Bull Horns and Dynamite: Echoes of Revolution in Bolivia

February 25, 2009

On October 17, 2003, as the Bolivian state was collapsing and the toppled president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada fled to Miami, tin mine workers from Huanuni poured into La Paz to celebrate the popular insurgency’s victory with blasts of dynamite, their daily work tool turned class weapon. The explosions echoed the uprising of April 9, 1952, when mine workers from Milluni joined factory workers in La Paz to attack troops defending the oligarchic old regime. Yet much had changed between the mid-century insurrection—known in Bolivia as the National Revolution, that brought to power President Víctor Paz Estenssoro and his Revolutionary National Movement (MNR)—and the overthrow of the neoliberal government run by a transformed MNR a half-century later.

Bolivia’s neoliberal restructuring, begun in 1985, had drastically altered mine workers’ lives. Laborers in state-run mines, who after the National Revolution formed a key sector of the national economy and whose trade-union organizations led the country’s popular movements, were devastated by neoliberal shock treatment applied by the MNR’s Paz Estenssoro and a younger Sánchez de Lozada. More than 20,000 workers were laid off, the state mining firm (COMIBOL) was dismantled, and the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) organization declined in power and influence. When workers from the mining town of Huanuni converged on La Paz in 2003, they were no longer unionized with benefits in the state company, but rather members of self-organized cooperatives, most of whom scraped out a living on the margins of the formal economy and at the daily edge of hunger.1

The popular insurrection of October 2003 also reflected new political conditions prevailing in the country. Since the once powerful COB no longer effectively represented the multiplicity of urban, informal, and rural workers, popular forces mobilized in independent and loosely coordinated fashion. With the proletarian vanguard crushed, political protagonism passed into new hands: the peasant trade-union confederation (CSUTCB), under the radical Indian leadership of Felipe Quispe, which had organized waves of revolt beginning in 2000; the coca growers’ federations in the Chapare region under the leadership of Evo Morales, which combined collective action with electoral gains at local and then congressional levels; and urban movements that emerged in the Cochabamba Water War of 2000 and eventually in the Aymara city of El Alto overlooking La Paz. As the popular insurgency came to a head in 2003, it choked off the capital city in a siege reminiscent of the great Aymara Indian insurrection led by Tupaj Katari against the Spaniards in 1781. The bellowing sound of the pututu—the bull horn blown by Aymara community members for centuries in times of mobilization—echoed across the Andean high plateau and from the rim overlooking the urban basin of La Paz.2


What difference does a revolution make? Some historians have suggested that, seen in longer-term perspective and in comparison to other countries in the hemisphere, Bolivia would have developed more or less in the same way if it had not undergone a revolution 50 years ago.3 According to legend, when Zhou Enlai was asked what he thought of the French Revolution, he paused for a moment and then replied: “It’s too early to tell.” In a sense, the same could be said for Bolivia’s National Revolution. Some of its effects were unintentional, and some remain only barely visible today. Its significance continues to unfold as Bolivian history unfolds in the present. Despite the passage of time, the meaning of the National Revolution remains open.

The MNR’s proclaimed goals were nationalization of the tin mines, agrarian and educational reform, and universal suffrage. COMIBOL took direct control of the Patiño, Aramayo, and Hochschild mining interests, which together generated 45% of Bolivian exports and 95% of state revenues. The agrarian reform, Latin America’s deepest after that of Mexico, broke the back of the big landlords—6% of property owners had held 92% of the cultivated land. As the peasantry was enfranchised, the voting base expanded from 200,000 to 1 million. Free public education was made available to all.

Yet the National Revolution was linked to other broad, less immediately obvious effects as well. As haciendas were broken up and displaced landlords left the countryside, social mobility increased. Some peasant families assumed greater commercial and political influence in rural towns, and sent their children to the cities for schooling. The MNR’s distribution of land and unionization of the peasantry allowed for greater state hegemony in the countryside. Party clientelism and patronage incorporated broader sectors of the populace. Nationalist ideology spread more widely within Bolivian society.

When military dictatorships seized the helm of state in the 1960s and 1970s, they did not abandon the revolutionary nationalist model as a whole. After the 1964 coup, General René Barrientos did crack down on the more radical sectors of the proletariat and the left that were heirs of the revolution, as part of a U.S.-backed anti-Communist crusade. However, he also preserved the state’s revolutionary compact with the peasantry, which in effect drove a wedge between workers and their former rural allies. When General Hugo Banzer began to forsake the peasantry in the 1970s, he still relied heavily on the state-capitalist model of development set in 1952.

