The April 1952 insurrection that triggered the Bolivian revolution was mainly an urban upheaval. It started in the capital city of La Paz and spread to the mining centers of Oruro and Potosí, where mine workers mobilized to support the movement. After a few days of armed confrontation among the army and popular militias, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, MNR) took control of the situation and organized the first revolutionary government in Bolivian history. The leader of the MNR, Víctor Paz Estenssoro, was named president of Bolivia and he authorized the foundation of the Central Obrera Boliviana (Bolivian Workers’ Central, COB) on 17 April 1952. The head of the COB, Juan Lechín, was a sympathizer of the Trotskyist-oriented Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Revolutionary Workers Party, POR).1 Lechín was also the minister of mines and oil, and through him the POR provided the regime with the additional, and critical, ideological support necessary to conceptualize and create the revolution. Over the next months, the POR’s intelligentsia worked hard in the hopes of transforming the government from inside by radicalizing the MNR’s left wing to shift the existing regime into “a workers’ and peasants’ government.”2
Meanwhile, an already mobilized peasantry in Cochabamba rapidly incorporated itself into the revolutionary process. From April 1952 until November 1953—when the most serious attempt to derail the revolution through a coup took place—intense political struggles occurred in Cochabamba. Both MNR and POR activists competed to guide the peasant movement in Cochabamba, but peasant leaders in the region actively negotiated their own political agendas vis-à-vis the revolutionary state. Consequently, for the first time in Bolivian history, peasants in Cochabamba emerged as dynamic political actors.
This chapter traces the early revolutionary political conflicts in Cochabamba that initiated a large-scale peasant union movement. The MNR acted as the catalyst for the formation of rural unions in a competitive process among its two internal political wings. The right wing worked from the Departmental Prefecture of Cochabamba, and the left wing from the Ministerio de Asuntos Campesinos (Ministry for Peasant Affairs, MAC), in a dispute to control the peasant union apparatus.
The peasants’ unionization drive was also divided into camps, each supporting different leaders, all of them ultimately seeking control of the peasant movement. On one side was José Rojas from the Ucureña peasant center in the Valle Alto, who was initially influenced by the POR. On the other side was Sinforoso Rivas from the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Campesinos de Cochabamba (Union Federation of Peasant Workers of Cochabamba, FSTCC) in the Valle Bajo, who was influenced by the MNR’s left-wing sector and the COB (see map 1.3).
Similarly, the Cochabamba landlords did not share a unitary position. One sector—which rejected any revolutionary change—was centered around the Federación Rural de Cochabamba (Rural Federation of Cochabamba, FRC). The other, more progressive, sector was led by the Catholic Church—which was allied with the MNR’s right wing—and sought a way to forestall any major change from within to the state apparatus.
The political situation was initially so volatile that the character of the revolutionary state was redefined and reconceptualized constantly, on a seemingly daily basis. Some forces rejected any change which would transform the status quo. Others fought for the distribution of hacienda lands. The majority tried to carry out moderate reforms that would not compromise the interests of the pre-revolutionary power groups. It was the political initiative taken by the peasants in occupying hacienda lands that finally pressured the regime to sign an agrarian reform decree on 2 August 1953. The months before and after the signing of the agrarian reform decree were politically intense and culminated in a fundamental rebalancing of forces in the regional political arena. Peasant unrest in the countryside caused the exodus of landlords to Cochabamba city, while artisans, workers, traders, and public employees in the rural towns fought to fill the power vacuum left by the absentee landlords. Peasant power in the countryside grew so rapidly that it usurped the existing relations and power dynamics of domination and subordination amongst vecinos (town dwellers) and campesinos (peasants). This shift in the revolutionary power balance in Cochabamba modified the ethnic and class perceptions of the rural population, essentially because peasants in the countryside became empowered at the expense of the town dwellers, who were proportionally disempowered.
This chapter also examines the public discourse in Cochabamba and considers the idea that political action and discourse are both linked and produced simultaneously. Yet, at the same time, they also are not mere reflections of each other. Public discourse not only reflects reality, but indeed constitutes an active part of that representational reality. To examine public discourse in the first revolutionary period, I chose Los Tiempos newspaper as a representative source of information for two main reasons: First, it covers without interruption the whole period of study, which ranges from April 1952 to November 1953. In fact, the newspaper’s office was looted by a mob during the coup d’état on 9 November 1953, as the newspaper’s owner, Demetrio Canelas, was a prominent landowner in the Cochabamba valley. Second, due to Canelas’ personal interest in agrarian issues, his newspaper amply covered the news and opinions regarding the agricultural sector in Cochabamba.
In the early years (1952–53) of the revolutionary era in Cochabamba, landlords, peasants, and the MNR politicians implicitly debated and sparred over the meanings of the words “Indian” and “peasant,” in an attempt to define the concrete characteristics of the revolutionary transformations. In the analysis of public discourse, I employ some specific journalistic genres: newspaper editorials, commentaries, denunciations, and communiqués on peasant issues, all of which were published in the city of Cochabamba.3 However, the journalistic information characterizing, representing, and symbolizing the peasants, went far beyond simply reflecting political events. Information printed in the press represented and narrated revolutionary events as they happened, simultaneously creating and shaping the public discourses interpreting the revolution. These public discourses, in turn, influenced the political perspectives of landlords, politicians, and peasants. All of the political actors involved in Cochabamba during the revolution attempted to rationalize facts through the creation of alternative interpretations of events as the balance of power shifted around them. This balance changed in specific historical moments as a result of the shifting forces competing for power in the regional political arena.
Two Conflicting Projects inside the MNR
Due to the decision of the revolutionary regime to concentrate its attention on the tin mining sector—which was finally nationalized on 31 October 1952—there was no clear agrarian policy in the early months after the revolution. Only in March 1953 did the government form a commission responsible for studying and elaborating the agrarian reform decree, which was promulgated on 2 August 1953.4 Consequently, the government’s initial policy actions regarding the agrarian sector consisted of a few symbolic support signals to appease the demands of the peasants and encourage the organization of rural unions. For instance, the government declared an amnesty for peasants imprisoned for political reasons, allowing the release of Hilarión Grágeda and other leaders of the Ayopaya rebellion on 14 September 1952 (see chapter one and figure 1.1).5
Behind the regime’s popular image, however, a struggle developed among two internal factions of the MNR. The factions disagreed over the strategies the government should apply to integrate the peasantry into the national society and the role that rural unions should play in this process. According to Jorge Dandler, the right-wing sector of the ruling party considered unions to be mediators between the landlords and his tenants first, and a political instrument second. In contrast, the left-wing sector proposed an armed mobilization of the people, as they considered unions, whether composed of workers, miners or peasants, to be an essential political instrument.6 Beneath this ideological divide in the MNR, however, there was a broader debate in the left about the peasant’s class position and role in revolutionary societies. In Bolivia, the Stalinist-oriented PIR and the Trotskyist-oriented POR, both espoused a version of Marxism that characterized peasants as petit bourgeois due to their ownership of—or desire to own—small plots of land. This dismissive “petit bourgeois” term, used to refer to the peasantry, was a concrete denial of peasants as a full social class. Moreover, as discussed in chapter one, the PIR and the POR had different perceptions regarding the role of the peasantry in the revolutionary process. The PIR thought feudal estates ought to have been transformed into capitalist agrarian cooperatives, thus assigning the peasantry an economic, rather than political, role in the revolution. In contrast, the POR believed that the peasants were nothing more than subordinated political actors, and, therefore, they should be led by urban workers towards a future socialist government, a government that was to operate in the interests of both groups.
In practice, however, the differences between the MNR’s divisions were less deep. On the one side, the right-wing faction sought to minimize the political role of the peasant unions and centralize its control through the party’s power apparatus. On the other side, the left wing sought to limit the role of peasant unions within the broader workers’ movement, centralizing its control in the proletarian power apparatus. Consequently, both sectors of the MNR converged when it came to their perceptions of the peasantry, perceptions that had ultimately originated in the liberal doctrines that emerged in the late nineteenth century. In essence, these perceptions led both factions to attempt to restrict the autonomy of the peasant unions. The pretext for restricting the political autonomy of peasants was based on these commonly held perceptions that peasants were intrinsically incapable of participating in politics because they lacked formal education. In this initial period of the revolution, therefore, both the right and left ideological factions of the MNR failed to anticipate the immense political power the peasant unions would achieve in the near future.
The two sectors of the party soon found themselves competing to organize peasant unions and to recruit teams of loyal peasant leaders. While the right-wing worked from the departmental prefecture with the support of the Catholic Church, the left-wing did so from the MAC with the support of the COB. President Paz encouraged the competition between both sectors of the party by supporting the policies of the left-wing minister of peasant affairs, Ñuflo Chávez, while at the same time naming right-wing prefects in Cochabamba.7 This political strategy allowed Paz to administer their disagreements over the exercise of power in the region. In this way, the MNR initiated a process of interaction with political activists and peasant leaders that transformed the political culture in the region.
After 9 April 1952, both peasants and landlords were forced to readapt their political strategies in dealing with each other and the revolutionary state. Although, as Steve Stern has demonstrated, Andean peasants already had a long historical experience of dealing with non-local political authority from their relations with the colonial and republican states. This political experience allowed peasants to deploy several adaptive strategies of resistance vis-à-vis the revolutionary Bolivian state.8 This was the case when—for the first time in Bolivian history—the 1952 revolution opened channels for direct peasant political participation. How the rural workers of Cochabamba’s altiplano and valley areas actually acted politically varied according to their context and their historical political experience. The level of organization of the unions reached also varied based on these criteria, alongside their capacity to link up with other sectors of regional and national societies.
Peasants in the Altiplano
The Cochabamba highland or altiplano region, as discussed in chapter one, is next to the departments of La Paz and Oruro in the west and to Potosi in the south. In this area, latifundia (large unproductive estates) coexisted with Indian communities—particularly in the provinces of Ayopaya, Tapacarí, Arque, Mizque, and Campero. It is not surprising then that revolutionary political conflict in the highlands of Cochabamba was concentrated in the aforementioned provinces (see map 1.2).
The MNR’s right wing sought to control both the peasants’ and the landlords’ demands through a network of administrative and party authorities, the composition of which changed depending on the prefecture and the particular Comando Departamental del MNR (MNR’s Departmental Commando, CDM). Under this right-wing power scheme, the autonomy of peasant unions was severely limited. The union was restricted to mediating between the peasant base and the party’s local power networks. Meanwhile, in order to preserve their power, many landlords decided to insert themselves into the party’s network. In practice, these right-wing control schemes were only applied with limited success in the western and southern altiplano provinces that surrounded the valley areas. Peasants in those highland areas had no previous unionization experience due to the iron-fisted control that the local elites had always exercised over them. The party’s right-wing policy in regard to the peasantry in these altiplano areas fostered political confrontation, which eventually led to the development of unequal and short-lasting alliances between landlords, MNR officials, and peasants.
For instance, in the highland areas of Ayopaya and Arque, the MNR formed an alliance with local landlords to block peasant political organization. In Ayopaya, the subprefect had acknowledged some denunciations brought forth by landlords regarding an alleged plot planned by peasants, which was to include an uprising under the banner of the redistribution of hacienda lands.9 In June 1952, the prefect of Cochabamba traveled to Ayopaya to verify these claims. Once there, he listened to the accusations of the peasants, who wanted him to end the mandatory pongueaje (labor owed to the hacienda) that had been imposed by the landlords. After hearing the peasants out, the prefect took no action except to exhort them to fulfill their labor obligations. He found no trace of the landlords’ original complaints.10 In fact, it was the landlords’ reluctance to comply with President Gualberto Villarroel’s 15 May 1945 decree abolishing pongueaje in the haciendas that had created the now permanent friction between peasants and landlords initially.11 As the subprefect of Ayopaya supported the interests of local landlords, they began to compete with one another to occupy public offices in the capital and main provincial towns, enabling them to maintain the status quo: the oppressive extraction of labor from the peasants there. Peasants in Ayopaya were excluded from the MNR’s right-wing power scheme long after the 1952 revolution, thus the landlords’ fears of an indigenous rebellion remained latent in this area during the early revolutionary period.
