Popular Insurrection and National Revolution in Bolivia


Slave driver
the table has turned
Catch a fire
you’re gonna get burned.

Bob Marley, Slave Driver

On the Day of National Dignity-which commemorates the greatest achievement of socialist martyr Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz: the nationalization of Gulf Oil in 1969-former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, his family and inner circle (Minister of Defense Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, Minister of Government Yerko Kukoc, and Minister of the Interior Jose Luis Harb) fled to Miami, though not before looting $85 million from the Bolivian Central Bank.

The “gringo,” as Sánchez de Lozada was called, had gone home. What, until recently, had been a clever bit of graffiti, had become reality, and the Bolivian majority-not multinationals and their tiny minority of compradors-had decided to determine the fate of the second-largest liquid natural gas reserves in Latin America via a system of popular democratic assemblies in neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, fields and farms. Since the Spanish “discovery” of Cerro Rico in Potosí in 1545, laboring Bolivians have suffered from the looting and export of their natural resources, as well as the exploitation of their bodies and minds, for the benefit of others. Their memory is long, their patience has run out, and their resilience is remarkable.

The party that had designed and implemented neoliberalism in Bolivia, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), and which had ruled Bolivia on and off for 50 years, had finally been broken by overwhelming, non-violent popular opposition, though at great human cost. In less than a month, troops under the command of the MNR killed more than 84 civilians, as well as15 conscripts who refused to fire on unarmed protestors. The MNR disappeared some 40 people, injured more than 500, and detained an untold number in a desperate effort to maintain power and preserve the neoliberal status quo.

As darkness descended on the Plaza San Francisco, the symbolic heart of the nation’s capital, on October 17th, truckloads of miners and Quechua-Aymara peasants from Oruro and Potosí arrived to march and celebrate their triumph. They chanted, “Yes we could!”-a parody of “Sí se puede!”, Sánchez de Lozada’s campaign slogan-and, “Goni! You bastard! The people have defeated you!” They drank, chewed coca, set off dynamite, chanted, marched, and sung and danced until the early morning. In the Plaza San Francisco on the afternoon of the 17th, Alteños (people from El Alto, a city which is over 80% Aymara, and located on the upper rim of La Paz where the rural highlands begin); neighborhood groups from the steep hillsides of La Paz, along with miners, teachers, students, market women, butchers, bakers, truckers and taxi drivers, staged the largest rally in Bolivian history: estimates run as high as 500,000. The Wiphala-considered the flag of the oppressed, indigenous Bolivian nations-flew side by side with the Bolivian flag, as insurgents re-appropriated national symbols from the dominant race/class, effectively laying claim to the nation that has never been willing to make a place for them as political equals and autonomous stewards of an economy based on collective labor, cultivation of the land, and rational use of natural resources.

On October 18, when the truckloads of miners and Aymara-Quechua community peasants ascended from La Paz and passed El Alto on their way home, thousands of Alteños lined the streets to cheer them on, provide them with food, water, coca, and alcohol for the punishing trip, and express gratitude for the solidarity they had received. As architects of the eleven-day general strike that brought the capital to a standstill-especially once a general solidarity strike was called in La Paz to honor the twenty-six Alteños massacred on October 12, the 511th anniversary of the genocide initiated by Columbus-Alteños, organized in trade unions, neighborhood and student groups-knew that they, most of them a proletarianized peasantry, along with brother and sister Aymara community peasants in the Lake Titicaca region, could not have overthrown the government without practical support from rest of the country’s social movements. These are listed in descending order of impact: 1) coca growers from the eastern Chapare lowlands, 2) Quechua-Aymara community peasants from the southern highlands and valleys of Potosí and Sucre, 3) the miners from Huanuni, Oruro, 4) the multi-ethnic, cross-class civic movements that shut down Cochabamba, Sucre, Potosí and Oruro on the 14th and 15th, 5) prominent middle-class intellectuals, human rights activists, professionals, students and citizens who launched a hunger strike on the afternoon of October 15th.

Many analysts see recent events as part of a clear pattern established in Ecuador with the overthrow of Abdalá Bucaram in 1999, and repeated in Argentina and Peru in the new millennium, whereby loose coalitions of popular movements, mobilized against the neoliberal model and the political parties and/or politicians associated with it, overthrow governments without being able to impose an alternative economic model and a new set of political arrangements. While superficially plausible, such comparisons overlook the depth and sources of the insurrectionary tradition in Bolivia, elide the question of the distinctive characteristics of the armed forces in each country, and miss the potential significance of the “October Revolution” for the Bolivia’s future. A tradition of Aymara-Quechua community peasant insurgency that stretches back to the late eighteenth century was transformed through successive struggles over collective land rights and self-government in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; this tradition shaped the trade union political culture that dominated opposition political culture after the 1930s. As historian Adolfo Gilly has pointed out recently in La Jornada, Indian peasant insurgency forms the bedrock of a tradition of popular insurrection without parallel in the hemisphere.