But the unionization of peasants in 1953 also gave them a vehicle of organization that could be turned against authoritarian regimes starting in the 1970s. A new generation of activists linked to the countryside also emerged in the cities and universities in this period. These were the children of those who had benefited from the hacienda’s redistribution of land and who were themselves taking advantage of the openings in the education system. The peasantry thus began to recover a tradition of autonomous mobilization that had originally contributed to the success of the revolution and agrarian reform in the early 1950s.4 It also began to make common cause with proletarian unions, where the radical political consciousness of the revolutionary period had been kept alive, under the general umbrella of the COB, whose congresses regularly declared socialism to be workers’ ultimate objective, anti-imperialism as an ongoing struggle, and national-state sovereignty as a basic principle for economic organization.5

Memory of the revolution and criticism of the MNR’s retreat from it, under the aegis of the United States, were deeply embedded in popular and syndicalist political culture. In 1964, the military coup “fired upon the cadaver of a revolution,” in the words of Bolivian writer Sergio Almaraz, who composed its requiem:

The constructive impulse of the revolution was dead. The revolution shrank to fit the measurements indicated by the Americans, whose proportions they found in the country’s own misery. It was thought possible to make the revolution while making use of American money. The Alliance for Progress, in harmony with this philosophy, showed its results: a latrine, a sanitary post, motorcycles for the police. It was the time of minor resistance. The time of small things, “reasonable and feasible,” as the saying went.6

The tone was funereal, but in the lament there remained the latent memory of the revolution’s unfulfilled potential.


The National Revolution had its 50th anniversary on April 9, 2002, but the MNR held only a brief and perfunctory ceremony in the Plaza Murillo of La Paz, attracting no crowds and little media attention. By the mid-1950s, the MNR had backed away, taking small steps, from the initial radical impulse of the revolution. In 1985, in a bold counter-revolutionary step, Paz Estenssoro justified the neoliberal restructuring on the grounds that “the country is dying on us.” His remedy was to administer a lethal dose of free-market reforms to the National Revolution’s economic model.

The MNR’s former allies did not defend the revolution either. The mine workers and the COB had not recovered from the structural adjustment. The peasantry had cast off its clientelist relation with the state, and the katarista union movement had questioned the limits of the agrarian reform as well as the revolution’s effort to turn “Indians” into “peasants,” converting ethnicity into class identity for purposes of national cohesion. (The katarista movement, which emerged in the 1970s, took its name from the anti-colonial hero of 1781, Tupaj Katari, and called for an end to both capitalist class exploitation and ongoing forms of internal colonialism.) Thus in 2002, with the Bolivian state collapsing, the cycle of the National Revolution was clearly exhausted. The memory of 1952 felt remote even to those who had once given rise to the revolution, benefited from it, and basked in its glory.

Bolivian political theorist René Zavaleta Mercado once wrote, “Social classes and people make history thinking that they make it when in reality they repeat it unconsciously ..."7 Despite the appearance of historical distance, there were in fact unconscious connections between the mid-century revolutionary period and the political transformations under way since 2000. For one thing, the cycle of popular insurgencies between 2000 and 2005 were part of a tradition of rural and urban insurrection that dated back to the earlier revolutionary period. Indigenous leaders and communities launched a broadly coordinated and powerful uprising in 1947—arguably the largest rural mobilization of the 20th century, as historian Laura Gotkowitz notes—that undermined landlord power even before the MNR came to power. Ongoing community land seizures forced the MNR into declaring the agrarian reform in 1953. These mobilizations were followed by renewed ones beginning in the 1970s, and the capacity for collective action has been a constant in post-revolutionary society.

The mine workers who descended on La Paz with their charges of dynamite were themselves the heirs of earlier struggles. They had participated in an abortive uprising in 1949, together with the MNR, as well as the National Revolution, and would later mobilize to protest authoritarian and neoliberal regimes from the 1960s to the 1980s. The militant political culture of mine workers “relocated” by neoliberalism also spread unexpectedly to the unions of coca growers in the Chapare lowlands and to the neighborhood organizations of El Alto.

It also proved surprising that the national-popular political consciousness linked to the mid-century revolution surged again during the popular protests of 2003 and 2005. When the MNR had privatized state firms in the 1990s, popular resistance had been muted and weak. Yet the new uprisings revealed that national sovereignty over strategic natural resources remained central to popular political expectations. Just as radical and popular nationalists in the 1930s and 1940s had demanded “Mines for the state!,” marchers during the latest mobilizations chanted “Gas for Bolivia! Goni out!”


