Bolivia: A 21st-Century Revolution

By Adolfo Gilly

The Revolution must be good for everyone. It is like the Old Condor of the high mountains with his white crest, who must protect all of us with his powerful wings.
Francisco Chipana Ramos, 1945 (quoted in Rivera)
Bolivia’s insurrectional movement of September-October 2003 is, in its forms, its protagonists and its content, a product of the transformations imposed by late-20th-century neoliberalism on society, the economy and, above all, the life, spaces, and relations of the subaltern classes.  It is a new movement, with previously nonexistent actors, with a fresh capacity to link the most immediate demands to the most general national concerns (gas, water, hydrocarbons, coca, the republic), and with methods of organization and confrontation that are at once rooted in tradition and informed by the most up-to-date technologies. The Bolivian insurrection unleashed an unprecedented combination of ancient and modern traits and a new level of militant mass struggle.1 Our task here is not so much to compare this insurrection of the altiplano with past revolutions as it is to analyze it in relation to the social transformations and the forms of capitalist domination established since the last decade of the 20th century.

In fact, the violent and triumphant Bolivian insurrection which culminated in October 2003 is the first revolution of the 21st century.  We must try to understand its content, its motivations, and what it foretells.

On October 17, 2003, Aymaras, peasants, male and female workers with and without jobs, street-market vendors, indigenous students, miners, migrants from every direction—the indiada, in effect, the whole mass of the feared Indian population—with the violence of their bodies and their dead, took La Paz and brought down the President of the Republic of the Rich and the Overlords, don Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

The very people who since early September had been blocking roads and since October 8 had sustained a general strike.  With the violence of their bodies, yes, because apart from sticks, stones, slingshots, three old guns and a few sticks of dynamite, they had no arms.  With the violence of their dead, yes, because the army, which to break through the roadblocks had started killing Indians on September 20 in Warisata (on the altiplano above La Paz), had already by Sunday October 12 perpetrated a massacre in El Alto.
These men and women: the same ones who on Monday the 13th, while the army down below in La Paz went on killing, had carried the dead to the entrances of their houses; had watched over them; and had told each other (and whoever would listen) of the army’s atrocities and of bare-handed resistance; and with rage in their eyes had displayed for reporters, like offerings, the empty shells picked up from the streets of El Alto; and had spoken among themselves in whispers, counseling each other all night long.  And on Tuesday morning the 14th, in processions along the dusty streets, they had carried the dead to their churches, thronging to services in their honor; and had talked in every neighborhood center with their leaders; and had decided then that, yes, they would go down to La Paz, thereby losing another five hundred lives (the figure they gave), but this time bringing down the hated killer-president.  With the violence of their dead, as I said, with the violence of their bodies.

They would go down to La Paz, I said.  La Paz is situated in a gully, 400 meters below the altiplano.  Right at the edge of the drop is the city of El Alto, with almost 800,000 inhabitants, living in houses built by themselves, with the splendid snowcaps of the Cordillera Real on the horizon.  The slopes fall sharply toward the capital and are totally covered, in that direction, by the old working-class barrios—Munaypata, Pura Pura, Villa Victoria—which also have their history of struggles and massacres: Villa Victoria was bombed from the air in 1950.
Through the avenues, streets, alleys and pathways of these neighborhoods, the torrent of Aymaras begins to descend on Wednesday October 15.  Along the way, their neighbors on the slopes welcome them joyfully, giving them drinks, water, food, and then joining their march.  On the 16th, the miners from Huanuni would arrive—having with threats and negotiations cleared the army’s checkpoint 100 km back—in Patacamaya, where the military detachment had ended up letting through 60 truckloads of miners, men and women, who were coming from Oruro, the mining capital.  A sign of the universal recognition of their strength.
They were preceded by tens of thousands of Aymara peasants from the province of Omasuyos and from other parts of the altiplano, who for a month had maintained a roadblock on the highway.  Others arrived from the rebel capital, Achacachi, the site of several historic massacres, where there is a statue of Tupac Katari, the Aymara chief who in 1781 laid siege to La Paz and was on the verge of taking it before being defeated by the Spaniards.  Also joining them were detachments of coca-farmers from los Yungas and other temperate or tropical regions.  Students from the Universidad Pública de El Alto (UPEA) were everywhere, moving among bonfires of old tires and between barricades made from collapsed pedestrian overpasses, pulled down with ropes onto the avenues.
This time, October 2003, La Paz was again under Indian, Aymara siege: the siege of roadblocks and general strike.  They did not let in food, merchandise, or gasoline.  They called for the president’s resignation; no export of Bolivian gas from Chilean ports; an end to the eradication of coca (the livelihood of coca-farmers, a popular item of consumption, and a traditionally sacred plant); a Constituent Assembly to re-found the Republic; and 80 other demands of all kinds, from each sector and community.  The language, the gestures and even the Aymara flag, the wiphala, had become receptacles and vehicles of the major demands of the nation.    
Ever since 1781, the siege of the city has been the specter that haunts the imagination of the ruling classes: “The nightmare of the Indian siege continues to disturb the repose of Bolivian Creoledom,” wrote Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui twenty years ago.  Now it seemed to be coming true.  Meanwhile from the South, where the valley of La Paz leads down toward more temperate zones and where the rich have their houses, the siege was tightening with the advance of Indians from the lower valleys, the people of Ovejuyos, who ascended through the fancy neighborhoods without throwing a single stone, without breaking a single window, without picking a single flower.  They were simply going uphill like a river in reverse, to go and force out the president.

