Bolivia: Revolution in the heart of Latin America

Today we are witnessing the realisation of Túpac Katari’s prophecy: ‘I will come back, and I will return as millions’; we are millions, in all parts, representing Túpac Katari, Bartolina Sisa, Simón Bolívar, Antonio José de Sucre. Evo Morales represents this historic current and brings together 500 years of struggle by the people of Bolivia, of Latin America and the Caribbean.

President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez[1]


 [The vote for MAS in the December 2005 national elections] is a mandate from the nation, not a class mandate, nor that of a region or an ethnic group; it is the nation that has stood up. It is a mandate which can only be compared to that of revolutions, like the National Revolution [of 1952]. Only during those stages were similar results achieved.

Vice-president of Bolivia, Alvaro Garcia Linera[2]


[May 28, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal is posting the English translation of the introduction by Federico Fuentes to MAS-IPSP de Bolivia: Instrumento político que surge de los movimientos sociales in order to provide readers with a historic context for the rise of the Evo Morales governments. Understanding Bolivia's history is crucial to understanding the process of change underway in this country today, something that seems self-evident but is too often forgotten. The entire book can be downloaded in Spanish by clicking the above link. This excerpt is made available by Bolivia Rising, where it first appeared.]

By Federico Fuentes

In December 2005, following five hundred years of domination and colonialism, more than fifty years since the National Revolution, and after five years of intense social struggle, the indigenous majority of Bolivia, for the first time elected one of their own as president — the cocalero (coca-grower) leader and head of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Evo Morales. The victory —with more than 50 percent of the vote — was more than just an indication of the level of rejection towards twenty years of neoliberal rule.

Peruvian activist Hugo Blanco summed up the significance of this event when he wrote, “the new president is not the result of a simple ‘democratic election’ like the many that frequently occur in our countries, it is an important step by the organized Bolivian people on their path towards taking power into their own hands.”[3]

Morales’s election marked the emergence of an alternative national project for South America’s poorest country. It represented a new stage in the cycle of revolutionary struggle in Bolivia that opened up in 2000 with the Cochabamba “water war” against privatisation, the Aymara rebellion in the altiplano highland regions and the cocalero resistance in the Chapare region. Since those battles, two presidents have been forced to resign — in October 2003 and June 2005 — as continuous waves of protest laid siege to the country’s political system.

At the core of this revolution are two fundamental issues: the destiny of Bolivia’s gas reserves, the second largest in South America; and the abolition of the racist colonialist state and refoundation of Bolivia through a new constituent assembly.

Over 50% of the population voted on December 18 to put an indigenous person in the presidential palace. Morales received more than 90% of the vote in the Chapare region, around 80% in El Alto and the altiplano, a surprising 30 percent in Santa Cruz, and a clean sweep of all the middle-class seats in La Paz.

After five years of intense social struggle, the vote marked the coming together of Bolivia’s oppressed classes, heralding the possibility of a path out of the historic crisis of the Bolivian state; a crisis resulting from the impacts of internal colonization, imperialist domination and neoliberalism.

The vote was an unambiguous expression of the desires and hopes of the indigenous majority for a government that could lead the country toward a new, inclusive Bolivia. For the middle classes, the Morales government offered the opportunity of a return to stability.

The Morales victory was the result of a conscious effort by Bolivia’s indigenous campesino movement to forge its own political instrument: the Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People (IPSP), today more commonly known as Movement Towards Socialism, or MAS-IPSP. Through a combination of street fighting and parliamentary battles, a policy of consistent alliance building and accumulation of social forces, and by focusing on the key national demands of the people — gas nationalisation and constituent assembly — Morales and the MAS-IPSP leadership have been able to construct a powerful national movement of liberation in the heart of a continent in revolt.

All of this has occurred within the framework of the rise of the new Latin American left, within which Morales’ victory signified more than just the election of another progressive or left president. It represented a qualitative new stage for the resurgent indigenous movement of the Americas, which is both a part of, and at the same time autonomous from, this new continental rebellion.

The long memory of indigenous resistance against colonialism

Colonialism and indigenous resistance

A day before officially assuming the presidency, Evo Morales travelled to Tiwanaku, the ancient centre of the Aymara empire and a sacred indigenous site, where he was handed over the symbolic bastion as a symbol of his new status as maximum authority amongst the Andean indigenous people, and proclaimed “president of the indigenous peoples of America”.

“From Tiwanaku begins a new era for the peoples of the world, only with the force of the people can we get rid of this colonial state,” announced Morales.

“I ask that the indigenous people make sure to control me, and if I can no long continue to move forward, then push me…. We have witnessed the triumph of a democratic and cultural revolution…We have passed from resistance to the taking of power” he stated, exhorting the thousands of mallkus (indigenous authorities) present to “continue the struggles of Tupac Katari”.[4]

Morales’s inauguration cermony was full of symbolism: it resurrected images, engrained in popular psyche, of anti-colonial rebellions, particularly the Aymara uprising led by Tupac Katari in 1781.

In 1780, the altiplano region was in a state of convulsion, with indigenous opposition to the Spanish invaders mounting. A regional insurgency in Potosí under the leadership of Tomás Katari had unleashed a chain of local movements. The southern highlands of Oruro and La Paz followed in early 1781, as Aymara and Quechua troops cleared the countryside of Spanish colonial control.[5]

On March 13, 1781, Tupac Katari, along with the Aymara army he commanded, took control of El Alto, a strategic entry point for La Paz. For several months, the Aymaras, together with the help of some Quechua soldiers, encircled the city, fighting back against the invaders. The invading Spanish army was only able to fight off the rebellion by calling upon the support of the local criollo population.

Katari was overpowered, captured, and quartered, but he became a historic reference point for indigenous struggle, promising just before he was executed: “I will come back, and I will be millions.” This quote became part of popular consciousness; part of the long memory of indigenous anti-colonial resistance.

Bolivia’s history provides us with one of the most stunning examples of the devastating impact that colonialism had around the world, and its continued ramifications today. Such is the case of Potosi, home of what use to be some of the largest silver mines in the world. In the 17th century, Potosi had a population of 160,000, making it larger than London at the time, while New York was not even a city yet.

