Empire and Revolution in Bolivia

“It’s a utopia that’s going in who knows what direction.”
Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, ex-President of Bolivia

It is difficult, not to mention pointless, to resist being caught up in the tide of a revolutionary process for the sake of maintaining analytical distance from immediate events, particularly when the counterrevolutionary current moves with such crushing force. In writing about revolution, one must convey, above all, the mood of hope, exuberance, mourning, courage, joy, and dignity that one has seen and felt in struggle. Skepticism takes a back seat to enthusiasm, at least temporarily.

The danger, of course, is that enthusiasm, by exaggerating what are in fact only tendencies, can cloud judgment, and lead to unwarranted triumphalism. Once the effervescence of victory dies down, the time comes to appease the skeptics. Announcing, as I have recently, the definitive end of the neoliberal order in Bolivia, along with its corollary-the demise of coalition governments composed of political parties-is perhaps premature. In any case, it puts the cart before the horse. There is a range of possible outcomes to the new transitional phase, one of them being the restoration of the old order a sangre y fuego (through blood and fire), which would mark another historical first in Bolivia, as significant as the “October Revolution.” Fortunately, Bolivians have never experienced the levels of state terror known to Colombians, Peruvians, Chileans, Argentines, Uruguayans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans.

Political maneuvering within the neoliberal parties tied to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s downfall is now furious, since their very survival is at stake, and they are trying to repackage themselves as the only forces capable of ensuring that the Constituent Assembly does not get “out of control” and fall into the hands of the laboring majority who represent themselves in non-liberal forms of participatory democratic organizations: trade unions, neighborhood associations, and Indian peasant communities. Once again, the parties are trying to monopolize political representation and channel it along liberal lines.

Manuel “Tuto” Quiroga, the former IBM executive who took over from Ret. Gl. Hugo Banzer in 2001 at the age of forty-one, and, by the time of the 2002 elections, had run his and Banzer’s party (ADN) into the ground, has been recalled from the US as Goni’s surrogate- a political son of the neoliberal right working overtime in Washington and Miami (the European Parliament having refused to grant asylum to criminals). Opposed to interim President Carlos Mesa’s binding referendum, supporter of and participant in the deal with Sempra Energy and Pacific LNG to export Bolivian gas through Chile to California, “Tuto” is the old order’s man in Bolivia.

But he cuts a most unimpressive figure. As president, his willingness to use state violence to crush social protest surpassed Ret. Gnl. Banzer’s, but Tuto is no Goni, and certainly no Terminator. Having buried the ADN, he will have to re-invent it in a new guise-hence there is no powerful party machine behind him. Lacking an armed forces united around the idea of repressive restoration and a real political vehicle, the deposed neoliberal right can only fantasize of returning behind a figure of the stature of Louis Bonaparte, the clownish cousin of the fallen Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. On the spectrum of possibilities, the triumph of the counterrevolution is among the least likely.

The fact that at the end of October, extreme reactionary Otto Reich, in the un-elected position of Presidential Advisor for Western Hemispheric Affairs, said to the Bolivian press, and in so many words, that the problem in Bolivia is that one group of people has been exploiting another for more than 500 years, indicates an unprecedented shift in imperial rhetoric. Shockingly, Reich had nothing to say about “narcosindicalism and terrorism” imported from Colombia and Peru, thus distancing himself from, and discrediting, Sánchez de Lozada. Peter De Shazo, the State Department’s Subsecretary of Western Hemispheric Affairs (who, we note in passing, wrote a doctoral dissertation on the making of the Chilean working class at UW-Madison), held a conference with leading indigenous politicians to deal with a variety of Bolivia’s most pressing issues. De Shazo labeled the presentations “fascinating,” stressing how much he had learned from them about the current situation; he even asked about “the indigenous vision” of democracy!

In the Washington Post, Harvard Economics Professor Jeffrey Sachs, one of the architects of Bolivian neoliberalism, and until recently a close ally of Goni, blamed the US for eradicating the livelihood of 50,000 coca-growing families without providing viable alternatives; for trying to export Bolivian gas without consulting Bolivia’s people; and for imposing IMF recipes. Though Sachs’ opportunism and amnesia are remarkable at the very least, had Goni and US Ambassador David Greenlee adopted such a flexible discourse and outlook, the latter might not have had to evacuate the former and his circle to Miami on October 17th. That would be like expecting chickens to lay duck eggs, though.