In May 1952, just a month after the revolution started, the subprefect of Arque—who was linked to the landowners and operated in their interests—was severely criticized by the prefect of Cochabamba for abuses committed against the peasantry in his jurisdiction.12 After this, the peasants in Arque reacted against the landlords and began to resist their control, whether through spontaneous local initiatives or through political tactics that they were induced to take by non-local political activists. The Arque subprefect denounced the use of these tactics to the central authorities as “proof of the serious situation which is being created in this province by numerous communist agitators, who in an exaggerated desire to enrich themselves, are creating a situation at the point of exploding into violence with the indigenous taking up arms against the landlords.”13 The regional press even printed sensationalist articles recounting these complaints. In the end, the so-called “communist agitators” that the subprefect had denounced turned out to be two political activists working for the MAC. Activists who were attempting to inform the Arque peasants of the government decree abolishing pongueaje.14 Peasants in Arque adopted several resistance strategies in response, including: first, issuing complaints against landlords in the Oruro prefecture, one of the areas of overlapping jurisdiction with Cochabamba, forcing the prefects of both jurisdictions to exercise caution in their alliances with the landlords by making sure not to appear too partial to their interests; second, teaming up with lower-level local authorities and pushing them to challenge those higher up in their hierarchy, thus putting pressure on local power networks; and third, choosing to deliberately ignore local authorities, and linking themselves directly with peasant political activists in the valley. In concert, these methods allowed the peasants in Arque enough power to reach greater autonomy in their local political situation.15
In contrast, in the Campero and Mizque provinces, the MNR’s local power network allied with the peasants to form a political front against the landlord’s power. For instance, in Campero, the subprefect and the chief of the Comando Provincial del MNR (MNR’s Provincial Commando, CPM) were both members of the same family. Emilio and Franklin Román (father and son) wove a web of local power, attracting peasant support, to challenge the provincial elite. In order to resist the challenge of the Románs, the landlords organized a Centro Rural de la Provincia Campero (Campero Province Rural Center), which was a corporate-structured institution, to defend their interests. However, the 1952 revolution had weakened the landlords’ power and opened a power vacuum that was filled by upwardly mobile residents of rural towns, who promptly enlisted in the MNR rolls. As there was no autonomous peasantry capable of defending their own interests in this region, the Románs fashioned themselves into the “protectors of peasants,” against the excesses of the local and provincial authorities. The Campero MNR leaders were the prototype representatives of the social control model the regime’s right-wing sector outlined and sought.
The prefect of Cochabamba backed the Román family, who in turn reinforced the Románs’ power base. Thus, the landlords decided to rely on the Fiscalía General de la Nación (Attorney General Office), whose seat was in Sucre, to neutralize the power of the prefectural office in Cochabamba. The attorney general supported the landlords’ claim that the revolutionary changes had imperiled the nation’s laws, and this undermined the social justice argument that the Románs advocated for on behalf of the peasantry.16 Emilio Román informed the Cochabamba prefect that the attorney general in Sucre was infringing on Cochabamba’s jurisdiction and threatened to submit an accusation against him to the Ministerio de Gobierno (Ministry of State). The landlords continued to pressure the Románs, and managed to get a district attorney from Cochabamba to inspect Aiquile (Campero’s capital) to witness the riotous assemblies there that the Románs had set up. The report of the district attorney stated that, “in the locality of Aiquile there is a pitched battle between the bands who form the chorus of the subprefect and the faithful of the cause of the Campero Province Rural Centre, and they are on the road to real belligerence between each other.”17 The district attorney’s report on the riots led to the removal of Campero’s subprefect, Emilio Román, which reinforced the local landlords’ power in the end.
In the case of Mizque, the subprefect handled the political situation by adding two peasant leaders to the CPM’s board. Through these leaders, he managed a degree of control over the agrarian unions there. The Mizque subprefect reported to the Cochabamba prefect: “I made contact with the peasant leaders and we agreed that the demonstrations were disturbing the town and should be suspended, two peasant elements joined the CPM, whom, together with yours truly, will provide guarantees for the safety of the urban residents of this province.”18 Wherever the MNR’s right-wing’s strategies for social control predominated, peasant unions functioned with only a small degree of autonomy. It had always been the vecinos who were the dynamic political actors in the towns, the centers of rural Bolivian political life. Whether vecinos acted in their own interests by resisting the peasants or attempting to make alliances with them, they always pursued these actions from a dominant position of power. As a consequence of this, in the highland provinces that surrounded the Cochabamba valley, class perceptions and ethnic identities were always intertwined, thus reaffirming the traditional social and cultural barriers between town dwellers and peasants.
Peasants in the Valley
The Cochabamba prefect’s goal of organizing peasant unions in a firmly top-down hierarchical manner from the top-down was also applied in the valleys, but under very different conditions than those of the altiplano provinces (see map 1.3). For instance, in the Cliza area (Valle Alto), peasants had previous collective political experience going back to the 1930s, when the Ucureña peasants began to struggle to organize their union. Ucureña colonos (hacienda tenants) from the Santa Clara hacienda in Cliza were united in their aim to unionize, for it was the initial step towards their goal of purchasing the lands that they were then renting from the hacienda. Following this, the Ucureña peasants developed a strong sense of solidarity with one another, which in turn strengthened their class and ethnic identities, as discussed in chapter one.
The first new peasant union after the revolution was founded in Ucureña on 1 May 1952, officially commemorating International Workers’ Day. José Rojas was elected the union’s secretary general and the committee was sworn in by the prefect and the MNR’s officials.19 The second peasant union was founded in San Isidro (Cliza) on 27 May 1952, when departmental authorities swore in a MNR right-wing peasant leader for the union, Agapito Vallejos.20 The process of unionization from the top-down would have continued according to the prefecture’s plans, had the Ucureña peasants not initiated a competitive and parallel effort of their own. The previous experience of the Ucureña peasants allowed them to understand the limits of controlled unionization, at a key moment in their struggle against the landlord’s power. The Ucureños decided to lead a radical political project that destabilized the regime’s attempt to balance the interests of both landlords and peasants. The political initiative of the Ucureña peasant union provoked a confrontation between its “agrarian revolution” (a peasant-union-controlled land distribution) project and the official “agrarian reform” (a state-controlled land distribution) project. In the altiplano, the MNR’s right-wing officials ostensibly monitored and mitigated the peasant unions. In the valleys, there was a lasting and deep confrontation between the Ucureña unionists and the MNR officials.
Meanwhile, in the Valle Bajo, another, different political process unfolded. Sinforoso Rivas, a former mining unionist, began procedures with the MAC and the COB, which allowed him to organize and found the FSTCC in the town of Sipe Sipe on 6 August 1952.21 The emergence of this new peasant organization put the MNR’s right-wing sector on alert. News about “communist agitation” in the rural areas circulated widely and—within this rhetorical context—a fight broke out between the Cochabamba prefecture and the MAC. Both the prefecture and the MAC were seeking to create their own institutional networks and thus control the peasant movement.22
Simultaneously, the Catholic Church consolidated the Catholic agrarian unions that had also formed in the Valle Bajo. These unions gathered groups of piqueros (smallholders) together, behind the demand that the monopoly on irrigation water held by the hacendados should be broken up. The Catholic agrarian unions gathered the “smallholders of the regions of El Paso, Tiquipaya, Cuatro Esquinas, Rumi Mayu, and Coña Coña … whose institutional statutes were approved in 1945.”23 In the Valle Bajo, landowner’s holdings were highly divided, but the piqueros depended upon monopolized irrigation water, which was still controlled by the former estate owners.24 These progressive Catholic ideas originated from anticommunist doctrines associating peasant rebellion with the stark economic disparities prevalent in Latin America. Some members of the landowning elite assimilated these ideas into their own political ideologies, aiming to procure social change without imperiling their interests. The Catholic Church came to formulate its own doctrine in regard to rural justice, culminating in the Congreso Rural de Manizales (Colombia), held in January 1953. At the congress, the Catholic Church recommended that its members assume active roles in social change so as to prevent the spread of communism.25
The MNR’s left-wing sector, for its part, practiced its own political strategy through the MAC. The strategy consisted of: first, upholding the legal disposition that abolished pongueaje in the haciendas, aiming for the adoption of a cooperative system to manage agrarian enterprises; second, it supported the process of peasant unionization and implemented the process of rural education reform, which passed into the hands of the MAC; and, finally, the MNR’s left wing did not believe that the peasantry could be a social actor capable of autonomously inserting itself in the political arena, due to the foundational Marxist conceptualization of the peasant as an “inherently politically unconscious” agent in all cases. Accordingly, the minister of peasant affairs, Ñuflo Chávez, asserted in one of his first official statements: “Peasant unionization ought to come after a period of preparations of the Indian and once he really has class consciousness, but the fact that two important national peasant organizations already exist confirms the need for respect of that union organization which will be maintained by my ministry.”26
The minister’s reference to the leading government created and sanctioned peasant unions and the overall message of his speech reflects his then limited enthusiasm for grassroots peasant organizations. This attitude, coming from a prominent MNR left-wing official, begs the question: would the organization of peasant unions have ever moved beyond the stage of theoretical discussion if the peasants themselves had not already organized autonomously, thus forcing the MNR’s hand? Ñuflo Chávez was a top leader and founder of the MNR. Like many other prominent members of the party, he was born into an urban elite family, in this case of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. After working as a lawyer and university professor, he was appointed minister of agriculture and peasant affairs in 1952 (until 1955) and became head of the mining and oil ministry beginning in 1960. He was elected vice-president of Bolivia in 1956, but resigned one year later due to differences with President Hernán Siles Zuazo. Ideologically inclined towards Marxism, he was influenced by the principles of the PIR. Chávez advised Fidel Castro on agrarian reform issues and was a close friend of Juan Lechín (see figure 2.1).
The MAC’s principal task, until the new agrarian reform plan was formulated, was to uphold the 15 May 1945 decree that abolished servitude in the landed estates.27 The minister’s position was framed in an ideological context that perceived the “agrarian question” as under the aegis of three sources of inspiration: classical political economy, Marxism, and Indigenism. As posited by Ñuflo Chávez: “On the basis of the theories of Ricardo, Malthus, and other creators of Political Economy, and passing through the modern presenters of the subject, the need to destroy minute holdings (minifundios), which actually exist in our countryside, is imperious, so as to give space for the employment of modern agricultural machinery.”28 The left-wing line of the MNR was not directed toward the consolidation of the peasant economy but rather towards the development of agribusiness, and its concomitant use of high-modern technology. Its primary aim, therefore, was not land redistribution, but the transformation of the relations of production through the abolition of servitude in the haciendas and the adaptation of both haciendas and indigenous communities into a single, cooperative production system. The minister Chávez explained this position clearly:
We will promote the outlawing of pongueaje and to that end we have given the first steps on writing out collective work contracts with some landlords. … The organization of a new system of agrarian labor will be developed on the basis of the existing indigenous communities so as to carry out their collectivization. … The reform will transform the labor tenant of the hacienda into a participating member in the exploitation of land and, on the other hand, the peasant laborer will be subject to a wage. … Private property will be respected in so far as it carries out a social function.29
According to Sándor John, Ñuflo Chávez’s position on land distribution was similar to Arturo Urquidi’s. Urquidi was the PIR’s chief ideologue and their representative to the agrarian reform commission. Essentially, the PIR and Urquidi believed the best way to proceed with agrarian reform was: “respecting the productive latifundia, dissolving the communities, and turning the land over to the peasants individually.”30 However, the evidence presented above partially contradicts John’s assertion; although Chávez had vowed to preserve large estates intact and to transform them into agrarian cooperatives, he was not in favor of dissolving communities nor distributing land individually.