But this wealth was never used to develop what became Bolivia, nor to improve the lives of indigenous people. By 1802, the industry was in sharp decline and the wealth from Potosi had been almost completely used up building London into a centre of world trade and capital flows.

Today, this mining city – a monument to the legacy of colonialism - is a shell of its former self, where cooperative miners work in slave like conditions for an estimated 10 years before dying due to the terrible working conditions. This pillaging was an example of what Ernest Mandel called the “double tragedy of the developing countries …. [in] that they were not only victims of that process of international concentration, but that subsequently they have had to try and compensate for their industrial backwardness — that is, realize the primitive accumulation of industrial capital — in a world flooded with articles manufactured by an already mature industry, that of the West.”[6]

Today, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and second after Haiti in the entire continent of the Americas. With a population of over 9 million, the indigenous people represent a majority: there are 2.5 million Quechuas, 1.5 million Aymaras and 1 million more belong to one of the other 34 indigenous nations.

Formation of Bolivia (1825)

By the end of the 18th century, the growing criollo[7] and mestizo[8] population of Latin America had become increasing discontent with what was occurring back in their homeland. The defeat of the Spanish bourgeois revolution led many to look towards independence from the former colonial power as a way forward.

During this period, wars of independence were waged across the continent, as Simon Bolivar[9], José de San Martin[10], José Artigas[11] and Bernardo O’Higgins[12] fought to liberate the continent from Spanish rule.

While Bolivia proclaimed its independence from Spain in 1809, it took a further 15 years of civil war before it formally became a republic.The fight for independence culminated with the battle of Ayacucho, on December 9, 1824, when Antonio José de Sucre's Republican army forced the surrender of the Spanish forces.

Due to the impact of the crushing of previous indigenous rebellions and the devastating violence inflicted on the indigenous population, their involvement was minimal given they had very little reason to support the cause.

The way in which Bolivia came into being was to leave a profound impact on its society. In contrast to European countries, where local national bourgeoisies acted as cohering forces in the processes of constructing nation-states, Andres Soliz Rada argues that no such force existed in Bolivia at the time. The oligarchy based on the tin mines of Potosi had gone into sharp decline and the fifteen year long war of independence almost completely destroyed all economic classes.[13]

While two other important economic centres – Buenos Aires and Lima - could have acted to incorporate Bolivia’s territory under their control, certain factors impeded this.

On the one hand, the emerging bourgeoisie based around the port of Buenos Aires was more interested in getting rich quick rather than using its wealth to build up the local economy. When San Martin offered to fight to expand Argentina and incorporate the territory that would become Bolivia under its control, Buenos Aires refused to help.

On the other hand, the aristocratic and pro-Spanish nature of the monopolist merchant class in Lima, which had benefited from colonial exploitation and maintained strong ties to the Church, meant that during the wars of independence it acted in the interests of Spain. In fact much of the repressive army used against the independence fighters in Bolivia was provided by Lima.

Soliz Rada writes: “In this way, between 1821 and 1825, Alto Peru appeared to be a floating territorial mass, without an economic agglutinative axis within its border, pushed towards separatism by the porteno oligarchy of Buenos Aires and without possibility of reunification with Bajo Peru, given the oligarchic, aristocratic, eclesiastic and pro-Spanish power that the local elites had been impregnated with.

“The lack of a dominant economic axis during the birth of Bolivia constituted one of its characteristics throughout republican life. It had a decisive influenced over its peripheral zones, which were to gravitate in function of the economies of neighbouring countries, in the end facilitating the constant territorial dismemberments suffered by [Bolivia] on practically all its borders.”[14]

Between 1879 and 1883, Bolivia was at war with Chile, losing its access to the Pacific Ocean, something that to this day has negative ramifications on Bolivia’s economy. The Acre War (1899-1903) against Brazil saw the loss of important forest lands in the north-east of Bolivia that helped fuel Brazil’s development.

The Federal War of 1899

This lack of a dominant economic axis also had an impact internally. While Sucre, located close to Potosi, was designated the capital of Bolivia, the growing prominence of the oligarchy that had emerged out of the booming tin mines around La Paz, lead to a civil war for political power in Bolivia: the Federal War of 1899. The result was a transfer of political power from the Conservatives (declining silver oligarchy in Potosi-Sucre) to the Liberals, (the expanding tin mining industry and those industries reliant on it in the north) and the shifting of the capital to La Paz, the new economic axis of the country. This explains why Sucre remains the official capital today, whilst the legislative and executive powers are located in La Paz.

Unlike the War of Independence, indigenous people not only participated but played a critical role in the Federal War. The Aymara Army led by Pablo Zarate Willka comprised some 40,000 indigenous peoples. While supporting the Liberals, it acted as an autonomous force organised around the demands of recovery of indigenous land and the formation of an indigenous government.

The Liberal victory over the Conservatives was only possible due to the intervention of the indigenous masses. Yet fears of an emergent indigenous power led the Liberals to join up with the Conservatives and turn their guns on the indigenous peoples the very same day that they won the war. Despite the political transition that occurred, the exploitation of indigenous people remained unchanged.

Fragmented resistence in the first half of the 20th century

Over the following decades, indigenous resistance took the form of a fragmented, predominately Aymara, movement that oscilated between negotiating with the state and open rebellion, primarily in defence of communitarian lands and access to education. Numerous regional uprisings occurred in the first half of the twentieth century in Pacajes (1914), Caquiaviri (1918), Jesús de Machaca (1921), Chayanta (1927), Pucarani (1934), Los Andes and Ayopaya (1947).[15]

Oppression of Indigenous peoples

With the eyes of the ruling elites directed towards Europe, the new republic represented a continuation of the brutal exploitation and exclusion of indigenous peoples.

The new constitution of 1826 denied indigenous people all political and economic rights. In return, indigenous people gained the “privilege” of being the biggest contributors to the construction of this new state, through the payment of a tribute which accounted for 50% of the state’s revenues.

Officially, it was not until 1945 - and in real terms not until 1952 - that the practise of pongueaje, which required indigenous peoples to render free services to their landlords, was outlawed.

In September 1868, a national constituent assembly decreed all land owned by indigenous communities was to be handed over to the state. These stolen lands were subsequently transferred over to the large landowners. By 1950, 6% of haciendas controlled 92% of Bolivia’s fertile land.[16]

Excluded from political participation, indigenous people were also denied access to education as a means of perpetuating their subordination and exclusion. Twenty five years after the founding of Bolivia, less than 20% of indigenous people could speak the official language.[17] They were tried in courts where they could not understand the charges they were facing.