While collective action from below has forced a change in official imperial rhetoric, practice lags behind theory: coca eradication, under US-authored Ley 1008 (the legal glove to the joint task-force fist designed by then-agent Greenlee in 1987-88), is to continue under Carlos Mesa, and new US estimates of coca production put the sub-tropical Yungas region, located northeast of La Paz, firmly within imperial sights: “excess” coca production has grown by 26% since the March 2003 report. To his credit, Mesa has called for Bolivian academics and technocrats carry out an inquiry to confirm or disconfirm US satellite figures before moving ahead with eradication in the Yungas (the failure of which had much to do with Tuto’s demise in 2001). The Yungas, we remember, implemented one of the most long-lasting and thoroughgoing road blockades in October, thereby stopping the flow of fruits, vegetables, and nuts to citizens of the capital. Through the anti-narcotics operations it demands of the Bolivian government, the US embassy will try to punish the yungeños for their growing radicalization and self-organization.

As for El Alto, ground zero of the October Revolution, and Oruro-whose miners provided crucial reinforcements to El Alto, and whose civic committee shut down its city-an unsigned editorial in La Razón (11/6/03) suggests that future anti-narcotics efforts will have to take into account new centers of cocaine production and distribution in the altiplano, especially El Alto, but also Oruro. The view of insurgents as intimately tied to a burgeoning cocaine industry is being reinforced the killing of a policeman by a homemade bomb in the Chapare, and the discovery of a large encampment in the Yungas, which led to the detention of thirty-three coca farmers, on November 14, the day of the inauguration of the Iberoamerican Summit in Santa Cruz-at which Carlos Mesa declared the need to “listen to the other” and to focus on the issue of inequality. Mesa’s government, however, has reversed the course suggested by the phrase “zero repression” (an ironic reference to Banzer’s “zero coca”), and Mesa’s Minister of Government Alfonso Ferrufino, a former revolutionary leftist known as “the gun,” stated his intention to continue to apply Law 1008 to the letter. One cannot but note the political timing of the explosion and the discovery of the cocaine “laboratory.”

Nor has the “war on terrorism” ground to a halt, for on the very same Friday the 14, Goni launched his theory-in the Washington Post, no less-that Bolivia could become the “Afghanistan of the Andes, a failed state that exports drugs and disorder” (remember, too, that in the Brazilian press Goni had compared the Bolivia’s urban revolts of February 12-13 to the hijack bombings of September 11 in the US). An anonymous, mysterious, well-financed “humanitarian group” called Kantuta, meanwhile, has dedicated itself-at a cost of at least $8,000-to sustaining the media-fueled link between social movements, particularly coca growers tied to MAS, and Colombian guerrillas of the ELN. The effort to criminalize social protest did not end with Goni’s resignation. Rather, the race to de-legitimate MAS before the Constituent Assembly and the municipal elections in 2004 continues as before, and Colombian peasant leader Francisco “Pacho” Cortés; former MAS mayor of Asunta (Yungas), Claudio Ramírez; and trade union militant and human rights activist, Carmelo Peñaranda (Chapare), remain detained without charges in the Conchocoro Maximum Security Prison. According to one well-placed source, the “April 10th” case is a card to be played against MAS in case it wins the 2004 municipal elections hands-down.

Then there is the all-important question of impunity, indemnity for victimized families, and punishment for perpetrators of the October massacres. A veteran human rights activist insisted over lunch recently that no military in Latin America has ever failed to protect its own, which is true; but while the DA has archived the criminal processes against the perpetrators of the massacres of February, he has accused Goni, along with fifteen of his ministers, of genocide. The military remains protected, but civilian politicians in exile are apparently fair game. For opposition leader Evo Morales, as visible now as he was invisible in October, the breadth of the indictments represents a setback, since the political parties, who might have been willing to sacrifice four or five of their own for the sake of survival, will now bog the process down in Congress.

