When the MNR finally signed the agrarian reform decree in August 1953, it indeed opened quite a Pandora’s box of conflict and violence. Many latent long-term ethnic and class issues permeating regional social relations suddenly reappeared, seemingly from nowhere. Although the landlords’ power had been wiped out from the political equation, many other contradictions still flourished. These contradictions set workers against peasants, comunarios (ayllo community members) against campesinos (peasants), and vecinos (town dwellers) against campesinos. The following are the case studies examined in this chapter: the miner-peasant agrarian cooperatives that were implemented through the agrarian reform, in early-1954; the Tapacarí ayllo-comunario clash against the Valle Bajo peasant union militias, in late-1954; and the fight in northern Potosí between the San Pedro de Buenavista vecinos against the Choroma peasant federation, in early-1958. Each instance included as a case study illustrates the conflicts that emerged in the wake of the signing of the agrarian reform decree.
It was the tension between the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolu-cionario’s (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, MNR) left and right wings that built such a pervasively oppositional and violent political context, fueling intense and sometimes bloody confrontations between the myriad interested parties. Peasants were always the most deeply affected by the violence. The left-wing attempted to subordinate the peasants to their proletariat aims, for peasants were not considered capable of the consciousness required to lead a revolution, and the right-wing tried to control peasants through the urban power networks of the party. Both party factions sought to manipulate the peasant unions, and to utilize the symbolic and paramilitary powers of the union militias. Urban politicians and intellectuals almost always favored restricting the political autonomy of the peasant unions. The collapse of the landlord class during the early years of the revolution—far from representing the ultimate political triumph for the peasantry—was in fact the initial step of a long-lasting struggle against revolutionary power groups for the peasants to create their own campesino identity.
This chapter’s time frame (1954–58) encompasses the second and the first half of two consecutive presidential terms, those of Víctor Paz (1952–56) and Hernán Siles (1956–60). During President Paz’s second half term, the MNR’s left wing was more influential, while in President Siles’ first half term, the right wing was the dominant faction in the government. The initial execution of the agrarian reform law through the expropriation of hacienda lands and the formation of agrarian miner-peasant cooperatives occurred under the rule of Víctor Paz. The experiment was unsuccessful; the cooperatives were dissolved, and their land redistributed on an individual basis. More problems emerged, however, when comunarios in Cochabamba’s altiplano reclaimed the property of valley lands as part of their ancestral communal territories. Peasants in the valley—who were ready to obtain their own individual plots of land through the agrarian reform system—confronted comunarios with armed militias. Conflict between vecinos and campesinos further increased during the rule of Siles, as a result of his administration’s attempt to recentralize the power over peasant unions within urban party institutional bodies. As a part of their push to shift control of peasant unions, the government manipulated public information and created parallel peasant and workers’ unions to weaken the established pro-leftist ones. Furthermore, the regime systematically tainted the public image of peasant leaders who were not organically aligned with the official political ideology. A central tactic of the MNR’s right wing was the encouragement of conflict between the town dwellers and peasants in their support for a “progressive landlord return,” rhetoric that irritated the peasantry in both the valley and highlands of Cochabamba. Within this context of counterrevolutionary resurgence, San Pedro de Buena Vista vecinos clashed with Choroma campesinos in northern Potosí.
This chapter also examines public discourse in Cochabamba during this period. After the failed coup in November 1953, the MNR regime monopolized the press in Cochabamba. The official El Pueblo was the only newspaper that circulated in the region until 1958, when the press monopoly in Cochabamba ended. As a result of the failed coup, however, the landlords’ voices disappeared from the discursive political arena. The peasants became a central subject in the MNR’s triumphalist and self-congratulatory political discourse, which not only celebrated the revolution but also took full responsibility for its genesis. The rhetoric disseminated concerning the success of the revolution focused upon the importance of agrarian reform and its peasant beneficiaries, an abundance of discourse also highlighted the benevolence the governing party, the MNR, lovingly granted to the peasants of Bolivia. Although the peasants were characterized and represented as political actors totally subordinate to the state, in actuality, this discourse created an idealized model for peasant-state relations from the perspective of the state and its agents. Implicit within the claim of an already existing “total” subordination of peasants to the state, is the reality that the government lacked the capacity beyond the dissemination of political propaganda, to convince the peasants to align themselves with their political control policies.
Peasants and the Left-Wing Populist Paradigm
The most serious attempt of the Bolivian oligarchical elites to overturn the revolution was the failed 9 November 1953 coup d’état, carried out under the political command of the Falange Socialista Boliviana (Bolivian Socialist Phalanx, FSB). The right-wing faction of the MNR surreptitiously supported this seditious act, as it was concerned about the extent of social change thus far within the revolutionary processes. In Cochabamba, several important MNR militants maintained family and social ties with the oligarchy. The regional oligarchs had been deeply affected by the revolution, were angry about it, and had silently supported plans for the coup. The prefect of Cochabamba, Gabriel Arze Quiroga, for instance, was bitterly criticized for his lukewarm response to the coup’s plotters.1 Once the government gained control of the attempted overthrow, it lost all confidence in the party’s right-wing members and removed them from public offices, replacing them with left-wing militants. From late-1953 to 1956, when President Paz’s administration came to an end, the left wing was given free rein to implement its populist agenda through supporting workers’ and peasants’ unions.2
The MNR’s right wing, however, was not entirely dismantled but rather required a period of time to regroup and plan a counter-attack. In Cochabamba, Germán Vera Tapia, the former minister of agriculture, returned to occupy the leading position in the Comando Departamental del MNR (MNR’s Departmental Commando, CDM). From his post, he rebuilt the rank and file of the party’s right wing under the pretext of leading a “political instruction” campaign aimed at grassroots peasant organizations. At the same time, in both provincial capitals and rural towns, the MNR’s right wing deployed a campaign to organize “Provincial Commandos,” “Worker-Peasant Blocks,” and “MNR Vanguards,” with the aim of establishing parallel institutional power blocks that might be able to compete with the power held by the peasant unions. These party-based organizations drew on the urban middle class and artisans to fill their membership rolls, and city dwellers, keen to take advantage of a means to differentiate themselves politically from peasants, jumped at the chance. The attitude of the urban MNR militants generated a new revolutionary ethnic discourse that exacerbated pre-existing exclusionary patterns in the power dynamic between town dwellers and peasants. MNR militants in rural towns mistreated the peasants, generating ethnic and political rivalry. For instance, in Tapacarí, MNR vanguard members “bullied and mistreated the peasantry.”3 The Punata subprefect denounced that MNR worker-peasant block members “abused the rural population by forcing them to obey their orders.” 4 The Ucureña peasants complained to the prefect that the Cliza vecinos were organizing an MNR worker-peasant block “so as to divide the local peasantry.”5
The MNR’s right wing began organizing MNR Provincial Commandos (CPM) in all provincial capitals of the Department of Cochabamba. A right-wing militant was usually placed as head of each CPM, aiming to create a renovated network of right-wing leaders in the provincial capitals. From their posts, these MNR right-wing militants maintained a state of permanent confrontation with the regional peasant leaders and attempted to take control of the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Campesinos de Cochabamba (Union Federation of Peasant Workers of Cochabamba, FSTCC). For instance, Washington Arce, the right-wing supporting peasant leader of Capinota, made a series of accusations against Sinforoso Rivas and José Rojas, in an effort to split the peasant leadership. The FSTCC declared him a traitor to the peasant movement and expelled him from the FSTCC committee board. His challenge to the power of Rivas and Rojas intensified when he founded a parallel and competing peasant federation to theirs in Capinota.6 Despite his expulsion from union leadership, however, Washington Arce continued to represent the MNR’s right wing as a deputy of the national parliament.7
In contrast to the right-wing’s confrontational attitude, the MNR’s left wing supported the peasant unions, maintaining direct links with both Sinforoso Rivas in the Valle Bajo and José Rojas in the Valle Alto. Rivas and Rojas were both attached to the policies that the Central Obrera Boliviana (Bolivian Workers’ Central, COB) and the Ministerio de Asuntos Campesinos (Ministry for Peasant Affairs, MAC) implemented in an effort to aid the peasantry. Within the mutually held areas of influence, Rivas and Rojas had established far-reaching power networks composed of local peasant leaders who were faithful to both of them. Drawing on the size and latent power of these networks, both peasant leaders individually negotiated their own political positions within the regime. Meanwhile, local peasant leaders engaged in tense and often violent power tussles with local authorities, the CDM, the CPMs, and other urban MNR organizations. These politically motivated violent conflicts were encouraged by local leaders of both factions, shattering any notion of a Pax Revolucionaria, the existence of which the regime had fabricated with its monopoly on media.8
In June 1954 the government’s agrarian reform apparatus began the divisive process of land redistribution. To accelerate the process, the left applied a parallel plan for also distributing land to groups of miners and hacienda colonos. This additional plan originated in the miners’ unions and was put into action by the MAC and the COB (see figure 3.1). The goal of the plan was to shift underemployed miners into the agrarian sector, for mining output had shrunk significantly. This idea was also informed by literalist interpretations of Marxist theory, which argued that the mining proletariat was the only possible vanguard of the revolution, because peasants simply lacked revolutionary consciousness. The goal of the miners’ plan was to establish influence over the revolutionary spirit of the peasants and the organization of stable miner-peasant agrarian cooperatives in the former haciendas.
The government set up a commission for land distribution and issued a resolution authorizing the expropriation of several haciendas in the Valle Bajo of Cochabamba. Nearly half of the beneficiaries of land distribution were miners from the Siglo XX, Catavi, and Colquiri recently nationalized mines.9 From January 1954 to July 1955, twenty-eight latifundios or great estates were expropriated: twenty-five in Cochabamba, two in Sucre and one in Potosi. In the case of Cochabamba, some 554 miner and 623 peasant families received plots ranging from two to eight hectares (4.5 to 18 acres) in area (see table 3.1). As so many miners benefited from land distribution, peasant leaders became upset and criticized the idea of settling miners in already densely populated peasant-agricultural areas. Sinforoso Rivas reluctantly collaborated with the land distribution project in the Valle Bajo, while Valle Alto peasant leaders refused to implement the project in Cliza.10
Wherever the government was to distribute hacienda lands, a public celebration and peasant gathering was organized at the hacienda’s manor house, with MNR officials in attendance. These events—marking the hand-over of hacienda lands to the workers and peasants—were considered revolutionary rituals of great transcendence. Through these rituals, the desire of the peasant to become a legitimate landowner was symbolically fulfilled, and the solemnity of the ceremony reinforced the viability of the processes of agrarian reform applied by the MNR. These rituals also provided helpful material in generating revolutionary propaganda and rhetoric that exalted the role of the official party. Every speech given at these gatherings reiterated the mantra that the MNR was the only political party in Bolivian history to lead a revolutionary process, freeing workers and peasants from exploitation at the hands of abusive landlords.
Agrarian Industrial Co-op
Mixed Farming Co-op
Mixed Farming Co-op
Mixed Farming Industrial
Co-op “Gualberto Villarroel”
Agrarian Industrial Co-op
“Camacho Rancho” Ltd.
