The Roots of Rebellion, II. Reclaiming the Nation

September 25, 2007

The U.S. government allows the Bolivian government only the minimal amount of wiggle room required to keep the masses at bay: a shred of maneuverability to neutralize the demands of the indigenous and working population. But Washington’s serious miscalculations created an explosive situation in which the government in La Paz is hostage to contradictory policies that the country’s social movements constantly challenge. The result is an unprecedented crisis of the Bolivian state, which has effectively lost its legitimacy and territorial control. Consequently, political spaces have emerged that are organized, maintained and occupied outside the dominant state system.[1] Indeed, since 2000 indigenous and popular uprisings have completely changed the face of Bolivia’s political system.

The crisis of the state in Bolivia has actually been incubating for quite some time, but it only received international attention with the uprisings of February and October 2003, or perhaps earlier with the “water war” of Cochabamba in April 2000. After decades of invisibility and silence, our country again astonished the world with the vigor and radical nature of its popular mobilizations, which were surely seen from abroad as spasmodic, irrational convulsions, product of an accumulated, latent discontent.[2] In reality, however, they were remarkably coherent expressions of a collective consciousness with deep historical roots, announcing an alternative vision for Bolivian society. Bolivians have periodically asserted similar alternate national visions in the past at critical junctures when the exclusionary state has fallen into crisis.

Indeed, there are strong threads connecting recent episodes of social mobilization to the period of social turbulence that produced the “State of ’52.” Many of the same social actors, propelled by the same history, traditions and grievances, have arisen again now, and their upsurge stems in large part from the deterioration and collapse of the unstable social pact established through the Revolution of 1952.

The political configuration known as the “State of ’52” defused and contained the radical momentum of the 1952 national revolution, a popular insurrection that threatened to overturn the then-reigning social order. Despite introducing important structural changes that produced substantial social gains—universal suffrage, greater labor rights, nationalization of industry, agrarian reform—the State of ’52 inaugurated an enduring system of control and cooptation that long forestalled the renewal of independent political action by the popular and indigenous masses. Many Bolivians have subtly resisted or subverted the precepts of this system; on occasion, oppositional movements have challenged it directly. But until the recent crisis, this system of governance had managed to precariously sustain itself and keep a lid on challenges from below. But no longer: the stopgap State of ’52 has crumbled, and today’s popular-indigenous movements are resuming the unfinished insurrections of the past.

The post-1952 state system was first destabilized somewhat in the mid-1960s by union militancy in the mining sector, but various military governments salvaged it through the so-called “Military-Campesino Pact.” The pact was used by the regime of Gen. René Barrientos (1964-1969) to turn campesino unions against the radical autonomous miners’ unions. During this time the state subordinated indigenous-campesino organizations to its own authoritarian and clientelistic apparatus, manipulating these organizations as instruments to quell the miners’ activism.[3]

The crisis of the state began in earnest in 1974 during the dictatorship of Gen. Hugo Bánzer with the massacre of unarmed campesinos at a demonstration in Cochabamba. The “Massacre of Tolata” left 80 dead and hundreds injured. The legitimacy of the state eroded and an oppositional indigenous movement arose. This movement articulated indigenous-campesino unionism with an ideology inspired by the anti-colonial uprisings of the 18th century, especially the 1780-1781 rebellion led by Túpaj Katari and Bartolina Sisa. This “Katarista-Indianista” reawakening among the indigenous-campesino unions of the altiplano (highland plateau) and the Aymara-Quechua valleys resulted in the founding of the independent Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers (CSUTCB) and several indigenous political parties. This reemergence of a popular, indigenous-based political and ideological countercurrent to the state anticipated and informed today’s movements.

The subsequent tumultuous era of dictatorships and brief democratic interludes (1978-1982) gave way, finally, to a period of representative democracy monopolized by traditional parties of both the right and the left. These parties entered into alliances among themselves to reaffirm control of the state apparatus by a minority of Creole Spanish background.

Under this arrangement, the legitimacy of the political order continued to dissolve. And the deep contradictions of Bolivian “democracy” became more and more apparent and increasingly subject to challenge. Bolivia’s representative democratic system is characterized by a rampant clientelism that creates an insidious façade of mass participation while reinforcing colonial mechanisms of exclusion and fragmentation. The system is dominated by a racist elite culture that renounces and denies the discourse of the popular and indigenous multitudes, which ultimately express themselves most forcibly through collective action. Already during the early 1980s, their strikes, mass mobilizations and marches became increasingly confrontational, testifying to the exclusionary nature of formal democracy. Bolivian democracy, as it currently exists, is incapable of processing indigenous and popular demands unless forced to do so by insurgent action.

