When asked to elaborate upon the political relationship between valley campesinos and altiplano Kataristas (members of a highland ethnic movement) in the mid-1990s, a former revolutionary peasant leader in the Cochabamba Valle Alto discussed that situation from his past in frustration and anger:
We tried to make a deal with the Kataristas, with their group in La Paz. But they are no more than political traffickers. They don’t leave their nest; they stay in their altiplano. They think that the altiplano is everything. No, that is not true! When we met, I told them: ‘Gentlemen, forget that you are Kataristas, we are all campesinos. Why don’t we talk just one language? Aymaras, Quechuas, Guaraníes, let’s all talk a common language and organize a single political party! You have funds coming from many countries. Let’s organize a unique party!’ They didn’t accept the deal and we told them: ‘All right, then you keep going with your Katarista movement, let’s see what you will get from it. In the meantime, we will keep begging power to the politicians.’1
The valley peasant leader, it seems, was transposing his revolutionary experience in his effort to create a political party that would allow peasants to negotiate power with the elites. He did not realize that times had changed. He did not perceive that one historical cycle was slowly petering out amidst others still going or just arising. The ethnic movements of the 1990s in Bolivia did not seek to negotiate leverage with the state but instead the direct seizure of power from the elites. This old campesino leader could not foresee that ethnic movements would indeed take power in 2006 and rule Bolivia until 2019, during the Evo Morales era.
Mestizaje and Popular Resistance
The generation of revolutionary peasants in Bolivia had generally been born after the Mexican revolution (1910) and—from a broader cultural perspective—their lived experience had inscribed itself and grown alongside the modern nation-state formation process in Latin America, beginning in the early twentieth century. During this era, some progressive sectors of the elites implemented “civilizing” statist projects, in an attempt to transform traditional socio-economic structures. Elites sought to discipline the individuality of people below them in their perceived social hierarchy with the aim of constructing subjects who could be interlocutors with the modern state. The modern bureaucrats, soldiers, peasants, miners, artisans, and workers needed to become tax-paying, responsible participants in the continued subsistence of the national state, which is to say, a society of devoted citizens whose responsible behavior could guarantee the advance of modern progressive civilization in Bolivia. This high-modern philosophy of progress that guided the nation-building process and the modeling of responsible citizens with equal rights and duties vis-à-vis the state, however, clashed with some of the ideas culturally inherited from the colonial past, which influenced the minds of both those who resisted and those who advocated for social change. Racist messages soaked in positivist rhetoric were disseminated from world power centers in the late nineteenth century, further exciting and inciting the imagination of Latin American intellectuals regarding the status of the so-called “inferior races” in nation-building processes.2 The twentieth century witnessed the resurgence of an old colonial controversy concerning the status of the mestizos and their role in the modernizing process. The conservative sector of the Latin American elite adopted a discourse that painted the Indian as an inferior race to be marginalized from the process of modernity. Meanwhile, another sector of the elite, one more inclined to indigenista and Marxist ideals, considered the “Indian” as a race that had to be transformed in order to be integrated into the national project of modernity. The idea of transforming the Indian into a citizen revived the image of the mestizo. Defined by exclusion—they were and are considered neither white nor Indian—mestizos were converted into a symbol of the tenuous balance between two social groups whose interests were historically opposed.3
Beginning in the colonial era, the Cochabamba valley had the highest concentration of mestizos in Upper Peru, or the geographical area now composing Bolivia. Seeking to avoid colonial tribute, Indians fled from their reducciones (colonial Indian territories) and sheltered in the valley haciendas, simultaneously shifting their Indian identity to mestizo. In the late eighteenth century, mestizos were a third of the total population of Cochabamba and a century later they were more than a half.4 In the early twentieth century, the crisis in the haciendas worsened because of the loss of their markets for agricultural produce in the altiplano, as railways were built to export minerals and import agricultural products. At the same time, the tin mining boom allowed peasant-miners to consolidate their economies and purchase plots of land, put on the market by bankrupt landlords. By mid-twentieth century, piqueros (smallholders) were thriving in the Cochabamba valley.5
The outcomes of the political economy of Cochabamba, however, found a counterpart in the ideological struggle carried out by peasants and landlords. Despite the crisis of the landlord class (or because of it), the more conservative factions of this class clung to neo-colonial ideas that blocked the insertion of the Indian into the regional economy and society. Simultaneously, intellectuals of these factions elaborated negative representations of mestizos, who were depicted as a social group that had shifted from their original Indian identity, calling them cholos and claiming that they endangered the social stability of the nation.6 A dissident group of the regional elites contested this “scapegoat narrative.” The members of this dissident group were mainly the children of the financially bankrupt hacendados (landlords), whose daily interactions with the mestizo peasantry in their haciendas had allowed them to build real and symbolic spaces of cultural syncretism, i.e., the market and the chichería (tavern).7 Nevertheless, the privileged status of the chichería as a space of cultural syncretism—where discourses of social justice and equality brought together mestizo peasants and dissident members of the elites—was more appropriate to the tavern’s pre-revolutionary role.8 Once the peasants rose in arms during the revolutionary period, the chichería ceased to be conciliatory and was transformed into a center where revolutionary discourse was generated, but which was mainly uttered by defiant peasants.
