Insurgent Bolivia

The great anti-colonial indigenous insurrection of 1781 has haunted republican Bolivia since its founding in 1825. From their military encampment in El Alto overlooking the colonial city of La Paz, Aymara leaders Túpaj Katari and Bartolina Sisa laid siege to the ruling Spanish elite from March to October 1781. Lacking urban allies, they were ultimately unable to seize the city, yet the aspirations of that uprising have taken on new life at the beginning of the 21st century.

In October 2003, popular classes of Aymara descent living in El Alto spearheaded what became a broad-based movement to overthrow the increasingly repressive and illegitimate regime of then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. They too laid siege to the capital and brought it to a virtual standstill. Unlike Katari and Sisa, the latest insurgents successfully overtook the urban center, occupying all but a few blocks around Plaza Murillo where the Presidential Palace is located. Waving the Aymara flag (the wiphala) and the Bolivian flag side by side, the crowds swelled to as many as 500,000 on October 17, the day a heavily guarded Sánchez de Lozada fled to Miami. The stunning turn of events-dubbed by journalists the “gas war”-brought to an end the era of neoliberal domination in the country. It also confirmed that Bolivia has entered a new revolutionary moment in which indigenous actors have acquired the leading role. It is a time of great promise, but one whose outcome remains unforeseeable.

A powerful tradition of popular urban mobilization has been evident in earlier historical moments, as when “national-popular” forces overthrew the dictatorship of Col. Alberto Natusch Busch in 1979 or brought the Democratic Popular Unity (UDP) government to power in 1982. Yet the profile and organization of these previous mobilizations were different. In the 1970s and 1980s, workers, students and members of the progressive middle classes organized themselves through left parties and the national Bolivian Workers’ Confederation (COB). The politically emergent indigenous peasantry mobilized as well during this period, but almost entirely at the behest of the COB and as a junior partner in the national-popular bloc.

However, in October 2003 the progressive middle classes stirred only belatedly and the COB was a relatively minor player. More importantly, these groups were essentially backing demands previously launched by Aymara insurgents, organized mainly through their community, union and neighborhood organizations. Ultimately, though, all sectors converged around the same demands: the resignation of Sánchez de Lozada and his ministers, a trial to punish those responsible for state violence against the unarmed civilian population, a national referendum on how to develop the country’s natural gas reserves, the formulation of a new Hydrocarbons Law and the convening of a Constitutional Assembly.

In contrast to the proletarian character of the national-popular struggles that ended the phase of military and narco-dictatorships in the early 1980s, the powerful movement in 2003 displayed an indigenous centrality in synch with the current demographic, sociocultural and political realities of Bolivia, where 62% of the population claims indigenous identity, according to the 2001 census.

If we are to understand the October insurrection, however, it is not enough to point out Aymaras’ currently assertive historical agency. We must first note that the keen sense of Aymara identity is itself a product of recent political struggle, and that the entire context for the revolutionary cycle that opened in 2000 has been shaped by forceful and fluid processes of ethnic formation. The galvanization of indigenous identity is especially striking among the subaltern actors of October’s events.

Members of mobilized rural communities on the altiplano (highland plateau) have gradually adopted a self-conscious cultural and political identity as “Aymaras” since the late 1970s. The rise of militant peasant unionism and the emergence of radical indigenous leaders criticizing ongoing forms of colonial hierarchy and racism within the country are largely responsible for this ethnic affirmation.[1] The trajectory of Aymara leader Felipe Quispe-known as “El Mallku,” an Aymara term meaning both condor and traditional authority-reflects this process.

One of the most arresting features of the 2003 uprising was the expression of Aymara ethnic identity and solidarity among the urban residents-especially young protestors-of El Alto, an impoverished yet dynamic city of 900,000 outside La Paz. According to the 2001 census, 82% of alteños, as the city’s residents are known, identify as indigenous. In La Paz, laborers from the hillside neighborhoods of Munaypata and Villa Victoria, a proletarian stronghold during the Revolution of 1952, actively supported the insurgent alteños. Although not all these neighborhood residents would overtly identify themselves as Aymaras, they share with alteños a history of multi-generational migration from the Aymara countryside and insertion into the ethnically segmented urban social hierarchy.