The next step of the project included the organization of agrarian cooperatives, but this part of the project was hobbled by difficulties as soon as it started. By August 1954, the cooperative’s inspector issued a report to the Cochabamba prefect detailing the actual situation of peasant cooperatives in the region.11 He asserted that, to that date, only five cooperatives had been organized, the location and value of which are detailed in table 3.2. However, the report continued, the Ucureña cooperative that was to be the largest in Cochabamba was not yet ready to function. The report estimated that around 3,000 peasants currently subsumed under the Ucureña central ought to be able to contribute 5,000 Bolivianos per capita, an amount that would have allowed the cooperative to begin its activities with a paid capital of 13,000,000 Bolivianos (9,658 US Dollars) and a much greater authorized capital.12
The left-wing agrarian cooperative project had a short life. The revolutionaries did not adequately understand how to combine the project’s political goal—which aimed to create the idea of a modernizing revolution being fostered by the state—with its financial goal of yielding a surplus, which required efficient agricultural administration. The experience of attempted collective farming in Ucureña followed a similar path as other agrarian cooperatives, which did not produce expected surpluses and never operated with any sort of efficiency. Peasants attributed the collapse of the agrarian cooperatives to “the lack of qualified staff with some understanding of management and accounting, by just naming directors the result is only the production of propaganda, after that, nothing else happens.”13
In January 1955, complaints of administrative corruption in the agrarian cooperatives were made public for the first time. It was announced that the Tucma hacienda, owned and operated by the COB, suffered from an extensive problem with embezzlement of funds.14 Mario Tórrez, the minister of mines, referred to the leaders of the miners as “irresponsible,” because their criminal acts had provoked a lack of confidence in the government among the peasants.15 The COB’s main leader, Juan Lechín, accepted a plan to arrest and imprison the corrupt leaders of the miners, as peasant groups were becoming highly critical of the situation and pressuring leaders for action.16 Despite Lechín’s intentions of restructuring the corrupt miners’ leadership, the project to establish agrarian cooperatives continued to suffer under crushing obstacles, which lead eventually to their demise. The introduction of significant agricultural insecurity as a result of the failed attempt to organize agrarian cooperatives sowed frustration and disbelief in the ability of the MNR to provide what it had promised, goals which were to be supplied through the revolutionary process and the distribution of land to peasants. The peasants perceived the miners as interlopers, only seeking to take whatever advantage they could of the situation and obtain ownership of profitable land, rather than as honest workers imbued with revolutionary consciousness, fighting for their right to farm their own lands.17
Once the agrarian reform decree was promulgated on 2 August 1953, it took the regime over nine months to begin distributing land in Cochabamba. On April 1954, the agrarian judges and the presidents of the juntas rurales (rural councils) were sworn in to start distributing land. It was in June, however, that the bureaucratic machinery began to creep forward, while, at the same time, a debate began over the creation of a “rural security service” that would guarantee the fulfilment of the agrarian courts’ verdicts.18 The establishment of a bureaucracy to execute agrarian reform was only a beginning, the real work to be done was the coordination of the land reform within the peasant union apparatus, which would enforce the decisions and stipulations of the agrarian courts. The previous experiment of the MNR’s left-wing faction with the direct distribution of hacienda lands to miners and peasants had not gone smoothly, but had been marked by political conflict that was linked to the leadership of Lechín and Rivas. The MNR regime soon realized it was unable to control the processes of reform and redistribution, as leftist peasant union leaders had ample decision-making powers in the execution of these processes, and also the latent violent potential of peasant militias to reinforce that power. By mid-1954, the government attempted to take full control of the land distribution process. Looking for the political support of the peasants, the minister of peasant affairs, Ñuflo Chávez, visited the Ucureña peasant central. Both government authorities and peasant leaders decided that Ucureña would host the second departmental peasant congress in late July (see figure 3.2). Additionally, both parties also agreed that José Rojas would be the official candidate for the FSTCC’s executive secretariat. To better negotiate with Ucureña, Ñuflo Chávez was accompanied by the president and vice-president of the national agrarian reform service—Eduardo Arce Loureiro and Ernesto Ayala Mercado—both of whom were former POR militants and had a great deal of influence over José Rojas and his cadre.19 As such, the MNR sought to ensure the party’s control over the FSTCC and sideline Sinforoso Rivas, who was expected to be Juan Lechín’s left-wing candidate.
In the Ucureña congress of July 1954, José Rojas was elected executive secretary and Sinforoso Rivas general secretary. The fact that Chávez’s and Lechín’s supporters competed in the election caused political division among the Valle Alto and Valle Bajo peasant leadership.20 Nevertheless, at this blooming stage of regional peasant unionism, the prefect estimated that “around 3,500 agrarian unions were organized in Cochabamba, gathered into 40 sub-centrals and 14 peasant centrals.”21 The expanding union apparatus was to play an instrumental role in the regime’s plan to control the centralized process of land distribution, because of the incorporation of top peasant leaders into its bureaucratic hierarchy (see figure 3.3). The process of land distribution was not free of conflict; in fact, conflict was inherent to the attempted process of revolutionary land reform, constant, complicated, and prevented its would-be beneficiaries from reaping any rewards at all. The years of highest tension were 1954 and 1955. During this period, local authorities, peasant unions, agrarian inspectors, and indigenous communities often employed violence in defense of their interests in the mayhem that followed from the agrarian reform. Seven out of ten cases of violence took place in the valley, with a particular locus of agitation centered around Aiquile, Capinota, Punata, Tarata, and Anzaldo. The rest of the violence occurred in highland zones, mainly in Tapacarí, Independencia, and Arque (see maps 1.2 and 1.3). In the valley, violence was directed towards local state authorities and landlords, and included acts of disobedience, theft of produce, and the seizure of land. In contrast, violence in the highlands was committed against Indian comunarios and urban vecinos.22
What can explain the stark differences between the valley and the highlands? In the valley, local peasant leaders took charge of the agrarian unions and focused primarily on gaining control of their respective areas of influence. Acts of real and symbolic violence were meant to remove the last vestiges of power held by the landlords and also to challenge the state’s central power. Assaults and sackings of hacienda manor houses proliferated before peasants proceeded to directly occupying the land. For instance, the subprefect of Capinota informed the prefect:
In the locality of Sicaya, in Capinota province, some peasant leaders have committed certain abuses, giving themselves over to theft of produce; such as wheat, potatoes, and other items. These people, in attacking the storehouses, arbitrarily removed the mentioned produce and took it to certain places to sell them, forgetting that the said produce ought to be shared between the landowner and the comrades who work in the countryside. … I presented myself in the place, where I had the leader appear, who replied to my questions in a brusque and stubborn manner, that I, as subprefect, ought not to intervene in rural affairs and much less get involved with them, otherwise it would be dangerous to the stability of my post and I would accompany the landlords to the tomb. … Filiberto Sánchez, subprefect [Capinota].23
In the valley, the headquarters of the peasant unions attempted to litigate some everyday issues facing valley peasants, which sometimes required ignoring the authority of judges. Peasants who had been arrested and imprisoned were released and hostility towards the holders of judicial authority increased as a result of these new processes. A new set of power relations emerged, changing the relationship between rural denizen and town dweller, as a judge from Arani complained to the prefect:
Yesterday, the personnel of my court, replacing that of Punata, went to the place ‘Molle-Huma’, in that jurisdiction, with the aim of administering the possession of some five hectares [12 acres] of land on the part of Asunción Gutiérrez, since the act of possession had been executed and the legal formalities complied with. But, in an inexplicable way, I have been made an object of attack by the peasants of that place, who, ignoring my judicial authority, showed armed resistance in a hostile manner; since hearing the news of my arrival, they have waited for me, stationed in the road, with their guns drawn, putting my life and that of my companions in serious danger … [they also have] impeded our access to the site of possession with gestures and provocative actions that caused us to flee. … Arturo Arnéz, judge [Arani].24
This readjustment of relationships of power between town and country fostered the reformulation of both campesino and vecino visual depictions and characterization in media and discourse. Vecinos thought that peasants were unable to behave rationally, unable to truly comprehend revolutionary liberties, and would be unable to negotiate against outside interests in their own interest. Vecinos considered the revolution the work of urban dwellers, who alone would offer benefits to the masses. The town (as the locus of power) and the vecinos (as the individualization of authority exercising that power) found themselves in confrontation with the peasants, who violently challenged all these symbolic interpretations. As the subprefect of Totora wrote:
Groups of peasants toured the streets [of Totora] in a drunken state, as a sign of daring. … The peasants, at this date, although they have faith in my authority and that of the MNR zone’s commando, are obliged to take all their demands to the Moyopampa peasant central, where they are punished and obliged to disobey the legally constituted authorities vested here, the central is the only place for any kind of complaint or court case; because of this, the leaders and the peasantry find themselves totally disorientated and go around without any kind of direction and have lost all respect for the authorities. … S. Guzmán, subprefect [Totora].25
The peasants, upon realizing that their political and social power had grown, engaged in actions to undermine the traditional symbols of power in rural towns, selectively attacking groups of transport operators, traders, and artisans. Many vecinos attempted to control revolutionary processes by inserting themselves into the MNR party apparatus. From there, they began a crusade to consolidate a dominant position for themselves over the peasants, with the political support of the departmental authorities. Confrontations between peasants and town dwellers were more than mere fighting over political power in the countryside. The struggle also penetrated the ethnic arena, where a strengthened conceptualization of a daring and adventurous valley peasant emerged. This representation and characterization overcame the marginal political role that liberals in the party had assigned to the peasants, further undermining the idea that peasant political participation had to be mediated through agents recruited from the urban middle classes.26 For instance, the leaders of the transportation union in the town of Sacaba sent a letter of complaint to the prefect, stating:
Motor Transportation Union (Sacaba-Bolivia). … Comrade prefect: Allow us to bring to your attention the following formal complaint. … As the vanguard of the working class, we wish to make it clear that we do not oppose the conquests obtained by our peasant comrades, but we do ask that they respect us. … At 11.30 at night I was violently attacked, without any motive or cause, with the expressions: ‘Damn you Almanza, you gondolerito (little bus-driver),’ shouted at me by the peasant leader Hermogenes Veizaga; [later on] he reappeared once again with a considerable group of peasants. … Not content with the aggression, he displayed vanity and pride, shot to one side straight at the back tires of my bus. … I am witness that all the peasants carried rifles and sub-machine guns. … Raúl Almanza, bus driver [Sacaba].27