The revolution acted as incentive for the formation of peasant unions, which were the quintessential sphere of political debate and indoctrination. The unions gathered together the dispersed rural mestizo population, and for the first time in Bolivian history campesinos built their own political space of public representation and identity vis-à-vis the rest of society. The impact of unionism on the subjectivity of the peasant was extraordinary, for the union allowed a previously atomized, marginalized, and despised mestizo people to feel as acting members of a national project, under the common identity of campesino.
Neither the political rhetoric nor the everyday discourse of Cocha-bamba’s rural peoples fully employed the term “mestizo” to identify any of its members. Instead, it was the identity of “the campesino” that was seen as able to negotiate effectively with the revolutionary state and with the other social groups. This was because, from the perspective of the hacienda colonos (tenants) who had led the struggles for civil rights and access to land in the valley estates, the context of negotiation for both sets of demands was primarily political and only secondarily ethnic. Class position was fundamental to the social and political contexts of the 1952 revolution, and consequentially the peasants used it to formulate their alliances and identify their opponents. Additionally, they assimilated two key referents which also guided their political struggles: the experience of piqueros (smallholders)—who had obtained land through the market—and that of the mineworkers—who negotiated social justice via politics. It was the combination of both these strategies that most accurately represented revolutionary peasant politics in 1950s Bolivia. However, this does not mean, that peasant identity was devoid of ethnic content. On the contrary, class and ethnicity were intertwined in peasant identity in such a complex manner that it is hard to understand them as separate components of it. When negotiating their identity—in the context of a society in which ethnic bias was predominant—peasants found political advantages by crossing ethnic and class border lines. Firstly, because it allowed the peasants to engage in dialogue in class terms vis-à-vis the intellectuals, politicians, and the workers’ vanguards. Secondly, it allowed the peasants to defend themselves in ethnic terms from the attacks of the elites. The peasants fought and negotiated their lives on two fronts and by making pragmatic use of ethnic and class positions.
There are some issues that have emerged from this discussion that must be highlighted. Firstly, that mestizaje is not a contemporary trend that should be solely associated with the modernizing efforts of the twentieth-century nation-building process, but instead that its origins can be traced as far back as the early colonial period. Colonial mestizos contested the apartheid-like state model by assuming mestizo identity, consciously manipulating the ethnic terms imposed by the colonial state. In other words, mestizos’ resistance undermined the colonial model that segregated Indians from Spaniards. Secondly, although the state promoted and sponsored ethnic rhetoric basically for political aims towards social control, subordinate groups could, and in fact did, manipulate ethnicity and identity to resist state control and exploitation.
This is true of modern mestizaje, a process that was initially based on altering ethnic terms, but which gradually decanted into what is Cochabamba’s current campesino identity. When a connection is established between mestizaje and campesino in political action, it is possible to observe how the process of social identity formation is fully immersed in William Roseberry’s “field of force,” which is the space where the state is constantly recreated as an everyday form of political and cultural activity.9 In Cochabamba, the political and rhetorical agendas of peasants, landlords, politicians, and the military clashed within the revolutionary field of force. Political actors were divided into diverse groups with divergent proposals, but each of them negotiated in search of a position of power vis-à-vis the rest of society. In the mid-twentieth century, the proposal of mestizaje as ethnic equality put forward by a sector of the elite, was assumed and (re)interpreted by the campesinos so as to negotiate their own identity in fundamentally class terms.
Revolutionary Campesino Politics
Just nine months after the April 1952 revolution, peasants in the Cochabamba valley were already radicalized. By then, the Ucureña peasant union in the Valle Alto had loudly demanded “agrarian revolution” instead of “agrarian reform.” The Ucureños strategy consisted of transferring political power to redistribute land to the grassroots unions, thus circumventing established political authorities. Urban intellectuals and politicians were terrified. Peasant activists of the Trotskyist Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Revolutionary Worker’s Party, POR) were blamed for radicalizing the peasantry, and both rural POR activists and peasant leaders of Ucureña were arrested by the police and deported from the Valle Alto. Meanwhile, the upper echelons of the POR and the Marxist-oriented Partido de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Left Party, PIR) decided to collaborate with the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, MNR) to carry out the agrarian reforms envisioned by the state.