Commenting on the situation of indigenous people, Emilio Barbier wrote at the end of 19th century: “More fortunate are the donkeys, horse and llamas: at least they are looked after because of the capital they represent”.[18]

Revolutionary potential of indigenous struggle

On the basis of the oppression of the indigenous people who were trapped within a semi-feudal economic structure, the native oligarchy attempted to erect the false image of a liberal-bourgeois state into which the criollo and mestizo were incorporated.

This history of abuse, discrimination and exploitation helps explain the dynamic and revolutionary potential of indigenous struggle in Bolivia. It is an overdeterminated phenomenon in that it is not solely a product of racial discrimination as some indigenista state, nor is it simply a product of class exploitation as some Marxists claim.

The intermediary memory of national revolutionary movements

Growing crisis of the oligarchic regime and the Chaco War (1932-36)

Under the rule of the tin barons, there began to emerge an important layer of criollo and mestizo middle class professionals. Drawn from the same social milieu, the same schools and grouped into the same social clubs, this emerging class ran the state bureaucracy on behalf of the oligarchy.

However, as in many countries across the world, the Great Depression impacted heavily on this new middle class. Bolivia was rattled by economic collapse as “small companies went to the wall, the middle class lost much of its earning power and savings, and the working class was badly hit by the loss of jobs and a sharp fall in real wages”[19]. Alongside the economic crisis, the first cracks began to appear between the oligarchs and middle classes.

In 1932, Bolivia was plunged into a fratricidal war with Paraguay over control of oil and gas reserves in the Chaco region. Behind the war were the interests of the Standard Oil Company and Shell, each supporting Bolivia and Paraguay, respectively.

Although Bolivia did not lose control over territory or gas reserves to Paraguay like in previous border wars, it suffered an enormous loss of lives: out of the 250,000 people sent to the frontline, 50,000 died and 20,000 were captured. The war generated a growing sentiment of defeat and discontent through Bolivian society.

The trenches – where those from the middle class, miners, and indigenous campesinos (many conscripted against their will) living through shared experiences - became the site of intense political discussions. Disgusted by what they had experienced, the middle classes blamed the rosca (mining-based oligarchy) for the military and political failure of the government and the dire situation that the country faced.

This national scenario provided fertile ground for the flourishing of a vibrant nationalism that began to heavily question the state and nature of Bolivian society.

Military socialism (1936-39)

Bolivian nationalism first took form in the figure of Colonel David Toro, who came to power on the back of the 1936 military coup. Coming out of the war with a profound sense of frustration, a large section of middle and lower ranking soldiers organised themselves into associations. Toro emerged as a representative of this increasing discontent that sought a solution to the situation via “the intervention of the army in defence of the interests and rights of the working classes and the ex-combatants…”[20]

Toro’s rise to power initiated a short-lived period in Bolivian history referred to as socialismo militar (“military socialism”). The Toro government moved quickly to nationalise Standard Oil due to their role in the Chaco War. Toro also created the first Ministry of Labour and, inspired by what he saw under Mussolini’s Italy, implemented the forced unionisation of workers. These policies were continued under Lieutenant Colonel German Busch, who overthrew Toro in 1937.

The political project of military socialism was far from complete and quite erratic at times, simultaneously implementing progressive and regressive measures. These governments represented an attempt to balance between foreign imperialism and rising nationalism. This experiment ended in 1939 when, as a graphic symbol of the immense pressure faced by these types of regimes, Busch committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

While the diffuse military socialism of the Toro and Busch regimes had filled the space available for nationalist politics, thereby inhibiting the organisation of more coherent revolutionary nationalist current, the coming to power of Enrique Peñaranda in 1940 did the opposite.

The combination of skyrocketing tin prices and the outbreak of the Second World War - which landed Bolivia in the privileged position of being the sole tin provider to the allied forces - created a big contradiction for the Peñaranda government. Peñaranda could have used this position to build up Bolivia’s economy, yet due to his subordination to the US government he signed an agreement whereby Bolivia sold tin at 25 pound sterling - well below the world market price of 90 pound sterling – as its contribution to the inter-imperialist war.

As a result, Bolivia not only lost an estimated $600 million in revenue from tin sales during the war but also the potential to build up its industry. Moreover, the US used the increased tin imports to create its own stockpile which it used against Bolivia in subsequent years.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, Willard Thorp, commenting on the stockpile of Bolivian tin they had bought up, said: “By building the Texas City smelter and buying Bolivian tin for many years, we have discouraged the Bolivians or any other country from constructing a tin smelter to use the Bolivian concentrates. By preventing private purchase in the United States and remaining out of the market for so long, we have prevented competition from determining the price of tin. We have, in effect, used our stockpile to force the price down, since in the absence of the stockpile we could never have held out as long as we did.”[21]

The story of Potosi’s silver mines was repeated again and again, as successive ruling elites sold off the country’s natural resources to aid the economic expansion and development of foreign powers.

Nationalism, Stalinism and Trotskyism

Before, and especially during, the Peñaranda government, a number of organised left and nationalist political tendencies began to appear.

PIR and Stalinism

The first party to emerge with some force was the Party of the Revolutionary Left (PIR), a party which drew together much of the disparate left groups that had begun to appear on university campuses during the 1930s. It went on to also develop a base in the unions. Although not officially tied to Moscow and the Soviet-led Communist International, the PIR was heavily influenced by Stalinist ideology.

POR and Trotskyism

Another important political force to emerge at the time was the Revolutionary Workers Party (POR). Although its membership was generally confined to more middle class sectors, the POR obtained authority and fame due to the important influence it held within the miners federation, the Union Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia (FSTMB). POR members helped draft the famous Tesis de Pulacayo for the 1946 FSTMB congress. The thesis, which went on to heavily influence the politics of miner unionism, or miner marxism, represented the importation into Bolivia of the kind of programs proposed by European Trotskyist parties, without any consideration for local realities.