The town’s public spaces; the squares, the chicherías (corn-beer taverns), and the markets were gradually saturated with peasants, which, in turn, led to resistance from town dwellers, who considered that their “natural space” was being invaded.28 Peasants also displayed their presence and power in public transportation vehicles such as buses and trains through acts of symbolic violence, undermining the vecino’s self-assurance of their social superiority to the rural peasant. For example, peasants sometimes searched the bags of first-class train passengers and stole their belongings, they detained passengers under the pretext that they belonged to the rosca (clique), they refused to pay fares, and some of them urinated out of the carriage windows as the train was running.29
In the altiplano, by contrast, comunarios outnumbered hacienda colonos. Although these colonos had recently been unionized, their political impulses were restricted by the influence of the ethnic authorities who ruled the communities (ayllus). Highland peasant union leadership was not controlled by the hacienda colonos or the peasants, but rather by political activists from within the FSTCC or by agrarian inspectors sent by the government to control the highland areas. Moreover, the townspeople of the highlands were mainly traders and intermediaries. Local authorities almost never changed, the same people stayed in the same posts, no matter what political regime held power. Whatever their ideologies, the ultimate goal of town dwellers was to use their traditional position of power to exploit indigenous communities as a source of cheap labor. Consequently, local elites resisted the presence of FSTCC operatives and MNR agents supporting the agrarian reform. Political confrontations in the highland areas generally pitted comunarios and external revolutionary activists against traditional local authorities and other town dwellers.30
Ethnic Conflicts in the Land Distribution Process
Ethnic contradictions in rural society exploded when the demands of the highland comunarios and those of the valley campesinos came into direct conflict with one another over land distribution. The highland communities of Tapacarí, Arque, and Ayopaya reclaimed their alleged communal rights over some lands in the valley (see map 1.2). This claim contradicted the interests of the peasants already settled in the valley lands; whose property titles were to be obtained through the agrarian reform process. The problem was not limited to land distribution, however, for it also included conflicts over new consolidations of power that emerged from the revolutionary context. Although the highland communities possessed a long history of resistance against colonial and republican power, they had to readjust their strategies to manage political interests of both the peasant and the town dweller. Although communal territories handed over to the Indians by the colonial administration included land in both the highlands and the valleys of Cochabamba, by the mid-twentieth century the few remaining community lands were confined to the fringe highland areas, where conditions for agriculture were extremely difficult. Even though revolutionary comunarios in the highlands retained the remnants of their communal lands and were exempted from rendering personal services to the landlords, they were nevertheless forced to maintain mercantile links with the landlords, authorities, and townspeople who exploited them. As an agrarian inspector stated in an interview: “Landlords and urban dwellers advanced groceries and alcohol to the community members and took over their harvests. The authorities extorted them by demanding annual donations of foodstuffs.”31
The revolution overlapped the authority of peasant unions leaders with the authority of ethnic chiefs, or curacas, who linked the highland communities with the government apparatus. Generally speaking, the peasant unions settled into the new power relationship, reducing the overall influence of ethnic institutions and authorities. In some cases, the power of a peasant union leader eclipsed that of a comunario ethnic authority. For example, some peasant union leaders—when their authority began to overlap the provenance of the traditional chiefs—they sought to use the power networks of their unions to build political alliances with townspeople, competing with curacas the leadership over the local peasantry. The new peasant-based power groups that emerged in the highlands in this period, gained legitimacy through political discourse based on the logic of revolutionary change:
The undersigned members of the committee of the peasant union of the communities of Jarvi Coya, Tallija, Antacahua, and other communities of the canton Challa [province of Arque] … request that men who sacrificed themselves for the national revolution should govern in exercise of authority and not those opportunists who, before 9 April 1952, having been the party’s prime enemies, and who committed abuses and attacks on all the community members extracting ramas (monetary contributions) by force and wanting to lead us to the elections under the rod. Today, those men who were our exploiters yesterday, have the daring to want to be our corregidor (rural town mayor), and this will not be permitted by us while our peasant union persists in this community. In a great assembly, the name of the comrade Fabián Tórrez Burgulla … a son of the town who has struggled for our cause … was proposed for the governorship (corregimiento) in this canton … only thus will we be able to keep our calm and well-being, which is the desire of the outstanding leader of the national revolution, comrade Víctor Paz Estenssoro.32
In other cases, however, ethnic authorities tried to preserve their direct political links with the state. They ignored the mediation of the unions and denounced the abuses of the union leaders. Moreover, ethnic authorities represented the interests of many communities ranged over a huge tract of highland territory, including the provinces of Campero, Ayquile, Mizque, Arque, Tapacarí, and Ayopaya (see map 1.2). As a group of ethnic leaders complained to the prefect:
We, the indigenous private mayors and the school mayors (alcaldes mayores y escolares) of the Aymara and Quechua Indians. … We have been pursued for years and years without understanding why in the years [sic] 1946–47–48–49–50 and 51, we were pursued by the slave traders who deal in Indians calling us ringleaders, agitators, movimientistas, enemies of the people (contra pueblos), enemies of the government, and subversives (sublevadores). But now we are free since 9 April 1952. We private mayors in the altiplano are very happy with President Víctor Paz Estenssoro … but now it turns out that our Indian brothers named agrarian unions to defend us humble peasants, instead of giving us guarantees and supporting us, instead they begin to pursue us again … telling us that we are ‘communists,’ ‘Falangists,’ ‘oligarchy supporters,’ ‘evangelists,’ ‘enemies of the government,’ etc. … We are not rich people with money, but rather we are totally exploited and mistreated, [we ask for] guarantees to return to our land and for us not to be pursued again.33
The FSTCC’s leaders acknowledged the tension between peasants and comunarios and agreed to incorporate some petitions of the provincial delegations of Arque and Tapacarí into the list of demands given at the second departmental peasant congress of Ucureña in mid-1954 (see figure 3.4). The Arque delegation requested that, “land in the valleys for the community ayllus of Kirquiavi” must be handed over. It also requested that a stop be put in effect of “the pushing forward of boundaries [attempted] by the Potosí comunarios.”34 The Arque delegates were aware of the highland’s low productivity and the conflicts being caused amongst the ayllus as they attempted to expand their respective territories. The local authorities, town dwellers, and tinterillos (back-room lawyers) took advantage of this situation by encouraging violent boundary disputes between different ayllus. When land distribution began, comunarios tried to use the agrarian reform procedures to expand their territory into valley lands. This situation altered the terms of the land problem. As such, the opposed interests turned out to be those of the comunarios, who were trying to widen their land ownership into the valley, and those of the valley peasants, who sought to retain control over their plots of land. These contradictions endangered the program of land distribution and made the task of agrarian reform commissions much more difficult. Due to this situation, the Arque peasant center requested that alcaldes de campo (ayllu leaders) be independent of the power structures of the peasant unions, to avoid them serving as an instrument of “bad authorities.” This, in other words, meant that the peasant unionists in Arque were seeking to isolate the ethnic chiefs from the revolutionary power apparatus.35
The Tapacarí peasant central, for its part, asked the second peasant congress “to avoid conflicts with community members.”36 It formulated a petition because the Tapacarí ayllus were being mobilized by several groups with differing interests, but realized that their interests converged around the effort to slow the pace of land redistribution. In late 1954, the tension between peasants and comunarios increased, paralyzing the process of confiscation of estates (see figure 3.5). As a rural council member informed the prefect: “Yesterday there was a mass meeting of community members in Ramada as a consequence of the arrival of a commission from La Paz city, with so-called ‘Ayllu-Community’ laws. [Ayllu-Comunarios in Ramada] displayed their rejection against the agrarian reform, and arrested me, preventing the realization of the confiscation hearing. Carlos Crespo. Rural Council [Tapacarí].”37 The news surprised the authorities, for just a few months earlier, in May 1954, the government had returned lands that had been taken from the highland communities from 1900 onward. Despite this concession, the comunarios’ pressure to take possession of valley lands continued until 1 December 1954, when an armed clash between highland comunarios and valley peasant militiamen left six men dead and several wounded.38
The mobilization of the comunarios included peasants from the ayllus of Totorapampa, Challa, Ramada, Tapacarí, and Villcabamba, and gathered together about two thousand people (see maps 1.2 and 1.3). The FSTCC mobilized its militiamen to ambush the comunarios in Uchu-Uchu and Ramada. The comunarios came from the mountains, organized into two columns and bearing red and white flags, sacking houses as they went. Sinforoso Rivas, the top commander of the peasant militia troops, arrested Sebastián Abasto, as he was widely considered to be the promoter of conflict. Rivas also suggested arresting the lawyer Remberto Camacho, “an old defender of abusive landlords,” who had monitored the conflict from the city of Cochabamba.39 The Tapacarí peasant central issued a resolution defining the situation in terms of a duality between those in favor of and those against the agrarian reform, thus identifying the comunarios as enemies of the revolution:
As a consequence of the FSB’s political maneuver and the pro-market goal of the so-called ayllu-community members, the peasantry of Tapacarí has been divided into two factions: the peasants who support the national revolutionary government called the agrarian reform—who are the majority—and those who oppose it with the mask of ayllu-community members, who are a minority.40
Comunarios, to date—argued the peasants—“had not lodged a single complaint regarding confiscation of land; it seemed there was no reason for the comunarios’ interests to converge with the interests of the abusive landlords as they had. Moreover, the community members and their leader, Sebastian Abasto, put a price on the head of Marcelino Vargas (the Tapacarí peasant leader), and so displayed publicly their aim of attacking the peasant union apparatus.”41 The Ayllu-Comunario movement, therefore, remained stigmatized as anti-revolutionary by peasants in the Cochabamba valley and the movement did not rise again throughout the revolutionary period. A telegram sent by Sinforoso Rivas to the prefect of Cochabamba illustrates the demise of the comunario group: “Three ayllu-comunario ringleaders and six peasant thieves are prisoners. I beg you to tell us how we should proceed.” The prefect Joaquín Lemoine replied: “Send them to Chapare [the penal colony for common criminals].”42
At this early stage of the revolution in Cochabamba, when the impulse for unionization was unstoppable, the power of peasant union leaders in the valley was unquestionable. This was not the case in the highlands, for community leaders had lost part of their power to the newly created peasant unions. As recent research by Carmen Solíz has shown, however, the power networks in the core areas of indigenous communities in La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí, were able not only to contest, but also to impose their own agrarian reform agenda upon the MNR, which signals the vitality of communal power in that region.43 The question is, what happened in the Cochabamba based highland indigenous communities? Did their communal territories survive the agrarian reform or were they individually partitioned? More research is needed to begin to answer these questions.