Advised by United Nations’ technicians, the MAC tried to apply its agrarian policies from the top-down, thus usurping the power of the landlords. The confrontation reached a critical point when Ñuflo Chávez declared: “the Indian is the only one who produces foodstuffs for the people while landlords live comfortably in the cities,” provoking a vocal reaction from the FRC.31 At this point, Ñuflo Chávez found himself attacked by both political extremes. From one side, he was the target of conservative landlords who were unable to understand his modernizing effort and characterized him as “irresponsible.”32 From the other side, he was criticized by radical sectors of the left for allegedly representing the interests of the landlords. Thus, the POR activists proposed a plan to have him removed from the government cabinet (together with the other two worker-ministers) and replaced with POR sympathizers. In a high-pitched meeting of the COB, which was described in the press as the “most agitated” COB meeting yet, the POR requested Chavez’s resignation because of the “minister of peasant affairs’ inefficiency in stopping the gamonales’ (powerful persons) abuses against the peasants. … A majority vote ratified Ñuflo Chávez’s permanence in the cabinet.”33
However, the response of peasants to the newly powerful radical left, forced Chávez to change his position on agrarian property, giving more open support to the interests of both peasants and workers. In the speech he made during a peasant meeting in the city of Cochabamba, he pointed out “a part of the private properties will be divided among the Indians, and the large estates (latifundia) will be given to the mineworkers.”34 As will be further discussed in chapter three, these land distribution strategies were finally implemented in 1954, through the creation of mixed peasant-miner agrarian cooperatives. These cooperatives benefited groups of mineworkers—who were considered to be the proletarian revolutionary vanguard—and were disadvantageous to the peasants, who were seen as a subsidiary social class. As a consequence, in the initial period after the revolution, not only did the peasants have to confront the interests of the landlords to gain access to hacienda lands, but they also had to overcome the MNR’s political bias, which denied their right to autonomously participate in politics.
Peasant Movements Disrupt Cochabamba Politics
When the MNR revolutionaries started to figure out how peasant unions ought to be organized, the Valle Alto peasantry in Cochabamba already had nearly two decades’ worth of experience on the matter. The Ana Rancho colonos of Cliza had first organized their agrarian union and met with President Toro in 1936, for the purpose of collectively leasing the land of the Santa Clara hacienda. The Ucureña peasant union had been founded in 1941, with the aim of organizing a school center in the area (see map 1.3 and chapter one). Therefore, in the early months after the upheaval of April 1952, Ucureña was at the center of attention for both the MNR’s left- and right-wing factions, as both attempted to put the emergent peasant union there under their political sway.
Although they were initially contending from an asymmetrical position, the Ucureña peasants soon learned how to negotiate with the PIR, the POR, and the MNR urban intellectuals and political activists. Through these negotiations, the Ucureña peasants built a powerful network that connected their rural interests to urban social, political, and economic interests. In the late 1940s—when political mobilization in the countryside intensified—POR activists radicalized the Ucureña peasant’s cadre. In the early revolutionary period, calls for land confiscation spread from Ucureña to the rural area, provoking a reaction from both the landlords and the MNR authorities. The origin and the political consequences of the Ucureña peasants’ radical demands will be analyzed below.
In June 1952, the Ucureña peasant cadre met with President Víctor Paz in the government palace, as a result of lobbying by the Cochabamba prefect and the MNR’s right wing. At the gathering, the peasants greeted the president with a barrel of chicha (maize beer) and young pigeons, a symbolic act and ritual the peasants had always used when renewing their alliances with their patrones (landlords). In a speech, a peasant leader explained to the president: “We want you to help yourself to a glass of chicha from Cliza in the company of the comrade ministers, to feel the strength it has and take note of it, to compare it with the strength of the working people of Cochabamba to keep in power forever our comrade Víctor Paz Estenssoro, boss and father of all Bolivian workers.”35 The symbolic vitality of chicha thus penetrated the citadel of power in Bolivia, significant because the Cliza peasants overturned the urban-liberal principle which had—throughout the first-half of the twentieth century—attempted to exclude the traditional Andean drink from urban contexts and suppress it in decent circles.36 This symbolic appropriation of power-space by the peasants, however, was still produced within a frame of mutually asymmetric relations of domination and subordination, in which the condescending attitudes of the urban elite defined the outlines of the ritual interaction. The peasant’s petitions to the president remained circumscribed by their local conflicts and therefore had limited political reach. In fact, six of their eight demands revolved around conflicts with the Santa Clara hacienda owners. In their two remaining points, they asked for the establishment of an office of peasant affairs in the city of Cochabamba and that peasant farms be eligible for investment credit by the Bolivian agrarian bank.
The prefect of Cochabamba, having demonstrated control of the incipient regional peasant movement, moved to confront the regional landowners. Although dissident groups existed, the FRC was dominated by people of a conservative tendency that had never given up hope of returning to the pre-revolutionary status quo. The FRC’s directors asked for a hearing with the prefect and also issued a petition list.37 According to the landlords, the Bolivian state was the only responsible party for the economic and social crisis because of its exclusive support for the mining sector and its neglect of the agrarian industry. They suggested that the indigenous people must first be educated and then, later, be incorporated into the nation, and that a law should be promulgated regulating the relationship between landlords and peasants. They demanded the creation of a rural police force that would keep watch over the countryside, in addition to a specialized office in charge of investigating affairs related to peasant agitation, “in agreement with the brilliant initiative of the Cochabamba prefect that allowed for the repression of the agitators without violence.”38 In his reply, the prefect urged the landlords to reflect on current social problems for, “you [landowners] cannot continue to consider the peasants an inferior social class that ought to bear suffering and humiliating treatment.” Nevertheless, he ratified this agreement with the landlords’ petition, asserting: “a sort of rural police will function—the agrarian department—which will be organized shortly to exclusively handle any peasant affairs and measures will also be taken against the rural agitators.”39 From the perspective of the MNR’s right wing, therefore, the office of peasant affairs and the agrarian courts—both designed by the MAC to defend peasant interests—should rather function as repressive units aimed to control peasant unrest.
The first incident that frustrated the idyllic relationship between peasants and landlords modeled by the MNR’s right wing was the creation of the FSTCC on 6 August 1952. From the moment that it was founded, the FSTCC began a campaign against the landlords and local authorities, based on public criticism of their retrograde political attitudes.40 The FSTCC’s campaign provoked the opposition of landlords and the prefect to its leader Sinforoso Rivas, both accused him of collecting money fraudulently (ramas) among the peasants.41 What worried the prefect was not only the FSTCC’s links to the COB and the MNR’s left wing, but also that the FSTCC was beginning to weave its own networks of influence with government authorities and grassroots peasants’ unions, essentially passing over the party’s right-wing apparatus.42 The prefect decided to sideline Rivas politically by questioning the FSTCC’s legality and asserting that the Valle Alto’s peasant unions had not participated in the founding of the FSTCC. The prefect demanded that peasants proceed with the election of a new board of directors. In a second election held on 1 October 1952, Rivas was re-elected as head of the FSTCC. Although the prefect did manage to infiltrate the committee with a few political agents, his maneuver ultimately legitimized Rivas’s leadership by allowing him to be elected twice as head of the FSTCC (see figure 2.2).
By the end of 1952, regional power relations had changed substantially, as the peasants had indeed superseded their expectations concerning the abolition of servitude in the haciendas. Peasant interest began to be focused on land distribution instead, effectively putting aside the discussion of labor conflicts. Peasant mobilization had effectively and dramatically overturned the regional balance of power. Landlords suddenly found themselves asking for the support of the authorities to make the peasants comply with the dispositions of the 15 May 1945 decree, which just a few months beforehand, the landlords themselves had been unwilling to accept. Unionization and peasant radicalization had vigorously emerged and regional authorities were unable to control the situation.
The goals of both peasant leaders and MNR activists coincided in their radical demands for land distribution (see figure 2.3). This was the case of José Rojas (the Ucureña leader) who allied with Emilio Chacón and Carlos Montaño (two infiltrated POR agents working under the prefect) to incite the peasants to act radically against the landlords by authorizing a de facto occupation of hacienda lands.43 The Valle Alto peasant leaders set up their headquarters in Ucureña and were influenced by the POR’s calls for radicalizing the peasant movement. For instance, the owner of El Choro (Ayopaya) hacienda denounced them: “[Carlos] Montaño and [Emilio] Chacón ordered the elimination of wire fences, authorizing the labor tenants to occupy that sector with their cattle.”44 In the Huatuyu (Punata) hacienda, both activists (Chacón and Montaño) distributed pegujales in the estate’s demesne to the labor tenants.45 Thus, peasant demands began to focus on the occupation of land and on the need for the peasants to arm themselves to confront the possibility of violence with the politically reactionary sectors. The Mizque subprefect denounced Emilio Chacón as having collected 200 Bolivianos per person for the processing of the distribution of land and for the acquisition of weapons.46
In the context of peasant radicalization and political instability in the region, a violent peasant rebellion broke out in Colomi on 6 November 1952. This rebellion had a profound impact on urban political consciousness in Cochabamba, because of both the magnitude of the uprising, which mobilized more than 2,000 peasants, and Colomi’s proximity to Cochabamba city (see map 1.2). For the first time after the revolution, Cochabamba city dwellers realized how fragile their situation really was; that they were besieged by an outside world that had suddenly turned incomprehensible and threatening. Days before the uprising, news arrived from the Colomi police informing the prefect about the presence of unionists in the area, mobilizing the peasantry. The police identified Mario Montenegro and Carlos Montaño as the main agitators in Colomi.47 When the rebellion erupted, the prefect traveled to Colomi to try to calm the peasants. Meanwhile, the FRC held emergency meetings with the district attorney, who sent the prefect a letter stating the landlords’ concerns and requesting that armed forces be dispatched to Colomi to repress the movement and capture the ringleaders to bring them to summary trial.48 The district attorney instructed the local prosecutor (fiscal de partido) to travel to Colomi to verify the truth of what had happened.49 The district attorney put into practice a well-worn strategy of the landlords, which was to seek support from alternative, more sympathetic jurisdictions that claimed overlapping authority, and thus reclaim a degree of power and leverage over the peasants, without engaging with the official power networks of the prefecture and MAC. The peasants, through the FSTCC, criticized the justice department’s interference in peasant affairs, asserting: “it is the landlords who are sowing discord in the countryside and making use of bad authorities and reactionary elements such as the district attorney.”50 The ability of the justice department to interfere in peasant issues would be finally blocked when peasant labor courts were created on 28 November 1952.
The local prosecutor verified the damages inflicted on nine haciendas in Colomi, noting broken entry gates and destroyed furniture. In his report, the prosecutor attributed responsibility for the acts to “irresponsible and undercover ringleaders,” and suggested a need to organize a “mobile rural police force that would guarantee the landlords and labor tenants’ tranquility, avoiding the peasant dictatorship that dares to act as the vanguard of communist materialism.”51 Unsurprisingly, the peasants’ interpretation of the event contrasted with the official version. One of the peasant leaders, Ángel María Herbas, was a colono from the Illuri hacienda. According to Herbas, some unionists spread a rumour that a coup had broken out in La Paz. It was from La Paz, Herbas asserted, that groups of people supported by the rosca (clique) were marching towards some peasant communities, with the aim of eliminating the comunario population. Facing this situation, Herbas declared: “all of the Illuri and other estates’ colonos in the Colomi province decided to search the haciendas to seize arms.”52 Certainly, there were other more fundamental motivating factors that led to the uprising. The owner of Illuri had refused to set up a school on the hacienda and threatened to kill Herbas. The local mayor (corregidor) gave protection to his brother, who had wounded a peasant some days earlier. Nevertheless, Herbas’ ability to translate the events into political terms became evident when he legitimized the movement, claiming the uprising was in defense of the revolutionary regime. Herbas craftily declared to the press: “when comrade president [Víctor Paz] came to Punata on September 14, he offered us many things and for that reason we will die defending him.”53
The Colomi revolt signalled a qualitative leap forward for the peasant movement, leading it towards a wider political strategy, and, crucially, a degree of peasant political self-determination. Even though political activists certainly fertilized the roots of the uprising, the peasant cadre in Colomi realized that they were capable of leading and controlling their own political actions. The Colomi event also shifted perceptions of both the left and right wings of the MNR as to the nature of their relationships with the peasant movement. On the one side, the right-wing sector called for a revision of the political control system to “put an end to the activities of communist agitators.”54 Right-wing politicians drafted a project for organizing a confederation of the indigenous vanguard of the MNR, which would aim at “uniting the indigenous population in a common political idea.”55 On the other side, the COB created a secretariat of peasant affairs, which then incorporated the minister Ñuflo Chávez as a delegate to the FSTCC.56
Peasant leaders took advantage of the movement’s momentum to propose a new basis for their political relations. In a series of joint meetings between the FSTCC and the COB, presided over by Sinforoso Rivas and Juan Lechín, the peasants addressed a list of radical demands to the government. The peasants requested that the government organize a committee for the agrarian revolution, which would study rural property relations. Additionally, they demanded that the sale of hacienda lands should be forbidden while the agrarian revolution took place, and that the government should arm the peasants to form a union police force and assure them in this way that the march of the national revolution continued on.57 The main peasant leaders of both of the MNR sectors signed the document, dispensing a tempest of profound discomfort over the landlords. For the first time, the peasants had proposed a public debate on the topic of landed property. According to the landlords, peasant demands “placed the landlords in a second-class category, denying them the ability to pursue action for the benefit of their interests and denying them the place of the principal party within the reigning property law.”58
As discussed in chapter one, the Cliza peasantry had a long tradition of fighting for their rights, beginning with their struggles in the 1930s. The Cliza peasants were not alone, however, when struggling against the powerful valley landlords. Peasants from other major haciendas had also negotiated better labor conditions and access to land with their landowners previous to, and after, the 1952 revolution. Conflict preceded the revolution in three haciendas: Vacas (Arani), which belonged to the Cochabamba municipality; Convento (Capinota), which initially belonged to the Augustine order and was later acquired by the workers’ Caja de Seguro y Ahorro Obrero (Worker’s Insurance and Savings Fund); and Santa Clara (Cliza), which belonged to the female Catholic order of the same name (see map 1.3). These three haciendas were public or ecclesiastical property, so peasants’ demands did not affect private landlords’ interests directly. However, the tactics employed and the results obtained by peasants, when they acted in their own interests, proved useful for the peasant movement in propelling the process of occupation of private lands which would follow the 1952 revolution.
