The Bolivian Blockades in Historical Context

Though they are usually the first to speak in the name of tradition, Conservatives tend to ignore history when evaluating the present, and if anything has been missing in current debates about violence, democracy, human rights, and authoritarianism in Bolivia, it is historical perspective. The hysterical reaction of the media-coupled the near-silence of progressive intellectuals-makes change on this front unlikely, although occasionally cracks in the crumbling edifice show through. In an interview on January 23, the day he joined the Joint Chiefs of the People, Felipe Quispe, leader of the Aymara peasant trade union confederation, CSUTCB, and political party, MIP, said that he represents the people to whom the territory known as Bolivia or Qollasuyu belongs, the people who make it produce, whereas President S?nchez de Lozada represents the people who loot it, sell it, mortgage it, run it and ruin it. The simplicity of this truth does not blunt the force its impact.

The notion that the community Indians are rightful owners of the land, who, as such, should make all political decisions that concern them, points to the Tupak Katari insurgency in 1781, the rebellion of Z?rate Willka, Lorenzo Ram?rez, and Juan Lero in 1899, and the Chayanta uprising of 1927, led by Manuel Michel. If tropes of “savagery” and “barbarism” are evoked by the names of the abovementioned Indian caciques, it is because official history has buried the record of long, arduous legal struggles that preceded each and every Indian insurrection.

Evo Morales, head of the coca growers’ trade union federations and political party, MAS, and Felipe Quispe, the two principal leaders of the Joint chiefs of Staff of the People, inherit a tradition that counterinsurgent discourse has described as “race” (nineteenth) or “caste” war (eighteenth century), but which in fact has consistently explored available legal options while demanding self-government in a more inclusive and democratic polity. Democratic not in the liberal sense of delegated representation, but in the directly participatory sense in which it is being discussed at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. In this respect, Bolivian coca growers and community Indians are politically ahead of their time, not behind it.

The insurgent tradition of direct democracy on the land, which is structured by politico-military-religious hierarchies and enacted in community assemblies, was rendered invisible in both the national and international revolutionary traditions that dominated Bolivian politics after the 1930s. It only reappeared publicly again in the late-1970s. During the forty-year period of eclipse, new forms of struggle, based upon the political party-trade union dyad, emerged with varying class compositions and a common commitment to mestizaje-race mixture of the whitening, “civilizing” variety; a process at once desirable and inevitable. Recent historical scholarship has demonstrated that in Cochabamba, heartland of the ruling MNR (National Revolutionary Movement), mestizaje was a strategy that smallholding Indian peasants created from below, seeking to escape exploitation and the marks of racial inferiority. But there can be little doubt that after 1953, the national revolutionary state made use of it from above. So did the revolutionary internationalists who challenged the MNR from the left via the miners’ movement.

To grasp the scope of the influence of mestizaje as a political horizon, one only has to look at the composition and proposals of the National Assembly (1969-71) under radical nationalist General Juan Jos? Torres, who personified upward mobility for middling sectors with popular origins. The proletarian parties and especially the miners’ union set the agenda for the National Assembly with the idea of making a transition to socialism. But in those years, as reaction noisily gathered, a new generation of Aymara peasant leaders emerged within the MNR machine and began to bore away at its foundations. The project to break with the racist, teleological paternalism that lay at the core of official rural trade unionism counted on the support of the first generation of semi-urban Aymara intellectuals, plus progressive segments of the Catholic Church. This support was crucial in achieving national projection.

As the Banzer dictatorship took shape in the years after 1971, the figure of Tupac Katari re-emerged in the discourse of radical opposition, and by the time of Banzer’s overthrow in 1978 the tradition of Aymara insurgency had, in modified form, begun to take its place alongside proletarian-led, Left party-driven trade unionism. Indians, as their leaders and spokespeople began to call them, even fielded parties once the political arena was opened to electoral competition, but none of them were anything less than total failures, except MRTK, which briefly became part of the panopoly of neoliberal parties in the 1990s.

During Banzer’s reign, even as the Aymara movement of the altiplano regenerated, Santa Cruz and the tropical part of Cochabamba became the economic heart of Bolivia, because B?nzer subsidized agro-industry with profits from mining exports. After the crisis in the price of primary products hit the eastern tropics in the mid-1970s, the cocaine business soon became a convenient way out for an important part of the agro-exporting bourgeoisie. Further, under Banzer the state encouraged colonization of the tropics because of it could not manage the crisis its policies had created in the western highlands and southern valleys. If we are serious about dealing with the problem of coca production and commercialization, we must recognize the role the Bolivian state and reactionary fractions of capital played in fomenting the transformation of coca into cocaine.