But Zavaleta had gone on to say that those who make history “repeat it unconsciously, while also transforming it.” In 2003, this transformation was evident above all in the new role played by indigenous forces. A new national-popular bloc defending sovereign national interests had coalesced in opposition to a ruling regime of oligarchic elites allied with the global forces of neoliberalism. In this, history seemed to repeat itself. Yet in earlier national-popular formations, Indian and peasant sectors were always the junior partner in the alliance with proletarian organizations and left parties. This time history was different. The peasant movement of the CSUTCB was under the Indianist leadership of Felipe Quispe, and it bore a radical Aymara stamp. Rural communities answering neither to the COB nor to any political party began a phase of insurgency in 2000 that progressively undermined state authority in the provinces.

As popular forces concentrated their wrath on the capital city, urban neighborhoods in El Alto took up the leadership of the popular insurrection.8 El Alto had grown up in the post-revolutionary period as a city of peasant migrants from the countryside. After neoliberal restructuring, it received laid-off workers from the mines and the increasing flux of impoverished workers from the countryside. Middle- and lower-middle-class sectors emerged alongside the dispossessed and desperate urban underclass. Yet the different sectors shared a common indignation over the injustices of neoliberal society, and more than 80% identified themselves with an indigenous people (primarily as Aymara).

The 1952 revolution had sought to dissolve ethnic differences born of colonialism in class alliance and national concord. Yet in the Andean highlands, indigenous culture had generated affirmation in Indian intellectual circles and greater strength through political struggle in the late 20th century. One prominent Aymara intellectual was Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, who had come up with the katarista current of the peasant trade-union movement in the 1970s and then headed a small katarista political party. When Sánchez de Lozada named Cárdenas as his running-mate on the MNR ticket in 1993, it came as a surprise to all. But it also indicated that the creole political establishment had taken notice of the new political context and considered the fertile indigenous arena as worthy of state co-optation in the name of “multiculturalism.” When fiery Felipe Quispe took over the CSUTCB in 1998, he took peasant trade-union politics in a much more radical direction, emphasizing the history of white colonial exploitation of Indians and of racial antagonism. This militant streak infused Indian discourse during the insurgencies of the new millennium.

Another feature of the new political landscape was the emergence of organized and autonomous Indian forces in the eastern lowlands. In the 1990s, groups like the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia and the Assembly of the Guaraní People pressed for demands such as ethnic territory and bilingual education. Their independent growth paralleled the efforts of lowland white elites to acquire greater regional autonomy and resources and to break free of central state control. As the social conflicts in the highlands intensified and threatened to shape national political and economic development, they simultaneously provoked elite reaction and indigenous mobilization in the lowlands. In May and June 2005, the insurrection that began in El Alto and the highland departments quickly spread to the valleys of Chuquisaca and the tropical forests and plains of Santa Cruz. The 1952 revolution had never seen mobilization on such a vast geographical scale.

The coca growers’ trade-union federations in the Chapare lowlands had continued to spearhead popular resistance, especially to the Bolivian and U.S. governments’ impositions justified in the name of the “drug war,” even as the COB declined in the 1990s. Out of the their disciplined ranks emerged a new political party, the Movement to Socialism (MAS), and a dynamic new leader, Evo Morales Ayma, seeking to represent popular interests in the political arena. The cocaleros in the Chapare were largely peasant migrants of Quechua and Aymara ethnic background. Yet laid-off mine workers also entered their ranks, bearing the militant trade-union culture and class consciousness that they had acquired over decades of struggle. Cocalero identity and political discourse were less explicitly ethnic than those of the highland peasant forces, and the personal rivalry between Morales and Quispe further divided popular forces. Yet as the MAS won impressive electoral victories at the municipal and national congressional levels, and as Morales became an increasingly viable candidate for the presidency, MAS political discourse acquired fuller indigenous overtones. By the time of his candidacy in 2005, “compañero Evo” had become also “hermano Evo.”

By the time of the insurgent triumphs of 2003 and 2005, a diverse set of social forces had converged into a new national-popular bloc opposed to the neoliberal model and the traditional political party establishment that managed it. What was unprecedented, however, was the centrality of rural and urban indigenous forces from the highlands, valleys, and lowlands in that bloc. The COB, the historic leader of the popular movement, no longer headed the massive mobilizations, and the former vanguard of mine workers swept in only at the end to secure the popular victory.


