraisal in the depth they deserve. I will pick up just one central motif–the reconstitution between 1986 and 2000 of a self-consciously working class movement into a variegated but distinctively plebeian mass–as part of a more general proposition: that Evo Morales stood, in January 2006, at the head of a third Bolivian Revolution. If that revolution is indeed usefully seen as being plebeian in nature and political expression, then, as García’s critics argue, it is also the product of a political economy that is ch’enko (entangled/thicket-like/messy) and so can neither disown the liberal institutionality integral to its evolution nor avoid embracing collectivist practices.
The challenges of history
In order to commemorate our forebears through your office, Señor Presidente del Congreso Nacional, I request a minute’s silence for Manko Inka, Tupaj Katari, Túpac Amaru, Bartolina Sisa, Zárate Willka, Atihuaiqui Tumpa, Andrés Ibáñez, Che Guevara, Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, Luis Espinal and many of my fallen brothers … (Evo Morales, Inaugural Speech).
President Morales possesses an uncertain sense of moment; even amidst his natural constituency he can often strike a wrong note through excessive extemporisation. However, at his inauguration in Congress he was at pains to make a critique of the past of
historic …, nothing other than a democratic revolution, conducted through the means of suffrage, according to the mechanisms of representative democracy and not by means of street violence.
Yet very few elections are widely accepted as being ‘revolutionary’ so soon after they occur, and even then (as in
The idea of a revolution is the least pertinent here because the outcome of the October crisis has been expressed within a constitutional context, although it is undeniable that perceptions and prejudices about politics, culture and the economy have been substantially modified for the bulk of the population.
At that stage Alvaro García Linera declared
reiterated waves of social uprisings …, which are separated by relative periods of stability, but which, at each step, question or force the modification of … the general structure of political domination.
We might usefully pause here to register the characterisation of social scientists, many of whom take their bearings from Theda Skocpol:
Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below. Social revolutions are set apart from other sorts of conflicts and transformative processes above all by the combination of two coincidences: the coincidence of societal structural change with class upheaval; and the coincidence of political with social transformation. In contrast, rebellions, even when successful, may involve the revolt of subordinate classes–but they do not eventuate in structural change.
One could quibble over the weighting of ‘eventuate’–after all, Zhou Enlai was only stretching a point when he said it was ‘too soon to tell’ what the historical significance of the French Revolution might be. However, the key elements are surely speed and scope of consequence, as noted by Jeff Goodwin:
Revolutions entail not only mass mobilisation and regime change, but also more or less rapid and fundamental social, economic and/or cultural change during or soon after the struggle for power. (What counts as ‘rapid and fundamental’ change, however, is a matter of degree, and the line between it and slower and less basic change can be difficult to draw in practice.)
That is the line we must draw here. The speed is problematic since we can only plot a regularity of popular mobilisation from January 2000, Sánchez de Losada was overthrown in October 2003, and Morales voted into power in December 2005, a process that lasted nearly six years without a single ‘defining moment’.
The scope of consequences is also problematic since Goodwin’s ‘regime change’ is generally understood in the style of Mark Kishlansky: ‘a rapid and unexpected rejection of one form of government for another’. Yet in January 2006 Morales assumed office according to all the same regulations and protocols that obtained for Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, Carlos Mesa and Eduardo Rodríguez before him. It is true that the previous day he had undergone a separate ‘indigenous’ inauguration at
To speak of cyclical history is to remove oneself from modern, progressive civilisation; it is to speak of another type of society, where neither reason nor the optimal use of time are the key elements any more. On the contrary, it will be individuals who control time. It is what I call human happiness in opposition to slavery.’
Is it, then, at all sensible to talk of a ‘revolution’ that was at least six years in the making and that had yet to deliver, in the form of materially implemented public policy, striking changes in the human condition? This may, indeed, be tantamount to a promotion of rhetoric and popular ambition over substantive and lasting change. Yet the first years of the 21st century have continually upheld the images, expectations and behavioural patterns associated with the urgency and emergency of revolution. It is plain that a revolution is widely felt to be under way. Many–let us say a million of the one and a half million who voted for MAS in 2005–want it to succeed through adroit fulfilment of the definitional requirements we have just considered. Others recognise it as itself being ch’enko–a veritable mess that needs to be muddled through and sorted, but through retention of both democratic form and social change. Yet others–certainly not a few, maybe a million too–wish to detain, restrict and even reverse it.