This early revolutionary event defined the campesinista (pro-peasant) position of the Ucureña peasant union and elevated the political status of its leader, José Rojas, to that of chief commander of the Valle Alto peasant militias. In contrast, peasants in the Valle Bajo supported the official agrarian reform project, adopting an obrerista (pro-worker) position that emanated from the Central Obrera Boliviana (Bolivian Workers’ Central, COB) and the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Campesinos de Cochabamba (Federation of Peasant Workers of Cochabamba, FSTCC), whose top leader and commander of the Valle Bajo peasant militias was Sinforoso Rivas. The hamlet of Ucureña in the Valle Alto and the town of Sipe Sipe in the Valle Bajo, therefore, became the two oppositional geographic poles of campesino politics during the revolutionary era (see map 1.3).
What forces were at play behind this dichotomy of peasant power in the revolutionary-era Cochabamba valley? Historically, the peasants’ incorporation into the nationalist 1952 revolution was not in any way spontaneous, instead, it was preceded by a pre-revolutionary past rife with coordinated and intense political activity. In the altiplano of Cochabamba, as noted by Laura Gotkowitz, the “forces of the law” were at play when comunarios demanded the restoration of their communal lands.10 While, as argued in this study, the “forces of the market” were at play when the valley peasants demanded their right to private land ownership through their unions. The valley peasants were also not politically homogeneous, for they had contrasting interests regarding their access to natural resources. The Valle Alto peasants were more focused on land distribution, while in the Valle Bajo the focus was on access to irrigation water. Historical context was the core source of this dichotomy, for lands in the Valle Bajo had been fragmented when the communal territory was sold in the late nineteenth century. In 1952 the Valle Bajo was populated by a large number of smallholders, but former landlords still controlled the irrigation sources. In contrast, haciendas persisted in the Valle Alto and were the principal target for land distribution among the colonos and the landless local peasantry.
Social forces were also at play in the power dichotomy between peasants in the Valle Alto and Valle Bajo. The Ucureños’ main leader was José Rojas, a former colono of the Santa Clara hacienda, whose cadre was composed by his fellow colono comrades. Almost all of them were illiterate and their political actions were initially influenced by the PIR and the POR. Although Ucureña never broke its links with the MNR revolutionary regime, its radical position challenged the official agrarian policy when “agrarian revolution” was proclaimed by the Ucureña central versus the MNR’s official “agrarian reform” project. The government worked hard to realign Ucureña with its official agrarian policies, but it was finally unable to convince Ucureña to apply the MNR’s left-wing agrarian-cooperative’s project in the Valle Alto. The political clash between vecinos and campesinos was central to the contradictions inherent to rural society in the Valle Alto during the revolutionary period. The MNR’s plan to centralize power was rejected by the Ucureña peasants, for it would have transferred power to the town of Cliza. In fact, the Champa Guerra (1959–64) between Cliza and Ucureña—far from just being a local feud among peasant leaders—was the result of Ucureña’s defense of peasant autonomy vis-à-vis the central political authority. In other words, from the Ucureños’ point of view, to be campesino meant to own individual plots of land in a rural society ruled by local union leaders.
In contrast, the Valle Bajo’s main leader, Sinforoso Rivas, was born in Catavi (Siglo XX mines), and his father was a Valle Bajo peasant migrant. Rivas was an educated man, as were many of the leaders who surrounded him. He had worked in the mines and had practiced politics in the mineworkers’ union, which was by then heavily influenced by the POR. On 6 August 1952, the FSTCC was founded in Sipe Sipe and Rivas was elected its general secretary. Rivas was close to Juan Lechín, who was the leader of the COB and by then the minister of mines and oil. Both Rivas and Lechín worked together to implement the official “agrarian reform” project by expropriating the remaining haciendas in the Valle Bajo and organizing a number of peasant-miners’ agrarian cooperatives. The cooperative project failed, and the lands were redistributed to the peasants and miners on an individual basis.11 Conflict between campesinos and vecinos was not as entrenched in the Valle Bajo as it was in the Valle Alto, and, therefore, local ethnic confrontations in the Valle Bajo never reached the level of violence experienced in the Valle Alto during the Champa Guerra. In other words, to be campesino in the Valle Bajo meant to be a rural smallholder, a person who was integrated into a larger society ruled by the authority of the central government.
Long-term historical processes in the Cochabamba valleys had finally produced two socially differentiated campesino groups in the Valle Alto and the Valle Bajo. Although the division between “agrarian revolution” and “agrarian reform” has been usually attributed to debates at the top, within the MNR leadership, this study has shown that this divide was in fact a power struggle between campesinos themselves.