Bolivians are now living through the most radical moment of republican history since the National Revolution of 1952, in which Trotskyist-led tin miners’ militias triggered an urban insurrection that defeated the Bolivian army-which decomposed and rapidly defected-as peasant militias in the western highlands and the valleys of Cochabamba staged land takeovers and smashed landlord rule in the countryside, handing power to the MNR. President Victor Paz Estenssoro-like many MNR leaders, a middle-class intellectual from Cochabamba-ratified the land takeovers, which would provide the MNR with deep reservoirs of support in the countryside for decades, and nationalized the country’s major tin mines, like Siglo XX and Cataviri. Opposed to imperialism and an oligarchy composed of merchant-miner-landlords, the MNR seized control of the insurrectionary movement for its own benefit, but also imposed significant structural reforms. They aimed to modernize the economy with infrastructural development and peasant markets that would subsidize the mining industry while creating an internal market and “civilizing” the Aymara-Quechua peasant communities through compulsory schooling and military service. With a discourse of national identity based on the idea of “mestizaje,” or race mixture as a form of whitening, they helped bury the memory of the traditions upon which popular insurrection and national revolution are ultimately founded.

Trapped between mounting US imperial pressure and a tin miners’ trade union movement led by Trotskyist and Stalinist parties-which formed the center of gravity of the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB) that aglutinated of civil society-the MNR splintered into warring factions above, and, through clientelist control of peasant trade unions, below as well. Thus the MNR grew progressively weaker vis-à-vis both the US government and the COB, and with the backing of the US government, René Barrientos became the first military leader to unleash a counterrevolution. (This, by the way, was the historical situation into which Che Guevara stepped so intrepidly.) Since he spoke fluent Quechua and employed classic forms of populist demagoguery to great effect, Barrientos solidified a clientelist following in the countryside loyal only to him, particularly in Cochabamba, mobilizing peasant militias to crush highland miners’ strikes in what was known as the “military-peasant” pact. Though under General Juan Jose Torres and the Popular Assembly (AP, 1969-71), proletarian-led mining radicalism enjoyed a brief upsurge, the military-peasant pact lasted through the neo-fascist dictatorship of Hugo Banzer Suárez (1971-78), which sent many radicals to jail or into exile, and the question of self-determination for Aymara and Quechua peasant communities had only begun to be raised at the time of the AP.

A radical Aymara-led peasant trade union federation (CSUTCB), which emerged out of clandestinity to blockade the roads in solidarity with miners in 1979, rejuvenated the COB, which, together with Left political parties, overthrew two violent (if short-lived) dictatorships, electing a center-left coalition, the UDP, in 1982 that was to go beyond “the incomplete revolution” toward some version of state-led welfare capitalism (known in those days as “el socialismo”), but with a new demand percolating in the national revolutionary pot: self-determination for Aymara-Quechua peasant communities.

Instead, with the MNR and the MIR (Revolutionary Leftist Movement) engaging in parliamentary warfare against Left opposition parties, and the miners’ movement increasing in militancy and radicalism, the UDP proved unable to govern, and popular hopes of national sovereignty, rekindled throughout the 1970s by Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz among others, were buried. With inflation running at 24,000% annually, in 1985, Victor Paz Estenssoro took his last turn in office and dismantled dependent state capitalism, calling on a young, American-educated technocrat-Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada-to redesign the relationship between the State, society and the economy, which resulted in a neoliberal blueprint: DS 21060.

On the advice of Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Sachs, the tin mines were privatized by decree in one swift motion, the miners’ movement crushed with state terror, and 20,000 miners “relocalized” (a euphemism for firing and displacement). Now lacking strong allies in the proletarian movement, and rent by internal divisions and sectarianism, the CSUTCB fell into decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Meanwhile, the coca growers’ movement of peasant colonizers in the eastern lowlands of the Chapare-led chiefly by ex-miners-turned into the most militant and confrontational of Bolivia’s “new” social movements, just as George H.W. Bush began to ratchet up the intensity of the “drug war” in the Andes. Current US Ambassador David Greenlee, then a CIA agent working as an attaché, designed the counterinsurgent strategy by creating joint task-force teams to force coca eradication in 1988, one year after Sánchez de Lozada visited then-Secretary of Defense Casper Wineberger and then-Secretary of State George Schultz to explain why a one-dimensional, neoliberal counterinsurgent strategy would never work in Bolivia without substantial development aid with which to build schools, housing, health care services and clinics; roads, sewage and water treatment facilities.