In the Vacas hacienda, peasants persuaded the government to grant them recognition as the municipal land tenants through a decree issued on 22 January 1937.59 Afterwards, peasants fought to avoid rent increases that the municipality demanded at the end of every rental period. In 1937, the annual rent paid by the Vacas colonos was Bs. 50,000, which was double the amount previous tenants had paid. From 1938 to 1940, the rent was tripled to Bs. 150,000. From 1941 to 1942, the rent was raised again to Bs. 600,000.60 After April 1952, the government’s promise of agrarian reform and the municipality’s attempts to increase the rent, left the peasants cherishing the idea of owning their own land. The MAC perceived in the Vacas experience a tangible possibility for converting a peasant community into a production cooperative. With this in mind, the MAC proposed that the state should buy the municipal land. The peasants, for their part, offered the municipality an annual rent of nearly two million Bolivianos, but once the proposal was accepted, they put off signing the contract. In other words, the peasants thus presaged the events which would soon occur, while keeping their social leverage and power strategically latent and flexible. The hacienda administrators complained: “the Vacas indigenous industrialists offered to pay one million eight hundred thousand Bolivianos per year, a promise which has not been fulfilled to date, for, in a suspicious manner, the supposed tenants did not present themselves to comply with the legal formalities.”61
In the Convento hacienda, the administrators faced the organized resistance of one hundred and eighty colonos plus eighty arrimantes or subtenants, who worked for the worker’s insurance and savings fund.62 The peasant’s aim involved the estate’s administrators, as they accused them of perpetuating servitude in the hacienda. The conflict reached a climax when the Santivañez agrarian union decided to concede a three-day period for the head administrator and his subordinate employees to leave the hacienda. The Los Tiempos newspaper reported: “last Tuesday night, hundreds of indigenous people, carrying torches, set off to besiege the Convento estate. … The estate’s administrator and the subordinate personnel had no choice but to flee precipitously to this city [Cochabamba] leaving that property uninhabited.”63
In the Santa Clara hacienda, where the peasants’ struggle had gone on since the 1930s and intensified after April 1952, peasants decided to confront the local landowners’ power once and for all. Walter Revuelta, the Cliza subprefect, and Simón Aguilar, one of the hacienda’s labor tenants, were both MNR militants and acted as liaisons with the party and the government. In the months after the revolution, the hacienda remained in constant turmoil.64 In mid-November 1952, some six thousand peasants surrounded the town of Cliza, threatening to invade the town in search of landlords, several of whom they had sentenced to death.65 The peasants issued three demands: the return of evicted colonos to their plots in hacienda lands; government support for union activists; and, the expulsion of all mayordomos (hacienda administrators). José Rojas, the Ucureña leader, explained to the journalists:
That he [Rojas] had six thousand men in military distribution, in such a way that, while two thousand occupied the strategic points to the north of Cliza, another two thousand were deployed in the plains to the south; one thousand blocked all the roads giving access to the province and the rest were dedicated to capturing the landlords in order to put them to death. José Rojas said that the death sentence had been given to the landowners Ramón Ledezma, Washington Arandia, Roberto Angulo, Justo Balderrama, and Bernardina Ledezma, for having committed despicable abuses against the indigenous population.66
The threat of the peasant forces provoked panic in the town of Cliza. The Cochabamba prefect immediately traveled to Ucureña with a committee of regional authorities, but “as soon as they recognized the prefectural car, the peasants let off their firearms and the hoarse braying of thousands of pututus (horns) split the air with dismal predictions. This was the greeting for the department’s highest authority.”67 The prefect met with Ucureña leaders to gather their demands and afterwards made a speech combining both a paternalistic and an authoritarian tone:
I would like a mass meeting like this to take place in defense of the regime, but you tell me that its purpose is uprising. You damage the government with these acts, the same government which supports you. … The prison is the place where criminals end up and not [the place] where you may end up committing crimes against property and against persons.68
The authorities asked for a three-day truce before they proposed a solution to the demands of the peasants, but the leaders did not accept the truce proposal. Instead, they informed the prefect that if the landlords denied the immediate return of their pegujales (plots of land) to expelled labor tenants, they would not be responsible for what might happen. Faced with such pressure, the prefect had no alternative except to address to the landlords a written order demanding the immediate return of the pegujales to the peasants who had been thrown off their estates. The prefect covered his back by stating that he had issued the warrant to the landowners for the provision of public order in the province, which was in danger of being disturbed due to the peasants’ demands.69 This was José Rojas and the Ucureña peasant union’s first great victory, hoisting them to the front of the vanguard of the regional peasant movement. It also placed Cochabamba’s Valle Alto at the epicenter of the revolution’s geography, fostering the outgrowth of a deep hatred for the Ucureños in the Cochabamba prefecture office and the hearts of many of the MNR’s right-wing politicians.
The Ucureña leaders, however, did not restrict themselves to heading the peasant’s social demands, but also decided to take on other political initiatives. They chose to widen their political influence by organizing the Central Sindical Campesina del Valle (Valley Peasant Union Central), encompassing twenty-four unions from the Arani, Punata, Cliza, and Tarata provinces (see map 1.2). This territory was, at that moment, under the Ucureña peasants’ direct political control.70 The Ucureña leaders’ initiative of expanding their political condition to that of a peasant central union aimed to strengthen their power in relation to the town of Cliza. According to the MNR’s command hierarchies, in each province there should be just one peasant central union located in the provincial capital, which Cliza town was in this case. Thus, the Ucureña union leaders initially fought to obtain the “peasant central” category to prevent Cliza town’s empowerment in the Valle Alto. Later, when its influence had expanded to seven Valle Alto provinces, the Ucureña leaders fought to obtain the “special federation” category to balance the FSTCC’s power (which was based on seven Valle Bajo provinces), challenging the rule that each department should have only one peasant federation.
The Ucureña cadre sought, moreover, to command the regional peasant movement from the Valle Alto by practicing more radical political actions than those of the Valle Bajo leaders. That is the reason why the Ucureña leadership escaped the MNR’s control schemes, alarming the government, the landlords, and even the FSTCC. Thus, to counteract the thrust of Ucureña, the government supported the foundation of Catholic agrarian unions in the Valle Bajo. In late November 1952, the prefect and the FSTCC’s executive secretary attended the swearing-in of the Tiquipaya and El Paso Catholic unions’ committees and recognized Francisco Vargas as their main leader. Catholic unions were organized by activists who preached anti-communism and non-violence. Francisco Vargas was a leader in Montesillo, Chapisirca, and Altamachi in the Valle Bajo highlands. He was a labor tenant at the Salamanca family estates, attended the indigenous congress in 1945 and was persecuted by the government the six years following this (sexenio) for being a militant of the MNR.71 By the end of 1952, the Valle Alto and Valle Bajo exemplified, respectively, a radical and a revolutionary ideology, but both held great influence in regional politics. This influence became apparent when the government organized a departmental meeting of peasants in Cochabamba in late December 1952. Two similar meetings were to be planned: the first in Cochabamba city (with the attendance of the Valle Bajo peasant cadre) and the second, the day after, in Ucureña (with the attendance of the Valle Alto peasant cadre). The government delegation, headed by the minister of foreign affairs, Walter Guevara, attended both meetings. In each of them, the minister shared the podium with the respective local peasant leaders and, remarkably enough, the content and tone of the speeches followed divergent paths in the different locations. In Cochabamba city attention was focused on social issues, meanwhile in Ucureña it was focused on political issues.72
Radical Peasant Revolutionaries in the Valley
The year 1953 was one of intense political activity in Cochabamba. The conflict between peasants and landlords came to a climax on 2 August 1953, when the agrarian reform decree was signed in Ucureña. A few months later, on 9 November 1953, Cochabamba became the epicenter of the most serious attempt of the oligarchy to abort the revolution using a coup d’état. Political maneuvers and plotting in Cochabamba began early in the year: on 2 January 1953, a meeting was held at the FSTCC’s office—known as Las Palmeras—chaired by the minister of mines and top COB leader, Juan Lechín. A group of peasant leaders, who had arrived from the Valle Alto, accused Sinforoso Rivas of embezzling union funds and of cutting deals with the landlords. Without further discussion, the dissidents asked for the immediate election of a new FSTCC committee. Despite the protest of those in attendance, Lechín authorized the new election and swore in those elected—Emilio Chacón, Carlos Montaño, José Rojas, Modesto Sejas, Andrés Arispe, Crisóstomo Inturias, and Encarnación Colque—many of whom were well known POR militants.73 Why did Lechín betray his old ally Sinforoso Rivas by replacing him with POR militants in the FSTCC committee? Probably because Lechín knew that the MNR’s right wing was, at that moment, plotting an internal coup, which indeed broke out on 6 January. The aim of the coup was to remove left-wing elements from the cabinet of Víctor Paz, so Lechín needed radical allies who would defend him.74 Once the coup had been quelled, the left reacted by demanding a larger share of power and the redirection of the revolution towards socialist aims.75
Modesto Sejas—a POR activist directly working with peasant leaders in Ucureña during this time—recalled in an interview by Sándor John that in the FSTCC meeting in January 1953, “we [the POR activists] argued with Lechín for two days, and we defeated him. We argued for the agrarian revolution and he argued for agrarian reform, the MNR’s position.” According to Sejas, from the POR peasant activists’ perspective, the agrarian revolution meant socialization of the land. Essentially, the estates’ lands “would pass directly into the hands of the [peasant] union as collective or cooperative property. … [The peasants] understood just fine.”76 The degree to which collective property as a goal, or ideal, was the conscious aim of the Valle Alto peasants and the degree to which it was simply a pipe dream of radical activists in the area, cannot yet be determined. Valley peasants were divided in the issue of organizing agrarian cooperatives. The Valle Bajo peasants reluctantly allowed for the creation of agrarian cooperatives in 1954, which eventually failed. Meanwhile, the Valle Alto peasants opposed the implementation of any kind of agrarian cooperatives in its territory. Whatever the case, the uncertainty concerning the direction of the revolution continued for some weeks until the MNR’s sixth convention finally decided, in February 1953, that the route would be that of revolutionary nationalism.77
Within this short period of time, different alliances and ruptures occurred amongst the peasant leaders, the POR, and the MNR politicians in Cochabamba. This tension specified the character of peasant-government relations, because the ideological divide between the Valle Alto and the Valle Bajo became further polarized as a result of the radicalization of the FSTCC’s new leadership under the POR command. On the one hand, the Ucureña peasant central spread radical policies which aimed at the expulsion of the landlords and the free distribution of hacienda lands under the slogan of an “agrarian revolution.” On the other hand, the moderate political front developed in the Quillacollo peasant central—which identified itself with the aims of the official “agrarian reform”—was now in peril due to the POR activists’ infiltration of the FSTCC’s committee.78
According to John, POR activists were so influential and numerous in the rural area in that time that “the POR became a mass party in Cochabamba. It opened two headquarters in the city of Cochabamba and one in Ucureña, each guarded by armed members.” However, from the POR Central Committee’s perspective “peasant mobilization in Cochabamba was too radical, ran contrary to a nation-wide downturn in labor activism, and was out of line with national party positions.”79 The POR’s Cochabamba Regional Committee went even further, declaring that: “the Cochabamba peasant movement is disproportionately advanced in relation to the rest of the country and in relation to the worker’s movement as such. … ‘Occupy the land,’ while still correct, cannot be carried out under present conditions.”80 Why were the POR party leaders against the grassroots peasant movement in Ucureña and why did they label it as too radical? The POR leadership was looking for an alliance with the left wing of the MNR, and both were hostile to the “uncontrolled” peasant mobilization in Cochabamba. Thus, the policy of entrismo or collaboration of the POR leaders with the MNR must be considered, in order to understand political maneuvering of politicians, peasant leaders, and activists in Cochabamba during this period.