To break the siege, to dispel the nightmare, to inflict a punishment, and to let gasoline and supplies into La Paz, the army on October 12 had massacred El Alto, that enormous city that had been built up in two decades by the displaced victims of neoliberalism—rural migrants from the altiplano, miners and factory workers “relocated” from Oruro and Potosí, office workers from La Paz, poor and modest shopkeepers—in sum, 80% of all those who, in the most recent census (2001), declared themselves “indigenous” (Aymara or Quechua), from many different communities.
In 1950, when planes were bombing the people of Villa Victoria, El Alto had 11,000 inhabitants, perched up there at the edge of the drop.  In 2001, according to the census, it already had 650,000, in a country of 8 million.  Since then it has continued growing.  “Of the total working population of El Alto, 69% are in the informal sector of contingent employment, often in family enterprises.  Despite this, slightly over 43% of alteños are wage workers—either in manufacturing or in services—which makes El Alto the city with the highest percentage of wage-workers in the whole country,” according to Álvaro García Linera.  It is a young population, with 60% under the age of 25 and only 10% over 50.  Seventy percent of dwellings lack sanitary facilities.  Hospital services are precarious, as is the educational system.  El Alto has the country’s highest rates of child labor and the highest average number of paid workers per household.  But at the same time 60% of the households are below the poverty line and half of these are in extreme poverty.
“El Alto is a city built by its inhabitants, not only in terms of labor power but also in terms of the economic capital needed for its streets, avenues, markets, soccer fields, etc.  Moreover, daily social life is grounded in extensive kinship relations, compadrazgos, friendships across neighborhood lines, and ancestral ties with communities of the altiplano, the valleys, and the subtropical regions of the Andes,” writes Aymara sociologist Pablo Mamani.  “Aymara social protest may be expressed in the language of people’s clothing: the hooped skirt, the hats, and various symbols… which constitute alternative acts and rituals to those which symbolize the State.”
This young, modern, defiant city, built by the hands of its own people, is what arose out of capitalism in its neoliberal phase, with the commercial opening and the restructuring initiated in 1985 by the hated Decree no. 21060, under which peasant and artisan sectors lost their protection, the prices of their products fell, mines and factories shut down, wages and employment fell, hydrocarbons and public services were privatized, massive emigration (internal and external) was unleashed, and the social fabric built up on the basis of the 1952 revolution disintegrated.2
Neoliberal capitalism thus unwittingly created the popular base, the territorial dimension, and the social conditions for the insurrection.  It destroyed longstanding social practices of give-and-take, and brutally implanted a new domination.  But those who were to be dominated did not consent to this imposition.  The neoliberal mode of domination is one which seeks to disorganize and to atomize.  It does not negotiate anything with anyone; it only deals with solitary and defenseless individuals.  But in the end, it could not do this.  The newly formed mass began once again to organize itself in its new territories but with its old wisdom, which resided not in the dismantled institutions but rather in the minds and bodies of the people.

The neoliberal order has not succeeded in establishing a hegemony—an acquiescence that would accompany and mediate the coercion, as was done a half-century ago by Peronism in Argentina, by the PRI in Mexico, and by the 1952 revolution and the MNR in Bolivia.  At the same time, the self-imposed rules of neoliberalism preclude, for the moment, recourse to military dictatorships as a “legitimate” way of resolving conflicts and running the State.  This novelty has been duly noted by the dominated classes. 