Because of the thoroughness of his privatization programs, during Sánchez de Lozada’s first term as president (1993-97), the IMF and the World Bank held Bolivia up as a model for “LDCs” around the world. Sánchez de Lozada was in the progressive technocratic vanguard, with a package of reforms designed to decentralize the state and encourage a liberal form of municipal democracy, and until 2000, the neoliberal political parties-MNR, MIR, CONDEPA, UCS, NFR-enjoyed a monopoly on legitimate political representation, even as they descended into unheard-of depths of corruption. However, with the fight against privatization in the Cochabamba “water wars” in April 2000, the popular movements scored their first victory in almost two decades through an insurrection that was cross-class, multi-ethnic, and directly democratic. This was reinforced in May by an Aymara resurgence in the highlands, under the direction of Felipe Quispe and a more combative, Aymara nationalist CSUTCB. As the neoliberal façade began to crack under President Hugo Banzer Suarez, the former dictator who ruled as president from 1998-2001, state terror increased and the political parties began to see their legitimacy erode.

This is the context in which the coca growers, Aymara highland peasants, proletarianized peasants from El Alto and La Paz, along with disaffected middle class professionals and intellectuals, voted for two new opposition parties, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) and the Indian Revolutionary Movement (MIP), which between them picked up forty-two seats in Parliament-a historic first. Evo Morales, leader of the coca growers’ trade union federations and their political vehicle, MAS, lost the presidential elections by less than 1.5%.

In October 2003, led by the proletarianized Aymara peasantry of El Alto, Aymara peasant communities of the western highlands, and reinforced by the Quechua-Aymara peasant communities of the southern highlands and valleys as well as the Quechua-speaking mestizo coca growers’ and colonizers of the eastern lowlands; plus the urban middle classes of La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Tarija and Oruro; took to the streets and the airwaves, and long and distinguished traditions of insurrection have enjoyed a renaissance.

There can be no doubt which sector was the driving force, though. What began as the most important highland Aymara uprising in Bolivia since the Federal War of 1899 became, in a matter of days, become a nationwide, non-violent insurrection-a national revolution in march, but with no political force comparable in organizational coherence and sophistication to the MNR. Unlike the national revolution of 1952, which brought Sánchez de Lozada’s MNR to power on the back of insurgent miners’ and peasants’ militias, were it to materialize, the new revolution would hold out the possibility that the colonial contradiction that has structured the Bolivian republic since its inception-the economic exploitation, political domination and racist oppression of the Indian peasant and proletarianized majority-will finally be addressed in terms of sovereignty and political representation. So will the question of state terror and impunity.

It is important to emphasize that Felipe Quispe notwithstanding, the new nationalism in anything but an atavistic, separatist and racially exclusive backlash against neoliberal imperialism. If, at the macro-level of the state and public policy, the new revolution recognizes the demands for popular sovereignty and self-government, and the forms of trade union and Indian community organization from which those demands arise, it will be a world-historical first that with repercussions throughout Latin America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia. In spite of the colonialist terror that has descended on the new millennium in the Middle East and Central Asia, the poorest, most indigenous and most geographically isolated country of the South American continent might provide a beacon of light to the rest of the world.

The new revolutionary process, whose outcome is of course uncertain rather than guaranteed, would demand an end to multinational and US imperial domination, reject the FTAA, insist on the right to grow and commercialize the coca leaf as well as control and regulate the use of natural resources for the benefit of the majorities that produce Bolivia’s wealth. It would also includes the demand for political autonomy, representation and self-government for highland and lowland ethnic groups whose forms of social reproduction and political struggle are non-liberal and even non-capitalist.

One thing is certain: the era of the MNR-led coalitions is over, and with it, the neoliberal political-economic system implemented in 1985-86. The relation of the State to the economy and society will change, but it is much too early to say how much, or when. Though neither Evo Morales nor Felipe Quispe led the struggles of the “October Days,” the rank-and-file, especially in El Alto, have shown what they can accomplish on their own initiative. This means that there will be two Constituent Assemblies and a form of dual power: one will take place in Parliament among delegated political representatives, and another in the streets, neighborhoods, trade unions, Indian peasant communities; among miners, coca growers, students and, perhaps, even middle-class intellectuals and personalities. There is a country, if not yet a world, to win.

FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia. He can be reached at forresthylton@hotmail.com.


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.