Ucureña leaders’ strategy consisted of transferring political power to the grassroots unions, thus ignoring the established authorities. Grassroots peasant leaders and activists created localized areas of agitation to achieve their aims; they often travelled preaching disobedience towards the landlords, fomented land invasions, and promoted a refusal to recognize outside authorities. Such was the case of Pojo, where a labor inspector traveled to assess the complaints concerning a peasant attack on that town (see map 1.2). The inspector reported: “The town [of Pojo] is relatively calm. The inhabitants are evacuating it for fear of a new attack. … The peasants are spreading rumors that they have authorization from the comrade minister Lechín to continue attacking the haciendas.”81 A few days later, the same agrarian inspector returned to the town of Pojo, where peasant provocations had not ceased, but this time the news was more alarming. The inspector informed the prefect:
In Pojo I gave orders to notify two peasant representatives from each property to present themselves at 14:00; they did not obey this order and rather sent messages that all the authorities in the department were supporters of the rosqueros (oligarchy), as well as the president Don Víctor Paz Estenssoro. They indicated that that was the slogan taught by the members of the peasant federation, who were there a few days before the first inspection I carried out, who are Emilio Chacón and José Rojas of Ucureña, whom left instructions to attack all the landowners with weapons, to make rivers of blood run through the streets of the town, and share out the land. They told the peasants that they would only listen to them, not to other people who had nothing to do with the federation, because they were the only authentic authorities for them … the peasants also said that they would sell the landowners’ cattle to buy arms and defend the agrarian revolution.82
In other words, the message from the Ucureña leaders to the peasantry was that of disobedience to the authorities, including President Víctor Paz himself. Ucureños, instead, reaffirmed that their absolute loyalty was to the peasant unions. José Rojas—the Ucureña leader—was personally involved in the task of spreading the message and mobilizing the peasantry. That is the reason why Rojas was identified as the main target for political repression by both the left and right wings of the MNR.
However, in Ucureña itself the situation was no less chaotic. The creation of the Central Sindical Campesina del Valle had strengthened union power against the landlords, and the local peasant leaders had made full use of it. Such was the case of Carlos Linera Pareja, who tried to sell some plots of his hacienda land in Cliza. The Ucureña peasant center notified him that the plots in question fell in the category of pegujales, where peasants had made improvements and, as such, they could not be transferred. José Rojas, as the executive secretary of the peasant central, addressed the landowner a letter stating: “this peasant centre will not recognize any sale which you may make with respect to your property and will take the appropriate measures to guarantee the possession of our comrades.”83 The landlord claimed that the alleged labor tenants had left his estate several years back, but that they now cited the previous fact that their ancestors had lived there to achieve the possession of the pegujales. Despite the landowner’s claim, the Ucureña center proceeded to give possession of the pegujales to the peasants in a violent act, which reveals the internal political conflicts between different factions of the peasantry. The prefect ordered the police to control the situation and report on the events to him. The Cliza police chief sent the prefect the following report:
On 17 January, certain disorders were produced by the peasants of Ucureña in the place known as Pérez Rancho, where the estate’s peasant leaders granted possession of their pegujales to those who had been dislodged. … In the police office, the peasant Gabriel Villarroel presented himself completely drunk and somewhat wounded from the attack the peasants of Ocureña carried out, indicating that he had been described as a rosquista (oligarchy supporter) and then they confiscated a Colt revolver from him. Afterwards they raided his house where they took from him a gun; these arms were provided by the CDM, in his capacity of belonging to the MNR vanguard. … As your authority ordered measures to be taken against all agitators. … I was obliged to dispatch three policemen with the mission of observing the events … but these policemen were discovered, and were mistreated with blows of the fist and with stones, before being shot they managed to escape.84
Both the Pojo and Cliza aforementioned cases display the deep seeded tension that arose from the radicalization of the revolution in the hands of the peasants. To control violence, the prefect requested the political influence of the ministers Juan Lechín and Ñuflo Chávez, and to that end he sent them a telegram stating: “the last days violence intensified in rural areas [due to] agitators’ instructions to the peasantry that only direct action [from] the masses could make the agrarian revolution a reality. I beg you to inform newly elected peasant leaders about the conduct they ought to follow to avoid later consequences.”85 At this critical moment, the MNR’s left-wing leaders were hesitant and timid in their response. Lechín adopted a neutral position that allowed him to maintain ambivalent pacts and alliances. He explained to the prefect that, “the solution to the problem is to replace the reactionary or infantile leaders for authentic revolutionaries who understand the reality we live in.”86 Chávez—who advocated for a sterner position—instructed the prefect to order the police to arrest agitators.87 This order for repression relieved the prefect, who promptly ordered the police to prepare a plan for the arrest of the FSTCC’s leaders.88
In the meantime, Sinforoso Rivas and his Valle Bajo cadre developed several strategies to regain control of the FSTCC. These strategies consisted of keeping up a parallel FSTCC office; exerting pressure on Ucureña through the dissemination of agent provocateurs who threatened the leaders; meeting with President Paz to ask for his direct support; and, calling elections for a new FSTCC committee on 31 January. Rivas’ supporters, however, did not wait until the proposed election date. They simply invaded the FSTCC office and swore Rivas in as the new executive secretary on 26 January. The FSTCC’s recapture garnered the support of the local authorities, who legitimized it by acknowledging that these political actions were an example of the peasants’ rejection of the POR leaders, who were labelled “traitors and communists.”89 The FSTCC’s recapture by the Rivas’ sector stunned the radical leaders, who depicted it as an assault on a legitimate committee that was sworn in “by the comrade Juan Lechín, the COB’s executive, but which has now been displaced by the MNR’s reactionary sector together with the abusive gamonales, Freemasons, and local authorities.”90 On 30 January, the police arrested a group of radical peasant leaders, unleashing a wave of repression, which started a few days before with the publication of a threatening prefectural communiqué:
It is communicated that unscrupulous elements, false propagandists of the peasantry’s redemption … are crossing the countryside attributing to themselves legal functions, deceiving the rural workers. … All the citizens who wish to collaborate are recommended to make responsible complains against those who wish to make a festival of handing out land. 91
Among the seven arrested peasant leaders were José Rojas and Carlos Montaño, and all of them were transferred to La Paz as political prisoners.92
The arrest of their leaders infuriated the Valle Alto peasants, who then invaded the city of Cochabamba, armed with clubs, iron bars, guns, and slings. The authorities tried to negotiate with them, but “about five hundred indigenous people moved to the city’s main square, while the rest scattered around the Barrio Obrero and took up a defensive position on San Miguel’s hill”93, which was the strategic point of entry to the city from the Valle Alto. The prefect invited a delegation—headed by Encarnación Colque, a POR activist—to discuss the issue in his office, but the tensions were so heated that the peasants began to attack the police barracks. Given the seriousness of the situation, the prefect managed to get a government delegation to travel to Cochabamba that same afternoon. Among the delegation were the ministers of state, Federico Fortún, of peasant affairs, Ñuflo Chávez, and of mines, Juan Lechín. In the assembly with local authorities and peasants’ representatives attended by the three ministers, Juan Lechín justified the arrests by accusing the peasant leaders of being agitators who needed to face justice. He called on peasants to return to the countryside and carry on with their work. At the end of the meeting, Lechín gave a press conference as official spokesman of the government indicating that, “what happened was that the Ucureña peasants were misinformed and for that reason they have made claims on behalf of leaders who were no more than agitators.”94
Lechín’s second betrayal of the peasants tilted the power balance in favor of the MNR’s conservative sector. The MNR’s right-wing leaders and the government officials both converged on reactionary rhetoric in response to the conflict. The prefect stated that: “the insolent and provocative attitude of the peasants has not altered the line of conduct of the established authorities, since it is known that indigenous people have always been led to these attitudes by making use of their ignorance.” The minister of state said: “with the motive of the assault provoked by extremist elements who agitate the peasantry, let it be known that the supreme government will sanction all attitudes which undermine the principle of law and order.” Finally, the ministers of mines and of peasant affairs both communicated that: “the events of today, headed by the former leaders of the union federation of peasant workers are proof of their deception to the peasantry.”95 In other words, both the left and right wings of the MNR agreed on a perception of the Ucureña leadership as naive and politically manipulable. More surprising, however, was the POR leadership’s response to its own radicalized peasant activists in the Valle Alto. The POR radicals were not only alienated by their own party, but were harassed by the MNR and some were arrested as political insurgents. Moreover, as John states, Guillermo Lora (the POR’s main leader) “recalled opposing the enrollment of ‘too many’ peasants in the Cochabamba POR. The peasants claimed to be revolutionaries, he said, but were being ‘tricky’ since all they wanted was to get some land.”96 In other words, from the POR’s perspective, the peasantry was not revolutionary enough.