This political current proclaimed that campesinos would play a subordinate role to the working class in the coming Bolivian socialist revolution, while the indigenous question did not even rate a mention. The POR’s misunderstanding of the dynamic of revolutionary struggle in semi-colonial countries led it to take a strongly workerist stance. For the POR, the axis of struggle was not against imperialism but rather between the local bourgeoisie and proletariat.

This meant that the POR, while influencing sections of the working class, left the door open for emerging nationalist forces like the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) to gain hegemony both within the national and workers movement.

MNR and nationalism

The MNR became the political expression of nationalist ideology that grew to be part of popular culture. The works of writers such as Augusto Cespedes[22] and Carlos Montenegro[23], amongst others, helped popularise the idea of a battle between the nation and the anti-nation - or put differently, a struggle between the oppressed nation and imperialism – and raised national consciousness. This was particularly reflected amongst middle class and petty bourgeois sectors (including the military) who saw in themselves the salvation of Bolivia, and became the leadership of the MNR.

The MNR contained within it both a right and left wing, which differed over whether it was possible to confront imperialism or not. However, the petty bourgeois leadership of the MNR, with its aspiration to promote the development of an almost non-existent national bourgeois, lacked any understanding of the class conflict inherent within the anti-imperialist front. Moreover, the MNR did not understand the indigenous question: for the MNR, indigenous people were simply part of the campesino population within a mestizo Bolivian nation.

The Nationalist Villarroel government (1943-46)

In 1943, General Gualberto Villarroel, together with sections of the military organised into Homeland’s Cause (RADEPA), and in alliance with the MNR, overthrew the anti-national government of Peñaranda via a military coup. This time around the new government had a much more solidly nationalist political platform than that of either Toro or Busch. Villarroel gained an important support base amongst workers and peasants, declared himself a friend of the poor, helped establish the miner’s federation and increased pressures on companies to pay taxes and raise wages.

Villarroel took a progressive stand in regards to indigenous people. He formally abolished pongueaje, declared August 2 as Day of the Indian, and convoked the Indigenous Congress in 1945, which was held in the actual national Congress building. The Indigenous Congress was particularly significant as indigenous people had previously not even been allowed into the plaza out the front of Congress, but now had the opportunity to debate policies inside, something that was too much to swallow for the racist oligarchy who organised to bring Villarroel down.

The PIR’s Stalinist line of forming a popular front against fascism led it to unite with the tin oligarchy and reactionary middle classes forces to overthrow Villarroel. Meanwhile, misunderstanding the dynamics of the actual class battle underway, the POR opted for an abstract “classist” policy, and preferred to criticise Villaroel from the “left” rather than take a united front approach to defend his government.

In the end, Villaroel was publicly hung by racist hordes in the Plaza outside Congress. Both the PIR and POR paid the political price for their mistaken policies, whilst the MNR rose to prominence over the next period.

Expanding its political work beyond the military, the MNR consolidated its leadership in the trade union movement, while continuing to recruit amongst rank and file soldiers and from RADEPA.

The National Revolution (1952-64)

Within a few years, the MNR became the main political force in Bolivia, winning the 1951 elections with Víctor Paz Estenssoro as their presidential candidate. Nevertheless, power was usurped by a military junta that impeded the MNR from forming government.

In response, workers and campesinos led a national armed insurrection in April the following year and brought the MNR to power. The 1952 revolution was a profound uprising of the oppressed classes that, under the petty bourgeois leadership of the MNR, broke the political grip that large landowners and tin oligarchs maintained over the country.

The almost complete disintegration of the military meant that armed power lay with the workers’ and campesinos’ militias. On April 11, 1952, Hernán Siles Zuazo, together with Juan Lechín Oquendo, leader of the miners union, formed a provisional interim government, until Víctor Paz Estenssoro returned from exile in Argentina on four days later.

In essence, the National Revolution represented the fracturing of the economic and political structures that had maintained the rosca in power, and promoted the awakening and inclusion of indigenous people.

Progressive measures implemented

The MNR government immediately began to implement a number of popular measures and organise the people.

1) On October 31, the government nationalised the mines, bringing them under the control of the new state company, COMIBOL (Corporacion Minera Boliviano).

2) The government decreed the dissolution of the army, replacing it with campesino and miners militias.

3) The government decreed universal suffrage, thereby incorporating indigenous people into political life.

4) It also initiated an agrarian reform program, created the Ministry of Campesino Affairs and promoted the organization of campesino unions.

Within the same month of coming to power, the MNR regime contributed to the creation of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB). Unionisation levels exploded with the number of unionised workers reaching 150,000 by 1956. The government also incorporated a number of union leaders into its cabinet.

Washington opts for strategy of penetration

Washington became increasingly concerned by the nationalist direction of the revolution, within which the left wing had substantial influence.

The lack of support for a fractured oligarchy with little political power, the almost complete dismantling of the armed forces and the popularity of the MNR meant that the US government had few options available for overthrowing the government. Therefore, rather than relying on military intervention or the weak oligarchic opposition, the US carried out a strategy of ideological penetration into the revolution, playing on existing divisions with the MNR, in order to regain its domination over the economy and disarm the militias.[24]

The revolution begins to retreat

Faced with this situation, Soliz Rada explained that “the petty bourgeoisie, capable of leading the struggle against the rosca, demonstrated its cowardice in confronting imperialism”.[25] For Sergio Almaraz, “The Bolivian revolution was belittled, and with its men, its projects, its dreams.”[26]

Unwilling to go all the way in confronting imperialism, and afraid of the growing strength of the workers and campesinos, the MNR began to change its position.

Imperialist influence increases

The US carried out a policy of deepening economic dependency via increased aid funding. Between 1954 and 1964, Bolivia was the biggest per capita recipient of US foreign aid in the world, a sum that ended up accounting for one third of its national budget. Via this means the country was plunged into a debt, weakened its economic position when it came to negotiating with imperialism.

While US influence increased, the revolution became further isolated from potential allies.

Shortly after assuming government, the MNR distanced itself from the nationalist government of General Juan Peron in Argentina (1945-55).[27]

When the Soviet Union offered to provide Bolivia with a smelter in order to industrialise tin (the US was the only country able to process Bolivian tin at the time), the US threatened to withdraw its aid. The MNR government caved and rejected the offer. The right wing of the MNR opposed any ties with the Soviet Union – a key demand of imperialism – and gradually the MNR began to replace its anti-oligarchic discourse with talk of the dangers of “communist agitators” in the countryside.