The Bolivian experience shares with other recent radical episodes a combination of mass mobilisation and mass media. This was most vividly exemplified during the presidency of Carlos Mesa, an experienced television presenter who repeatedly made resort to the cameras and public appeals in highly charged discursive efforts to resolve the empate catastófico caused by the highland bloqueos and the civic mobilisation for autonomy by the media luna. At no stage that I can recall in the last six years have television stations throughout the country been closed down other than by common-or-garden apagones. Pace Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution has been televised. Indeed, because the events of the epoch–the elections and constitutional formalities as much as the mobilisations and repression–have been piped into almost every electrified home in the country, we need to take care in assessing the impact of such imagery. For, as a result of the mass media, a process, that might by the lights of sharp academic definition not be at all comparable with 1789, 1917, or 1959, could still be construed as being precisely so by those watching it closely and constantly. Of course, a revolution thought, imagined, or willed does not a revolution make, but this daily exposure to aural and visual recordings of the recent past does serve to transform the lived sense of time (the speed of events) and to affect the demand-delivery gap (either through novela-induced reveries or denuncia-enhanced impatience) and so the scope of ‘change’.
We should take care but not worry. The social science criteria are simply unmeetable in the present or foreseeable future. Zhou Enlai is right for
The prosaic but constant struggle between the peasantry and those who seek to extract labor, food, taxes, rents and interest from them …, forms of class struggle … [that] require little or no coordination or planning; they make use of implicit understandings and informal networks; they often represent a form of individual self-help; they typically avoid any direct, symbolic confrontation with authority.
Equally, the very collectivist qualities of the conflicts of 2000–06, the notable absence of a vanguard political party, and the continued fragilities of MAS all suggest that, whatever has been happening, Bolivia might yet escape what Octavio Paz believed to be ‘the logic of revolutions’:
The most cursory glance at the history of modern revolutions, from the 17th century to the 20th century (England, France, Mexico, Russia, China) shows that in all of them, without exception, from the very first days of the movement, groups possessed of greater initiative and talent for organisation than the majority, and armed with a doctrine, make their appearance. These groups very soon separate themselves from the multitudes. In the beginning they listen to and follow the multitudes; later they guide them; later still they represent them, and eventually they supplant them.
The idea that the present experience constitutes a third Bolivian revolution is by no means original. Adolfo Gilly, who still has enough of the Trotskyist about him to be demanding of quantitative as well as qualitative criteria, has described it as such. So have Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, who, like Gilly, identify the first in the uprisings of 1780–82 (led, amongst others, by Tupaj Katari whose movement was linked to the Cuzco-centred insurrection of José Gabriel Túpac Amaru), and the second in the ‘National Revolution’ opened by the armed rising of 9–11 April 1952 and led by the MNR until its overthrow by the military in November 1964.
I agree that the present process is quite distinguishable from that of ‘1952’, which can now almost be thought a cause of 2000–06 by virtue of its insufficiencies. However, even in a rather shallow numbers game, I have reservations about the inclusion of the Tupaj Katari rebellion within any category identified as ‘
Within revolutionary nationalist discourse, it was the creole independence movement that generated most historical attention. 1781, by contrast, was much more difficult to accommodate within nationalist memory and teleology … The severed head of Tupaj Katari can find no convenient niche in the nationalist pantheon … 1781 stands for antagonism and a parting of the ways between creole elites and the indigenous majority.
It may even be excessive to say that 1781 was a revolt to restore Kollasuyo that fed–eventually and with many extra elements–into the invention of
Moreover, in his detailed deconstruction of the late-eighteenth century movement, Thomson argues that the war around
the result of atavistic impulses on the part of Indian insurgents, nor of other putatively pre-political sorts of anti-colonial nativism, peasant utopianism, or subaltern class fury. What came to be seen by elites at the time and thereafter as ‘race war’ in
Forty years later the creoles would act alone, albeit with the support of popular guerrilla forces until the royalists were defeated by an invading patriot army headed by a Venezuelan (Bolívar) and a Colombian (Sucre). Bolívar initially resented and resisted the invention of a new republic by the local creoles led by Casimiro Olañeta, but once reconciled to it (whether by the flattering nomenclature or through recognition of a formidable localist sentiment amongst the elite), he wrote a constitution which distinguished between ‘Bolivians’ (‘All those born in the territory of the Republic’; Article 10.1) and ‘Citizens’ (amongst the requirements for which were ‘To know how to read and write’ and ‘To have some employment … without subjection to another person’; Articles 13.3 and 13.4). This is why Evo Morales and MAS now want to ‘refound’ Bolivia. Their programme is for the full and enduring reversal of that foundational distinction, which was only formally abolished after the Revolution of 1952.