The reactionary attitude of government officials was not approved by the workers’ sector, because the manipulation of the peasant union apparatus through repression could be used against the workers’ unions at any moment. Once Lechín arrived in La Paz, he denied the veracity of the joint communiqué that he had previously issued—together with the minister of peasant affairs—in Cochabamba. Instead, as the top leader of the COB, he condemned “the assaults which, at the hands of subordinate authorities, the peasant union leaders have suffered.”97 Through this cynical behavior, Lechín showed a shifty political attitude which led him to reject as a worker’s leader a decision he had earlier approved as a minister, earning the distrust of the peasants of Cochabamba. On 3 February, the government communicated to the prefect that the only peasant leaders authorized to work in the countryside were Sinforoso Rivas, Juan Chumacero, Agapito Vallejos, and Simón Aguilar. They said that José Rojas and Carlos Montaño had been freed and both had joined the MNR. The party assigned Sinforoso Rivas and Simón Aguilar the mission of controlling the political conduct of Carlos Montaño and José Rojas, respectively. All these peasant leaders in turn were under the political control of three MNR militants: Víctor Zannier, Miguel Jaldín, and N. Mercado.98
This development annoyed the prefect, for he lost authority in favor of the “Zannier group,” which led to the monopolization of control over the peasant leaders in Zannier’s hands. Nevertheless, Zannier kept his political control and President Paz named him MAC’s peasant affairs coordinator.99 Víctor Zannier’s historical character and personality are enigmatic and devious. He was a lawyer and former PIR militant, a student leader at Cochabamba university, and the founder of Cochabamba’s El Mundo (1958–64) newspaper. He was invited by Víctor Paz to work within the MNR, but later on he supported General René Barrientos’ regime.100 He participated in the plot to hand over Che Guevara’s diary microfilm, his severed hands, and his death mask to Fidel Castro, in the late 1960s. Zannier’s empowerment as the new peasant affairs coordinator certainly weakened the power of the prefecture and the CDM. The prefect reacted to the news accordingly, arguing in a communication with government authorities that, “however much optimism may come from observing the attitude of these agitators or leaders, one cannot suppose that Simón Aguilar, illiterate and subject to José Rojas, could ever control Rojas.” According to the prefect, this was simply Víctor Zannier’s hare-brained idea, and did not correspond to reality. For that reason, he asserted, the prefecture was not prepared to change its political line “at the mercy of individual suggestions.” Moreover, the prefect concluded: “I directed myself to the minister of state who should remember that the MNR cannot act in concert with Rojas and Montaño, nor with Vallejo, Chumacero or Rivas.”101
Ñuflo Chávez, the minister of peasant affairs, joined the dialogue. To explain the release of José Rojas and Carlos Montaño the minister argued: “one has to begin with the principle that these men acted unconsciously, being managed by POR leaders.” However, he warned the prefect that Zannier’s presence was due to direct instructions from the president, who ordered that he should work “as our peasant leaders’ advisor.” Ñuflo Chávez explained the principle for the new control scheme in the following way:
The lack of our own people who could control Ucureña and Colomi brings us the danger that they could become centers of uprisings provoked by the POR. On the other hand, making use of these men under the direct control of Chumacero, Rivas and Vallejos, we can neutralize the action of the agitators … until our leaders gain a reputation … and can take the place of Rojas and Montaño.102
Ñuflo Chávez also emphasized that, “this attitude has been assumed through consulting with Sinforoso Rivas and after talking to the president. We should not forget that the actual peasant situation in Cochabamba is because of the bad direction taken by the regional party leaders, who were the first to attack Rivas and his collaborators.” Therefore, the government and the MNR did not achieve direct control of the peasant unions and their leaders until the early months of 1953. The agrarian revolution project, promoted by POR peasant activists seeking to radicalize the revolution, alarmed the regime. President Paz had to intervene in peasant politics by creating his own control mechanism through the new “peasant affairs coordinator” office.
Once the FSTCC returned to Sinforoso Rivas’ hands on February 1953, the MNR put its control plans into practice by insisting on the demobilization of the peasants. To do so, they organized a mass meeting in Cochabamba city where peasants were instructed to halt their radical political actions and restricted from performing public activities. For instance, the speech by Sinforoso Rivas on that occasion stated: “conscious and nationalist peasants do not need to display knives or axes to demonstrate their support for the government and their resolution to struggle for social justice.” Rafael Saavedra, the Cochabamba mayor, acknowledged that, “the government will hand over land to the peasants but pay the legal indemnity to the owners.” Finally, the minister of agriculture, Germán Vera Tapia, emphasized that, “the government will carry out the agrarian reform but, meanwhile, we should work more and trust in it.”103
The Ucureña peasants became the target of discursive attacks by the MNR authorities, who spread anti-communist rhetoric against them: “It will be remembered that after the 21 July 1946 revolution, the indigenous population of the indicated district [Ucureña] paraded with their left fists on high.”104 Notwithstanding, the Ucureña insurgent unionists persisted in their struggle against the MNR’s control policies. The peasant struggle was strategically focused on agrarian labor rather than the political arena. For instance, once liberated from prison, José Rojas and his cadre travelled all around the Valle Alto area carrying with them a memorandum from the ministry of peasant affairs. This memorandum authorized them to instruct the peasantry that the mandatory number of working days by colonos in the haciendas were to be reduced to three days per week instead of four, as the 15 May 1945 decree mandated. Minister Ñuflo Chávez made the decision of reducing the colonos’ working days in the haciendas and it was harshly criticized by the FRC. It is clear that Ucureña peasant leaders utilized this official order to aide them in their ongoing project to mobilize the peasantry.105
Complaints from the Valle Alto landowners and peasants soon arrived at the prefecture. Colonos demanded to work only three days per week on the haciendas’ lands, “threatening an uprising on instructions from Ucureña leaders according to orders given by minister Chávez, which they say they have.”106 The owner of San Ignacio hacienda (Arani), for instance, sent a letter to the prefect explaining that Ucureña union leaders had gathered the labor tenants in the hacienda house for an assembly, which the estate’s administrators also attended.
[The leaders] José Rojas, Encarnación Colque, and Crisóstomo Inturias, had the peasants form a circle and, standing in the middle, they said: ‘With authorization from the [peasant affairs] minister we have come from Pojo to notify all the peasants of the region that they should work only three days a week. … We will be responsible for everything we say and do.’ The administrators, who handed out the printed leaflet with the MNR’s resolution expelling Rojas [from the party], made him take note of this circumstance and also read out the dispositions which indicated four days’ work per week. … Rojas and his comrades replied, saying that even if they had previously been arrested and taken to La Paz, together with N. [sic] Rivas and others, they had immediately been released by the ministers, who gave them the mission of watching out for the fulfillment of the reigning dispositions. … The administrators chose to leave the place.107
The discourse of the Ucureña unionists reconfigured the government’s repressive message to link governmental legitimacy to their revolutionary actions. Furthermore, José Rojas and his cadre continued to lead the Valle Alto peasant movement, despite the government’s attempt to stop them. With Víctor Zannier’s appointment as peasant affairs coordinator in Cochabamba in early 1953, the state apparatus’ capacity for controlling the peasantry improved notably (see figure 2.4). President Paz essentially wielded a practical political instrument that allowed him to intervene in political conflicts between party sectors and rebalance their often-opposed interests.
According to Víctor Zannier, this proved to be an important strategy because the MNR had dangerously lost control over the peasants. The politicians took a long time in realizing that the political center of gravity had moved from the cities to the countryside, and the MNR militants mistakenly tried to continue directing the revolution from their desks. Víctor Zannier stated in an interview that, before acting as peasant coordinator:
I went out to the countryside a couple of times and it was very easy to have the view that the Trotskyists were involved in the countryside. Wherever one went the debate had to be with a Trotskyite, who often had peasant origins but usually they were city dwellers who spoke Quechua. I explained this situation to the president and said to him. … I don’t know what people we will do it with, but what I see in the countryside is the POR presence, and Lechín is the man who sympathizes totally with the POR people.108
A different party policy that softened the previous satanic image of the “peasant leader”—a characterization that had been built up by the MNR’s right wing—soon came to fruition during Zannier’s term in office as peasant affairs coordinator. For the first time after the revolution, Zannier and the regional authorities began to appear in public together with armed peasant militias. For instance, in the parade commemorating the first anniversary of the revolution, as Los Tiempos newspaper described: “the indigenous population entered the main square of Cochabamba in rows of five headed by the coordinator of peasant affairs, Víctor Zannier, who marched together with the Ucureña peasant union, as did the principal official of the municipality.”109
After April 1952, peasant unions in Cochabamba began storing guns and ammunition to defend themselves and intimidate the reactionary forces, especially in the valley region. When the revolution evolved, the MNR government provided limited amounts of armament to some selected peasant unions. MNR authorities were unwilling to accept peasant militias, due to the fact that they could not entirely control the peasants’ political behavior.110 Thus, it was usually each peasant union that financed the armament and training of its militia troops. The peasant unions in the Valle Alto—like Ucureña and Cliza—hired war veterans, retired military personal and NCOs, to give military instruction to the militia troops. In the Valle Bajo—where Sinforoso Rivas organized the “Bella Vista” headquarter—the militiamen received military training with the army’s support (see map 1.2 and figure 2.5). This exceptional situation allowed young peasant recruits to fulfill their military service in the countryside instead of the military barracks.111 Although the warlike capacity of the peasant militias never allowed them to successfully confront the army, peasant militia forces proved to be lethal when fighting amongst themselves during the Champa Guerra (1959–64), in the Valle Alto (see chapter four).
The new peasant control scheme designed by the MNR, and practiced through the peasant affairs coordinator’s office, allowed for the Cochabamba’s first departmental peasant congress to be called. The peasant congress was held at the Convento hacienda (Santivañez), on 15 June 1953 (see map 1.2). The new FSTCC leaders were elected in this event; Sinforoso Rivas as executive secretary and José Rojas as general secretary. As Sinforoso Rivas recalled: “Rojas and myself, we both remained as the undisputed regional leaders. To balance our political interests, it was agreed that each of us would control seven of the fourteen Cochabamba provinces, our powers thus being defined.”112 The rest of the FSTCC portfolios were distributed between members of the party’s left and right wings, purging the POR leaders. The most prominent POR leaders—Carlos Montaño and Emilio Chacón—were exiled from Cochabamba.113 This solution clearly demonstrated the government’s intention of carrying out agrarian reform. The decrees creating the agrarian reform commission and the one nominating their members were issued on 20 January and 20 March 1953, respectively.114 What was at stake now was how far the reform should go. One group of the landlords linked to the Church’s progressive wing accepted the reform with but a few observations, but the other faction conspired to abort the process—together with the Church’s reactionary wing and the Falange Socialista Boliviana (Bolivian Socialist Phalanx, FSB). In late May 1953, the government decided that the agrarian reform decree should be signed in Ucureña on 2 August. As the moment approached, tension in the countryside increased; it was an openly known secret that the landlords were preparing a coup against the government.
On 29 June, the ministry of state’s secretary arrived in Cochabamba and, in a closed meeting, informed the prefect and the CDM that the possibility of a coup by the FSB existed. He demanded absolute discretion while waiting for new instructions from the government to be received. In spite of his demand, between 30 June and 1 July, the largest peasant armed operation to that date was carried out in Cochabamba’s countryside. In the course of this operation, peasant unions throughout the valley besieged rural towns and seized the weapons of supporters of the coup. The mobilization began on 30 June, when Cliza’s peasant central leader and MNR activist, Agapito Vallejos, contacted the Ucureña central’s leaders warning them about the coup. While, as recalled by Sinforoso Rivas: “José Rojas, Simón Aguilar, and myself, the regional peasant leaders, we all were in La Paz city in a meeting with the president to receive instructions.”115 Acting jointly, Cliza and Ucureña peasant centers’ leaders decided to arrest all FSB militants living in the town of Cliza. Among them was José Escobar, Cliza’s former subprefect, and he confirmed the conspiracy by providing the peasants with a list of people who were hiding weapons in their houses, most of whom lived in Tarata and in Vila Vila (see map 1.2). A Los Tiempos journalist reported from Cliza:
José Escobar’s statement was read out loud at the assembly, determining, as a consequence, that the peasants should go to Tarata to search the houses of the people indicated. … Agapito Vallejos, making use of the railway office’s telephone, communicated with Sacabamba and Vila Vila instructing the peasants to proceed in search of armament.116
Several hundred peasants from Cliza and Ucureña searched private houses in the town of Tarata and then returned to their bases without incident. In the afternoon, a rumor surfaced that in Huerta Mayu (Tarata) a great number of arms were concealed. The peasants decided to go back and search that zone, where they fought armed defense groups, leaving several peasants dead and wounded. In the town of Vila Vila, another group of vecinos set up a machine gun on the roof of a house, in such a way that when the peasants entered the main square, they fired on the crowd, causing many casualties. According to coordinator Zannier, among Vila Vila’s town dwellers only one person was wounded: “He [the vecino] was wounded after [the massacre in the square] by the peasants in a circumstance in which he was kicking right and left the inert bodies of the dead Indians.”117 The newspapers printed several testimonies of the tragic events in the Valle Alto, which narrated the high level of violence experienced in the confrontation between town dwellers and peasants. The fact that the political authorities of the MNR did not have any control over the situation demonstrated the weakness of the revolutionary regime. Furthermore, it became evident that the prefect of Cochabamba and the local authorities of the right-wing sector of the MNR had lost control of the peasant movement.