In 1955 the government approved the Petroleum Code – written by US officials - which allowed Gulf Oil to control 90% of Bolivia’s gas.

This penetration was deepened the following year with the approval of the Eder Plan[28], backed by the US and the IMF.

By making support for the Eder Plan a condition for entering the government, the right was able to weaken union influence within the government. The COB broke its alliance with the government, which in turn created a new union federation directly under its control, the United Revolutionary Bolivian Workers Central (COBUR).

This split in the mass base of the MNR regime made the leadership even more dependent on US financial and political support.

Reconstruction of the institutional military apparatus

Alongside increasing its economic control and attempting to stoke divisions with the MNR, the US also set about resucitating the Armed Forces as a counterweight to the worker and campesino militias. This was done in collaboration with a wing of the MNR that had come out of the military and, maintaining its belief in the necessity of a standing army, had begun working on re-establishing the Armed Forces.

This military sector succeeded in gaining control of the state apparatus and the MNR. By reshaping the ideology of the National Revolution through an emphasis on the central role of the Armed Forces in defending the homeland, together with implementing paternalist programs carried out by the military itself, the government began to win support for rebuilding the armed forces.[29]

In 1954, the military school was reopened in order to help re-establish a standing army. Almost immediately, the US began to gain important influence in key sections of the armed forces. Shortly after, the MNR government began sending elite army units to the US Army's School of the Americas for counterinsurgency training.[30]

Feeling confident that they could regain power, the oligarchy proposed right wing MNR leader Walter Guevara as candidate for president in the 1960 elections. Guevara had been closely aligned with the US during his time as foreign minister. While the slate led by Victor Paz Estensoro won the elections, the divisions within the MNR only increased in the government’s third term.

Paz Estensoro implemented the Triangular Plan in 1961 which was aimed at restructuring COMIBOL by turning it into a centre of capital accumulation for the new emerging bourgeois while closing off possibilities for industrialisation. Meanwhile, government propaganda against “communist agitators” increased.

The rise and decline of campesino unionism

From campesino unionism to the Military Campesino Pact

Another key factor that determined the future of the 1952 National Revolution was the role of campesinos and their relationship to the state after the revolution.

The period preceding the coming to power of the MNR witnessed important indigenous struggles and the formation of the first campesinos unions, primarily in the altiplano. With the National Revolution, these organisations expanded dramatically, as indigenous people began to be incorporated into national politics.

The relationship between the state and the campesino unions was characterized by the rise of new alliances and conflicts, where the unions had a level of autonomy that allowed them to negotiate with the government.[31]

Jean-Pierre Lavaud outlined the rapid growth of campesino organization under the MNR, writing: “Beginning in the second semester of 1952, the departmental federations of Cochabamba and La Paz were established and the national confederation was created on July 15, 1953. The campesino sectors that had rapidly and autonomously organised themselves after the revolution, principally in the valle (valley) of Cochabamba, were rapidly incorporated into this immense machine that by 1954 encompassed 7,000 local unions. At the same time, MNR commands began to appear (although small in numbers in the countryside) and armed campesino militias, principally in two regions: the north of the altiplano and the valle of Cochabamba. In 1956, the militias counted on 30,000 to 50,000 campesinos”.[32]

The stronghold of campesino unionism was in the Cochabamba valley, where the unions, which had first emerged in 1939, became the nucleus of political organization in the community. “The militia quarters in the valle were converted into decision making centre for the daily problems of campesino society, over and above the judicial authority, whose rulings were difficult to apply without the consent of the union”.[33]

The campesino unions were, however, not immune from the internal conflicts between the left and right wing of the MNR.

It was in Cochabamba that this conflict was most intense. The campesinos here were divided into two regional leaderships: the Campesino Central of Ucureña, lead by José Rojas, from the POR who advocated the expropriation of land without compensation, and the Union Federation of Campesino Workers of Cochabamba in Cliza, lead by Siforoso Rivas, who represented the right wing MNR position of a partial agrarian reform with compensation.

Pablo Stefanoni explains that the “intra-campesino conflicts intensified during the third term of the MNR government (1960-1964) when the disputes within the nationalist camp took on a violent character: the so-called ‘Champa War’ between the Centrals of Cliza and Ucureña (in the Valle Alto) which lasted for four years, was one of the main expressions of conflicts between campesino factions that were linked to internal struggles within the MNR.”[34]

General Barrientos and the Military-Campesino Pact

In 1963, General René Barrientos, in representation of the armed forces, was able to achieve the pacification of the conflict between the Centrals in Cliza and Ucureña, thereby gaining massive support amongst the campesino unions. Together with the increasingly paternalistic social programs of the armed forces in the countryside, the promotion of a discourse centred on the importance of the military and the struggle against the new enemy, “communist agitators”, Barrientos and the armed forces were able to create a new image of this institution as the guarantors of peace and the revolution.

Using this increased prestige, Barrientos announced the signing of the Military Campesino Pact (MCP) between the military cells of the MNR and campesino unions, in front of 30,000 campesinos in Ucureña on April 9, 1964. With the COB isolated, Barrientos was able to use his status to subordinate the campesino unions to the armed forces and rapidly disarm the campesino militias.

The Barrientos miltary coup (1964)

With this important support base, General Barrientos launched a successful military coup in November 1964. The coup – a result of the inevitable collision between growing imperialist penetration of the national revolution on the one hand and the progressive policies and social forces unleashed by the revolution on the other - marked the beginning of the end of the National Revolution.

Barrientos went on to carry out a systematic campaign of direct intervention into the campesino union federation in order to gain control of them at the national and regional level. By doing so, the campesino unions became transformed into para-state institutions, used in many cases to attack miners on strike. This relationship between the government and campesino unions helps in part to explain the isolation faced by Ernesto Che Guevara’s 1967 guerrilla expedition to the Bolivian countryside, which occurred at the height of the MCP.

However, an attempt by Barrientos to impose the Single Tax in 1968, which would have shifted the economic burden of the growing debt onto the poor, was just too much for some of the campesinos, who formed the Independent Campesino Bloc (BIC). This was the first crack in the pact and, although only representing a small fraction of the campesino sector, was a sign of things to come.