The Champa Guerra in the Valle Alto, was marked by bloody confrontations between the Ucureña and Cliza peasant union militias. Although triggered by an internal MNR leadership conflict, this peasant war was in fact a power struggle between vecinos (town dwellers) and campesinos (peasants). Both right- and left-wing factions of the MNR distrusted the participation of the campesinos in politics and attempted to control and subordinate the peasant unions; the former through the party’s urban power network and the latter through the worker’s union network. The Valle Bajo peasant federation aligned early on with the COB and remained close to the miner’s political initiatives throughout the revolutionary period. In contrast, the Valle Alto peasant federation was not aligned with the COB, but was also not subjected to the MNR. Thus, Ucureña’s political position was always vulnerable to criticism from both the right- and the left-wing sectors of the MNR. When political campaigns for the 1960 presidential election began, Víctor Paz and Walter Guevara competed for peasant support in the Cochabamba valley, and both aspirants for the MNR candidacy stirred up peasant divisions in the Valle Alto to weaken the power of the unions. Guevara and the right-wing sector of the MNR backed up the political ambitions of Miguel Veizaga (a former member of Ucureña’s cadre), allowing him the command of the Cliza peasant union. The Víctor Paz-Juan Lechín binomial won the 1960 election, but far from mitigating the Champa Guerra, Vice-President Lechín further instigated the conflict by supporting Cliza and Veizaga’s leadership. José Rojas and the Ucureña militias aligned with Paz against Lechín and a period of extreme internal conflict within the MNR began, which further exacerbated the fight between Cliza and Ucureña.
In the early 1960s, the Cold War was being perpetuated in earnest and the Cuban revolution intensified the United States’ defensive policies in Latin America. The militaries of Latin American countries became the new political actors, able to defend the continent against the communist threat, and this shift was supported both ideologically and financially by the government of the United States. The international left assigned a new political role for the peasantry, as the supportive force behind a broad social insurrection leading towards eventual socialist revolution. Mobilized peasants in Bolivia were perceived as a potential threat to democracy and warnings also arose related to the radicalization of some peasant union centers in the Cochabamba Valle Alto and Sacaba. Politics in revolutionary Bolivia took a sudden, favorable turn for the military, and air-force General René Barrientos emerged as a prominent political figure. The military was in charge of a civic action program funded by USAID, which allowed Barrientos to plan and build infrastructure works in the conflictive areas of the Valle Alto. Ucureña supported Barrientos’ vice-presidential candidacy for the 1964 presidential election, running on a binomial ticket with Víctor Paz who was up for re-election. During this turbulent period in Bolivian politics, the military cleverly constructed Barrientos’ image as the protector of the peasants against the socialist rhetoric of the left, which empowered workers and denigrated peasants by depicting them as conservative. Prior to the June 1964 presidential and vice-presidential election, a peasant-military pact was signed on 9 April between Barrientos and the peasantry, which allowed Barrientos not only to reach power in hand with that of President Paz, but later on seize total power through a military coup d’état.
As important as making the revolution, however, was thinking the revolution. In Thomas Benjamin’s words: “The past, as well as power, is contested in politics, war, and revolution. In the course of any struggle, the more powerful favor certain memories and myths over others and seek to create an official (and in aspiration dominant or national) memory in order to legitimize existing political authority.”12 Throughout the revolutionary era, the valley peasants were engaged in a discursive struggle against the landlords, MNR politicians, and the military. Local newspapers were the rhetorical arena where political actors debated their interpretations of ideas and events. Initially, debates were centered around ethnic issues, such as whether revolutionary rural workers should be considered Indians or peasants. This was indeed no minor issue at that time, as the revolution’s character itself was at stake. If rural workers were to be considered Indians, then all previous colonial and liberal ethnic biases and racist arguments regarding “inferior races” would reemerge in the debate over the constitution of a revolutionary society in the valley. If rural revolutionaries were to be regarded as peasants, however, the debate would be addressed in class terms and peasants would be in a position of equality vis-à-vis the other social classes. The revolutionary context favored the campesino solution, for the intense rhetorical struggle came together within a context of practical empowerment of the valley peasantry. The landlord class was in retreat, seeking refuge in towns and cities, and unionized peasants were occupying their rural properties.