Against this domination without hegemony (the terms applied by historian Ranajit Guha to Britain’s long colonial domination of India), against this neoliberal domination through a colonial-type State, which the oligarchic caste has chosen to assert in Bolivia via tanks and bullets at the turn of the 21st century, the Bolivian people rose in rebellion starting in 2000, in successive “wars”—the revealing rubric which the people itself has given to its movements: the war against privatization of water in Cochabamba in 2000; the war to defend the coca plantations in Chapare in January 2003, against the army and the police (13 coca farmers dead, 60 wounded); the war against the tax on wages in La Paz in February 2003 (more than 30 dead); the war over gas in September/October 2003 (80 dead), culminating in the indigenous takeover of La Paz and the collapse of the government.  In effect, the mode of domination in question has exacerbated the congenital fragility of a racist colonial-type State like that of Bolivia.
In this modernizing neoliberal order which is unable to assert its hegemony, we find perhaps a distant echo of the Bourbon reforms of the 18th century, inspired by Enlightenment ideas of rationalization and centralization, but whose application in the Andean region provked, in 1780 and 1781, the massive indigenous rebellions of Tupac Amaru and Tupac Katari.  In a suggestive study, “Customs and Rules: Rationalization and Social Conflicts during the Bourbon Era,” historian Sergio Serulnikov argues that the new forms were intepreted in distinct ways in the Andean region corresponding to the interests of the Spaniards and Creoles or to those of the Indians.  The Indians saw in those rationalizing projects “an instrument for Andean resistance against established customs of exploitation and political oppression in rural communities,” whereas the colonial rulers used those same projects for the opposite goal of consolidating their power.
“The key point, however,” notes Serulnikov, “is that the most radical indigenous insurrection in the colonial period resulted from the interweaving—and not from the clash—between the processes of mobilization from below and reform from above.  In this sense, the crisis of colonial legitimacy may have been caused less by the imposition of a new colonial “pact” than by the unforeseeable ways in which that new hegemonic project contributed to the collapse of the old order without, in the process, consolidating a viable alternative [my emphasis—A.G.].  The Bourbon policies increased the economic burden on the Andean communities while at the same time giving them more power to confront the local authorities.”
Was the most recent insurrection of the altiplano—without visible leaders, without leading parties, without huge union federations, without taking power—a violent flash in the pan?  Or is it, like the revolution of 1781 against the colonial State and the revolution of 1952 against the oligarchic State, a precursor to similar responses against the current neoliberal order in other parts of this region of the world?       
Even if only to answer this question, we must look closely at the insurrection and, above all, not view it in isolation.

To break the siege of La Paz, the army on October 12, as I said, massacred El Alto.  It was their only recourse, because El Alto, that city of uprooted migrants, was in those days completely organized, with streets and avenues closed off, with neighborhood committees on every block, voluntary guards (mustered by loudspeakers) on every corner, barricades of rocks, wire fencing, and tires, independent radio stations broadcasting 24 hours a day, people’s guards to block the looting of stores, and mass meetings in streets, union locals, and parishes.  Among their scarce belongings, the migrants had brought with them the priceless heritage of organizational knowhow.
“Community networks brought from the altiplano and from the mining zones completely stymied the government, which had to resort to discretionary force in order to break the web of protest,” wrote the conservative newspaper La Razón two weeks later (October 30), with some lucidity.
This is true up to a point, but it is not all.  In fact, the commumity wisdom is expressed also in organizations consciously and painfully built up over recent decades: the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB)[workers’ central], weakened but still alive, headed by Jaime Solares; the Central Obrera Regional de El Alto (COR), decisive at this moment, led by Roberto de la Cruz; the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB)[peasant unions], strong in the Aymara altiplano, led by “el Mallku” Felipe Quispe; in the coca zone and other regions, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), headed by Evo Morales; the peasants of the central valleys led by Omar Fernández; in and around the city of Cochabamba, production workers and the Coordinadora del Agua, headed by Oscar Olivera, which fought the water war in 2000.
One might be inclined to view this as a new episode in what Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui describes as “the difficult and contradictory process” of “synthesis between long memory (anticolonial struggles, prehispanic ethical order) and short memory (revolutionary power of peasant unions and militias since the revolution of 1952).”  However, the protagonists of the El Alto rebellion were the inhabitants and their local groupings, and not the organizations and leaders of the larger movement.  This is what was reported by La Razón and other press and radio outlets in those days.  This is why the army lashed out blindly against everyone, without trying to hunt down the nonexistent heads of the movement.
“Thus, at dawn on Sunday the 12th,” continues La Razón’s retrospective chronicle, “an enormous military operation in the Northern zone initiated the killing which at the end of the day would claim 28 lives.  The convoy, led by tanks and including water hoses and heavily armored troops, advanced along the Avenida 6 de Marzo to the Ingavi district, with bursts of machine-gun fire which drew dynamite and rocks in response, leaving behind dead and wounded.”
With the violence of their bodies and their dead, I said.  “The political and union organizations almost vanished from the conflict,” continues the narrative.  “It was the local inhabitants who radicalized the process.  On the night of Wednesday the 15th, an infuriated crowd moved nine train-cars, weighing ten tons each, and pushed them off the bridge over the Avenida 6 de Marzo, blocking all traffic on that road.”
Basta. Ya no pasa ningún convoy, carajo.Thus, those who began to go down to La Paz were the neighbors, the relatives and the acquaintances of the dead, the wounded and those being sought—the enraged mass created by years of neoliberalism, the inheritors of communitarian organization and union struggles, Aymaras and Quechuas, Indians and cholos, those who work with their hands, the urban indiada—yes, the urban Indian mass so feared by the anointed caste.  Meanwhile, at the other end of the city, the drainage of La Paz was closed off by Indian villagers coming up from the South. 