Yet, set aside the issue of ‘Bolivianness’, the parallels between 1781 and 2000–06 are striking. Of course, the 1781 siege was of a walled town some ten blocks wide and six deep, reliant for its defence on holding the bridges over the Rivers Choqueyapu and Mejahuira (watercourses that have long since been built over in the modern city centre), as well as the surrender to the rebel forces of the then outlying Church of San Francisco, now the central site of mass demonstrations. Equally, the eighteenth-century conflict was fully military in character, with no quarter spared on either side. Nicholas Robins estimates that a third of the town’s population, some 10,000 people, died, mostly of starvation. A very large number of the attacking forces, which plainly served in communally organised shifts, as in recent years, was killed in frequent assaults. In the 1780s El Alto was not a settlement of any size but it still formed the physical and psychological skyline. Spanish accounts of the siege relate the impact of Tupaj Katari’s descents from the altiplano, usually in a red jacket, although on one occasion the self-styled viceroy made a striking appearance adorned in gilded armour with a brooch of the sun on his chest, in the style of the Inka–not exactly the sartorial equivalent of Evo’s sweater but also not without some iconographic similarity.
In 1781 the besieging forces were unable to deprive
Everybody asked to go to the city, so that the centre of the dominant bureaucracy and aristocracy could be besieged. All this revived the memory of the siege of
If, as E. P. Thompson reminds us, the labouring poor of eighteenth-century England left very few documents, fewer still remain to provide us with clues as to the thoughts and actions of humble folk in the eighteenth-century Andes. Today, though, television and radio provide constant documentary dissemination, so the way 1781 is ‘remembered’ is played out before our eyes, and it obviously does not exclude racist behaviour by the subaltern classes. The ribald remarks directed at the outraged creole ladies in 2000 had, by June 2005, been replaced by much more overtly aggressive activity. In the mobilisation that brought down the Mesa government there was widespread shouting of abuse between marchers and onlookers and scattered physical attacks by the protesters, according to La Razón particularly against men wearing ties. Félix Patzi, ever the enragé, would have felt little sympathy for the ‘pastiche’ radicalism of the feminist group Mujeres Creando, whose marvellously provocative behaviour meant that they only escaped a prolonged beating by dint of intervention by the riot police, who in ‘normal circumstances’ might themselves have relished the chance to be the aggressors.
The most remarkable aspect of all this is how little violence occurred in 2000–06, given the scale of the popular mobilisation, the material and ideological interests at stake, and the strength of the historical tributaries flowing into such social antagonism. If we add the approximately 70 cocaleros killed since the restoration of constitutional government in 1982 to the equal number shot down in what might be termed the ‘25th Vendémiaire of Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada’ during October 2003, and the 30 killed in February 2003, plus the casualties on both ‘sides’ of lesser clashes, the total certainly does not exceed 300 lives lost–around the same number of casualties as in 1952 and far fewer than in 1781. This might be explained by the ‘schizophrenic’ character of the military or by the smallness of the police force. Though, recalling de Tocqueville, it surely has more to do with the fact that society–or, for those who can see ‘Two Bolivias’, societies–did not, at some elemental level, want a civil war as a repetition of the 1780s. That prolonged campaign of social and political ‘nullification’ through strike and bloqueo which exasperated so many could very well be welcomed in retrospect as an extended and elaborate exercise in evading something far more tragic. Tupaj Katari deployed some rather inefficient siege catapults as well as the sling and lance that were the arms of his infantry and, yes, cavalry, but the rebels eschewed the regular use of firearms. Even with their fractured identities and limited ordnance, the contemporary security forces could have inflicted a hugely greater toll than any in the past.