Reality, in this case, exceeded the whirling discourse, and the representational image of the powerful revolutionary campesino gradually displaced that of the traditional Indian. Notwithstanding this, the fight was far from being over, for the ethnic struggle shifted towards a confrontation (both rhetorical and practical) between vecinos and campesinos. The MNR’s attempt to centralize power and control the peasant unions was in fact a political move to transfer power from the countryside to the city. The MNR revolutionaries, however, could not simply reinstate the liberal karma of the “barbaric” campesinos versus the “civilized” vecinos to establish in practice its project for the transfer of power to the city. Instead, the regime (which then monopolized the media in Cochabamba) began to fabricate a representational image of the cacique campesino (peasant union boss), who allegedly always compelled campesinos to act against the law. The depiction of peasant bosses as outlaw agitators was instrumentalized by the government in efforts to repress dissident peasant leaders. This was all done without compromising the MNR’s alleged admiration for the revolutionary peasantry. The local press covered the Champa Guerra unflaggingly, propping up the notion that unhinged Ucureña bosses were instigating peasants to confront vecinos and occupy the cities. In the early 1960s, the military’s tactics to gain the confidence of the Valle Alto peasantry involved not only handing over schools, hospitals, and roads, but also elevating the peasants’ political personalities to the same level as urban politicians. In other words, the military treated the campesino leaders (at least in rhetorical terms) as equal political contenders vis-à-vis the rest of society. Once the military seized power, however, its patronizing policy towards the peasantry was transformed into a system of peasant political coercion.
Revolutionary Campesino Identity
How did campesinos in the Valle Alto remember the revolution? How did the revolution shape the campesinos’ political culture? How were revolutionary peasants able to reconstruct their previous ideas of authority and power in their communities? All these topics regarding peasant culture have been elaborated upon in this study from a revisionist theoretical perspective. Peasants in this study are considered dynamic political actors, and the makers of their own history. Thus, as stated by Boyer, peasant attitudes were not simply “inferred from structural categories, as if rural people’s worldview was somehow governed by their form of land tenure.”13
A first step in analyzing the valley peasants’ identities and subjectivities revolves around decentering the hegemony of the regime, as this approach is useful in outlining the heterogeneity of the ruling MNR party. A second step is to make gender central to the analysis of power. These approaches together provide insights into cultural differences amongst peasants, which had been forged by distinct historical relations to land, the state, local elites, and the market. From the interviews conducted with Valle Alto peasants included in this book, two important issues emerge. Firstly, during that period, authority was associated with the patriarch’s image, and this was also linked to the commonly held conceptualization of wisdom at that time and place. The father’s symbolic image was the most meaningful concept in efforts to reestablish social harmony, for the peasants believed that just as the patriarch’s authoritarian image guaranteed social harmony, it also served to legitimize access to land. Therefore, when hacienda lands were distributed and each colono received his own plot, the process of distribution of land was fair, because from the peasants’ ethical point of view this action was reasonable, given that it was carried out on the lands where their ancestors had through multigenerational toil and inhabitation developed their land into agriculturally efficient and productive plots. When land was distributed, the union leaders’ role was limited to exerting controls over the process, and this role was based on the power that peasants had delegated to them. They acknowledged that the leaders’ power for land distribution was fair between leaders and peasants, which also meant that authority was equal among community members. Secondly, the interviews also unveiled the fact that power was sexualized and that this behavior originated in the violence landlords used to subordinate the peasantry. Peasant leaders replicated the previous landlord’s behavior by using the same level of violence in reformulating the power structure in the countryside. Just as authority was associated with the patriarchal image, power was related to the image of woman. Public displays of women as a symbol of power were instrumentalized when the distribution of hacienda lands to former colonos was completed and the conflictive issue became disputes over the distribution of marginal lands amongst other peasant groups, especially women.
Agrarian reform transformed not only social relations, but also the individualities and subjectivities of the peasants. The Cochabamba Valle Alto peasants’ “selective tradition”14 concerning their land rights was an inherited trait from the work their parents invested in each plot they had cultivated on the estates. From their perspective, the seizure of hacienda lands, without awaiting the mediation of the state, was nothing but a legitimate act that imposed justice. This perspective shaped their own ideas of how the political relationship between the peasants and the revolutionary state ought to be reformulated. As a consequence, the Valle Alto peasants opposed the revolutionary state attempt to replicate the Mexican model of ejidos (communal lands) through arranging and maintaining the organization of agrarian cooperatives in their territory. This MNR left-wing project handed over hacienda lands to groups of miners and peasants, explaining this action with the argument that lands ought to be exploited in common under the miners’ direction, who in theory were the sole bearers of the revolutionary ideology that would eventually lead the peasants down the socialist road. The project was a failure and the peasants demanded that the agrarian properties again be divided into individual holdings. Under the administration of the miners the cooperatives were plundered and the miners attempted to subordinate their peasant partners.
In Cochabamba the communal option for land reform was weak or at least constrained to the highlands, while valley medium property holders and smallholders pursued their interests in the political arena. With the failure of the agrarian cooperatives’ project and the subsequent loss of prestige for the MNR’s left wing, the regime leaned to the right and backed up the medium property owners. Desperate, the smallholder peasants quickly became afraid that this would give rise to a counter-revolutionary process that could take away the plots they occupied but also held without legal title. Thus, during the Hernán Siles administration (1956–60), the peasant unions and their leaders were under pressure from two fronts. On one side, peasants were pressured by the government to oppose the workers’ movement and support the MNR’s monetary stabilization program, in exchange for guaranteeing (even if only discursively) the legality of smallholding property. On the other side, both the left and the workers’ movement also pressured peasants to conform to a political front against the regime’s plan, but without clarifying the fate of the smallholding property in the event that the left-wing sector regained power.