Peasant Unionism Faces Re-adaptation to Revolutionary State Policies
The first presidential election under the system of universal suffrage in Bolivia was scheduled for June 1956. 1955 then became an electoral year and the MNR’s left and right wings began their electoral campaigns. The COB requested publicly that President Paz remain in power for another term, so as to guarantee the continuity of the revolutionary reforms. The president did not accept this request, for he believed that the best way to guarantee the revolution was to legitimize it through the ballot box. The Bolivian parliament was closed during the first term in office of Víctor Paz. The president feared that reactionary groups would seek to reverse his reforms, and so he insisted on reinforcing the power hierarchy and increasing the number of voters five times over.44
The right-wing faction of the MNR in Cochabamba began a campaign against the peasant leaders, arguing that they were responsible for the convulsive political situation in the rural areas and the food shortages in the cities. These problems—the MNR’s right-wing argued—originated in the union leaders’ dismissal of legal norms and promising to the peasants’ compensation they could not deliver on, in a calculating thrust, intent only on gaining more power. Sinforoso Rivas, the FSTCC leader, responded to the criticisms from the right by affirming that peasant unionism was stronger than ever before and that its armed militias stood ready to defend the revolution. According to Rivas, the collapse of agricultural production had been caused by factors outside of peasant control. Firstly, haciendas had been dismantled when landlords fled from their properties, rendering their production potential useless. Secondly, property structure was disorganized due to the processes involved in the transference of the estates to the peasants. Thirdly, the universities had not and did not train technicians in specialized agrarian problems. Finally, available agricultural credit was insufficient to sustain the peasant economy, and this shrank their investment capacity. Peasants supported a university reform program and complained that only 6 percent of the Banco Agrícola Boliviano (Bolivian Agrarian Bank) loans were going into peasant hands.45
Meanwhile, in the realm of national politics, the MNR nominated Hernán Siles and Ñuflo Chávez as candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency, attempting to balance the interests of the MNR’s right- and left-wing factions. The MNR’s electoral program was based on three main issues: reinforcing private enterprise, controlling monetary inflation, and combating corruption.46 From the perspective of the MNR’s right wing, any political action they undertook in Cochabamba had to be concentrated upon centralizing power in the CDM. The regime’s right-wing considered that the peasant unions and their leaders posed a real threat of communist infiltration. Therefore, they asserted, the government must define a nationalist line of action, which would block the left’s attempt to radicalize the revolution. The process of handing over land to the peasants could careen out of control if mechanisms for transfer of ownership, legal or otherwise, were employed that were outside the realm of those propounded by the official agrarian reform. For that reason, they concluded, it was necessary to educate their leaders in nationalist principles and not lose control of the peasantry. These lines of political action resulted, on one hand, in the protection of rural properties that were in course of being confiscated. The pretext they provided for this action was to make sure that the development of low-yielding smallholdings or minifundios did not occur and to support the activities of “progressive landlords.” On the other hand, this retrenchment of the right-wing faction of the MNR turned into a witch-hunt against dissident peasant leaders, accusing them of political and economic corruption. The top two secretaries of the FSTCC, José Rojas and Sinforoso Rivas, sent a letter of complaint to the prefect, explaining the virulence of the attacks against their leadership voiced by some members of the CDM:
Ever since the elections of the MNR’s Departmental Commando [CDM], this federation has seen … machinations put into practice with the aim of undermining the prestige of the peasant workers of Cochabamba and their leaders … we have concluded that it represents a shady and Machiavellian plan plotted with the connivance of the reaction. José Rojas, executive secretary. Sinforoso Rivas, general secretary of the FSTCC.47
The head of the CDM, Germán Vera Tapia, presented a false complaint to the chief of police that peasant leader José Rojas was then preparing for an armed assault on Cochabamba. The FSTCC peasant leaders explained to the prefect that: “This Monday morning a spy plane flew over Ucureña at 7 a.m., causing amazement among the peasants of the zone and, as is natural, proved that there was no movement of peasant forces.”48 Furthermore—they argued—every Sunday morning, taking advantage of the market in Quillacollo, the leader of the CDM presented himself with numerous vehicles, providing him with the protection of an escort,
And in the chicherías he shouted against Rivas and Rojas, at the top of his voice calling them, ‘Communists, dealers, importers, who deceive and rob the Indians, who have houses in foreign countries,’ etc. As this attitude became unbearable, the grassroots leaders had to intervene one day so as to avoid [CDM leader] Paiva, and those who accompanied him, from being punished by the peasant masses … who tried to punish him thinking that he was an element of the rosca (clique). … His speeches exhorted the peasants not to obey the federation, as it was made up of their enemies and of ‘communist’ elements, but instead [of obeying the federation] the CDM would, through the municipality, give them cupos (food stamps) for getting staples.49
Finally, the FSTCC leaders denounced that as part of the CDM’s intention to set the country against the city, versions of a narrative circulated claiming “the peasants are going to attack the city, they are going to capture the CDM, they are going to release the water from the [Angostura] dam to flood the city and then enter to sack it.” The chief of the CDM himself ordered the mobilization of zonal commandos, alongside the rest of the party forces, proving, from the perspective of the peasant forces, that the rumors were also being created by the CDM.
Tension between the peasant leaders and the MNR’s right-wing politicians remained latent during the election campaign, as the peasants supported Ñuflo Chávez, the vice-presidential candidate. The list of Cochabamba’s candidates for senators and parliamentary representatives was a demonstration of the enforced, tenuous balance between both MNR factions. Half of the candidates belonged to the left-wing and the other half to the right-wing of the MNR. José Rojas (Ucureña) and Víctor Torrico (Sacaba) were the two peasant parliamentary candidates for Cochabamba, while Sinforoso Rivas accepted a position on the Consejo Nacional de Reforma Agraria (National Agrarian Reform Council, CNRA). The MNR won the 1956 general elections in which the peasant vote was decisive (see figure 3.1). In this election, the results in the department of Cochabamba favored the MNR with 86 percent of the votes. In the city of Cochabamba, however, the MNR lost to the opposition, which shows the importance of the peasant vote at the time.50
After the presidential election, the third departmental peasant congress was held in Ucureña in August 1956, where Salvador Vásquez (Ucureña) and Jorge Campos (Quillacollo) won the elections for the FSTCC’s executive secretary and general secretary, respectively. Salvador Vásquez was the Ucureña’s second-in-command leader after José Rojas. He was born in Ucureña in 1921 and was a former colono of Ramón Ledezma’s hacienda. He attended the local school until the second grade and—against the will of the hacendado—he enlisted in the army. In retaliation, the patrón evicted his family from their pegujal (plot occupied in temporary terms by the labor tenant or colono of the hacienda). When demobilized from the army, he had to beg the patrón to return his pegujal, which was granted to him under the grounds of a promise to never socialize with other peasants on the hacienda, because he was considered a potential political agitator. He had a long experience as a revolutionary peasant leader. He would go on to cooperate with General Barrientos in the coup against Víctor Paz in 1964 and was one of the co-signers of the peasant-military pact ratification in 1966.51
The fragile unity that had been achieved by regional peasant leadership, as a means of defense from the MNR right-wing faction, broke when José Rojas moved to rid himself of his rival, Sinforoso Rivas. In September 1956, in concert with right-wing deputy Carlos Salamanca and peasant deputy Víctor Torrico, Rojas accused Rivas of illicit enrichment before the deputies’ chamber, requesting that his commercial activities be placed under investigation. It was a contradictory situation, for just one month before Rivas was denounced, José Rojas declared to the press: “We, Rojas and Rivas, are men hated by the opposition, by the Falangists, by the sons of the ex-latifundistas (former landlords). These are the people who discredit us, who oppose us because we represent an obstacle to their pretension.”52 Rivas responded to the accusations on September 29, addressing a letter to the president of the deputies’ chamber. In the letter, Rivas showed no surprise that one of the signatories was deputy Carlos Salamanca, for he belonged to one of the most affected families in Cochabamba by agrarian reform. He was surprised, however, to find the signatures of deputies José Rojas and Víctor Torrico, who were peasant leaders, like himself. He could not know certainly whether their motivations to flip against him were union, personal, or otherwise. He requested temporary leave from the CNRA and awaited the verdict before deciding on any other action.53 On 26 February 1957, however, he felt obliged to send a new letter to President Siles. In this letter he complained that there was still no verdict regarding his case, but he nevertheless decided to renounce the office.54 Through this sophisticated political stratagem, the MNR’s right wing rid itself of an important dissident peasant leader. Meanwhile, José Rojas had freed himself of his rival and monopolized peasant power in Cochabamba. When interviewed, Rivas expressed his belief that besides political hatred, the interests of former landlords and the MNR’s scuffling bureaucrats who fought to preserve their landed properties were at the root of his political demise, because he had been pressured endlessly, and in vain, by these same people to issue favorable court decisions as a member of the CNRA. Finally, Rivas went into voluntary exile in Argentina, until returning in 1960 to support the presidential candidacy of Víctor Paz.55
Certainly, 1957 was a turbulent year for the new administration. President Hernán Siles had no other choice but to apply a monetary stabilization program to combat high inflation rates. To fight the resistance of worker unions, the president initiated the first hunger strike in national history to be carried out by a presidential figure.56 With this pathetic political maneuver, Siles attempted to both fabricate an image of sacrifice, which would be shared by the population, and to achieve political legitimacy as a tactic to weaken the opposition. Additionally, during his four-year term (1956–60), Siles manipulated official information mainly through the monopoly he held on the press in Cochabamba and the deployment of an aggressive and slanderous public discourse intent on damaging his political enemies. An official campaign for “moralization” of the leadership of the agrarian unions was the realization of a perceived need for the government, in the eyes of government agents, to centralize more power in their hands at the expense of the power of the peasant unions. The campaign denigrated the reputation of several peasant leaders as a crude means to legitimize the presence of political agents from the CDM who had infiltrated even the peasants’ upper echelons.57 Even left-wing Vice-President Ñuflo Chávez got involved in this campaign, for he was in charge of the party’s political control commission, which monitored the conduct of all members of the “MNR’s National Left Front.”58 At the same time as the government was flexing its inquisitorial tendencies, the MNR’s right-wing apparatus also began a social campaign highlighting the conditions of guarantees provided for landowners who might wish to return to work in the countryside, further irritating the peasantry.59 The crisis culminated when Ñuflo Chávez renounced the vice-presidency due to discrepancies with the implementation of the monetary stabilization program, thus provoking political chaos in the government. The Ucureña peasant leaders traveled to the city of Santa Cruz for a meeting with Ñuflo Chávez. They requested that Chávez take back his renunciation, while the government published several fake communiqués as evidence of peasant support for the government, which were then denied by the peasant leaders.60
From this moment on, the government modified its control tactics over the Valle Alto peasants. A series of alleged complaints from the “peasants of the town of Cliza” were published in the press, accusing the Valle Alto leaders of committing acts of vandalism. For instance, an editorial in El Pueblo complained that in the Valle Alto, the “controllers” (interventores) designated by Rojas and Vásquez, are owners and lords with gallows and knife, who use arms to impose their will on the peasantry.61 Simultaneously, the prefect exerted pressure to force the Ucureña peasant center to send its delegates to the CDM. His aim was to link up Ucureña with the official plans for political control, given that the other peasant centers of Quillacollo, Arque, and Capinota had their members registered in the CDM.62 The pressure led José Rojas to declare that, if the case should arise, he “would offer his life for President Hernán Siles Zuazo, and for the future of the national revolution.”63
It was clear, however, that declarations of loyalty were not enough for the government, which sought to consolidate control over the peasant movement. Despite the revolutionary practice of consulting the Ucureña peasants before naming authorities in the town of Cliza, the government decided vertically to swear in a new mayor. According to the MNR officials, the new mayor was a man who, “has unquestionable merits as an MNR militant and had occupied important posts in the CDM.”64 Although local and departmental officials attended the swearing-in of the new mayor, not a single peasant leader was present at the event.65 Afterwards, a peasant warned the prefect that in Mosoj Rancho some peasant leaders were handing out ammunition, possibly in preparation for an assault on the town of Cliza.66 The authorities ignored the information, but once they returned to Cochabamba, a group of peasants attacked the town, dynamiting the city hall where the celebration took place and also the houses of the guests invited to celebrate the event. Some 400 peasants participated in the attack on the town of Cliza, moving against it with heavy rifle fire and shouting, “¡Viva Ñuflo Chávez!”67 The next day, an official delegation headed by the secretary of state and the minister for peasant affairs arrived in Cliza. In their address to the peasants, the secretary of state asserted:
That it was serious to have tried to resist the mayor named by the government and who had been recommended by the CDM as a citizen who could deal impartially with all the inhabitants of Cliza … [it] being necessary [for him] to guarantee the safety of the inhabitants of the town of Cliza and all those who dedicate themselves to their agricultural labor as owners of small and medium-sized landholdings.68
The peasants’ answer came from José Rojas. He claimed that the peasants had indeed respected the authorities and were subject to the law, but they were also aware that:
For some time, the peasants were provoked by some [Chaco War] veterans led by Hugo Balderrama, who, misusing his position as the leader of that mutual association, tried to incite in the town of Cliza opposition to the peasants of Ucureña, and the fact that the new mayor of Cliza should have met with that sector led to the unfortunate reaction of a group of peasants.69
The peasants resisted the provocations of the Cliza vecinos—who had been encouraged by the centralizing projects of the government—and who were seeking to renew their position of domination over the peasantry. The vecinos employed a rhetoric colored by modernizing political discourse, yet in practice, their actions displayed that they were not truly interested in this discourse, but only in amassing as much power as possible. In response, the secretary of state sent a force of fifty armed policemen to Cliza to impose order. The Ucureña peasants received the police force with provocative “rifle shots and explosions of dynamite.” When the prefect and the CDM leaders made an emergency trip to Cliza, the police troop was reduced to only eight members in an attempt to restore peace.70
This climate of political polarization spurred the government to attempt a subjugation of the peasant union apparatus to their will, which the peasant unions understood and resisted. In this conflictive political environment, a worker-peasant pact of alliance was signed in Ucureña between the leaders of the Ucureña peasant center and the Catavi miners’ union. The government sought to sow confusion about the just signed worker-peasant pact by publishing in the press a fake document disavowing the pact and listing the second-in-command Ucureña leader, Salvador Vasquez, as the author. The government was losing control of the peasant movement and its old Ucureña ally was only one step away from turning into a political enemy. The worker-peasant pact signed in Ucureña emphasized that the revolution was in crisis, providing the political context necessary for the reactionary factions to attempt a return to power. The pact’s co-signers declared, “[they] had to co-ordinate their struggles on the basis of a common program, which would allow them to impel the revolution.”71 In trying to neutralize peasant power, the MNR’s right wing worked by seeding mistrust, and the peasant leaders now moved closer to the workers, in what might have been the beginning of a truly radical socialist bent for the revolutionary process. The prefect of Cochabamba wrote the following in a confidential communication to the minister of state:
SECSTATE N° 1665. Peasant leaders of Ucureña, particularly Salvador Vasquez, have assumed a position of open disobedience to the dispositions which emanate from departmental authorities, especially in regard to the denial which they were supposed to have expressed of the communist pact, which they had signed with miner leaders from Catavi. [Vásquez] did not even answer the order from my authority to present himself [in my office]. I think I am not mistaken that swearing in new authorities in Cliza will create a disturbance climate. Respectfully. Lt. Col. Moreira Mostajo. Departmental prefect.72
After the political rupture with Ucureña, Quillacollo was the only peasant central left supporting the government. In response, the government spurred second-level peasant leaders to paint the peasant movement as united and strong in line with the official policies, but this was no longer the case.
