Ben Kohl, whose scholarship, activism, and teaching on Latin America and especially Bolivia was inspirational to many, died unexpectedly last month in Philadelphia. This tribute was written by two of his colleagues: Juan Arbona, a resident scholar in La Paz, and Bill Goldsmith, Professor Emeritus of City and Regional Planning at Cornell.
Ben Kohl has died. Ben, together with his surviving wife Linda Farthing, was among the leading U.S. Bolivianists. Their 2011 book, From the Mines to the Streets: A Bolivian Activist's Life (University of Texas, Austin), brings to the English-speaking world a marvelous biography of a revolutionary who was lucky not to be killed in the struggle against Ben's favorite enemies—murderous cleptocrats throughout the Andes and their corrupt imperialist allies. This book speaks much about Ben's and Linda's abilities and sympathies with their adopted land and with Bolivia's struggling resistance and now government. His earlier Impasse in Bolivia (Zed Press, also with Linda) documents one of the world's primary examples of neoliberal restructuring and the resistance it brought about. Their forthcoming book about Evo Morales’s government and current Bolivian politics will also be published by UT Austin.
We who knew Ben well will remember him as an extraordinary and mature graduate student, as probably the best teacher we've known, as an insightful and efficient researcher and writer, and most of all as one who could laugh at the absurdities of life, supporting others who took their lives in their hands to resist violent repression, but meanwhile repairing elevators, keeping old cars running, driving through the countryside by motorcycle, renovating old city houses, mentoring Minka and Maya and others' children, too, and getting along with everyone.
Ben grew up in St. Louis where his mother and father worked as scholars and teachers, spent a good while in San Francisco, with Linda, and moved to Bolivia in the 1980s. They lived in Bolivia during the most brutal moments of neoliberal restructuring, actively supported social mobilizations, and worked with numerous social organizations. For the last 30 years they have been living between La Paz, Ithaca, and later Philadelphia. Ben did important writing and editing for NACLA (the North American Congress on Latin America), and he published in Latin American Perspectives, IJURR, and other journals in planning and geography. Along the way he earned an anthropology BA at San Francisco State, an MA in engineering at Washington University in St Louis, and a PhD in City and Regional Planning from Cornell.
We will miss the scholarship that was on its way from this wonderful man, but those who knew Ben closely will much much more miss his warm laughter, generosity, and human insights. For someone with such critical political instincts, Ben was such an uncritical friend. Benjamin Kohl, presente!
A memorial service and tribute to Ben’s life will be held on Saturday, August 24, 4PM, at The Spring Gardens, located at North Street between 18th and 19th Street in Philadelphia. The family welcomes donations to Temple University’s 20/20 scholarship fund in Ben’s memory.