According to Sinforoso Rivas’ testimony, the operation of arms confiscation was planned by the leaders of the FSTCC behind the backs of Cochabamba’s political authorities. The peasants knew that the landlords had weapons hidden in their haciendas, but they did not trust the regional and local authorities, whom they saw as very close to the landlords’ interest. Thus, they selected the peasant leaders who were to take charge of the search in each area of the Valle Bajo, and some of them were commissioned to immediately travel to La Paz to inform the president (see figure 2.6). Rivas explained: “when I got back from La Paz, the operation had already begun and I started receiving reports on the searches. The haciendas of the Valle Bajo and of the highlands were searched, but all they found were old useless arms. In contrast, in the Valle Alto, they found a great number of new weapons and ammunition, just as we had foreseen.”118
The arms-search operation by peasants was a landmark of the peasant movement in Bolivia, for no subsequent peasant political activity was so independent, so highly coordinated, or so widely executed. In spite of these achievements, authorities never recognized the potential of peasant unionism. Official interpretations always looked for causes outside the domain of peasant political agency and intent. For example, peasant coordinator Víctor Zannier’s report attributed the cause of unrest to a peasant who sparked the conflict: “Agapito Vallejos acted on his own account, disobeying tacit instructions. … The FSB’s and POR’s agent-provocateurs, introducing themselves into the midst of the peasants, tried to create a climate suitable for the oligarchical counter-revolution to prosper.”119 The report by the minister of peasant affairs repeated Zannier’s arguments but conceded that in the peasant operative, “eight crates of ammunition, four submachine guns, twelve machine pistols and forty rifles were confiscated.”120 Finally, the minister of state chose to make the POR militants responsible, threatening to start a process of repression of those alleged instigators.121 Facing accusations from the MNR, the POR’s regional committee made a public declaration:
It was the peasant federation which ordered the search for arms belonging to the abusive landlords. By this way, the mobilized masses violated the control and the desire of the political leaders. [The minister of state] under pressure from some ladies and landowners, did not have the civil courage to defend the labor of his own party and has believed it convenient to unload all the responsibility on the POR.122
Although momentarily controlled, the antirevolutionary forces (even inside the MNR regime), were not discouraged. In fact, a final coup attempt was unleashed on 9 November 1953. Details regarding this unsuccessful coup to overthrow the revolutionary regime are discussed in chapter three.
Discursive Polyphony: Landlords, Peasants, and the MNR
In the first revolutionary period (1952–53), a discursive polyphony combined the voices of the landlords, peasants, and the MNR. The tools used by political actors to participate in the dialogue were diverse and led to a complex field of debate. The editorial and the commentary were the primary journalistic genres that the landowners used to mark out a field of ideological discussion, and the interlocutor between the landlords and the press was usually the state. The denunciation, for its part, was a tool that both landlords and peasants used to debate social and political aspects related to the instituted order. Finally, landlords, peasants, and politicians used the communiqué to engage a debate concerning daily political topics.
Editorials and commentaries in this initial revolutionary period proposed three positions that emanated from the landlords’ points of view. The first interpreted social contradictions as a product of a “natural” historical process in which Indians were racially inferior and possessed a sole political alternative, which was the “race war” directed toward the extermination of white people. Therefore, white people’s defense was a mandatory response in the preservation of the state’s integrity and for guaranteeing the only possible route open for the civilized development of the Bolivian nation.123 This ideological position characterized the most reactionary sector of the landlords, who stubbornly opposed any change in the landed property system, based on their racist perceptions.124 This sector put forward the proposal “to saturate the countryside with European farming families who would introduce their modern techniques and their customs, contributing to civilization by contaminating our Indians (por contagio a nuestros indios).”125 As such, the problem was not the distribution of land but rather “the retarded human types [Indians], who need to receive special treatment to be able to integrate themselves with civilization. There are reasons to believe that the Aymara groups, as much as the Quechuas, are capable of evolving, as long as an integral educational plan has been adopted to that end.”126 Moreover, revolutionary change posed a threat to the Indians because it could remove the guardianship of white landlords over them, disrupting Indian’s contact with Western civilization. As Damián Z. Rejas, a regular Los Tiempos columnist posited:
The Indian, who is originally lazy and mistrustful, when he gives personal service (pongueaje) becomes lively, is trusted by the landlord, manages his money with politeness (delicadeza) and honesty … to sum up, the Indian who gives personal service, being in contact with the landlord, becomes civilized, learns good habits, learns to enjoy relating to the townspeople; he becomes gentle, communicative and polite … thus, the so-called [agrarian] reform will do a lot of damage to the Indian.127
Moreover, this group of reactionary landlords argued that the lack of control over the Indians would lead to sloth, resulting in a catastrophic famine, “that the Indians will take advantage of to exterminate [the white population] and re-establish the Inka Empire which they are so anxious for.”128
The second ideological position of the landlords was based around the argument that the regional historical process had opened a possible solution to the Indian versus white people contradiction. This solution, which allowed hope for civilization, centered itself on the image of the “mixed blood” or mestizo. In a commentary by Octavio Salamanca—who was a member of the most important hacendado family in the Valle Bajo—he stated that the mestizos had the virtue of not thinking in terms of conflict as the Indians did. As such, the mercantile experience of the mestizos made the smallholding route possible, through the purchase of land from “its legitimate owners.”129 Facing a decline of creole power, the best solution to the land problem was to break it up and sell it out to the mestizo, who could take up smallholdings without damaging the landlords’ interests. This solution—Salamanca continued—would not be practical if the project of the Indians was imposed, since Indians did not seek the legal purchase of the land but rather its violent takeover. Salamanca’s commentary finalized by addressing a political perspective that transcended his initially ethnic oriented approach:
While the Aymara and Quechua Indians have been helped and succored and gifted with the enjoyment of land, remaining afterwards as landowners, the mestizos of the valleys who have acquired their land as property have received help from nobody. … Communism and its thugs [the Indians] pursue and impose the acquisition of land for nothing … unworked land is their aim; on the other hand, our mestizos know that property is acquired by work and not by taking it off its owners to give it to the Indians.130
Salamanca, as the spokesman of this group of landlords, was referring to the valley piqueros who strengthened their peasant economy and separated themselves from landlord control beginning in the late eighteenth century—entering into the land market a century later. The mestizo solution that the landlords proposed did not take long to vanish, when the revolutionary euphoria led the valley peasants to violently seize the estates’ lands. The virtuous mestizo in the minds of the landlords was then transformed into the noxious “union boss,” who with his pernicious preaching contaminated the spirit of those who once again reappeared as the peaceful hacienda Indians.
Daniel Mendoza—another regular columnist in Los Tiempos—commented on his own experience when attending a peasant gathering before the takeover of a valley hacienda land. He was impressed by a peasant leader’s speech to the mobilized peasantry: “An urbanized little Indian (cholito) with bulging eyes in a face of feline exasperation [made a speech]. [These leaders] were not the classic little personal servants who were kicked by their landlords; but perhaps they had atavistic memories of that sort.”131 The MNR’s right wing and its peasant cadres shared this second position of the landlords. The MNR’s right-wing politicians backed the idea of payment for the plots, which the state would hand over to the peasants through the agrarian reform. While the right leaning peasant cadres tried to justify the payment from an ethical point of view, which would legitimize the peasants’ access to land. Clearly, the mestizo project, emerging as it did from landowning circles, did not have significant weight among the valley peasants. Moreover, the ideas of a race war, or an indigenous Messiah, proceeded from the ramblings of the spokesmen of the elite, given that no oral or written evidence of valley peasant origin in that historical moment has been found to back up the thesis of a race war, or that of the return of the Inca.
The third ideological position of the landlords was more pragmatic. According to this position, which emanated from the FRC, the contradictions in the distribution of land came from the historical inefficiency of the Bolivian state. The pre-revolutionary state—the FRC asserted—failed to distribute the land equitably, but this should not have caused any conflict given that there were ample state lands. Those were the lands that the revolutionary state should have distributed to the peasants, without affecting the actual property of the landlords. This landlord’s point of view emphasized the technical aspects of the agrarian problem, sidelining any consideration of its conflictive social relations. In an FRC communiqué published in Los Tiempos, the landlord’s federation wrote:
It is not known if the present government has in mind a proposal to distribute the land among the Indians for free or through transferences with mandatory title paid over a long period of time. With either hypothesis, evolution is more practical with a public [good] than with private goods, which already have an owner and as such have already been distributed.132
When peasant pressure was so intense that the agrarian reform could no longer be delayed, this group of landlords, in conjunction with the MNR’s right wing, attempted to slow it down. They argued that it was necessary to carry out preliminary studies and to educate the peasants, as that was the only way to guarantee sustained productivity in the agrarian sector. According to another FRC communiqué:
Nobody is an enemy of the indigenous population’s legitimate claims. But any effort which is made to remove the peasants from their ignorance, their social incapacity, their servitude, their poverty, and their vices, must be the result of study and of the rigorous and scientific consideration of a many-faceted problem, such as the Indian question.133
In an interview given by the minister of public works to members of the FRC, for instance, the minister stated that “the agrarian reform will be carried out scientifically [because] this tends to create greater productivity in economic terms.” Members of the FRC replied to the minister that agreeing “to terminate the latifundio after classification and a scientific study of what should be considered as such, and that they were also in favor of the abolition of the minifundio.”134
These arguments of the right, which attacked the peasant vision by pointing to smallholdings as a technically unproductive solution, were shared by the MNR’s left-wing intellectuals. Urban leftist intellectuals and MNR militants like René Cuadros Quiroga, for instance, envisioned a socialist society, wherein the peasants would lose their autonomy and be incorporated into a mechanism of centralized rural state planning.135 The government, which initially lacked a clear plan for agrarian reform, confronted the oligarchy by debunking their two central arguments against agrarian reform: the idea that indigenous education was a prelude to the reform and the idea that the latifundio was not an exploitative regime. Ñuflo Chávez, the minister for peasant affairs, attacked these elitist points of view and this sparked a flutter of loud public polemic back and forth. In a press interview, Ñuflo Chávez pointed out his position regarding productive relations inside the latifundia units:
It is not a priority to teach the indigenous population to read and write, what is important in this moment is to rescue them from the bourgeois feudal regime and incorporate them into the Bolivian population … the landlord only presents himself when it is time to receive the money from the sale of foodstuffs produced by the Indian, he never contributes a cent to the exploitation of his property.136
The FSTCC upheld the minister’s claims, indicating that the latifundia owners were backward elements who did not invest in capital or machinery.137 The rural schoolteacher’s union, for its part, alleged that their experience gave them sufficient authority to affirm that the Indians were active producers of foodstuffs for the feeding of the people.138
Public denunciations created a different rhetorical context. Denun-ciations were frequently published in the press, putting the everyday confrontation of the respective interests of the landlord and peasant in full public display. Reality was basically inverted politically in many of them, a subversion of the perceived institutional “order of things.” The manifold representational images found in denunciations, in turn, evolved as the revolution gradually weakened the power of the landlords. In the months following 9 April 1952—when peasant actions against the landlords had just begun—the landowners denounced these transgressions of social order by disseminating an overweening discourse. The landlords’ arrogance pointed its darts against agitators, ringleaders, and public authorities, for these political agents, in their minds, were the ones who had mobilized the Indians. They were driven, in these representations, by a social or personal vendetta. For instance, a denunciation by Bernardina Ledezma, a powerful landowner in Valle Alto, was published in the press:
For some time, we farmers have been living through an era of complete terror and confusion, organized in a Machiavellian manner. [Those who provoke it are not indigenous]. … The real authors are some irresponsible authorities and many agitators, with the sinister slogan of assassinating the landowners, intimidating, and sowing terror in the communist style.139
The landlords’ political perspective was based on their confrontational experience during and immediately after the 1940s peasant rebellions in Cochabamba, as discussed in chapter one. Consequently, they blamed the agitators and the venal authorities that supported the rioters for the violence. For instance, The Llacma (Yayani) hacienda owner’s widow, Margarita C. viuda de Coca, denounced the rebel leaders as common criminals:
The event [Ayopaya haciendas’ attack in 1947] had been carefully prepared. It was not only a seizure of collective fury. Hilarión Grágeda, who went to the indigenous congress in La Paz, often traveled to that city with money that came from subscriptions (ramas) by all the indigenes. He hired the services of Muñoz (the Miner) and supplied himself with dynamite, guns, and ammunition. The premeditation was thus obvious.140