Peasant ‘Troscobites’ and ‘Progressive’ Landlords
During 1958 the government attempted to establish their “restructuring blocks,” or the creation of parallel peasant unions, founded to weaken the already existing ones. By using the slogan: “The purge of the leading cadres strengthens the peasantry,” the CDM organized groups of provincial militants who dedicated themselves to the formulation of denouncements against the Valle Alto peasant leaders. Articles published in El Pueblo continued to denigrate dissident peasant leaders in the region: “The peasantry in most of the Cochabamba provinces wishes that the constitution, the concepts of God, fatherland, law, home, order, and established authority should be respected, that the assaults and crimes should come to an end so that there may be peace in the countryside, brotherhood in labor, and calm in the town.”73 Additionally, departmental authorities received instructions from the government to imprison the Ucureña leaders for their criminal activities as well as to allow landowners, who had been unjustly treated in the application of the agrarian reform, to return to their properties.74
The government attempted to reorder the geography of peasant conflict by setting up a new power center in the Valle Alto to neutralize the influence of Ucureña. This political role was assigned to the Achamoco peasant center, which was close to the town of Tarata, where MNR’s right-wing militants were concentrated (see map 1.3). At the head of Achamoco peasant center, the CDM placed Agapito Vallejos and Simón Aguilar, who began an aggressive smear campaign against the Ucureña leaders. They denounced that the Ucureña leaders:
Have become other landlords, taking the armchair and the whip of the great estate owners to submit the peasants to the cruelest of punishments in the style of the abusive feudalists … the Achamoco peasant central, on the other hand, proposes calm in the countryside combating all the systems of violence which the givers of orders have exercised for years, discrediting the revolution.75
On the basis of unconditional support for President Siles’ regime, the CDM’s agents took over leading posts in the FSTCC and began a campaign of union reorganization backed by ministry of peasant affairs’ coordinator, Gustavo Sánchez. The nickname “troscobites” for the Ucureña peasants originated in this inner circle of government bureaucrats, as they claimed that Trotskyist’s slogans and the COB’s political agenda influenced the Ucureña leadership, and this put them under suspicion of being communists. The Achamoco peasant center’s rhetoric displayed a deep degree of servility to president Siles, using pomposities such as “exemplary president of Bolivia,” “notable chief of the army,” “talented, hard-working, and honored first functionary of the nation,” just like those used by politicians associated with the CDM.76 This demonstrates that the right-wing of the MNR’s purpose in doing this was to convert the peasant movement into a servile political force under the control of the party’s power networks.
Despite government pressure, the Ucureña peasants did not lower their guard, and in a strategic political maneuver, they decided to raise the rank of their peasant central to that of a peasant federation. The aim of this was counteracting FSTCC influence—which was controlled by government agents—and blocking the attempt of the CDM to centralize the unions’ control. Thus, by creating the Federación Especial de Ucureña (Ucureña Special Federation), the Valle Alto (Upper Valley) peasants opened a political space that allowed them to call the third departmental conference of peasant workers in February 1958. At this point, Ucureña’s political influence was fully consolidated in the Cochabamba provinces of Sacaba, Mizque, and Campero as well as in the northern Potosi provinces of Charcas and Bilbao Rioja (see map 1.2).77 In May 1958, Ucureña decided to summon the fourth departmental conference of peasant workers. The conference took place at the El Morro (Sacaba) peasant central in spite of stubborn opposition from government leaders.78 The peasants that supported the government line were led by Alejandro Galarza and decided to carry out their own second departmental peasant conference at the Quillacollo peasant central. Attendants to the conference, harshly criticized caudillismo (leadership cult of personality) and requested “the unity of the peasantry, without the return of the dealers and demagogues.”79
The rhetoric displayed in both peasant conferences was substantially different, reflecting the distance between the political aims they pursued. In Sacaba, the debate turned to political topics, mainly those referring to peasant representation renewal at the national parliament. In contrast, in Quillacollo the debate focused on technical and social aspects that affected the peasantry, such as financial credit for farmers and the organization of peasant colonies in the Bolivian eastern lowlands. In other words, the Valle Alto sector conceived of a peasant society that was actively involved in the political dynamic of the country. Meanwhile, the Valle Bajo (Lower Valley) sector focused on the peasants’ economic and social role, relegating political activity to a marginal place.
The MNR’s right wing perceived Víctor Paz’s return to Bolivia, in mid-1958, as a threat to its aim of keeping power and to the presidential ambition of its candidate, Walter Guevara. In Cochabamba, the Ucureña peasants lined up with Paz, while his arrival weakened the hopes of the landlords of recouping their rural properties. When Víctor Paz visited Ucureña, the leaders Walter Revuelta and José Rojas protested the bad application of the agrarian reform and showed their support for the advance of the national revolution.80 Reactionary factions that had been affected negatively by agrarian reform sympathized with the attitudes of right wing endorsed peasant leaders and their CDM allies. These vested interest groups approved of the return of “progressive landlords” to their properties, and opposed the workers’ and peasants’ movements under a pretext of rejection of extremist union leadership.81 For instance, a communiqué opposing a worker’s railway strike in August 1958 was signed by peasant leaders of Quillacollo, Tapacarí, Morochata, Cocapata, Arque, and Capinota, all of them militants of the MNR’s right wing.82
In a coordinated action, at the national level, the elitist pro-Cochabamba committee called its delegates together “in order to study and deliberate on the established rights and interests of the Cochabamba people.”83 Among other issues, the committee named a commission that studied regional agrarian problems and was composed of delegates of the Federación Rural de Cochabamba (Rural Federation of Cochabamba, FRC), the lawyer’s college, and the society of agronomist engineers. A few days later they initiated a political campaign in some newspapers in La Paz, with editorials asserting that, “the agrarian reform constitutes a monstrous attack on the right to property. It is confiscation by force. The so-called agrarian reform has no legal force of any kind. Judicially, the agrarian reform is null and void. The peasant has the right to work and the owner has the right to property.”84 The attack on the revolutionary reforms by the oligarchy took place in the midst of a tense political climate of permanent agitation and threats of a coup that alarmed the Cochabamba peasantry. The FSTCC called a meeting with its executive committee that declared its unity in defense of the national revolution and the agrarian reform.85 Certainly, the MNR’s right wing fanned counterrevolutionary flames during the Siles’ era, provoking a reaction from peasants in defense of the revolution.
Vecinos versus Campesinos Clash in the Highlands
Amid a toxic political climate—where the former landlords attempted to reunite their forces and push the balance of Cochabamba power relations out of equilibrium—a bloody peasant confrontation erupted in 1958, in the Charcas province in northern Potosi.86 In practice, the Charcas peasant unions fell within the FSTCC’s area of influence, for its population had more direct social, economic, and political links with Cochabamba than with the administrative centers in its own Potosi department (see map 1.2). The Cliza and Ucureña peasant centers had expanded and struggled over the influence they held in northern Potosi, and this was based on a resolution of the second departmental peasant congress held in July 1954. The resolution widened the jurisdiction of the FSTCC, to include “the provinces close to Cochabamba and which correspond to it by social gravitation, such as the provinces of Bilbao Rioja and Charcas of Potosí.”87 As in the Cochabamba highland zone, in northern Potosi the hacienda system coexisted with the indigenous communities through tense relations between social groups and exploitation. This structure sheltered local authorities, intermediaries, and traders, who were mainly town dwellers that had created a local power network that siphoned peasant surplus to their advantage.
When the agrarian reform began to come into force, these power networks confronted the peasantry and their interests, trying to obtain for themselves the most advantageous position in the benefits of the land distribution process. As a consequence, the leaders of the Ucureña peasant central helped create the Federación Campesina del Norte de Potosí (Peasant Federation of northern Potosi), which was located in the hamlet of Choroma. This federation centralized the sub-regional peasant union’s political activities and, from Choroma, the peasants defied the vecino’s interests in the provincial capital, San Pedro de Buena Vista.
In early 1958, conflict between vecinos and campesinos reached a crisis level. Some Charcas vecinos residing in Cochabamba city organized the Centro de Acción Charcas (Charcas Action Center) and started a public campaign against the Choroma federation peasant leaders. The peasant leaders were described in El Pueblo as “communist vandals, delinquents, and pseudo leaders.”88 The Centro de Acción Charcas in Cochabamba city complained that, in northern Potosi, the agrarian reform procedures were irregular, for there was no legal process of land confiscation. Peasant leaders and agitators, the Centro argued, traveled to the estates where the hearings were taking place and, after expelling the agrarian authorities, declared the haciendas as large unproductive estates (latifundia), subject to total expropriation. This development further challenged the landowner’s interests.89 Using an ultimately effective strategy, the Charcas vecinos switched the epicenter of the conflict to the cities of Cochabamba, Potosí, and Oruro, where they posted macabre and distorted images of the peasant leaders to shape urban public opinion against them. The peasant leaders were denigrated as marginal human beings who could not adapt to living in a civilized way, for they did not recognize neither the rule of law nor the MNR’s political leadership.