Bolivian miners have traditionally identified and organized themselves on a class basis. When mineworkers traveled from the mining center of Huanuni to join the protests in El Alto, they revived the memory and symbolic power of earlier proletarian struggle in the national-popular tradition. However, on this occasion they also surprisingly affirmed their own indigenous roots.

Cocaleros (coca growers), another important sector in the contemporary popular movement, and agrarian colonizers from the Yungas recognize their own Aymara origins, although their collective identity is more closely tied to grassroots union organizations than to the traditional Andean community, or ayllu. In the Chapare, the country’s principal coca-growing region, the majority of residents are from the Quechua-speaking regions of the Cochabamba valleys. Others, like cocalero leader Evo Morales, are Aymara migrants from the highlands or Quechua-speaking former miners.

The regantes (small-scale coordinators of regional water distribution) who are best known for their role in the 2000 “water war” in Cochabamba also played their part in the “gas war.” They have their roots in the region’s Quechua-speaking mestizo peasant culture. Other actors in the uprising, like the peasant communities from Potosí and Chuquisaca, are organized through ayllus and are of mixed Quechua-Aymara background. All of these groups contributed to the insurgent movement that expressed itself so boldly, and with such a strongly indigenous accent, in 2003.

The point to emphasize, however, is that the insurrectionary energy of the 2003 uprising stemmed initially from the Aymara heartland of Omasuyos, on the altiplano around Lake Titicaca, and later from the Aymara city of El Alto. Likewise, indigenous communities and neighborhoods were the first to put forth the basic demands around which so many others eventually converged in October.

Historically, indigenous movements have sought to build ties with other popular and middle class opposition forces in cities and mining districts. Such tentative efforts took place during the indigenous mobilizations against Spanish rule in 1780-1781, the insurgent federalist movement led by Pablo Zárate Villca in 1899, the regional revolutionary movement led by Manuel Michel in 1927, the uprisings that began in Ayopaya in 1946 and the general strike of 1979. But relations between indigenous movements and their potential national-popular allies have generally been marred by mutual suspicion, misunderstanding or plain racism.

Political theorist René Zavaleta Mercado pioneered the idea of “national-popular” forces in Bolivian history. Zavaleta posited that the insurrectionary “multitude” opposing oligarchic elites and their foreign, imperialist allies was formed through the political unification of normally divided subaltern subjects.[2] National-popular struggles of this sort can conceivably be traced back to the wars of independence against Spain. The active consolidation of this mode of struggle on the national political stage, however, began during the Chaco War (1932-1935) and culminated in the Revolution of 1952.

National-popular struggles were behind the nationalization of Gulf Oil under Gen. Alfredo Ovando Candia in 1969, the Popular Assembly government of Gen. Juan José Torres in 1971, as well as the overthrow of the Col. Alberto Natusch Busch and Gen. Luis García Meza dictatorships and the rise to power of the center-left UDP between 1979 and 1982. Throughout this period the left and the union movement held, at best, a condescending view of indigenous participation in national political organization. These groups privileged a schematic vision of class consciousness over cultural identity as the basis for political action. They also shared with elites a “whitening” ideology of national progress through mestizaje.

More recently, however, this began to change. The political fortunes of the left and the COB went into decline with the onset of neoliberalism in 1985, but indigenous political and cultural organization gained increasing momentum in the 1980s and 1990s. During this same period, coca producers acquired a strategically crucial political importance through their opposition to U.S. militarized drug intervention. Then in 2000, a new revolutionary cycle was ushered in with indigenous protests on the altiplano and the water war in the Cochabamba valley. Finally, the events of October 2003 revived the tradition of Aymara community insurrection in one of Latin America’s largest indigenous cities. The latest insurgency constitutes a major challenge to Bolivian society’s internal colonialism and may lead to the formation of a new national-popular bloc representing the social majority.