Ovando-Torres regimes (1969-71)

Following the sudden death of Barrientos, on April 29, 1969, Dr Luis Adolfo Siles Salinas became president. Lacking any social base and rejected by the campesino unions, he was deposed by General Alfredo Ovando Candia in a military coup in September of that year.

The new government immediately signalled a new direction for Bolivia, stating in the Revolutionary Mandate of the Armed Forces of the Nation: “The Armed Forces, via an institutional decision, has decided to put itself at the service of the Revolution, committing itself to the struggle for social justice, for the greatness of the homeland, and for authentic national independence, today in danger due to foreign subjugation”.[35] The threat of “communist agitators” began to recede in public discourse and was replaced with the real danger of imperialism.

Reflecting the strong subordination of the campesino movement to the military, the campesino alliance with the military continued inspite of this sudden shift in direction. Cesar Soto writes: “the change in discourse and the decisive anti-imperialist shift contrasted sharply with Barrientos’ discourse and yet the campesinos adscribed to it, to the point that it would not be an exaggeration to affirm that campesinos spoke what the state spoke… It was a blind support, that did not flow from any rupturing of its ‘dependent’ consciousness, and was a reflect action of support for the state”.[36]

Ovando had a contradictory history: as one of the leaders of the MNR military cell he had participated in the conspiracy to reorganise the Armed Forces. His government was marked by a battle between the left nationalist tendency in the military – lead by General Juan Jose Torres who was promoted to chief commander of the Armed Forces by Ovando – and the right wing barrientistas.

In order to gain popular support, the Ovando government abrogated the Petroleum Code, a number of anti-union laws and the Law of State Security. Together with his minister for hydrocarbons, Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, a well known socialist intellectual, Ovando carried out the expropriation of Gulf Oil, Bolivia’s second gas nationalisation. Ovando also accepted the previous Soviet Union offer to provide Bolivia with a tin smelter.

In response, the right wing began to counterattack. Mounting pressure from the barrientistas forced Quiroga’s resignation on May 18, 1970. Then, on July 9, Torres was pushed out of his role in the military when the position of chief commander was abolished. Sensing their growing strength, the barrientistas attempted a coup in October of that year.

However, a general strike convoked by the Political Command of the COB (set up as a coalition of different union leaderships and leftist parties), alongside a military rebellion headed by Torres defeated the attempted coup against Ovando, and installed Torres in power.

The Torres government and the Popular Assembly

Torres’ assumption of power marked a further shift leftwards. He carried out measures that signified profound economic and social changes such as the nationalisation of the Matilde mine and the repositioning of wages for miners that had been dramatically slashed under Barrientos. The Torres government also expelled the US Peace Corps from Bolivia, increased funding to universities, and created the State Bank and the Development Corporations with the aim of building up state companies.

The Popular Assembly was convened during the Torres government, representing an important step forward in the organisation of the working class. Beginning its deliberations on May 1, 1971, the assembly was based on the COB, with representation of the different political currents that made up the Political Command, including, at first, the MNR. Although the MNR was later expelled, a large number of union representatives present in the assembly were aligned with the MNR, meaning its influence remained strong.

Torres attempted to extend the hand of support to the assembly, but this was rejected on the basis of defending the autonomy of the working class. Unfortunately the conception of “autonomy” held by much of the left still under the influence of workerist and sectarian attitudes, lead to a number of fatal mistakes in the assembly.

The assembly took an ambiguous position towards Torres, preferring to simply criticise from the left, rather that proposing a united front against imperialism.

For the assembly, the question of working class leadership of the revolution was a question of numbers that could be imposed in a mechanical rather than organic way. The majority of delegates belonged to the working class (and, ironically, most of them were in turn aligned with the MNR). In a country where campesinos were the majority, the assembly statutes declared that it was to be comprised of 132 workers’ union delegates, 52 delegates from middle class organisations, 13 from political parties and only 23 from campesino organisations.

Moreover, while the small BIC was allowed to participate, the assembly rejected the participation of a new emerging campesino movement represented in the figure of Genaro Flores, who had been elected secretary general of the Campesino Federation of La Paz Tupac Katari in 1970. Flores went on to win control of the National Confederation of Campesino Workers of Bolivia (CNTCB) in early August, 1971.

The rise in support for Flores within the pro- MCP campesino confederation not only represented a radical change in the leadership, but also signified the re-emergence of a movement that self-identified as indigenous and not simply campesino. Yet, the participation of this new current was rejected because it was viewed as too close to the regime due to its continued affiliation to the pro- MCP union confederation

Although General Hugo Banzer, who had led the right wing coup attempt against Ovando, was removed from the military, a number of his supporters were allowed to remain in the military, despite having been identified. Torres refused to remove this reactionary wing when he had the legal and social backing to so, and at the same time refused to arm the population in the face an impeding coup, leaving the people in a dangerous situation.

Banzer finally succeeded in toppling the Torres regime on August 21, 1971, and installed a brutal right wing dictatorship in its place. Banzer organised the coup together with the pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee that had become a bastion for ultra right opposition to the national revolution.

In return, the newly emerging Santa Cruz based elites linked to agribusiness and gas interest were rewarded for their role in the coup. Banzer’s policies of regressive land distribution, the provision of loans which were never paid back, and money from royalties from gas exploitation in the region that were not redistributed to other parts of the country, laid the basis for rise of this new elite to power during the period of neoliberal regimes.

‘As Indians they exploited us, as Indians we will liberate ourselves’: The emergence of katarismo

Under the Banzer dictatorship, the Flores-led Confederation Tupac Katari was forced underground. This current, which identified itself as kataristas in the tradition of Tupac Katari, continued to organise both in the countryside and in urban areas where they promoted the development of cultural associations.

The origins of this current traced back to the early 1960s with the migration of a layer of Aymaras to La Paz in search of university education and work. These sectors, who came face to face with the racism of the cities, became instrumental in setting up networks of cultural associations and producing discussion journals to promote indigenous culture, history and ideology. This process of indigenous self-identification, on the back of an increasingly non-indigenous discourse of the National Revolution which promoted their assimiliation as campesinos, emerged as a response to the exclusion indigenous people faced in the cities.

This current began challenging the concept of what it meant to be indigenous. Indigenous people did not want to be assimilated as campesinos, rather they were actors in their own emancipation, with their own historic project. “As Indians they exploited us, as Indians we will liberate ourselves” was one of the catch cries of the movement.