The vecino’s political target was the peasant leader Narciso Torrico who, in January 1958, was brutally murdered in a skirmish. The Cochabamba prefect received a report from the San Pedro de Buena Vista officials explaining that in the fury of the combat between vecinos and campesinos militias, a homemade grenade made in San Pedro de Buena Vista hit Torrico’s head, blowing his brains out. “A boy aged 15 or 16 cut his head off making the widow carry the head [towards the town] … once in the town’s main square, the head of comrade Torrico was exhibited hanging from a rope, without ears.”90 Narciso Torrico had been a mine union activist and MNR militant after the 1952 revolution, and had established himself as the main peasant leader of the Choroma peasant federation. Although it is not clear when he arrived in the region, Torrico’s struggle for leadership of the local peasant union brought him into conflict with other peasant leaders, as they were more closely aligned with the interests of the townspeople.91
Alarmed by these events, the ministry of peasant affairs ordered the Cochabamba prefect to send a commission there, made up of regular forces and militiamen from the Ucureña peasant central. The prefect was unwilling to obey the order and replied to the minister that San Pedro de Buena Vista town dwellers, who were now residents in Cochabamba city, were against the idea of sending peasant militias to pacify the peasantry in that region, because Ucureña militiamen were prone to abuse the town dwellers. Instead, the prefect argued, regular police forces together with civilian volunteers were prepared to march to San Pedro. The prefect made it clear that he was firmly opposed to send Ucureña militiamen to San Pedro: “Allow me to indicate that such pacifying powers which would be conferred to Ucureña leaders would disagree with the initiated policy of restricting powers to that peasant center and perhaps would lead to greater complications. Gabriel Arze Quiroga, prefect [of Cochabamba].”92
Some aspects of the prefect’s political position are illustrated in the above text. Firstly, he took for granted that the peasants were the only political actors that had exacerbated the conflict. He would not even consider investigating the role the vecinos might have played in the conflict. The narrative he created was that of a circle of invading forces around a defenseless town in need of help. Secondly, the idea of helping vecinos was linked with armed repression, which had to be carried out by the regular forces and the town dwellers. The vecino’s rejection of the participation of the Ucureña’s militias in the pacifying forces was due to their distrust of the behavior of the militiamen. Given that the Ucureña militia was made up of peasants, the town dwellers knew that they would not obey any order of armed repression against the peasantry in Charcas. Thirdly, the prefect was unable to omit his own political bias when he reminded the minister that there was an official plan to “restrict the power” of the Ucureña peasant central. As a consequence, the prefect suggested that the peasant representative on the commission be Alejandro Galarza, a right-wing peasant leader from the Quillacollo peasant central. His petition was rejected by the government and it was decided that the parliamentary deputy, José Rojas, would travel to San Pedro de Buenavista, at the head of fifty militiamen from the Ucureña headquarters (see figure 3.6). The prefect had no other choice but to reply the minister: “deputy José Rojas was very gratified to receive distinction from the president of the republic and the ministry of state, which charged him with the pacification of San Pedro zone. He left this city to collect 50 men who are ready in Ucureña to continue journey along river Caine. Gabriel Arze Quiroga. Prefect [of Cochabamba].”93
While details were being debated, government authorities had already sent police lieutenant Nicéforo León to the site of the events. Simultaneously, parliamentary deputy and peasant leader Zenón Barrientos Mamani arrived at San Pedro de Buenavista from Oruro. Both of them led the first peace negotiations between town dwellers and peasants. According to the policeman’s report, his group arrived in San Pedro on 30 January and to enter the town he had to meet with the leader Demetrio “Deny” Moscoso, commander of peasant forces there, forces that he estimated to be around four thousand combatants. After crossing the peasant siege lines carrying the national flag and displaying their government credentials, León and Barrientos entered the town and were received with effusive displays of joy.94
The policeman’s report states that the negotiators went to the outskirts of town aiming to parley with the besiegers. Lt. León addressed the peasants in the Quechua language, explaining that his mission was restoring peace between townspeople and peasants, and he asked the leaders to list their complaints. The peasant leaders used the Spanish language to put forth their indignation at the town dweller’s cruelty and demanded that their deceased leader, Narciso Torrico, be returned to them alive. Zenón Barrientos Mamani used the Aymara language to tell them that their request was impossible to fulfill since the dead cannot be brought back to life, and that they should leave their aggressive attitudes aside. Finally, all participants in the negotiation accepted a peace agreement that required both sides to hand over their weapons to the authorities, reorganize the CPM as well as the Choroma peasant federation, financially help those affected by the conflict, and provide a burial for Narciso Torrico’s remains.
What stands out in the policeman’s report is the conflicted coexistence of three different cultural worlds. Over the course of the conflict, these three cultural worlds interacted constantly but could not communicate amongst themselves in a common language. Each of the three speakers had used the language of the group that they considered to be “the other” and not their own everyday speech. None of the three languages was used as a common mode of interaction, keeping a degree of communicative tension ever present amongst the negotiators. From the policeman’s point of view, this linguistic conflict was a Barrientos-style political strategy, he perceived of Barrientos as a politician who was “a communist demagogue since he used terms and words which were definitely materialist.” Lt. León’s suspicions around parliamentary deputy Barrientos increased after the signing of the peace agreement (see figure 3.7). He wrote in his report that Barrientos did not allow him to stay in Choroma. Barrientos spoke to the peasants all afternoon, always in Aymara, although the peasants are Quechuas, “surely for reasons of method. Informants from the peasant mass gathering itself indicated that in his speech he [Barrientos] said that the peasant comrades should not accept that uniformed armed forces staying on and that they should be out without harming them.”95
The policeman’s concern about Barrientos’ political role originated in his own incapacity to enter the peasant world, a world that was so close to him yet always unreachable. Therefore, his concern turned into anger when local peasant leaders dared to penetrate the policeman’s world, by making artificial use of Spanish, a language the policeman considered to be his and absolutely not theirs. Lt. León further reported,
The leader Benedicto Paredes spoke in Spanish. I asked him after hearing him speak if he was a son of the town of San Pedro. He answered saying that he was a peasant, and given that he was dressed in their clothes, I should note that at first sight one proved that it was a disguise … in later investigations I was able to prove that he had been previously detained in the national panopticon [the prison in La Paz city] from where he returned a short time ago, it also came to be known that the mentioned leader had been an armed policeman of the nefarious previous regime.96
From a political point of view, all peasant leaders in the police report were considered agents external to the peasantry itself. For that reason, their political activity was thought alien to peasant society and a subversion of the usual order. Only one reference to the vecinos’ political actions is made in the entire report, where it details the assassination of Narciso Torrico. Even in this instance, however, the murderer turned out to be “a boy of 15 or 16 years of age,” a minor and a person without legal responsibility, an actor who cannot be indicted and through whom the civilized image of the town dwellers remained untainted. The vecinos were absent from the rest of the report, they were not actors but mere observers. They did not fit into a narrative where the exotic and the savage stood out above the rest. Despite the fact that the vecinos had committed a hideous crime, they had not been investigated by any authority at all. The townspeople, in this narrative version, morphed into mere spectators of a drama in which the victims, the peasants, received the blame for the violence committed against them.
Furthermore, in regard to Lt. Leon’s report, he believed that it was the combination of both language and attire that defined ethnic identity. It was the use of the Spanish language by the peasant leaders Demetrio “Deny” Moscoso and Benedicto Paredes that had disqualified them as real peasants and their indigenous attire was disregarded and described as a disguise. Lt. León went even further when interrogating Paredes about his vecino origin, and specifically mentioned in his report that Paredes was a felon and later on had been an armed policeman in the capital city of La Paz. Thus, Lt. León’s conclusion was that both peasant leaders, Moscoso and Paredes, were in fact agents external to the peasantry and were acting according to their individual or group interests. This fluidity of ethnic identities in Cochabamba is also discussed in chapters one and five, yet what is evident in this particular report is that Lt. León’s ethnic perceptions addressed issues that were commonly employed means utilized to help identify “the other” in Bolivia. The fact that Narciso Torrico was an outsider coming from the mines, and that his cadre was composed of people from La Paz city (Benedicto Paredes) and of townspeople from San Pedro de Buena Vista, reinforced the policeman’s conviction that peasant leaders were political agitators external to the peasantry.97
In contrast, the passive characterization of vecinos in the report concealed a group attitude which was aggressive and dangerous, one which could, at any moment, explode into violence. When the commission headed by José Rojas found out, in the town of Toro Toro, the details of what had happened before and after Narciso Torrico’s murder, Rojas decided to return to his headquarters in Ucureña to reconsider his position regarding the conflict. The Ucureños’ position in the conflict was difficult. Ucureña was under attack by government officials who wished to politically annul it. At the same time, these same officials were pressuring Ucureña to act as an intermediary in a conflict provoked by landowners and vecinos in northern Potosi. According to Bridgette Werner, José Rojas position was problematic as he was forced to negotiate a path between these divided loyalties. He was bound to defend his peasant allies in northern Potosí, but he also had to consider negotiations with state power. This was precisely the dilemma that forced Rojas to navigate the territory between autonomy and acquiescence.98
In addition to solidarity from the Cochabamba prefect, the townspeople in San Pedro de Buena Vista also had the support of the Potosí and Oruro prefectural authorities. These officials dispatched armed policemen for periodic tours of the conflict zone, aiming to defeat peasant resistance with direct repression. This is why the Ucureños finally decided to provide military support to the Choroma peasant federation against the vecinos’ assaults and the government’s police interventions. Choroma’s military defeat would have trapped Ucureños between a strategic rock and hard place: the Valle Bajo to the north and the provinces of northern Potosi to the south (see map 1.2).
The conflict added even more tension to the relationship between regional authorities and the union leadership of the Ucureña central. Regional authorities realized how fragile their power in the countryside was, given that the power of the police had a limited reach and was mainly confined to the valley’s fringe areas. For instance, in mid-1958, the Choroma peasants arrested local authorities and took them on foot as far as the town of Cliza, where they asked the judicial authorities to put them on trial. The prefect sent police Lt. Col. Julio Vergara with the mission of transferring the prisoners to the city of Cochabamba. In Cliza, he parleyed with the peasants asking them to explain their actions:
They indicated that it was because these elements were the instigators in making the peasants fight among themselves and they had a lot of proof to demonstrate the veracity of their conclusions … they preferred for them to be put on trial in Cliza, given that on previous occasions the prefect and the minister of peasant affairs had not listened to them when they had presented complaints and, in reality, this lack of attention led to these incidents.99
The Cliza mayor, Walter Revuelta, and the peasant deputy, José Rojas, participated in the negotiations to send the prisoners to Cochabamba. A notable aspect of the conflict was the appeal of peasants for help to lower judicial appointees in the Valle Alto, and this happened because the departmental authorities had lost contact with the peasant movement’s foundational grassroots membership. In other words, on breaking with the union leadership in the Valle Alto and supporting the demands of the local elite, the prefect’s power in the rural areas was weakened.
A day after this incident, news arrived that the Anzaldo peasants had taken more prisoners among the town dwellers (see map 1.2). The prefect sent a new emissary to ask Walter Revuelta to accompany him to Anzaldo to negotiate for the freedom of those arrested. When the emissary arrived in Cliza and reached Revuelta, Revuelta told him that not even his presence could guarantee the security of the commission. Therefore, it was also necessary for José Rojas to authorize a trip to Anzaldo. To that end, they went to Ucureña, where they found a festival in progress, complete with a musical band. They found Rojas surrounded by his cadre, and they were all drinking chicha. According to the emissary’s report to the prefect, Rojas got angry when Revuelta explained Rojas the policeman’s mission:
[José] Rojas, in the tones of a boss (mayordomo) and angry, said ‘¡Ha! Lieutenant, are you the commission? That commission which I know nothing about? What do they think I am, who am I? A serf, a slave, a weekly servant (pongo), no, damn it, now that they’ve shat on that Falangist scum you get a move on. When they cut Narciso Torrico’s head off and made the widow carry it, walking for miles and miles, why didn’t you get a move on? The peasants will have revenge. Now the prefect and that little Galindo (Galindito) will have to go and shoot and arrest as many Indians as they can. If you want to, why don’t you take me prisoner and take them prisoner?’ (He showed me some twenty peasants, possibly leaders) ‘Now I know how to struggle for my peasants. We’re not blindfolded like before, we’re not the ladder any more for those bastards to make space for themselves and give orders from behind their desks.’ He finished: ‘You can go, I’m not against it. Do what you like, but I’m not responsible.’ To all this, Revuelta who had taken me there on purpose bowed his head and did not reply.100
This report describes an impressive ritual of affirmation and renewal of the structures of peasant power. José Rojas, in front of his closest supporters, questioned and defied the national police as a symbol of the state’s repressive power. He also provoked doubt about the authority of the prefect and the head of the CDM, whom he despised as he showed by using the diminutive of the latter’s surname, Galindito. In his report, the policeman emphasizes the fact that José Rojas was not under the influence of alcohol when he expressed his opinions: “I noted that José Rojas was not drunk, on the contrary, he had his speech ready, because there were moments when his mass applauded him with shouts of ‘¡Viva!’ and displays of agreement.”101 From the informant’s point of view, such a defiance of authority was only conceivable if coming from a peasant who had lost consciousness, who was clouded by some stimulant which impeded him from recognizing the inherent hierarchies of established power. To balance this break in the structure of power relations, the policeman had to pick out the commanding position that Rojas occupied in the local hierarchy. In his mind, this was the only source of power which backed the authority of the peasant leader. This is why, in the beginning of his report, he painted Rojas as an “angry hacienda administrator (mayordomo),” someone who was capable of dominating only through threats, even with respect to his own audience.