James Dunkerley is Director, Institute for the Study of the Americas, School of Advanced Study, and Professor of Politics, Queen Mary,
First published at Journal of Latin American Studies
1 G. Gray (ed.), La economía más allá del gas (2nd edn., La Paz, 2005), p. 258.
2 Council on Hemispheric Affairs,
3 Quoted in H. C. F. Mansilla, El carácter conservador de la nación boliviana (Santa Cruz, 2004), p. 14.
4 The Economist,
5 The Paranoid Style in American Politics (New York, 1965), pp. 3 and 5.
6 F. Hylton and S. Thomson, ‘The Chequered Rainbow’, New Left Review 35 (2005), p. 44.
7 La Razón,
8 Quoted in Julio Cotler, ‘
9 El Diario, 30 Feb. 2002.
10 Evo Morales y El Retorno de la Izquierda Nacionalista (La Paz, 2006), p. 19.
11 T. Platt, T. Bouysse-Cassagne, O. Harris, with T. Saignes, Qaraqara-Charka. Mallku, Inka y Rey en la Provincia de Charcas (Siglos XV–XVII) (La Paz, 2006).
12 J.-P. Lavaud, L’instabilité politique de L’Amérique Latine: le cas de Bolivie (Paris, 1991), p. 19; C. Mesa Gisbert, Presidentes de Bolivia: entre urnas y fusiles (La Paz, 2003). It is a little disappointing to see how little has changed since I wrote over two decades ago: ‘The newspapers trot out the mathematics of disorder–all of it fifth-hand and incorrect–but do not pose the question that if disorder is so prevalent, might it not be order itself? Could there not be a system in the chaos? Should it not be understood less as interruption than continuity?’ See James Dunkerley, Rebellion in the Veins. Political Struggle in
13 La Razón,
14 Democracy in
15 ‘Las masas en noviembre’, in R. Zavaleta Mercado (ed.), Bolivia hoy (Mexico City, 1983), p. 51.
16 El Juguete Rabioso, 26 Oct. 2003; ‘La crisis del estado y las sublevaciones indígeno-plebeyas’, in A. García Linera, R. Prada, and L. Tapia, Memorias de Octubre (La Paz, 2004), pp. 51 and 58; O. Oliveira, in collaboration with T. Lewis, Cochabamba! Water War in
17 La Razón,
18 Isabel Hilton, The Guardian,
19 Johann Hari, The Independent,
20 The Guardian,
21 ‘The Bankers Can Rest Easy. Evo Morales: All Growl, No Claws?’,
22 ‘The Chequered Rainbow’, p. 41. For a radical account that is unusually well-informed, see B. Kohl and L. Farthing, Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (London, 2006). For a variety of stimulating academic accounts, see the special section edited by S. Lazar and J. A. McNeish, ‘The Millions Return? Democracy in
23 Evo Morales y el retorno, pp. 98 ff.
24 Pulso, no. 250, 4–10 Feb. 2004.
25 ‘Chequered Rainbow’, p. 50.
26 Pulso, no. 224, 21–27 Nov. 2003.
27 El Nuevo Día, 24 Dec. 2003, quoted in T’inkazos, no. 16 (May 2004), pp. 17–18.
28 The Economist,
29 ‘And why, exactly, Aymara? To discuss, in Aymara, with “Brother” Hugo Chávez? To rave against the system? To recover the sea along the lines of “¡Que se rinda tu abuela, carajo!” To compare Andean and US technologies? To have fun with the NGOs? To gas away with the Spaniards?’ Pedro Shimose, ‘Bibliófilos y bibliófobos’, La Razón,
30 Compare these two quotations: ‘In social theory, the “truths”, the evidence, the legitimations are cultural caprices resulting from the historical trajectory of the structure and the operation of the intellectual field, of its processes of accumulation, verification and internal competence that have enshrined a certain mode of understanding, investigating and naming the world.’ (‘Qué es la democracia?’, in A. García Linera, R. Gutiérrez, R. Prada, L. Tapia, Pluriverso. Teoría política boliviana (La Paz, 2001), p. 81), and ‘No tibilín (little twit), no little Red Riding Hood, no Tuto, can reverse the nationalisation of hydrocarbons … Podemos would benefit from a little reading, a little visiting of barrios and communities, a bath in the reality of the people’s needs, that would improve their speeches a bit.’ (La Razón,
31 La producción del conocimiento local: historia y política en la obra de René Zavaleta (La Paz, 2002); La velocidad del pluralismo: ensayo sobre tiempo y democracia (La Paz, 2002).