In the Cochabamba valley, peasants lived scattered on their plots and their community links were created through the union. Consequently, the peasant communities represented by their unions were socially and geographically separated from the rural town dwellers. When the MNR began to centralize power, it did so from the towns. These conditions created the perfect environment for violent confrontations between peasants and town dwellers. The MNR’s internal division only further inflamed the political conditions that had ignited the conflict among the Valle Alto population before the Champa Guerra (1959–64). Vecino versus campesino antagonism was at the heart of the peasant conflicts in the rural areas of the Cochabamba valley at the very moment that the agrarian reform began to be publicly debated. The two political wings of the MNR manipulated ethnically definitive, symbolic images of the peasants, contrived from their own points of view, although both agreed on the idea that they were inherently subordinated social and political actors. The MNR’s right wing emphasized the virtues of the “progressive landlords” and linked them to the towns, and elaborated idyllic images of humble Indian-peasants obedient to the state, connecting this relationship back to the Andean’s Inca ancestors. The MNR’s left wing identified the primary role of the vanguard of the worker in their political theory and spread this narrative in the towns, praising the peasants’ revolutionary capacity, but this was granted only if they were submissive to a centralist state ruled by the proletariat. Within this discursive context, the terrifying image of the cacique campesino arose. This image summed up the deep fear felt by the urban population for the unpredictable character of the mestizo. Unstable, given to fighting, arrogance, and a daring attitude, the cacique campesino became the scapegoat for the revolutionary disorder. Agrarian reform in Cochabamba promoted masculinity in local social relations and encouraged the search for individual autonomy among the peasants. This individuality, however, was always shielded by a collective subjectivity which was the peasant union, personified in the representational image of the cacique campesino or peasant boss.
Finally, the transformations brought on by the revolution affected gender relations in both the local society and the peasant family. At the social level, women obtained the right to vote under the same conditions as men, but they were not allowed to participate in union activities. After all, if the peasants’ idea of power was based on women’s subordination, male leaders at that time were certainly not ready to accept equal female participation in the unions as political contenders. At the family level, the agrarian reform had patriarchal foundations, for the male (father or husband) was defined as the “head of the family” and he was the official beneficiary of the land title. As a consequence, the situation of young women, divorcees, and single mothers became especially precarious, given that to have access to land they had to depend on their relationships with single or married men and union leaders. As a top peasant leader, Sinforoso Rivas, explained: “Widows, single mothers, and (to a lesser extend) unmarried women, who had worked on landed estates were granted access to smallholder property. All other peasant women were not considered in the agrarian reform law as the beneficiaries for land distribution.”15 This issue gave rise to the sexualization of peasant power, for the union leaders’ will was indisputable when deciding which women would have access to land.
A Revolution After the Revolution?
Revolutions are extraordinary historical events that result in fundamental economic, social, and political transformations. The reasons why the Mexican (1910), Bolivian (1952) or Cuban (1959) revolutions, for instance, are considered to be comparable events are based on the substantial changes that occurred in their respective post-revolutionary societies, which were irrevocably transformed once their revolutionary processes unfolded. This is an undisputable assertion. What is debatable, however, are the causes and consequences of revolutions. Ethnic, ideological, academic, and political concerns—among others—permeate the interpretations of the origins and ends of revolutionary proceedings. Given such circumstances, comparative studies are essential to better understand what triggered the revolutions and the quality of the outcomes they reached.
