Bolivia: an ‘indigenous revolution’?

Some Westerners view recent Latin American protests through rose-tinted spectacles.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

‘The indigenous majority of Bolivia, Quechua, Aymara, Chiquitano, and Guarani, mobilised…. The neighborhood association of El Alto mobilised to lay siege to La Paz much as the followers of [indigenous leader] Tupac Katari did over 200 years ago…. After 500 years of massacre, genocide, rape, slavery, torture, and exploitation, that the indigenous of Bolivia should begin their reconquista so peacefully staggers the imagination….’ (1)

This is one Western leftist take on recent events in Bolivia. Over the past couple of months, the country has been brought to a standstill with waves of strikes, road blockages, and industrial occupations. At issue is the exploitation of the county’s ample gas reserves by foreign multinationals, which drain off all the profits along with the petroleum, leaving little behind for Bolivian development. The government is in chaos. President Carlos Mesa threw in the towel, and after tortured and acrimonious deliberation his office was passed to the third in line of succession, the head of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodriguez.

These events provide an interesting index of the problems and potential of radical politics today. But the situation is obscured rather than illuminated by the rose-tinted accounts that spring from the mouths of Western supporters. This is seen as payback for 1492, a glorious revolution of indigenous Bolivians against the white elite and foreign business interests. Such an uprising will inevitably succeed, it is implied; all anybody has to do is sit back and watch Bolivians walk into the sunset, to the strains of panpipes.

Take away the sepia, though, and a more complicated situation is revealed – which makes you wonder if Western accounts owe more to their own issues, than to any reality in the Andean mountains.

The backbone of the protest movement comes less from indigenism, than from syndicalism. It’s not really about the sacred nature of natural resources, or harking back to a pre-Colombian patrimony. When such statements are made, it tends to be with an eye to international supporters. The main groups behind the uprising – such as neighbourhood committees in El Alto, the makeshift city on a plateau above La Paz; and the coca-growers of the Chapare region further south – draw on the country’s trades union past.

The Bolivian miners were renowned for their high level of organisation and uncompromising stance. When many mines closed in the mid-1980s, as part of neoliberal reforms, the population of mining towns emptied to just such places as El Alto and the Chapare. They had lost their political clout, but took with them some of their fight and approach to organisation. In El Alto, taxi drivers belong to syndicates and ‘comrade’ is still a form of address. Meanwhile, in the Chapare former miners came face-to-face with the US-sponsored drug eradication policy (in exchange for aid, the Bolivian government eradicated an agreed number of hectares per year). The Chapare was often in a state of siege, with constant low-level conflict between coca-growers and the military police.

In recent weeks, neighbourhood committees laid siege to La Paz by blocking off incoming roads – a tactic favoured not just by Tupac Katari 200 years ago, but more pertinently by the miners’ unions up until the 1980s. Other groups seized gas refineries across the country and blocked highways, bringing transport to a halt and causing food and energy shortages. The country’s most prominent indigenous leader, Felipe Quispe, wasn’t a prominent figure in the uprising. Yet the UK Observer responded to the protests by running an interview with the ‘Inca revolutionary’, and his struggle to ‘reclaim our culture’ and ‘restore the Inca nation’ (2).

Though daring, and inspiring, these protests don’t yet amount to revolution. The groups are incredibly fragmented, each with its different demands and different leaders. This stands in stark contrast to the past, where the central union, the COB (Central Obrera Boliviana), kept the different strands of the labour movement together, and at some points presented itself as the genuine government of Bolivia. It was in co-government just after the nationalist revolution in 1952, and the first COB congress resolved to ‘take all the power to the working class’ (it was soon talked out of that one). There was a downside to this centralised structure, though, which was that it tended to rein in radical moments and win workers over to concessions.

Politics is more open today, but it is also more hampered by rivalries and disagreements. There is no love lost between Evo Morales, the leader of the coca-growers, and Felipe Quispe, for example. While it’s possible to coordinate a wave of stoppages around a particular grievance, it’s more difficult to convert momentum into political gains. In the recent protests there was no political centre of gravity, and no coherent strategy. At one point some of the various groups came together in El Alto to issue a five-point programme, which included calling for a new popular assembly and the nationalisation and industrialisation of gas. But this was undermined by the fact that neither of the heads of two of the main organisations (the regional trade union, the COR; and the neighbourhood association federation, the FEJUVE) were present for the final drafting (3).

The calls for nationalisation of gas, and a new assembly, are largely symbolic at this stage. Bolivia certainly comes out the loser in many of its dealings with foreign gas companies, including Britain’s BP and Spain’s Repsol. A recent report found that after privatisation of the oil and gas sectors, the Bolivian government took in $40million less in yearly revenue. According to an official government report released in 2003, these gas companies enjoy some of the lowest operating costs in the world. But Bolivia doesn’t have the resources to develop the gas fields itself, and couldn’t buy out foreign companies. Some have argued that Bolivian gas should be used for Bolivia alone – but this would take a mere one per cent of available reserves, squandering a development opportunity. Meanwhile, important questions about the makeup of a constituent assembly remain unanswered, such as whether it would be a parallel power to government, and how representatives would be chosen.