The national revolutionary tradition, symbolized by the overthrow of oligarchic rule in 1952, seemed definitively vanquished by neoliberal ideology as structural adjustment reached its apogee during Sánchez de Lozada’s first term (1993-1997). The regime set out to privatize state tin mines and to “relocate” mining families to the outskirts of Oruro, Cochabamba, El Alto and the lowland frontiers of the Chapare. The union movement, which the government deemed an outmoded corporatist institution, came under relentless attack. Technocrats, ideologues and mainstream party functionaries-former middle class dissidents prominent among them-recited neoliberal mantras: competitivity, governability, efficiency, deregulation, decentralization, direct foreign investment. Globalization, they argued, afforded unprecedented opportunities for indigenous peoples to reap the benefits of modern capitalist democracy.

Though economic growth was sluggish and state revenues plummeted as a result of privatization, the discourse of neoliberalism appeared hegemonic. During Sánchez de Lozada’s first administration, international financial institutions signaled Bolivia as a model of “reform” and democratization for other developing countries. Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, an architect of Bolivia’s free market “shock treatment” in 1985, hailed Sánchez de Lozada as one of the most creative politicians of the era. The southern Andean nation became a shining star in the neoliberal firmament, and its militant popular movements appeared to have suffered a historic defeat.

As part of the wave of privatizations, Sánchez de Lozada drafted a Hydrocarbons Law in 1996 that dismantled YPFB, the state energy firm, setting the stage for the transnational takeover of Bolivia’s rich oil and natural gas resources. A year later, just two days before the end of his first term, he signed another decree effectively forfeiting constitutional sovereignty over the reserves. An official report released by the Bolivian government in December 2003 revealed that the Bolivia-based operations of British-owned BP Amoco and Spain’s Repsol YPF enjoy the lowest operating costs for oil and gas production and exploration in the world.

The sweetheart arrangement for these oil corporations was an eerie-and not unnoticed-repetition of the oligarchy’s sell-off of Bolivia’s mineral reserves to Anglo-Chilean capital following the War of the Pacific in the late 1800s. Bolivians have had a long and bitter experience with the expropriation of their mineral wealth for the benefit of oligarchs connected to foreign capital. The monetary system in early modern Europe thrived on the export of Bolivian silver from Potosí, now one of the country’s poorest, most desolate regions. In the 19th and 20th centuries, tin extracted from the area near Oruro was smelted in the U.S. and Britain. Today, the working conditions and technology in most of Potosí’s mines recall those of the colonial era, while Oruro is a landscape of post-industrial devastation where residents make superhuman efforts to survive. The protestors in the gas war were unwilling to see the old pattern repeated with natural gas since, according to many, only sovereign control over Bolivia’s gas reserves-the second-largest in Latin America-could underpin a viable political and economic future for later generations.

A deal to export gas through a Chilean port to California was negotiated between San Diego-based Sempra Energy and the Spanish-British-U.S. energy consortium Pacific LNG under the watch of one-time dictator and then-President Hugo Bánzer. During his administration (1997-2001), Bolivia ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. With state violence and social protest on the rise, and the legitimacy of neoliberal political parties eroded, Sánchez de Lozada narrowly won the 2002 elections. His attempt to close the gas deal in 2003 sparked massive opposition to which he responded with blunt force. On September 20, the day after some 500,000 people marched throughout the country to defend national economic sovereignty, security forces killed three civilians in Warisata and one in Ilayata as part of an effort to “liberate” a group of tourists stranded by a road blockade. The center of conflict spread to El Alto on October 8 when the Federation of Neighborhood Associations (FEJUVE) and the Regional Workers’ Federation (COR-El Alto) declared a general strike. Members of the insurgent communities of Warisata and Achacachi, like their kinfolk in the alteño neighborhood of Villa Ingenio, conceived of themselves as patriots and their rulers as traitors to the Bolivian nation.