The crisis of the state reached a critical point with the policies of structural adjustment introduced in 1985, and the commencement in 1988 of the militarized campaign to eradicate coca. Structural adjustment measures privatized state enterprises; deregulated markets, salaries and prices; eroded the negotiating power of unions; and dismantled traditional agriculture. All of which created unprecedented migratory waves to cities and centers of industrial agriculture. The few legitimizing vestiges of the State of ’52—high public employment, a degree of labor protection (albeit through controlled unions), a measure of economic sovereignty, partial protection for domestic industry and agricultural producers—were wiped away almost in a single stroke. The U.S.-directed “war on drugs” represented a further ceding of sovereignty to the colonial masters of the North. Not only is coca a valued cultural asset, but it also constitutes one of the few viable economic pursuits remaining to many Bolivians.

Urban and rural indigenous movements created their own strategies of resistance to these processes. Their strategies were not only anchored in the memory of the anti-colonial battles of the past, but also in the more “recent memory” of their incorporation to the political arena with the Revolution of 1952, which extended a de facto citizenship to sectors previously excluded and negated. This citizenship, however, came at a cost: the westernization of their practices of representation and way of life. In this sense, the political and economic system created a precarious hegemonic model of a mestizo citizen: a consumer and producer of merchandise, a speaker of Spanish and an aspirant to a western ideal of civilization.

Nevertheless, behind this veneer of seeming conformity, indigenous communities and their unions expressed their own identity and demands to mold hope for an “other” democracy: one that speaks Quechua or Aymara and that is communitarian and participatory (asambleísta). This is the form of democracy that was activated in full force during the road blockades of 2000-2003, and on a regional scale with sector-specific demands during the water war and during mobilizations against coca eradication and against the marginalization of the indigenous population more generally.

It would be wrong to perceive these incidents of resistance as lacking in overriding collective vision or will. Behind these regional mobilizations are nodes of popular action: the altiplano of La Paz and Oruro, and the coca-growing regions of Cochabamba and the Yungas. These nodes, as Aymara sociologist Pablo Mamani Ramirez has shown, have generated a set of repertoires for common action that reveal a functioning collective memory as indigenous people, rather than fragmented regions or communities.[4] The conscious, political use of shared symbols of indigenous identity, like the wiphala—the rainbow-checkered Aymara flag—and the coca leaf, exemplify this. Like the Katarista-Indianista mobilizations of the 1970s and 1980s, today’s social actors articulate indigenous-campesino demands with dimensions of ethnicity, citizenship and anti-colonialism towards the state.

The modalities of contemporary struggle also differ from past, more corporatist forms. Various present day movements are no longer simply making demands of the state; they are entering the state arena directly. Both the CSUTCB and the cocalero movement have shifted their emphasis from advocacy and unionism to political action. The cocalero movement catapulted itself into national politics in the elections of 1997 when it put four congressional deputies in the lower house of the Bolivian Congress. In the following municipal elections, leaders who reached prominence through the cocalero unions won five municipalities in the Chapare, while dozens of leaders throughout the country began entering municipal politics by way of popular and union organizations.

With this groundwork laid, the elections of 2002 brought a fundamental rupture in the caste-based, restricted democracy that was beginning to actively reconstitute itself after the cooptation of indigenous demands in the 1980s. With more than half a million votes and a third of all parliamentary seats, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS, the new cocalero-based party), became the country’s second most important political force. Although it was favored in the departments of La Paz and Cochabamba, its success did not only stem from cocalero support. It was also the preferred party in the departments of Oruro and Potosí, which do not produce coca. For its part, the Indian Pachakuti Movement (MIP), lead by militant Aymara leader and CSUTCB head Felipe Quispe, won six seats—more than were won by some of the traditional parties.

Such a drastic political change had been unthinkable in 1985 when the Democratic Popular Unity (UDP), a center-left coalition of Creole parties, ended its administration by giving way to the policies of structural adjustment and other doomed reforms. That a majority indigenous electorate would place its confidence in “one of their own”—the first language of both Morales and Quispe is Aymara—instead of a suit and tie from the “gentry” was completely unforeseen. After decades of disciplined clientelism, it became clear that the electorate was no longer a submissive flock without political free will. This, too, revealed the post-1952 system of state control to be decidedly moribund. In the end, the system’s ability to absorb demands or neutralize frustrations was proven tremendously limited by the lack of foresight of the political class, which, as historian Sergio Almaráz described it, “felt itself the owner of a country it despised.”[5]

A nationwide pattern of exhausted clientelism determined that the mobilizations of the new millennium would be articulated from below, and would no longer obey commands from above. Indeed, party politics in Bolivia—even the most radical—have proven incapable of articulating or representing the most essential broad-based collective demands. No matter how well crafted, parties usually succumb to suicidal factionalisms or are simply incapable of integrating the myriad struggles of Bolivia’s diverse social actors. With their innumerable rural-urban networks, Bolivia’s social actors are capable of sustaining denser and more democratic structures of collective political action with a richness and diversity not easily contained within a party structure. Which is why it is so extraordinary that these diverse networks, each with its own perspective and particular social demands, are able to converge on common platforms of vast national reach outside of the political party system.

