When Túpaj Katari, the Aymara leader of an 18th century anti-colonial insurrection, was condemned to death by Spanish colonialists, he prophesized: “I may die alone, but I will return and I will be millions.” Some Bolivians consider the indigenous-led rebellions of 2000-2003 to be a fulfillment of that prophecy. Katari’s words resonated most forcefully in October 2003 when the country’s predominantly indigenous social movements converged in mass mobilizations, breathtaking in their scale and determination, to transform the country’s political landscape.
Bolivia’s past—its histories, official and suppressed—are tangibly present in the current efforts of Bolivians to command their future. “Today, these histories explode with a fury accumulated over centuries,” observes one of our authors, recounting the oppressive bonds that Bolivians now strain to break.
This nation in the heart of the Andes is not only landlocked; it is encircled by the legacies of its colonial past. A racist socioeconomic hierarchy still divides the population into a lighter-skinned, Westernized elite that rules in its own interests, aligned with the predatory ends of global capital, and an increasingly disenfranchised indigenous majority. The political classes remain largely subordinate to the dictates of foreign powers, recalling colonial relations of yore.
Coca eradication is the most notable instance of foreign intervention in Bolivia’s domestic affairs. At Washington’s insistence, U.S.-trained Bolivian security forces implement a “repressive policy designed to separate campesinos from their livelihoods without providing viable alternatives,” as this Report details, exposing some of Bolivia’s most vulnerable citizens to severe abuse and frequent casualties. A byproduct of this policy is the growing militancy of the coca growers’ movement, which helped unleash the insurrectionary cycle begun in 2000.
The recent social upheavals, however, coalesced most vigorously around the outright rejection of reigning economic policies. These policies cause the “daily and unpunished violation of individual and collective rights,” states an article in this Report. They also facilitate the foreign appropriation of Bolivia’s remaining natural riches. Here, too, Bolivians’ historical memory lies just below the surface. They passionately opposed the planned exploitation and sale of the country’s vast natural gas reserves by foreign corporations in 2003, ousting a president and capturing the world’s attention in the process. Bolivians have not forgotten the centuries during which they were stripped of their one-time wealth of resources—namely, silver and tin—nor the recent past in which national industries and public services were privatized.
But Bolivia’s past manifests itself today in more hopeful ways as well. Popular forces draw upon a collective memory of past struggle, from the anti-colonial indigenous uprisings to the Revolution of 1952 and more recent “national-popular” mobilizations, as they stand up to demand change. As the old order is challenged, the past also offers inspiration for formulating alternatives. Many members of Bolivia’s social movements are affirming their indigenous identities and are actively employing native symbols and cultural resources in their political actions and their efforts to conceptualize new national projects. Similarly, amid the ruins of Bolivia’s rural economy some exemplary experiences of grassroots development are being built upon the country’s ancient Andean heritage.
As an article in this Report notes, “it is a time of great promise, but one whose outcome remains unforeseeable.” What is certain, however, is that Bolivians have dealt an inspiring blow to the vestiges of colonial injustice in their country and, simultaneously, to the neoliberal order. In so doing, they have offered us an urgent lesson on reclaiming political space.