Given the repetition of peasant sieges on the town of San Pedro de Buenavista, the political authorities of Cochabamba, Potosí, Oruro, and La Paz continued to dispatch police troops on “pacification” missions. In fact, town dwellers, with the support of state protection, continued to pressure the peasantry to destroy their unions and any other network of resistance. A commission from Cochabamba complied with the initiative of investigating eight peasants who had been arrested. One of them, Andrés Mareño from Choroma, made the following statement:
Before the death of [Narciso] Torrico, individuals from the town of San Pedro unveiled a campaign of persecution against the peasants which culminated in his death, telling us that there were no leaders anymore and they would chop up the rest of them like onions and, organizing themselves, they left [the town] accompanied by a commission from La Paz, searching for weapons which we might have in our private residences. For fear of this we do not even stay in our houses, since they broke into fourteen private residences breaking padlocks. We have even been obliged to transfer our [peasant] center to another faraway place where it was quieter.102
The vecinos’ abuses described by peasants in the investigation included acts of rape, theft of domestic animals and clothing, the torture of children, the seizure of land plots, and other violent acts. According to the witnesses, these acts were carried out by vecinos, such as, “Lucio Tórrez, San Pedro mayor; Doroteo Mareño, hat maker; Luis Tórrez, shoemaker; Bernabe Alcócer, butcher; all of them from San Pedro [de Buena Vista].”103 Thus, the group of San Pedro de Buenavista vecinos, whose personal wealth and interests were at risk because of the revolutionary transformations, organized the political scenario from the city of Cochabamba. Meanwhile, the vecinos who had actually confronted the peasants and their interests were the towns’ minor functionaries and artisans.
Peasant voices did not fit into the revolutionary discourse and they were indeed silenced by local authorities. In contrast, protests against the abuses of peasant leaders—who were blamed by the revolutionaries for the violence which broke out with the agrarian reform—were often disseminated and magnified. For instance, when the Potosi prefect visited San Pedro de Buenavista and saw how dire the situation of the peasants there was, he then spoke more about Ucureña’s invasion of his jurisdiction and demanded that the Ucureña peasant center’s power be curbed. He expressed his ill feelings in a letter addressed to the Cochabamba prefect:
For the interference of elements from that [peasant] central [of Ucureña] in the dismal events in the north of the department of Potosi, which being of public knowledge, have filled the entire country with shock, due to the unheard acts of barbarism which were committed … this prefecture will be obliged to take the most drastic and severe measures with all the ‘agitators’ who may be found in my departmental jurisdiction. The elevated prestige of the national revolution, its sacred postulates and it’s just claims, by which the peasants are precisely the most favored, are being stained with mud, with indignity and dishonor. … These [peasant] leaderships are neither political nor doctrinaire, nor are they reclaiming their rights. Unfortunately, they are the meanest [people] that could be imagined; disorder, chaos, and shameless banditry that goes unpunished. [I beg you] to take the most energetic provisions with the aim of imposing sanity on evildoers who call themselves leaders and who, losing their way, have lost the last particles of reason. Humberto Salas Linares. Prefect [of Potosi].104
The Potosí prefect’s rhetoric matched the formal structure of the MNR’s right wing discourse. Accordingly, the acts of violence in the countryside—which in many cases were carried out by the landlords or their agents—were invariably attributed to the peasant leaders. Town dwellers (in general) and public employees (in particular), appropriated the revolution through a discourse that constructed and represented the peasants as passive beneficiaries. Peasant leaders, from their point of view, were perverting the revolution with their unthinking attitudes and ignorance of even the basics of civilized life. Both groups believed that the peasants did not have any class-based political ability or consciousness and that they did not really understand the sacrifices the MNR leaders were making to drive the revolutionary process forward. Far from obeying the party’s leaders in search of the common good—as the MNR’s right wing discourse asserted—the peasantry put obstacles in their way with their chaotic and disorderly actions. From this point of view, there was no solution other than repression, given the fundamental irrationality of the peasant leaders.
These dynamics, which linked the interests of reactionary elites and the MNR’s right wing together in their intention to overturn revolutionary reforms, began to change towards the end of 1958. As the campaign for presidential elections started, right wing politicians renewed their revolutionary image. José Rojas and the leaders of Ucureña seized the initiative and headed a government commission that would achieve social peace in northern Potosi. They worked to consolidate the presence of the state through new local political authorities and a team of agrarian judges who guaranteed a balance of interests. Vecinos and peasants ended up exhausting themselves in the conflict, which allowed new authorities to control the situation. In the end, José Rojas benefitted from the conflict, as his reputation as a peacemaker spread widely and was publicized in the conflict’s wake.105
Hegemonic Discourse: The Peasants and the MNR
To examine public discourse in Cochabamba during the second revolutionary period (1954–58), this section makes use of El Pueblo newspaper editorials and commentaries on peasant issues. After the aborted coup in November 1953, the MNR government monopolized the press in Cochabamba and El Pueblo which was the official and only newspaper circulating in the region. The landlords’ voices practically disappeared from the discursive political arena, while the peasants became the subject of the MNR’s triumphant political discourse, which celebrated the revolution and took over its paternity. The rhetoric of the revolution’s success was centered on images of the agrarian reform and its peasant beneficiaries, leading to an abundant discourse focused on the MNR’s benevolence and creating a favorable public image for the so-called prodigal sons of the regime. This official discourse—formulated with meagre peasant participation—was so prolific and convincing that it came to be taken as a description of the actual relationship between the peasantry and the revolutionary state. The peasants appeared as political actors subordinated to the state, although they actually were the subject of a discourse which wished to subordinate them to the state.106 El Pueblo in Cochabamba, displayed a “Pax Revolucionaria” image that subordinated peasant actions to the MNR’s political leadership. Therefore, their editorials sought to create a narrative of contemporary peasant society as the result of a historical process in which peasants had achieved a superior stage of social development, under the political lead of the MNR:
The national revolution’s government has set a precedent of honesty in breaking with colonial defects. … This process of legitimate democracy began with [President] Villarroel in 1945, when the first indigenous congress [took place]. The revolution [then] continued on its way and the sexenio [counter revolutionary six-year term] was no more than an accident in its unstoppable advance. 9 April 1952 arrived, and President Paz signed the agrarian reform decree freeing the Bolivian peasant. [Now] the peasant has acquired political maturity [thanks] to the MNR.107
When the agrarian reform ran into various obstacles and the peasant cadres did not conform to the MNR’s centralizing leadership, editorials began focusing upon the technical defects of the agrarian reform and the incompetence of the peasants as the two main causes of its failure.108 Both President Siles and the MNR’s right-wing politicians were incapable of leading the populist agenda, for they shared the goal of centralizing power into their own hands. Instead, they utilized the image of a self-sacrificing president Siles, who was supposedly misunderstood by the people because he had been targeted by the malicious preaching of union leaders. It was at this moment that the regime initiated a dark period of official propaganda wherein public information was widely manipulated by the monopolistic government media in Cochabamba.