Through comparison it is possible to enquire as to what circumstances made social situations potentially revolutionary and what defined the internal dynamics of the respective Latin America nationalist (and socialist) revolutions. When comparing Mexico and Bolivia, for instance, Alan Knight asserts that both revolutions “share common characteristics, especially when we consider the collective actors involved.”16 In the colonial era, both Mexico and Bolivia were silver producers and labor was supplied by the native population. In 1910, Mexico’s liberal economy was booming; silver mining was not the leading industry anymore and agriculture was an export-oriented activity. Both the mines and the haciendas depended on free labor rather than extra-economic state coercion. Mexico at that point was a mestizo nation, where only 15% of the population was Indian. In contrast, Bolivia’s liberal economy in 1952 was declining; tin prices plummeted as did the Bolivian economy, because the mining sector was the only export-oriented industry. Due to the stagnation of mine markets, the altiplano and valley haciendas were also in crisis. The hacienda owners’ common solution was to increase extra-economic coercion upon members of the Indian labor force, while bankrupt valley landowners found a complementary solution by selling plots of land to mestizo laborers. Even though Indians were 60% of the Bolivian population at this time, mestizos made up a quarter of the country’s population and the majority of them lived in the Cochabamba valley region. Thus, as Knight asserts: “If valid, this contrast implies that any major revolution which affected 1910 Mexico or 1952 Bolivia was likely to assume somewhat contrasting forms: the former could count on generations of greater social, economic, and cultural integration; the latter would be prey to local, regional and, above all, ethnic particularisms.”17
Although in 1952 the Bolivian rural population was a majority (80%) of the total population and peasant participation in the revolutionary process was overwhelming, yet the revolutionary icon held up by the MNR and other groups was the mine worker. According to Dunkerley:
More than any other modern revolution, the Bolivian revolution had a single proletarian sector as its social vanguard. The miners were to occupy a veritable citadel of radical political imagination, not least through their opposition to the dictatorship after 1964 until 1985, when … the neoliberal Decree 21060 [issued by President Víctor Paz] was signed.18
This is one important reason why revolutionary campesinos in Bolivia have not attracted the attention of intellectuals, artists, writers, nor political visionaries as was the case of post-revolutionary Mexico, where rural folks also known as campesinos occupy a privileged position in the national consciousness of modern Mexico. Despite the fact that agrarian conflict in revolutionary Mexico lasted longer, was more violent, and ended up with the redistribution of more private lands than in Bolivia, the post-revolutionary Mexican elite “have understood campesinos to be the disenfranchised rural folk whom the revolution could ‘redeem’ and integrate into the political nation.”19 This was not the case in Bolivia, because the post-revolutionary elite, in general, had demonstrated antipathy for the peasantry and the role it had played in the revolution.
The Mexican and Bolivian post-revolutionary elites took a different approach towards their revolutionary peasantries—it might be argued—due to historical rather than cultural or sociological reasons. Firstly, because the Mexican revolution occurred before the Cold War era, when nationalist modernizing state projects in Latin America were popular and the peasants’ role in social change processes was praised as revolutionary. Meanwhile, the role of the revolutionary campesinos in Bolivia has always been implicitly contrasted with the Sierra Maestra mythology pointing to the Cuban peasantry’s alleged role towards a socialist outcome. Secondly, the act of remembering the revolution is “a product of collective memory, mythmaking, and history writing … while it is individuals who remember, social groups determine what is memorable and how it will be remembered. … But collective memory, like individual memory, is never a faithful retrieval or reclamation of the past. It does not just happen … ‘the memory of an event is an interpretation of an event’.”20 The Mexican post-revolutionary elites attempted to heal the wounds of memory as part of the state rebuilding process and also institutionalized the revolution by interpreting the revolutionary role of the peasant as central to the revolution. In contrast, the process of institutionalizing the revolution was not completed in Bolivia, as the elites failed to fully historicize the revolution. Lastly, intellectuals in Mexico (and Bolivia) “rather that treat campesino identity as a product of historical processes … [they] have understood campesino identity as a preconstituted fact, an objective social category produced by extrinsic and relatively stable historical structures such as rural people’s ancient cultural traditions or the fact that they must work the land to make a living.”21 This structural approach has prevented historians from inquiring into the specific historical circumstances in which both the Mexican and the Bolivian peasantries were (self)constructed as a social entity. As stated by Boyer: “By focusing primarily on the ideologies and political discourses of the political class, [scholars] have left unanswered the critical question of how rural people came to create, adopt, or reject campesino identity, or indeed what it meant to them to be campesino in the first place.”22
Both the academic and political “ethnic turn” of the 1980s, as well as the election of Evo Morales as the first indigenous president in 2006, gave rise to revisionist interpretations of the 1952 Bolivian nationalist revolution. Scholars in the 2000s and 2010s focused their attention on the indigenous people of the highlands, adopting a de facto altiplano-centric perspective. When analyzing pre-revolutionary conflicts in the altiplano of Cochabamba, for instance, Laura Gotkowitz—in an introductory section entitled “Revolution before the Revolution”—addresses the topic of extreme violence in the Bolivian countryside. The analysis of four revolutionary conditions prior 1952 led her to conclude that during the 1940s indigenous people in the highlands utilized the legal tools that had been created by liberal governments (aiming to destroy the Indian communities) in efforts to preserve their communal lands: “In waging a revolution for their rights, [the Indians] turned the legal hierarchy on its head.”23 Sinclair Thompson, for his part, asserts that a previous revolution had occurred in the colonial era, when Túpaj Katari—who was a community member of the Indian town of Ayoayo, to the north of Lake Titicaca—rebelled against the colonial state: “Yet the nationalist narrative normally leaves out the single most important revolutionary moment in the history of the country’s indigenous majority: 1781.”24 Finally, James Dunkerley argues that Evo Morales’ ascension to power in 2006 and the populist economic policies of his political party were important enough to label this political moment as “the Third Bolivian Revolution”: “The first strategic plan issued by the government of Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) headed by Evo Morales had as its markedly modest objective the reduction of the proportion of acutely poor to 27 percent of all Bolivians within five years.”25 It might be argued, however, that whatever the level of violence reached, no matter the outcomes of various legal wranglings and maneuverings, or the economic policies proposed, the social conflict that occurred before and after the 1952–64 revolutionary period did not transform Bolivian society in any fundamental or irreversible mode. Therefore, if we do not wish to relativize the concept of revolution in such a way that any major insurrection should be seen as a revolutionary event, there must be some common parameters employed to qualify social conflict at the level of a revolution.