The peasants, for their part, entered the public pitch denouncing the abuses and the vicious practices of the landlords in their relations with the rural workers. To undermine the landlord’s prestige and power, the peasants detailed the exploitation they underwent in the haciendas, displaying the inhumane images of their submission to the landlords. The peasants denounced, for instance, that the landlord “obliges us to serve him four days a week, no matter if they are public holidays or if it is raining and even during the days of Holy Week. When one of the labor tenants dies, he does not want to give us permission to attend the funeral in a spirit of companionship.”141 By late 1952, however, rampant violence had replaced the peasants’ public denunciations, as they began challenging the landlord’s power by using direct violent action as their most effective discourse. The seizure of the haciendas, the search for arms in the houses of the landlords and town dwellers, and the acts of disobedience to the landlord’s orders had an explosive effect on the spirit of the landlords whose discourse took on, suddenly, tones of perplexity and surprise. Ramón Merino, a hacienda owner in Valle Alto, for instance, was so upset with the new revolutionary order that decide to publish the following denunciation:
[When the agitators arrived at the hacienda] people went past me without greeting me or taking any notice of me. I was surprised when I saw that they were carrying jars of chicha from the town of Anzaldo … when I approached the crowd, I noticed the presence of an individual obviously disguised in a red poncho who said to me: ‘I’m in charge of the union, all the obligations have come to an end, there is no service anymore.’142
The situation of the landowners and town dwellers in the countryside was uncertain, since the rural territory had become a forbidden place for non-peasants, and the traditional order no longer prevailed. The press was flooded with denunciations, like this one, published in Los Tiempos that was written by Clotilde Candia: “From four in the morning I heard constant whistles, something that had never happened [before] and dogs barking in my house and the neighbors. All this called my attention and I thought that the Indians could attack us, as was effectively the case a few hours later.”143 When landlords fled to the cities in hopes of managing their estates through their overseers or mayordomos, the peasants cut off their services and froze production in the haciendas. For instance, José Claros claimed that, “[when] some laborers I had brought from the city to work for day wages set to harvesting the wheat sown on the property … two-hundred indigenes armed with army rifles, knives, machetes and sticks pursued them over the countryside with bullets.”144 The escalation of violence, which ended with the landlords cornered in the cities, was followed by a series of public denunciations from the hacendados. The landowners described their anxiety in tones of impotence and disgust:
Uncontrollable hordes of Indians more savage than the Huns assaulted the granaries, rustled animals, cut down the woods, threatened people having lost all idea of respect, of that sacred respect of collective tranquility, of individual life, of the inhabitants’ property. … Since it seems that there is no responsibility for these wild performances (desmanes), we simply apply to your prestigious newspaper so as to inform the public of these facts and so that the authorities will perhaps decide to put an end to these attacks.145
Antonio Abasto, owner of the La Alcoholería (Tolata) hacienda in the Valle Alto, provided another denunciation regarding the treatment of the landlords. He complained to the office of peasant affairs about the removal of produce from his hacienda and obtained from it an order for its return. Thus, he presented his case to the Tolata peasant union. The peasants decided that the local union had no right to judge the affair, but rather it the trial ought to be held at the Ucureña tribunal in its central office at Cliza. When the peasants took him to Cliza that afternoon, the intendant managed to convince them that the landlord should spend the night in the local jail until the following day. Antonio Abasto complained that the next morning:
I presented myself in the peasant center [of Ucureña] which was full of people making complaints. A ‘tribunal’ of leaders was set up, which began the interrogation concerning various affairs. … I asked the head of the tribunal to get the hacienda administrator to make a statement, under oath. In answer to my request the head took the oath, ‘by Villarroel, by Busch, etc.’ [In response to the witness’ doubts] a peasant leader said to the declarer, in Quechua: ‘Since when you are with the wolf, because all the owners are wolves, you ought to be with the sheep who are the peasants. As a punishment you’ll be imprisoned with your boss (patrón).’ [After fining me] I was pushed out of the office and taken to a hacienda house, which was that of Santa Clara. There they locked me in a room which had a little skylight, under which there were some mud bricks. They ordered me to take away the mud bricks and collect the ash which lay on the floor. Placing myself in a corner of the room, I absolutely refused to do it.146
It was evident that the rural territory had been converted into a peasant dominion. In response to such a peasant attitude, the notion of transforming the city into an exclusively non-peasant territory sharpened. The idea of exclusion from the use of territory intensified in the revolutionary era, as an effect of peasant mobilization. Although urban elites had already been reordering urban and rural spaces based upon modern liberal ideological standards since the late nineteenth century, such an exclusionary mentality had never before been implemented so intensely.147 The power struggle through territorial exclusion played an important role in the collective imagination and produced hysterical behaviors when peasants or town dwellers threatened to cross borders. For example, when the decision was made to sign the agrarian reform decree in Ucureña, the problem of where to lodge the thousands of peasants in attendance arose. The residents of Cochabamba city, headed by the Comité Pro-Cochabamba (Committee for Cochabamba), refused to allow the presence of peasants within the city limits. They elaborated trivial reasons reflecting the urban dwellers’ fears and hatred towards all that was rural and external to the city itself. As a columnist in Los Tiempos wrote:
In a democratic country we can make no opposition to such a concentration [of Indians in the city of Cochabamba]. However, the following problems should be taken into account: 1. The danger which would arise if these people were to be lodged in schools and colleges which could be left contaminated by parasites; 2. The shock which their presence would cause to the [urban] inhabitants and above all to ladies and nervous people; 3. The results of such a huge meeting for the atmosphere of the city.148
Amid this toxic political environment, the landlords, peasants, and MNR politicians initiated a dialogue through the use of communiqués. The FRC, as the spokesman for the landowners’ interests, played an important role in influencing official agrarian policies. Its initial strategy, as seen above, was to blame the republican regime for the existing social contradictions. The FRC recognized President Villarroel’s supreme decree of 15 May 1945 as a valid framework for the relationship between landlords and peasants.149 Following this, the landlords (and the MNR’s right wing) described a premature image of a victorious revolution, making out that the peasants had triumphed in their demands. If the agrarian reform was to continue, the landlords asserted, its implementation should be in the hands of a group of experts who would plan it scientifically. For that reason, this was the second stage of action, which went beyond the limits of immediate revolutionary change.
Some peasant unions controlled by the MNR’s right wing shared this belief. Thus, when the valley peasants began to mobilize from their grassroots to attack the landlords’ power, the leaders of these right-wing peasant unions tried to calm the peasants’ impulses. Such was the case of the Federación Sindical Agraria Boliviana (Bolivian Federation of Agrarian Unions, FSAB), headed by Antonio Mamani Álvarez, who launched a communiqué during the Indian’s Day, celebrating the final liberation of the Bolivian Indians:
[We celebrate] the arrival of the government presided over by he who is justly called father of the indigenous population, don Gualberto Villarroel, who with an ample vision dictated the decrees which came to change the state of things, because after the promulgation of those decrees, the indigenous population had freedom. … With pride after long years of imprisonment, persecution, and exile, I greet you with a proud and serene glance because we have fulfilled our duty.150
In September 1952, when the valley peasants were in full confrontation with the landlord’s power, Antonio Mamani Álvarez returned to Cochabamba and declared:
We are nationalists, we respect private property, but we want the decree of 15 May 1945, which presently applies, to be strictly fulfilled … we want to tell our comrades that we [the peasants] are the ones who should avoid rage among our people. We also say to them, that they should respect the landlords; that if any injustice is committed against them the union will help them. They should not take private vengeance, they should not kill, they should not sack. There are laws which support the Indian and the landlord, and since we are all equal, the law is the same for all. We will not permit abuses by the landlord and neither will we abuse them.151
Antonio Mamani Álvarez (or, sometimes, Antonio Álvarez Mamani) was a multi-faceted politician from the altiplano who switched his surnames according to the indigenous or mestizo significance that he wished to present. Mamani (or Álvarez) was one of the most important highland peasant leaders of the 1940s. He spoke Quechua, Aymara, Callawaya, and Spanish, and was involved in the organization of various regional peasant congresses, mainly in La Paz.152 Although he attempted to intervene in Cochabamba valley peasant politics, he never achieved much success.153 Understandably, Mamani’s rhetoric provoked enthusiasm among the landlords, who suggested that the FRC should establish relationships with the leaders who were headed by Mamani, with the aim of putting together a plan of cooperation.154 However, Mamani’s rhetoric contradicted the goals of the peasant movement in Cochabamba. In contrast to Mamani, peasants in the valley demanded that the government set up “a commission for the agrarian revolution; that forbids the sale of estates’ lands and the eviction of smallholders; and that expropriates the latifundia and hands over arms to the peasants to ensure the onward march of the national revolution.”155
The radicalization of the peasant movement by way of “agrarian revolution” terrified the landlords. The FRC began to pressure regional authorities to take precautions “against the attitude of the agricultural unions who do not observe any rule of law, make their decisions rashly, and make public statements of not recognizing any authority.”156 The landlords argued that it was urgent to reestablish the principle of authority in the countryside and criticized the government because the idea of an “agrarian revolution” had gained so much ground relative to “agrarian reform.”157 The authorities—who feared peasant radicalism just as much as the landlords did—began a campaign of public threats against the peasant movement:
The departmental prefecture announces that it will fulfill its duty of repressing any act which tries to contravene the social order. The agitators will be arrested and handed over to justice. The security police have been instructed to detain any ringleader who is an agitator, wherever they may be found.158
This campaign, however, did not stop the peasant movement until the agrarian reform decree was signed in Ucureña amidst a climate of political tension, foreshadowing the outburst of civil confrontation.
During the first two years of the revolutionary era (1952–53), in the heat of the euphoria for unionization and the search for land ownership, the peasant movement in Cochabamba lead a grassroots mobilization of the rural population. A cohort of new leaders emerged from the rank and file of the movement and their experience was forged in a context of substantial political autonomy. The peasant movement, however, did not start with the revolution itself nor was it a consequence of it. Peasants in Cochabamba, both in the altiplano and the valley, already had a long historical experience of political dealings with non-local power centers. A novel aspect of the 1952 revolution was that it opened channels for direct peasant political participation. Once those channels were opened, everything turned upside down: a new political culture emerged and all roads to the previous status quo were blocked.
Revolutionary peasant leaders in Cochabamba fomented several resistance strategies against the landlords, the principal target of their political actions. In the struggle against the landlords, tensions with government authorities arose, but the peasants never broke with the revolutionary state’s power. The main tension between the peasants and the state originated when the Ucureña peasant center fostered its own “agrarian revolution” project (a peasant-union-controlled land distribution), instead of the official “agrarian reform” (a state-controlled land distribution) project. Radical peasant leaders in the Valle Alto—together with POR peasant activists—were politically purged with the tacit complicity of both POR and MNR urban leadership figures, who were seeking a pact of collaboration with the revolutionary regime.
The Colomi upheaval in November 1952 and the peasants’ operation to seize weapons from supporters of an anti-revolutionary coup in June 1953 were the two most important political events that were led by the peasant leadership in the valley. Both were landmark events in the peasant movement, for they were independently planned, highly coordinated, and well executed by the peasantry. The peasants fought against the ideological biases of the MNR’s left and right wings, which considered the peasants subordinate to the workers’ leadership and a proto-social class needing to be educated first before ever participating in politics. The peasants’ initiative of seizing hacienda lands shifted the regional power balance and put the landlords on the defensive. The signing of the agrarian reform decree in August 1953 and the failed antirevolutionary coup in November 1953 finally dismantled the landlord’s power in Bolivia.
The political action of peasants came together with revolutionary political discourse. During the first two revolutionary years, peasants, landlords, and MNR politicians were the main actors in the discursive arena. In newspaper’s editorials, communiqués, and denunciations, political actors fought to impose their own interpretations of the revolutionary events. The arrogant initial discourse of the landlords, depicting “Indians” as an inferior social group, shifted when peasants finally seized hacienda lands and had cornered landlords in the cities. In response to such peasant attitudes, the criterion of transforming the city into an exclusively non-peasant territory sharpened. However, social relationship between vecinos and campesinos was still perceived by the city dwellers as equivalent to a basic relationship of domination and subordination. In other words, the notion that the civilized vecinos ought to control the unruly campesinos. A seed of division was planted in the revolutionary political soil: the city versus the countryside.