32 La Razón, 11 Apr. 2006.
33 Pagina 12 (Buenos Aires), 10 Apr. 2006.
34 ‘We want to refound the country, politics, democracy with our own hands: campesinos, workers, professionals, businessmen, different ethnic groups and indigenous peoples, all united, a country for us, for all. Political life is a right to all and not just for a few. It is not practised exclusively through the vote at elections. It is a daily practice, incarnated in the opinion, viewpoint, demands and campaigns of all and any individual and collectivity.’ Comunicado del Movimiento al Socialismo, 13 Oct. 2003, in Observatorio social de América Latina, vol. 4, no. 12 (Buenos Aires, 2004), p. 72.
35 La Razón,
36 The Guardian, 3 May 2006.
37 Rostros de la democracia (La Paz, 2006), p. 15.
38 Juguete Rabioso,
40 States and Social Revolutions (
41 No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945–1991 (
42 ‘Ironed Corpses Clattering in the Wind’,
43 Pulso, 244, 23–29 Apr. 2004. See also F. Patzi Paco, ‘Rebelión indígena contra la colonialidad y la transnacionalización de la economía: triunfos y vicisitudes del movimiento indígena desde 2000 a 2003’, in F. Hylton, F. Patzi, S. Serulnikov, S. Thomson, Ya es otro tiempo el presente: cuatro momentos de insurgencia indígena (La Paz, 2003).
44 Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale, 1985), p. xvi.
45 ‘The Contaminations of Contingency’, in One Earth, Four or Five Worlds (
46 La Jornada (Mexico City), 26 Jan. 2006.
47 ‘Revolutionary Memory in
48 We Alone Will Rule: Native Andean Politics in the Age of Insurgency (
49 J. L. Roca, 1809. La revolución de la Audiencia de Charcas en Chuquisaca y en La Paz (La Paz, 1998); G. Mendoza (ed.), José Santos Vargas. Diario de un comandante de la independencia americana, 1814–1825 (Mexico City, 1982); R. Arze, Participación popular en la independencia de Bolivia (La Paz, 1979).
50 ‘The Bolivian Constitution (1826)’, in D. Bushnell (ed.), El Libertador. Writings of Simón Bolívar (
51 N. Robins, Native Insurgencies and the Genocidal Impulse in the
52 M. E. del Valle de Siles (ed.), Francisco Tadeo Diez de Medina. Diario del Cerco de La Paz, 1781 (La Paz, 1981), p. 120; Testimonios del Cerco de La Paz. El Campo contra la Ciudad, 1781 (La Paz, 1980), p. 86.
53 ‘Rebelión indígena’, in Ya es otro tiempo, pp. 215–6; 219–20.
54 ‘The Patricians and the Plebs’, in Customs in Common (Harmondsworth, 1993), p. 18.
55 La Razón,
56 ‘In Europe … there have emerged postmodern social movements, such as the movements of women, ecologists, homosexuals, etc. … in Bolivia the middle class and certain intellectual circles previously affiliated with the left are not analysing their own condition because of their pastiche behaviour … the only option is to imitate what comes from outside.’ See ‘Rebelión indígena’, in Ya es otro tiempo, p. 202. María Galindo, the driving force behind Mujeres Creando and author of the slogan ‘Indias, putas, lesbianas juntas revueltas y hermanadas’, is fully Patzi’s match in the hard-fought contest to be Bolivia’s lippiest iconoclast: ‘Evo is beautiful, his skin is coffee like cacao, his political record is of demonstrations and yet more demonstrations, and his anti-imperialism is today by far the most important thing. That he might be an irresponsible father who pays nothing to his family and up to today has refused to recognise his daughter has had, still has, and will have no importance, none at all. What’s more, it makes him all the more “authentic”, especially because Evo is not Eva and has no story to tell about his body, his desires and his defects’: ‘No saldrá Eva de la costilla de Evo’, circulated by email, 15 Feb. 2006.
57 C. Méndez, ‘Incas Sí, Indios No: Notes on Peruvian Creole Nationalism and Its Contemporary Crisis’, JLAS vol. 28, no. 1 (1996), pp. 197–225. I am most grateful to Natalia Sobrevilla, preparing a new biography of