Here we need only look at Garc?a Meza’s “cocaine coup” of 1980, which made explicit the connection between extreme right-wing politics and narcotics trafficking that Miami Cubans forged in the 1960s and shared with the Brazilian, Argentine, Chilean, and Venezuelan military and police with whom they worked in the 1970s. Though the Reagan administration repudiated Garc?a Meza, it supported the Brazilian generals who backed Garc?a Meza, not to mention the Argentine colonels who were soon to train Nicaraguan mercenaries in the arts of narcotics-financed counter-insurgency in Honduras. To anyone familiar with the history of U.S. covert operations in Burma in the 1950s, Laos in the 1960s and 70s, Afghanistan and Nicaragua in the 1980s, this should come as no surprise. More recently, here in Bolivia the entrepreneurial sector from Santa Cruz and Beni-organically linked to cocaine exports-has cried for a state of siege, which, when coupled with their vigilante actions, demonstrates that its traditions are alive and well. It is worth asking what role this sector will play in newly arrived Ambassador Greenlee’s strategy to pacify the Bolvian tropics.

To place the blame for cocaine exports on coca growers and the Left is the cruelest of historical ironies: cocaleros choose to grow and sell coca because it provides them with a monetary income 3-5 times greater than what they could earn on the altiplano or the valleys, where more than 9 out of 10 people live in poverty. With their proposal to export the leaf to Argentina, the cocaleros are, at least in this respect, true believers in free trade and market rationality. Nearly alone after the destruction of the miners’ union (FSTMB) in 1986, they formed a social movement that challenged the destruction of the working class and “drug war” imperialism. Many criticisms of neoliberalism that have become common currency in Bolivia since 2000 were, as recently as 1998, almost exclusively the property of cocaleros and their sympathizers.

To insist that Evo Morales should stick to coca and forget about the FTAA, privatization, or the export of Bolivian gas to the U.S. via Chile is to forget that when the failed national revolution plunged into the neoliberal abyss, the coca growers, more than any other movement, spoke to the interests of the nation composed of the excluded, working majority. Hopes that they could speak effectively to majority interests through Congress, raised in the elections of 2002, have been dashed, and not because of the eloquence or competence of the governing coalition.

How are we to situate the cocaleros against the background of a long history of Aymara insurgency and a short history of Quechua-mestizo industrial and agrarian trade unionism? Clearly the cocaleros are a hybrid of both traditions, and arose as a group of petty producers because of the dual crisis in highland industry and agriculture into which Banzer plunged all Bolivian workers-women and children as well as men, waged and unwaged, rural and urban. The role of the miners in the formation of the coca growers’ federations is legendary, but we should not overlook the contribution of the traditions of collective labor and struggle that the highland Aymara and, above all, Quechuas from the valleys brought with them when they migrated to the tropics. As Robert Smale’s forthcoming research on the formation of the miners’ movement reveals, earlier generations of Quechua petty producers from the valleys and Aymara communities from the highlands decisively shaped political culture in the trade unions between 1900-30.

In terms of identity, the cocaleros are mestizo in the sense that they are not highland community members and own property individually rather than collectively, but not in the national or international revolutionary sense that dominated through the 1980s. Cocaleros do not repudiate Indian cultural traditions or collectivism; in Evo Morales’ recent article in Pulso as well as his election campaign, key aspects of the discourse of Indian liberation featured prominently. While they may own property as individuals, coca growers’ daily lives and their mode of struggle are collective and communal. Following the re-emergence of the long Aymara tradition of insurgency to the center of the historical stage in 2000-2, the tendency to affirm Indian identity has been reinforced to the point where, at least within the political opposition, parliamentary as well as extra-parliamentary, the whitening, homogenizing discourses on which Bolivian national identity was based for fifty years have died-and good riddance. The question of what Bolvia is, what it has been, and what it might become can now be more freely debated.

Historically, it is beyond question that insurgent Indian movements from below in Bolivia have always championed legalism and worked within the formal political system, and one could argue that they have prioritized legalist tactics even when their rulers relied on violence and disobeyed the law. But they have never been willing to confine their horizons of thought and action to a political system designed to exclude them, either. Insofar as Bolivia has become a more inclusive polity in the past 177 years, it is because pressure from below, applied with various tactics, has forced the hand of power, and not because the dominated have obeyed the changing rules of a political game the dominant have made in order to continue dominating with a minimum of resistance.

*This was written for a Bolivia’s major newsweekly, Pulso, because our Mobilization Support Collective wanted to respond to the tidal wave of reactionary commentary that the ongoing blockades have unleashed in Bolivia. It might hold some interest for the North Atlantic reader nonetheless.

FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia and can be reached at


Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.