Recent political events culminating in the demise of Evo Morales’ regime in 2019 and the resulting call for new elections indicate that the “ethnic cycle” is declining in Bolivia. From 2006 to 2019, Morales ruled three consecutive presidential terms. Although his political party MAS was supported by the politically and economically powerful coca-leaf growers (cocaleros) unions in the sub-tropical Chapare region, ethnic discourse portraying him as the first original indigenous (indígena originario) president of Bolivia provided his regime with crucial symbolic representation. However, political discourse during the presidential electoral campaign in 2020 did not prioritize ethnicity anymore, instead, class-based issues received all attention. Moreover, Evo Morales was not the MAS candidate in the 2020 election, and it is foreseeable that—despite the MAS re-election—class will overcome ethnicity as the main referent in future political discourse. Along with political shifts, academic trends are also shifting. The latest publications on the Bolivian revolution have begun to explore a reimagining of the political left and its analytical instruments. Kevin Young, for instance, published a book in 2017 addressing the issue of “resource nationalism” as a political principle that mobilized middle-class intellectuals’ and workers’ demands “to use these nonrenewable resources as a lever to diversify and industrialize Bolivia’s mono-export economy.”26 In 2019, Young published another book that further revises the left’s political role in Latin America by uncovering its negotiations over power, platforms, and everyday practices essential to understanding the past revolutionary successes and failures: “Learning the lessons of the past requires revisiting the history of the Latin American left with fresh eyes, unencumbered by Cold War categories and other blinders.”27
Young’s attempt to redefine the political left in Latin America is complementary to a broader scholarly effort to reconsider the peasants’ role in contemporary revolutionary movements. Eric Wolf’s classic work, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (1969), was reintroduced to the public in a book edited by Leigh Binford, et.al. (2020).28 The editors argue that Wolf’s ideas regarding the engagement of peasants in revolutionary activities, and the kinds of alliances that led to social change in different historical cases, “infused progressive intellectuals, activists, and political struggles with both intense optimism and deep despair, as popular challenges to the established order drove states’ capacities for terror.”29 Consequently, the editors continue, in the 1980s revolution seemed neither possible nor desirable and scholars turned away from class to ethnic analysis. This shift was also evident in anthropology, where scholars rejected the “metanarratives” required to understand a changing global order and embraced questions of culture and identity formation. By the end of the twentieth century, the retreat from revolution, both coerced and acquiesced, had erased memories of its emancipatory possibilities. The reintroduction of Wolf’s work, the editors conclude, “offers a way to rethink the meaning of revolutionary social change in the twenty-first century and to reestablish continuity with the emancipatory, albeit mostly forgotten, consequences of past revolutions and the analytic projects that sought to understand and advance them.”30
The contribution by Forrest Hylton to Binford’s book addresses the analytical questions posited by Wolf, but in terms of present-day Bolivian society, politics, and culture.31 Hylton’s article is critical of the anthropological term ‘indigeneity’, for “[it] has replaced and erased thinking about class, and severed culture from political economy.”32 He is concerned that recent essays and monographs in the social sciences in Bolivia are dominated by anthropology, which “would benefit from returning to Wolf’s nuanced understanding of class, community, and state formation, as well as the historical nature of racial/ethnic and regional differences.”33 A key question about power in Bolivia today, he concludes, is a question inextricably linked to the understanding of the “indigenous peasantry” in the twenty-first century: “Why were radical movements and organizations—composed to a large degree of rural workers and cultivators of indigenous and nonindigenous descent, i.e. peasants—unable to sustain momentum for a revolutionary project that would have remade the state along non-liberal lines?”
Whatever the answer to Hylton’s query, the fact is that peasants are back as important actors in the political scenario in Bolivia, and their return to politics will have two repercussions: Firstly, it will shift the political and academic attention from the symbolism of the indígenas originarios communities in the altiplano to the cocaleros peasant unions in Chapare. Secondly, it will broaden the national horizon towards the eastern territories and societies, especially to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where further research is needed to better understand contemporary Bolivian politics.34