Thus one of the critical struggles to come will hinge around the question of the end to impunity in the police and armed forces, institutions that, over the past twenty years, have survived the transition from dictatorship to neoliberal democracy nearly intact. On November 10 in El Alto, where more than half of those massacred in October lived, family members started a hunger strike to demand more rapid justice, and on November 18, they initiated another in the Plaza Murillo, in front of the Presidential Palace. The first meeting between leaders of the Coordination for the Dead, Disappeared, and Injured in the Defense of Gas, leaders of the regional trade union federations (COR and CSUTCB-TK), and the new Ministers of the President, Government, Health, and the vice-Minister of Justice, ended abruptly due to the caprice of the Minister of the President, who, after hearing the testimony of leaders and family members of victims, called an end to the meeting. Hunger strikers were evacuated from the Plaza Murillo and sent back to El Alto. So much for dialogue and listening to “the other.”

What are opposition forces doing to counteract the above-mentioned developments in order to make their vision of a new national revolution a reality? A parallel summit, organized but not dominated by MAS, was held in Santa Cruz to define an alternative agenda, in which the issues of gas, the FTAA, impunity, the Constituent Assembly figure centrally. Though certain leading figures of the NGO world tried to impose their vision of what is to be done, the rank-and-file insisted on defining their needs and demands. Many veterans of the “October Days” see another round of violent conflict on the not-so-distant horizon, and are preparing themselves through critical and self-critical analyses of October. The idea is to insure that next time, people will be sufficiently organized and clear about the tasks to be carried out so as to take power and continue to exercise it; the absence of coordinated, democratic national leadership has become a key theme for discussion. Debates over the nature and aims of the Constituent Assembly are taking place at all levels and in all instances of popular organizations, and a broad array of proposals are circulating. “Vigilant optimism” would perhaps best describe the mood among las bases (the rank-and-file), but people are conscious of having made world history in October, and have no intention of disappearing from the political stage.

In a previous column, following Argentine-Mexican historian Adolfo Gilly, I referred to the new national revolution in Bolivia, which promised to right colonial wrongs that the national revolution of 1952 left in tact or reinforced. The term “revolution” requires clarification: neither Gilly nor I have in mind a violent break in social property relations leading to a “revolutionary state” controlled by a “revolutionary party”-the most common definition of “revolution” in the twentieth century (Mexico, Russia, China, Bolivia, Cuba, Vietnam). Ours would be closer in some ways to the most widely accepted nineteenth-century definition of “revolution”: the overthrow of one political regime and its replacement by another, more democratic regime, but with a new twist: whereas in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, dissident political elites were able to appropriate and benefit from the people’s “revolutions” in whose name they spoke, in Bolivia at present no group is similarly positioned to command the state or the revolutionary process.

As for the term “national revolution,” it is evident that the conditions for social revolution on a global scale do not exist at present, which means that unless one adheres to a theory of “socialism in one country,” the idea of communist revolution in Bolivia or elsewhere is mere fantasy. What, then, could national revolution mean in this, the latest phase of capitalist globalization? Economically, it would mean the end of multinational domination of key sectors of Bolvia’s economy: petroleum and natural gas. Politically, it would spell the end of a long history of exclusion: there have been more than a dozen constituent assemblies and constitutional reforms since the republic was founded, but not one has incorporated the non-liberal forms of representation through which the laboring majority of Bolivians make themselves heard. In terms of justice, it would mean respect for the “laws” that regulate popular forms of organization, as well as an end to impunity and the criminalization of direct democracy. Perhaps no one has put it better than Marcos Bilbao, General Secretary of Local University Federation (FUL) of the Public, and now autonomous, University of El Alto: “We don’t want to be cheap labor for transnational corporations or peons for political parties. Unfortunately, we continue living under the neoliberal capitalist system, and that means violence is not going to stop. We supported the constitutional succession, but we want to see the Constituent Assembly and the recuperation of gas; otherwise there’d have to be an armed uprising. But without arms, what can the people do? We have but clubs and slingshots. What we have to do is rescue the organization and structure of the Aymara and Quechua people politically, economically, and juridically.” In the context of Bolivian history, such a change would be nothing short of revolutionary.

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.