Once the massacres began, first in the countryside and then in the city, the relatives and friends of the deceased dubbed their dead “martyrs fallen in the defense of gas.” The repression intensified and 31 died on October 12, the anniversary of Columbus’ incursion into the Caribbean. Simultaneously, urban Aymara insurgents and their allies in the neighborhood of relocated miners known as Santiago II began to develop autonomous institutions for self-government similar to those developed in Warisata after September 20. More than 150,000 people marched from El Alto to downtown La Paz on October 13. After several days of mourning, and once the insurgent communities from Omasuyos arrived, rebels set out to overrun the capital. Prominent middle class personalities and politicians organized hunger strikes on October 15 that spread with remarkable speed to every major city in the republic. But by that point what had once seemed impossible had already become likely: Sánchez de Lozada-also known as “El gringo” because of his heavily accented Spanish (he was raised in the United States)-would have to go.

In retrospect, the ideological hegemony of the Washington Consensus, embodied in Bolivia by Sánchez de Lozada, appears to have been a mirage. Contrary to neoliberal common sense, Bolivia’s revolutionary past was not obliterated after 1985, but rather reconfigured. Contemporary indigenous radicalism grows out of a long, largely underground history, yet its irradiating effects since 2000 have reanimated aspirations for social and political change, harkening back to earlier moments of interethnic, interregional and cross-class alliance.[3]

The October insurrection thus represents an exceptionally deep and powerful, though not unprecedented, convergence between two traditions of struggle-indigenous and national-popular. Earlier mobilizations, and some of their gains-notably the nationalization of mines in 1952 or petroleum in 1969-left a more enduring legacy than had been supposed. Self-consciously building on earlier revolutionary cycles, especially those of 1780-1781, 1899 and 1952, the current cycle of 2000-2003 will leave its own legacy. The upcoming Constitutional Assembly, demanded by indigenous peoples since 2000 and secured by the revolutionary intervention of popular forces, offers the most immediate possibility for social reform, or even national transformation.

The Assembly could help redraw state-society relations to reflect Bolivia’s new historical conditions. It could recognize the enduring non-liberal forms of collective political, economic and territorial association by which most rural and urban Bolivians organize their lives. It could democratize the political relations that throughout the republican era have limited the participation of indigenous peoples in national political life, forcing them to resort to costly insurrectionary struggles. It could also redirect the future exploitation of the country’s coveted resources in a way that benefits most Bolivians.

Political and economic elites will undoubtedly attempt to divert the current process. However, as long as they have no alternative agenda to offer, their attempts to stonewall the process are likely to only further radicalize the opposition. These elites may try to construct a more visionary new hegemonic project but there are no signs of this as yet.

Meanwhile, popular sectors are engaged in effervescent debate and are formulating their own visions of the future. What would Bolivia look like with sovereign control over its territory and natural resources, with forms of regional and ethnic self-determination, with meaningful national political representation for popular movements or with true majority rule? Whatever the future brings, there will be no going backwards. The current conjuncture in Bolivia is marked by seasoned political skepticism, yet also measured hope, and it may well carry implications for other struggles in the Andes and Latin America more broadly. As indigenous insurgents of previous centuries proclaimed in moments of anti-colonial and autonomist insurrection: “Ya es otro tiempo el presente” (“The present is a new time”).

Forrest Hylton is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia. He can be reached at

Sinclair Thomson teaches Latin American history at NYU and is author of We Alone Will Rule: Native Andean Politics in the Age of Insurgency (University of Wisconsin, 2003). They are coeditors of Ya es otro tiempo el presente: Cuatro momentos de insurgencia indígena (La Paz, 2003).


1. See Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, “Aymara Past, Aymara Future,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 25, No. 3, December 1991, pp. 18-23; and Rivera’s article in this issue.

2. See René Zavaleta Mercado, Las masas en noviembre (La Paz: Juventud, 1983, Lo nacional-popular en Bolivia (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1986); and Luis Tapia’s, La producción del conocimiento local: historia y política en la obra de René Zavaleta (La Paz: Muela del Diablo, 2002).

3. See Rivera, this volume; Forrest Hylton, Felix Patzi, Sergio Serulnikov, and Sinclair Thomson, Ya es otro tiempo el presente. Cuatro momentos de insurgencia indígena (La Paz: Muela del Diablo, 2003).

This article was originally published by the North American Congress on Latin America.