The MAS took the national elections in December 2005 with an absolute majority vote, and the traditional parties, beginning with the MNR, suffered a profound defeat. The government spoke of a “democratic and cultural revolution,” and Vice President Álvaro García Linera envisioned a new 50-year period of MAS hegemony. It was evident that García Linera, a sociologist and student of history, was implicitly comparing the MAS’s prospects to MNR rule in the wake of 1952. This itself recalled the MNR’s intellectuals who, in the 1950s, fashioned their own hegemonic pretensions after those of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party.

After coming to power, the Morales government pursued a series of reforms, also partly modeled after those of the MNR. The first of these, the government’s “nationalization” of natural gas and reconstitution of the state hydrocarbons company in 2006, paralleled the nationalization of tin in 1952. Yet the MAS “nationalization” did not entail an outright expropriation of private and foreign firms, as had been the case with tin, but rather a renegotiation of their contracts with the Bolivian state. The terms now in force have boosted state revenues dramatically, although Bolivia still lacks adequate technical and administrative capacity, energy self-sufficiency, and full-fledged economic sovereignty.

The MAS also announced an ambitious agrarian “revolution,” again taking a page from the MNR in 1953. Bolivia’s land tenure system remains grossly unequal, especially in the eastern lowlands, where the 1953 reform never reached and where the military dictatorships passed out lands to their cronies and collaborators. Yet during its first two years in power, the MAS made little progress in redistributing lands there, due to the ferocious resistance of reactionary elites controlling the regionalist opposition in the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando. The MAS “revolution” is not premised on arbitrary property expropriations, contrary to opposition charges, but would simply enforce prior land legislation (dating to the progressive 1938 Constitution, confirmed by the 1953 agrarian reform, and updated by the Ley INRA in the 1990s).

Finally, the government sought to reform the educational system, as the MNR had done in the 1950s, but this was met with hostility by the Catholic Church and the private educational sector. In fact, the MAS sought only modest changes—such as a liberal measure to secularize public education and a multicultural measure to introduce the study of comparative religion—but rather than sustain a fight with the church and the conservative middle class, the MAS preferred to yield.

On these points, despite the opposition’s absurd charges that the MAS is a totalitarian and Communist regime, the MAS’s reform agenda and achievements have as yet been less radical, far-reaching, and effective than those of the MNR in the 1950s.


The revolutionary legacies in Bolivia today can be traced back not only to the National Revolution of 1952, but further back to the period of the great Andean insurrection of 1780–81. The Andes were the site of the greatest challenge to Spanish colonial rule ever seen prior to Latin American independence, and the power of bottom-up communal mobilization was expressed with greatest force in the Aymara districts of La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí. Adolfo Gilly’s observation about historical moments of revolt is pertinent here: “Those moments in which that spirit [of revolt] comes to light and stirs like gale winds . . . can later be suspended and converted into memory and the past. But they also become lived experience and, as a result, ongoing reverberations into all the possible futures of those who lived through those moments as a people.”9

Whether in the form of unconsciously transmitted knowledge and practice, or as consciously elaborated memory and imaginary, the revolutionary moment of 1781 had powerful repercussions that continue to be felt today. Many of the methods and dynamics of Andean insurgency that have repeated themselves in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries were previously rehearsed in the anti-colonial struggles of the 18th century. Historical imagination has been especially acute during the recent revolutionary conjuncture in Bolivia. While the memory of 1952 seemed relatively remote for insurgents, the memory of 1781 was fresh. For both besiegers and besieged, the siege of La Paz in 2003 incited frequent comparison to the 184 days in 1781 when Spaniards were surrounded and reduced to hunger and desperation inside the city’s walls.10

For Indian intellectuals, the Andean idiom for revolution is pachakuti. Pacha signifies time/space, and kuti a turning. This epochal, tumultuous transformation is conceived as occurring rarely, only after a major historical cycle has come to end. The Spanish conquest was one such pachakuti, in this view, and the present is another. The notion of pachakuti began to turn from a millenarian future into the lived present in 1992, at the time of the quincentennial commemorations of the conquest. Masses of Indian community members descended upon and occupied La Paz in a demonstration of strength that seemed to inaugurate a new era. The waves of uprising and overthrow of Sánchez de Lozada gave a new sense of fulfillment to the expectations of change. The election of an Indian president who shared the same symbolic discourse of historical transformation added to the feeling that the pachakuti had taken place or was under way.