These demands express a yearning for control over national resources, and for a more representative system of democracy. But the protesters seem unable, as of yet, to find an adequate political vocabulary. As a result, we see a pattern in Latin America of protests that rise up like a wave, sweeping away political leaders, then crashing and withdrawing. Evo Morales has commented as much, saying: ‘We know how to bring down governments, but not how to take power.’ (4) This was the case with the ‘water wars’ in 2000, when the people of Cochabamba rose against high tariffs imposed by a foreign water company. Similarly, a ‘gas war’ in October 2003 brought the country to a standstill and removed a president – that time, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada – but with few lasting consequences.

We also should note that the protests owe much of their success to the extreme disunity of the Bolivian elite. Bolivian politicians have been tripping over themselves to get off the political stage, and avoid taking any responsibility for the current mess. When Congress recently passed a new hydrocarbons law, raising the royalties paid by energy companies, Mesa didn’t veto it as had been expected. Nor did he sign it. He padded it back to Congress for it to sign – which is unprecedented inaction by the head of government. Then there were squabbles over the succession. Next in line to Mesa was Hormando Vaca Díez, who has ties with the strong Santa Cruz agro-industrial elite in the south, but Mesa issued a statement calling on him to pass it by. Diez said that he was sure he could rely on the military for restoring order; the military, however, demurred.

It seems that resigning and calling for new elections are the elite’s main plans of action. The only alternative is that proffered by the Santa Cruz agro-industrialists: secession. They want more regional independence, which would give them the major say over the running of the gas fields. As a solution to a crisis, this means abandoning national ship, essentially saying that those pesky ex-miners from La Paz aren’t their problem. The level of fragmentation within the state was indicated by the fact that the October 2003 protests ended up with a shoot-out between police officers and the army on the streets of La Paz.

Bolivian history is potted with a series of unstable regimes, but the elite has never been so fragmented as now. On some occasions it brought people together under the banner of revolutionary nationalism – Víctor Paz Estenssoro, grand old man of the 1952 revolution, remained central in Bolivian politics until the late 1980s. On other occasions, the elite used military force. The military kept order between 1964 and 1982, often at the behest of business interests (in the brutal 1980 coup of Luis García Mesa, Bolivian banks took out an advert in the Wall Street Journal in his support). Today there’s neither inspiration nor aggression from the political elite, just a vacuum. This situation provides an opening for popular movements – if they could make the most of it.

Whence comes Western radicals’ starry-eyed account of the Bolivian protests? Less from Bolivia, perhaps, than from their own backyard. The habit of looking for revolution overseas has long been a tendency on the Left. Disillusioned with their own working class, they often went searching for a readymade revolution in the mountains of Nicaragua or Bolivia. Today, with domestic politics less attractive than ever, they chase more keenly after far-off uprisings.

It always helps if there is a nice cultural myth to go with it, such as Sandino in the case of Nicaragua or Tupac Katari in the case of Bolivia. This gives the movement a romantic, and inevitable, feel to it. It’s not just about the nitty gritty of political struggle, but about a spirit repressed over centuries rising again. Then there’s the fact that it’s not your country, so if it all goes wrong you can just get the next plane out. It’s possible to pursue the fantasy of revolution, avoiding any uncomfortable realities.

However, some of those lining up with today’s Bolivian protests are not just disillusioned with politics at home – they’ve never really tried it. People who might skirt around their local estate because it’s too rough will nonetheless happily march alongside Bolivian peasants in opposition to US policy. Theirs is a middle-class anti-Westernism, a suspicion of big business and big development. It’s a fantasy of return to a simpler, cleaner life, away from the mess of burgers and MTV. The call to ‘restore the Inca nation’ strikes a chord.

But the Incas can’t show the way forward, as most of the Bolivian protesters seem all too aware. If we were to draw a lesson from events in Bolivia, it might be that there is the will, but not yet the way. Today’s political situation provides new opportunities, but activists find it difficult to make the most of them. The failure of political vocabulary afflicts Bolivian ex-miners just as much as it does political movements in the West. All of us – Bolivians and British alike – need to grapple with that problem over the coming years. Western leftists would do better to face up to the reality of politics today, than to fix their misty-eyed gaze on the Andes.

(1) See Empire Notes, a blog by Rahul Mahajan

(2) Inca revolutionaries show their power, Observer, 12 June 2005

(3) Stalemate in Bolivia, Forrest Hylton, Counterpunch, 14 June 2005

(4) Huayco en los Andes, Indymedia, 5 June 2005

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Topics Politics


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