El Pueblo editorials insinuated that peasant union leaders should make their support for President Siles public, as this was the correct attitude that distinguished them from the “bad” leaders. Moreover, the bad leaders ought to be purged from their unions and replaced by individuals who have shown that they are authentic leaders and not simple advantage seekers.109 This discourse soon crossed over into the field of political blackmail when it started to present analogies of living organisms as models of societies, from which the self-serving, the extraneous, and the pernicious should be wiped out.110 In spite of the political pressure put on the peasants, it was evident that the regime had not managed to consolidate enough power over them to exert the controls that the regime wished to exert. The official discourse of the period offers glimpses of the deep splits that alienated peasants from the government. For example, when a conference of leaders was held in Ucureña to prepare for the second national peasant conference, an editorial demanded that the peasants overcome their “duality of criteria.” On one side, the editorial argued, the peasants responded to the respect that the revolutionary institutions had demanded but, on the other, they provided fuel for the tendency towards disorder and abuse fostered by extremism.111 The peasants, the editorial went on, ought to support the government of Hernán Siles, who was working to free them from their bad union leaders: “This implies ratifying their support for revolutionary unity, without extremism or classist slogans with which the peasantry isolates itself from all control by its fellow citizens and becomes a fugitive delinquent, instead of crushing its inferiority complex in an open manner.”112
In other words, the union leaders were beyond the government’s control, keeping their grassroots power base alienated from central power, and converting the peasants into a marginal social group. If their fellow citizens (i.e., MNR politicians) were to control them, the peasants would fit into the margins of civility and could be integrated into the nation. This type of discourse concerning the peasants was addressed to the MNR’s non-peasant militants, not to the peasants themselves. This rhetoric coming from the regime’s perspective referred to the peasants as the “other,” thus creating an unchallenged relationship of domination and subordination between the two groups. In contrast to the first revolutionary period (1952–53), when the landlords, in editorials, debated their projects with the revolutionary state, now El Pueblo editorials wrote a states soliloquy, where arguments vanished within the text itself. 113
Divergence between the state and the peasants widened as their common revolutionary goals—land distribution and peasant farming mechanization—weakened as revolutionary processes. Official discourse concerning the peasants took on its old, indigenista tone, reviving obsolete ideas that once again idealized the image of a subservient Indian:
[In Ucureña] the peasants have mentioned the administration of comrade [Hernán] Siles Zuazo and have emphasized the fact that, despite the unchangeable aims of the president, the agrarian reform has suffered from clumsiness, which is not in favor of the MNR government. … The government should not cease to listen to these accusations. … Those who have given their word at the altar of new America are the genuine representatives of the Indian masses (indiada) of the country. … There, in the sacred fields of Ucureña, peasants have reaffirmed their faith in the national revolution and have sworn to maintain its postulates through the MNR, because the party has made their dreams reality and given life to the new Inka empire, returning to the Indians the land of their ancestors.114
From this moment on, the MNR’s right-wing rhetoric made a turn, sharpening its paternalist posturing over peasants and also listing the alleged natural virtues of the “Indian race.”115 The return to this allegorical discourse on the Indian, however, was related to a parallel discursive trend that denigrated the union leaders and attempted to explain the growing peasant discontent with the regime, with the pretext of personal rivalries between the agrarian leaders.116
Newspaper opinion pages were written by the regime’s faithful intellectuals, and these commentaries were the mouthpiece for the government’s final and unchallenged ideological explanation of the social problems of the revolutionary era. Since there was no peasant interlocutor who could challenge it, the MNR’s discourse in this period never overcame its condescending character. When the internal crisis of the MNR became so severe that its contradictions went out of control, only then did the commentators reflect the regime’s hysteria at the thought of losing the political support of the peasants. This happened in August 1957, when Vice-President Ñuflo Chávez resigned from his post and received the support of the peasants without the knowledge or consent of President Siles, who at that moment was struggling to apply an economic stabilization plan. It was in this circumstances that official commentators began using denigratory language against the opposition, calling the peasant leaders José Rojas and Víctor Torrico “dirigentes de pacotilla” (tin-pot leaders) and insulting Vice-President Chávez and other parliamentarians on the left of the governing party.117
The topics addressed in newspaper commentaries varied substantially from the last years of Víctor Paz’s term (1955–56) and the first years of Hernán Siles’ presidency (1957–58). In the first period, the commentaries focused on the process of organization of the productive apparatus and wrote in exultant tones of great confidence about the future: “Bolivia will live through an unprecedented economic boom and a new era of development will arrive.”118 In the later period, the tone became pessimistic, and commentaries referred to the readjustment of the revolutionary process, and the difficulties of achieving its goals. Nevertheless, even in the moments of greatest revolutionary euphoria, when the emphasis was on the process of change itself, and the peasant’s new “political consciousness” was applauded for the spontaneous help it had provided the new regime, the commentaries printed did not argue that the state should strengthen peasant economies. On the contrary, the emphasis was on the idea that the revolutionary state should educate the peasant class, whose future lay only in the proletarianization of its ranks, for it was to have a progressive landlord class as its counterpart:
The formation of the peasant proletariat is the new stage of national economic development, it is the step from feudalism to capitalism, from the labor tenant to the wage laborer, from the lord of lives and estates to the businessman (patrono); it is, in synthesis, the economic revolution which the national revolution government has brought.119
It was for this reason that commentaries at this moment centered on two main issues. First, the proposed “March to the East,” to the tropical lowlands of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where the excess labor groups forced from the valley of Cochabamba could meet. Second, the creation of agrarian cooperatives that were to replace the peasant’s smaller productive units. Cooperatives would be headed by the miners, who were to be brought to the valley, and who were said to be the bearers of the revolutionary mentality that was to guide the peasants’ behavior and their evolving political consciousness.120
During this era of confidence in the revolutionary process, the regime decided to revise the national history and summoned intellectuals to join a crusade in favor of nationality, taking the everyday life of the popular classes as a source of inspiration. Simultaneously, the peasant symbols related to the revolution were fortified and the characterization of Ucureña as an icon of realized peasant power was magnified. Ucureña was named as “the Catavi of the fields” in allusion to the mining center of greatest revolutionary energy.121 The yearly revolution anniversaries, as well as the “Indian day,” were celebrated in Ucureña with extensive programming. El Pueblo gave these events significant publicity and this profoundly affected regional political consciousness. On these occasions, the unions of the peasants and the rural schoolteachers organized sporting and cultural competitions with the aim of “showing those who still have prejudices against the peasant class that they are not incapable, as the great landowners believe, but rather they are capable of developing any kind of [physical and intellectual] activity.”122
The optics and dialogue of revolution also inspired artists and poets. In Ucureña, for instance, a mural was painted which symbolized the overcoming of Bolivian reality, escaping from single mining production to enter into agricultural development. In the Ucureña mural, “the monumental portraits of President Víctor Paz and Vice-President Hernán Siles were depicted [together with] the portraits of peasant leaders such as José Rojas and Sinforoso Rivas and the heroic [mining woman] María Barzola.”123 Many poems were published in the official newspaper. For instance, a poem by Raúl Murillo Aliaga: “Rough Aymara who lives in the Andes / Sweet Quechua of the noisy valley / Mysterious Movima of the green rubber grove / Camba, centaur of the East / All of you, brothers, are sons of one fatherland.” Or another by Juan Pueblo: “The reform must be fulfilled / And a new people forged / Once again conquer the Indian /
With legions of teachers.” The idea of creating a new Bolivian identity emerged, an identity that would amalgamate the regional cultures and foster the education of the Indian as the culmination of its conquest, up until then unfinished.124
The idea of centralized power, the benevolent paternalism of political leaders, and continuity in the processes of Indian conquest were expressed through the delimitation of urban and rural territories and the increasing specialization of the population. The contradiction between countryside and city once again manifested itself, but in such a way that it did not devolve into conflict due to the protective character of the revolutionary regime towards the peasants. Moreover, a proposal for the protection of peasants came from the FSTCC itself in the guise of a civilizing project. To this end, the FSTCC asked the police to carry out periodic round-ups (batidas) of the peasants who were wandering about in the city of Cochabamba, “given that a great number of them abandoned the countryside to dedicate themselves to activities which are not compatible with agriculture, or else to earn their living working as porters (changadores) with a great risk of coming into contact with criminal elements (hampa).”125
Urban intellectuals took up this idea and widened its ethical and productive implications. The peasants, they argued, had dedicated themselves to cultivating maize since their liberation from landlord control, as it was the raw material for brewing chicha. Consumption of chicha had increased the level of alcoholism, weakening work discipline, and fomenting migration. For these reasons, “the moment has arrived to face this problem, imposing obligatory labor [on the peasants] and a dry law on working days … we must produce more wheat and abandon corn.”126 Revolutionary intellectuals were still unable to overcome the old regional colonial elite’s bias, which feared a lack of political control over the Cochabamba peasants, and alleged that their chicha drinking habit was a widespread addiction problem. What, in fact, worried the former regional colonial elite was the emergence of a secure and independent peasant economy. An economy which was, at the moment, successfully competing against the monopolistic policies of the colonial state through gaining entry into the regional maize market, which up until then had been tightly controlled by the landlord class. Both the colonial and the revolutionary elites sought to centralize power; therefore, peasant political and economic autonomy were always considered an undesired social outcome.127
During the Siles administration, commentaries in the official newspaper stressed the economic policies of readjustment, which the regime planned to implement in order to bring the revolutionary goals back into action. At the regional level, a recurring theme in newspaper commentaries was the inefficiency of the agrarian reform apparatus. The government started a readjustment process, but peasants were suspicious that right-wing elements might infiltrate it, and this might cause even more questioning of the validity of the agrarian reform. As an official commentary in El Pueblo stated:
Unidentified elements try to disorient the peasants, spreading false news about the agrarian reform … since they insinuate that the farms will be returned to the great estate owners and that there will be an attempt to deny the legal value of the agrarian reform decree and the other complementary dispositions. … The peasant comrades should be quite sure that the processes of confiscation and consolidation will be completed, once they reach the office of the president of the republic.128
The government made it clear that it did not question the basis of the agrarian reform, indicating that the president was ready to sign the land property titles, but only when they “reached” his office. In other words, Siles insinuated that other levels outside the jurisdiction of the executive branch were holding back the agrarian reform, and one of these levels was that of the peasant unions and their leaders. Through these methods, the government brought into question the legitimacy of the leaders who did not yield to official control by unleashing a fierce smear campaign on peasant leader Sinforoso Rivas, accusing him of corruption.129
The MNR’s right wing authoritarian attitude and its hierarchical conceptualization of power formed the basis for their pursuit of a dominant relationship over the peasant movements. Intellectuals from the right—like Alfredo Galindo, a member of a prominent landowner’s family in Cochabamba—aimed to slow down the MNR’s left-wing populist practices. Their discourse thus allocated the peasants a neutral position of citizenry, which freed them from any kind of guardianship. “Overcoming the fictitious ‘Indian Day’ with which the oligarchy put the emancipatory consciousness of the Bolivian peasant to sleep, [I greet the peasants] wishing them total and definitive liberation from all the expressions of slavery.”130 This demagogic posture, which, in fact, undermined the political role of the peasant leaders, was unveiled when MNR right-wing intellectuals wrote their opinions in El Pueblo:
The ingenuous and ignorant mentality of the Bolivian peasant has been inculcated with the idea that every large property belongs to them by fact and by right. … This fallacious preaching goes against the postulates of the agrarian reform. … When we spoke to them frankly and clearly … one noted stupor in their faces, doubt, and uncertainty, which shows that the demagogic propaganda had changed the autochthons mentality, who ever since the paternal epoch of the Incas practiced the virtues of work, truthfulness, discipline, and lived observing moral and legal norms.131
The Ucureña ritual—where the peasants’ alliance with the revolutionary state was annually renewed while celebrating the anniversary of the agrarian reform decree signing—was transformed in form and content. As the MNR’s right-wing intellectual, Saturnino Rodrigo’s speech illustrates, revolutionary jargon was now combined with millennial allegories to the Inca empire and odes to the mythical image of a submissive Indian.
Let us kneel and kiss the earth, the eternal mother earth (Pachamama), to take communion with our father the sun. … Now you have communicated kissing the Pachamama, we must swear that Ucureña will become the center of the Indian continent. … But to that end, we must return to the spirit of our ancestors, follow them in their principles of “Do not rob, do not lie, do not be lazy” (ama sua, ama llulla, ama kella). What does “do not rob” mean? Do not take others’ land. And “do not lie”? Do not lie to yourselves, saying that you work without doing so. And, finally, what is “do not be lazy”? That you should work all your land, because the land which is not worked becomes evil, it is unlucky (khencha).132
This manipulation of revolutionary rituals was a product of the MNR’s right wing distrust of the political conduct of their peasant allies. The MNR leaders tried to patronize the peasants but only with relative success. This was the reason why leaders from the MNR’s right-wing, like Walter Guevara, considered the peasants incapable and volatile individuals.133 This perception of the peasantry by the MNR’s politicians would foster confrontational positions in the years to come, when peasant wars erupted in the Valle Alto.
At the time when the MNR’s left wing implemented its unionist policies (1954–56), the peasants’ and workers’ movements were at a vanguard position in the revolutionary process. The MNR’s left wing controlled the government and supported the peasant unions apparatus. The Valle Alto peasants, however, resisted the MNR’s left wing project to transform the haciendas into agrarian cooperatives, as had also been fruitlessly attempted in the Valle Bajo. When the MNR’s right wing began to centralize power in the urban organization of the party (1957–58), peasant resistance to the regime’s policies became intense. The government created new union organizations parallel to those already existing, with the goal of weakening the peasant movement. In addition, a witch-hunt of the most important leaders began, especially of those who refused to adjust to the new political circumstances. The government’s aim was to substitute peasant leaders with officially appointed and on the MNR payroll employees in the countryside. Thus, the government consciously increased tension between vecinos and campesinos to slow down the changes the grassroots peasants were demanding.
Revolutionary geography defined the Valle Bajo and its neighboring highlands as the area which aligned with government policy. In contrast, the Valle Alto and its territory of influence—which extended as far as northern Potosi—was considered the oppositional and conflictive zone. However, the Ucureña peasant center, which was the locus of political activity in the Valle Alto, never went so far as to openly defy the government’s authority. The fact that valley peasants, in general, and Ucureña, in particular, never broke their relationship with the regime had been interpreted in previous scholarship as evidence of the MNR’s co-optation of revolutionary peasants. This study, as well as recent research confirms, however, that the Ucureña leadership in this period actively negotiated with the state by means of a dynamic balance between political autonomy and acquiescence.134 Essentially, the Ucureña leadership adopted a pragmatic position in relation to the government’s political demands, which allowed the peasantry to monitor the fluctuating ebbs and flows of its relationship with the revolutionary regime.