For its part, the MAS government is well aware of the expectations for a historic transformation of the indigenous majority’s living conditions. The MAS has called its own agenda a “decolonization” of the state that would end the political exclusion suffered by Indians throughout Bolivia’s colonial and modern republican history. In this sense the historical mission for the MAS must go beyond the expansion of suffrage decreed by the MNR 50 years ago.

Yet the MAS has tended to see its own government as the actual realization of indigenous expectations, rather than as a vehicle for future social fulfillment. Bolivia’s new constitution, approved in the national referendum of January 25, grants significant discursive recognition and symbolic innovations for “peasant originario indigenous peoples and nations” within Bolivian territory. Yet the main institutional reform involving indigenous peoples and the state—“indigenous autonomy”—is a modest revision of existing municipal law. Although the opposition considers the constitution an extreme expression of “indigenismo,” it is a far stretch from the more ambitious mandate for national political participation called for by indigenous organizations.


Although the current historical cycle is still only beginning, the dust is resettling after the revolutionary political explosions in October 2003 and May/June 2005, the electoral landslide of December 2005, and counterrevolutionary storms in Chuquisaca, Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando through September 2008. The moment has shifted from a revolutionary opening in which mobilized subaltern forces brought down the political establishment and set a new agenda for national political and economic life. It is now a time in which a governing party and its opposition negotiate power in the halls of Congress, with civil society looking on, and in which a constitutional text drafted through compromise defines the outlines of the new society. The arena for decision making over the destiny of the country is shifting back from the plaza to the palace.

Ultimately, it is always “too early to tell,” but it is nonetheless appropriate to cast a glance ahead, even beyond Morales’s terms in office, to look at what has changed in the current era and what future echoes and legacies may be. First, Bolivia is emerging from its current revolutionary conjuncture with a new international standing. Whereas the MNR quickly fell under U.S. tutelage in the Cold War 1950s, the Bolivian government’s ouster of U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg in September signals a historic break. As U.S. hegemony in the region wanes in the early 21st century, Bolivia’s future will be entwined more than ever with that of its South American neighbors.

Bolivia has also approved a new constitution that will reframe its institutions and be a subject of dispute in future debates over the nation. The constitution will reconfirm national sovereignty over the exploitation of strategic natural resources, as the national-popular bloc was seeking. Yet it will also devolve some federal power and resources to the country’s newly “autonomous” departments, in a victory for the lowland regions and their conservative elites.

Finally, indigenous forces have acquired a renewed historical protagonism. Their gains in the new constitution are institutionally limited and discursive (e.g., Bolivia redefined as a “plurinational” republic). Yet the effects of their direct intervention in national affairs have been powerful and profound, shattering the status quo and legitimacy of neoliberalism and placing the subaltern majority at the center of future struggles and debates in the country. In the aftermath of such an intensive political phase, the advances and frustrations of the current process will impel a new generation of formerly marginalized actors to participate in public life. To be sure, the memory of revolution and aspiration for pachakuti will continue to fire the Bolivian political imagination for decades to come.

Sinclair Thomson teaches history at New York University. He is the author of We Alone Will Rule: Native Andean Politics in the Age of Insurgency (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002) and, with Forrest Hylton, Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007).

1. Dunia Mokrani, “Pensar la política en Bolivia desde Huanuni,” Pensamiento de los confines 19 (2006).

2. Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007).

3. See Merilee Grindle and Pilar Gamarra, eds., Proclaiming Revolution: Bolivia in Comparative Perspective (Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University, and Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, 2002).

4. Laura Gotkowitz, A Revolution for Our Rights: Indigenous Struggles for Land and Justice in Bolivia, 1880–1952 (Duke University Press, 2007).

5. For the post-revolutionary period, see James Dunkerley, Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia, 1952–1982 (Verso, 1984).

6. Sergio Almaraz Paz, Requiem para una república (La Paz: Amigos del Libro, 1969), 16–17.

7. René Zavaleta Mercado, Lo nacional-popular en Bolivia (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1986), 149.

8. Luis Gómez, El Alto de pie: una insurrección aymara en Bolivia (La Paz: Textos Rebeldes, 2004).

9. Adolfo Gilly, prologue to Hylton and Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons, xix.

10. On the long-term political culture of insurrection in the southern Andes, see the introduction by Hylton and Thomson to Forrest Hylton, Felix Patzi, Sergio Serulnikov, and Sinclair Thomson, Ya es otro tiempo el presente: cuatro momentos de insurgencia indígena (La Paz: Muela del Diablo, 2003).


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