During the water war (February-April 2000), the prolonged war on coca (1988-present) and the gas war (September-October 2003), demands were no longer union-specific, nor did they include requests for inclusion into the political system, as were typically made by the Katarista mobilizations of the 1980s. In fact, the indigenous majority is already in de facto possession of the public space in which public opinion is formed on issues of concern to all Bolivians: sovereignty, natural resources, militarization and economic policy.

And the combative resiliency of the Aymara, Quechua and lowland indigenous peoples is proof that the long arm of the Empire has not definitively triumphed. This tenacity is all the more admirable considering the onslaught of “modernization,” a falsehood that has only created poverty and truncated processes of political and productive autonomy in vast expanses of the Bolivian territory. But Bolivia’s indigenous have clung to the root of their power: the simple fact of being the occupants of a space for thousands of years, of naming it and converting it into a cultural space through the force of their own fiestas, communal work, cultural resourcefulness and autochthonous technology.

Today these histories explode with a fury accumulated over centuries. The colonial plunder of its riches, the squandering of the creative and productive energies of its people and the consignment to indigence of those responsible for creating its wealth, have relegated Bolivia to the status of colonial backwater. The so-called war on drugs being directed from Washington has the same effect. It seeks to liquidate the coca leaf, one of the first forms of modern merchandise and a pillar of the internal market. The coca leaf is not only fundamental to indigenous identity and to a vast set of cultural practices, but it also forms part of an indigenous modernity rooted in the past, comprising what anthropologist Partha Chatterjee would call “Our modernity.”[6]

Bolivia’s converging popular networks have launched the struggle for “Our modernity,” a modernity based on organically structured internal markets; one that combines market relations with traditional practices of reciprocity; and one that is founded on this emergent indigenous citizenship that continues to conquer political and economic spaces. This modernity offers its own “other” form of democracy, drawing on practices and values of the indigenous past, and it conceives of Bolivia as a holistic territorial unit that is the birthright of the productive communities that occupy it—from the topsoil down to the resources beneath.

The era of state crisis that began in the 1970s, or perhaps even before in the 1950s, seems to have reached its definitive climax. Liberal promises made by the Revolution of 1952—citizenship for women and the indigenous, economic sovereignty, the domestic production of basic goods—have been rift by fissures or exposed as fallacies. This utter failure has denuded the internal colonial structures of the Bolivian state, and laid bare its acquiescence to new forms of external colonial domination. Unveiling this was precisely what the Katarista-Indianista mobilizations of the 1970s did for the first time in the post-1952 era. The indigenous mobilizations of the new millennium, whose demands and projects are permeated by the same majority consciousness of that earlier movement, have only reaffirmed this bankruptcy of the state.

Structural adjustment policies and the dismantling of the country’s productive and industrial base were only the culminating factors that brought this long-developing crisis to its breaking point. They strained the existing cracks and contradictions in Bolivian society until the whole flawed structure shattered into an outburst of general questioning. Now Bolivia’s masses are demanding an inclusive and pluralistic renovation of the country, where to govern is not merely to “administer Indians” or to serve as a transmitter for decisions made in the North.[7] Instead, the indigenous majorities of the country are demanding that power be returned to them, breaking the centuries-old monopoly of the oligarchs, who mistakenly believe they inherited the country as if it were a feudal hacienda.

Aymara sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui is professor emeritus at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz. She is a founding member of the Andean Oral History Workshop (THOA) and the author of several books. Translated from the Spanish by Teo Ballvé.


1. See Pablo Mamani Ramírez, El rugir de las multitudes. La fuerza de los levantamientos indígenas en Bolivia-Qullasuyu (La Paz: Aruwiyiri y Yachaywasi, 2004). Also, Félix Patzi Paco, Sistema comunal. Una propuesta alternativa al sistema liberal (La Paz: Comunidad de Estudios Alternativos, 2004).
2. Edward P. Thompson, “La economía ‘moral’ de la multitud en la Inglaterra del siglo XVII,” en Tradición, revuelta y conciencia de clase: Estudios sobre la crisis de la sociedad pre-industrial (Barcelona: Crítica, 1979), pp. 62-134.
3. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Oprimidos pero no vencidos. Luchas del campesinado aymara y qhechwa, 1900-1980 (La Paz: Aruwiyiri y Yachaywasi, 1984 and 2003).
4. See Mamani Ramírez, El rugir de las multitudes.
5. Sergio Almaráz, Réquiem para una república (La Paz: Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, 1969).
6. Partha Chatterjee, Lecture No.1 in Our Modernity (Rotterdam and Senegal: SEPHIS-CODESRIA, 1997).
7. Eduardo L. Nina Qhispi, De los títulos de composición de la corona de España. Composición a título de usufructo como se entiende la excención revisitaria. Venta y composición de tierras de orígen con la corona de España. Títulos de las comunidades de la república. Renovación de Bolivia. Años 1536, 1617, 1777, 1825 y 1925. La Paz, ed

Tags: Bolivia, indigenous politics, protest, Aymara, Felipe Quispe, privatization

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