Indigenous people began to study their own true history, retrace their cultural roots, and speak their own languages. Their rejection of the nationalist discourse of assimilation, and distrust of the Marxism of the POR and miner unionism that viewed indigenous people simply as campesinos subordinated to the working class, meant that this current viewed itself in ideological opposition to these other currents.[37]

In the political sphere, this new indigenism was first expressed through the Indian Party of Bolivia (PIB), founded in 1968 by Fausto Reinaga. The Manifesto of the PIB explained that “confronted with the nationalist front and the communist front, the Indian forms another front. This is the third front: the Indian Front. The Indian faces off against the “nationalists and communists white mestizo cholaje.”[38]

“The problem of the Indian is not assimilation; it is liberation” argued Reinaga. “It is not a problem of class (campesino class), it is a problem of race, of spirit, of culture, of people, of nation”. What was necessary, according to the PIB, was Indian power: the revolutionary conquest of power by the indigenous people in order to reconstitute the Aymara and Quechua empires.

In 1973, the kataristas once again exploded onto the national scene releasing their most important manifesto and that defined the politics of this current. The manifesto, proclaimed from Tiawanaku, declared: “we are exploited as campesinos and oppressed as Indians” and “we feel like foreigners in our own country”. It was made to circulate through La Paz and the rest of the country, marking the definite arrival of a new political force.

According to Silvia Rivera two central elements marked the katarista discourse: the continuity of a colonial oppression over the indigenous societies and the idea of the “awakening of a sleeping giant”, the indigenous majority, which would use its numerical advantage to confront criollo oppression.[39]

Formation of CSUTCB

By the end of the 1970s, many of the military regimes in South America began to come under heavy scrutiny as US pressure increased to begin a transition towards democracy (while maintaining local elites in power).

An opening up of political space allowed the Confederation Tupac Katari to re-emerge into public life in 1977. The following year it called a congress separate from the CNTCB, and in 1979, together with the BIC and other small groups, formed the United Union Confederation of the Campesino Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB). Genaro Flores was elected the first secretary general of the new confederation.

Garcia Linera argues that the formation of the CSUTCB marked “the symbolic rupture of the movement of campesino unions with the nationalist state in general, and in particular, with the Military Campesino Pact which had brought about military tutelage over campesino organizations”.[40]

The CSUTCB was comprised of nine departmental federations and other regional federations. During its first few years, the CSUTCB also included the Amazonian indigenous communities organised in the east. However, at the start of the 1980s, these groups left the CSUTCB and form the Confederation of Indigenous people of the Bolivian East (CIDOB).

The CSUTCB almost immediately affiliated to the COB, re-establishing the campesino-worker alliance of the early fifties. However, Pablo Stefanoni writes that this time “ponchos and lluch’us broke the monotony of the western suits of the COB.”[41]

At the same time, two organisations emerged in the political sphere, raising the banners of katarismo: the Indian Movement Tupac Katari (MITKA) and the Revolutionary Movement Tupac Katari (MRTK). Whilst the MITKA had a much more indigenist policy, the MRTK held a more flexible policy in regards to other left parties and currents. This difference was reflected in their participation in the 1979 elections where the MRTK supported and participated in the Popular and Democratic Unity (UDP), which won 24% of the votes, whilst the MITKA won 0.71% of the votes standing its own candidates.

Fall of the UDP and the rise of neoliberalism

After having won three previous elections between 1978-80, and being prevented from forming government each time by successive military coups, the UDP finally came to power in 1983. However, the UDP was swimming against the tide of history, representing the final stage of the long degeneration of the 1952 National Revolution.

The UDP was an alliance between the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement of the Left (MNR-I) and the Communist Party of Bolivia.

Inheriting an indebted government, an economic crisis and hyperinflation which reached 27,000%, the UDP government also had to overcome obstructions from the right wing on a number of fronts. Furthermore, the alliance was fragile and divided. The MIR soon left the government, while the COB, whose strong political focus had come to be replaced by a corporative outlook, organised hundreds of protest over simple economic demands.

Under pressure, President Hernan Siles Zuazo announced that he would call early election on August 6 1985.

While the UDP disintegrated, the MNR candidate, Paz Estenssoro, won the elections: ironically, the first president to emerge from the 1952 National Revolution, was also the first to inaugurate the neoliberal era.

This destruction of the national economy and the forced relocalisation[42] of tens of thousands of miners, resulted in a massive internal migration, as miners sought out a new livelihood. The city of El Alto was one destination for waves of internal migrants; the other was the cocalero region of the Chapare. Taking with them their brand of miner unionism, it was perhaps no surprise that these two areas soon became epicentres of resistance to neoliberalism.

Decline of katarismo

By 1983, divisions within the CSUTCB emerged between the Aymara kataristas, who argued to privilege an indigenous discourse, and other currents, particularly the Grassroots Campesino Movement (MCB), who proposed limiting themselves to purely union or economic demands.[43] These differences were also played out between campesinos and workers within the COB. One example that Lavaud points to was the discussion in 1984 around a proposed literacy campaign: while the kataristas from the CSUTCB argued it should be bilingual, the COB, particular the teachers’ federation, strenuously defend a campaign strictly in Spanish.[44]

Analysing the situation they found themselves in, delegates to the July 1998 CSUTCB extraordinary congress made the following diagnoses: “The union is passing through a crisis, which if we do not turn around, could convert itself into a crisis that kills the confederation”.[45] That same year the katarista faction led by Flores lost control of the CSUTCB as the organisation became engulfed by internal conflicts between different left parties and alliances.

At the same time, in the political sphere, the kataristas underwent further divisions, with both organisations fracturing. Moreover, the electoral results of the 1989 elections, where the two candidates identified with katarismo gain a meagre combined vote of 2.8%, two-thirds of which came from the department of La Paz, demonstrated that katarismo had been reduced to an almost exclusively Aymara political expression without any force outside of La Paz.

By the end of the 1980s, the indigenous and campesino movements was characterised by a CSUTCB divided over support for a pluri-multi discourse or indigenous self-determination, the consolidation of an indigenous movement in the east around CIDOB, and the rise of the cocalero movement.

A new indigenous nationalism

Over the following years, the cocalero movement, together with campesino movement organized within the CSUTCB and the indigenous movement around CIDOB, began to come together and form a powerful indigenous campesino movement. This movement took a decision in 1995 to create a political instrument which ultimately led to the creation of the MAS-IPSP.

To understand this new project for national liberation, it is necessary to contextualise it within Bolivia’s long and short memory. Today, the MAS-IPSP represents the continuation and at the same time, superation of these two memories. It feeds off both the history of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles such as those of the kataristas, combining indigenista, nationalist and miner marxism ideologies, within a new indigenous nationalism.

This new project continues in the tradition of military socialism, of the Villarroel government, of the National Revolution and the Ovando and Torres regimes, but for the first time it is a movement led by indigenous campesinos, not middle class or military sectors.

Unlike previous experiences, this nationalism incorporates an ethno-cultural component that questions the idea of a mestizo Bolivian nationality, and instead proposes a pluri-national Bolivia.

During the new cycle of struggle that opened up in 2000 – which can be said to represent a new anti-neoliberal short memory – the indigenous campesino movement transformed itself into a political movement, with the MAS-IPSP becoming the largest political force in the country, and today holds the destiny of Bolivia in its hands.

[1] From speech given by Hugo Chavez, El Alto, May 2007

[2] Febbro, Eduardo and Stefanoni, Pablo “Una Revolucion en democracia” Pagina 12, December 19, 2005

[3] Blanco, Hugo “Bolivia-Perú,” Rebelion, January 4, 2006

[4] Morales, Evo La revolucion democratica y cultural: Diez discursos de Evo Morales, Malatesta: La Paz, 2006, pp. 13, 16.

[5] Hylton, Forrest & Thomson, Sinclair “The Chequered Rainbow”, New Left Review, No 35, Sept-Oct 2005, p. 42

[6] Mandel, Ernest “La teoria marxista de la acumulacion primitiva y la industrializacion del Tercer Mundo” Revista Amaru, No. 6, April-June 1968

[7] Refers to the generations of white Spaniards that had been born in Latin America, beginning to form a stable local population.

[8] Refers to those of mixed blood, Spanish and indigenous

[9] Bolivar led several of the 19th century independence struggles throughout South America, including Venezuela where he was born. He was the first president of the Gran Colombia in 1821, a federation covering much of modern day Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.

[10] San Martin was an 18th-century Argentine general and prime leader of the southern part of South America's struggle for independence from Spain

[11] Artigas is referred to as the “father of Uruguayan independence”

[12] O’Higgins was one of the commanders – together with San Martin – of the military forces that freed Chile from Spanish rule in the Chilean War of Independence

[13] Soliz Rada, Andres “La caracterizacion de Bolivia y la contradicción fundamental” Reconquista Popular e-list

[14] Soliz Rada, “La caracterizacion de Bolivia”

[15] Lavaud, Jean-Pierre; Del indigenismo al indianismo: el caso de Bolivia,

[16] Lavaud, Del indigenismo al indianismo

[17] Dunkerley, James Rebellion in the veins: Political struggle in Bolivia, 1952-1982, Verso: London, 1984, p. 23

[18] Quoted in Soliz Rada, “La caracterizacion de Bolivia”

[19] Dunkerley Rebellion in the veins, p.26

[20] Rivera Cusicanqui, Silva Oprimidos pero no vencidos. Luchas del campesinado aymara y quechwa 1900 – 1980 THOA: La Paz, p. 95

[21] Cited in Zunes, Stephen; “Bolivia, United States and Dependency: The legacy of US dependency usurpation of the 1952 National Revolution”, Americas Program discussion paper, November 5 2007

[22] See for example El Presidente Colgado, Metal de Diablo: La vida del Rey del Estaño and Sangre de Mestizo

[23] See for example Nacionalismo y Coloniaje

[24] Zunes “Bolivia, United States and Dependency”

[25] Soliz Rada, “La caracterizacion de Bolivia”

[26] Almaraz, Sergio Requiem para una Republica UMSA: La Paz, 1969

[27] Soliz Rada in La caracterizacion de Bolivia” explains: “Hernan Siles Zuazo said, shortly after the April insurrection, that the Bolivian revolution was ‘independent of Washington, Moscow and Buenos Aires’. This demonstrated the petty-bourgeois leadership was also incapable of imbuing the revolution with a Latin American sentiment, given that the position of ‘independence from Buenos Aires’ defended by Siles Zuazo meant isolating the MNR process from the process being led by Peron at that time in Argentina.” Op. cit

[28] Named after George Jackson Eder who the United States had appointed to take charge of an drafting an economic stabilization program

[29] Soto, Cesar; Historia del pacto militar campesino. CERES: Cochabamba, 1994

[30] Soto, Historia del pacto militar campesino

[31]Stefanoni, Pablo: El nacionalismo indígena como identidad política: La emergencia del MAS-IPSP (1995-2003)

[32] Lavaud, Del indigenismo al indianismo

[33] Gordillo, José María 2000 Campesinos revolucionarios en Bolivia. Identidades, territorio y sexualidad en el Valle Alto de Cochabamba, 1952-1964 PROMEC-Universidad de la Cordillera-Plural Editores-CEP: La Paz, p. 83.

[34] Stefanoni El nacionalismo indígena como identidad política

[35] Fuerzas armadas y sociedad en Bolivia: el gobierno Ovando-Torres

[36] Soto Historia del pacto militar campesino

[37] Garcia Linera, Alvaro “Indianismo and Marxism: The mismatch of two revolutionary rationales” Links

[38] “Manifesto Del Partido Indio de Bolivia” in Reinaga, Fausto La Revolucion India Ediciones Fundacion Amautica “Fausto Reinaga”: La Paz, p. 386, 141

[39] Rivera Cusicanqui, Silva Oprimidos pero no vencidos p.164

[40] Garcia Linera, Alvaro “Indianismo and Marxism”

[41] lluch’us refers to a traditional type of Andean head wear. Stefanoni El nacionalismo indígena como identidad política

[42] The Bolivian government referred to the firing of miners as “relocation”, although they neither relocated miners nor gave them a new jobs.

[43] Lavaud, Del indigenismo al indianismo

[44] Lavaud, Del indigenismo al indianismo

[45] Lavaud, Del indigenismo al indianismo