At that point, after the killings of October 12 in El Alto, an upheaval that proved to be decisive was taking place in La Paz itself.  Dozens at first, and then hundreds and hundreds of professionals, academics, artisits, writers, jounalists, and other middle-class people had started to form “pickets”—so they called them—in the churches, declaring themselves on hunger strike “in solidarity with the city of El Alto and with the families of those who have been murdered,” in the words of their first communiqué.  They denounced “the culpability of the political class” and demanded the resignation of “Sánchez de Lozada and his government.”
The initiators of the hunger strike feared an imminent confrontation between the multitude, which was occupying streets and plazas, and the army.  At dawn on the 17th, the crowd surrounded Plaza Murillo and threatened the Palacio Quemado (the presidential palace), while a first line of police and second and third lines of troops stood in between.  According to Ana María Campero, a former People’s Advocate, a distinguished political figure and supporter of the hunger-striking “pickets,” between the 16th and the 17th the picketers mobilized urgently to “convince one and all not to provoke a confrontation that would cause a great deal of bloodshed.”  One week later, Campero described in the magazine Pulso (October 24) the “mediating” role of the hunger strikers:

While cell-phones were being activated to contact grassroots leaders, Sacha Llorenti, Ricardo Calla and Roger Cortés went to meet the marchers.  The marchers responded that they would do nothing to provoke clashes.  I managed to make contact with General Juan Veliz, Commander-in-Chief of the Army.  I had a long talk with him which I began by saying: “Please, General, don’t shoot at the people.” Juan Ramón Quintana did the same with other high-ranking officers.  As we later learned, that same night the military leaders told Sánchez de Lozada that they were returning to their barracks.  In the evening they had allowed a contingent of miners to march through Patacamaya.

Weeks later, a certain leftist said to me that what the professionals, intellectuals and artists had done reflected a mixture of fear and hypocrisy.  No question about fear, I replied; fear was everywhere, from El Alto to the fancy neighborhood of Sopocachi.  But classes don’t act on the basis of hypocrisy.
“We were afraid here, in Villa Ingenio,” I was told by Father Wilson Soria, one of the priests of El Alto who in his parish of Christ the Savior dodged bullets to rescue the wounded, and who later joined local people in signing an exceptional petition demanding, “out of respect for human dignity and brotherhood in cultural diversity,” nothing less than “the gradual dissolution of the army.”  It is certain that Father Soria would not have been received by General Juan Veliz; nor would that have been his wish or his duty.
“In La Paz, we were all afraid,” said Jenny Cárdenas, unsurpassed singer of Bolivian music and also an initiator of the pickets.  “But it was not because of fear that I joined the hunger strike; it was because I don’t want to live in a country where in order to govern they have to keep killing people.”  It was not fear.  It was the sudden shift of allegiance of one class toward another, as happens with great social movements.  It was another January 12, 1994—the day that vast throngs in Mexico City demanded that the army stop killing the Zapatistas and the insurgent indigenous communities of Chiapas.
This upheaval in La Paz, which spread to Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosí, Tarija, Sucre, Santa Cruz and other cities, ended up isolating the president, the army, the US Embassy, and the irreducible nuclei of oligarchical racism grouped around this triumvirate.  When the military high command stepped aside, the president and the Embassy were left alone.  Despite explicit support from the Department of State in Washington, the collapse was imminent.

On Thursday October 16 the whole center of La Paz—avenues, plazas, and connecting streets—was occupied by the multitude that had come from El Alto, from the altiplano, from Oruro, los Yungas, and the valleys to the South, from the poor neighborhoods, from the universities and schools, from the markets, from the mountains above and from the lands below.
La Paz, occupied city.  With the violence of their bodies and their dead, as I’ve said, the insurgents had conquered the city.  They were now preparing themselves, literally at whatever cost, to take over the residence of the president and his closest subordinates, especially Carlos Sánchez Berzain, Minister of Defense and architect of the massacres.  And to string them up, they said.  The usual protections had largely dissolved.  All that was left was a severely divided High Command, which had already had to execute Indian soldiers for refusing to fire on their own people.  It knew all too well about the possibility of five hundred more dead, and that such slaughter would signify, for themselves, defeat and disgrace.
By October 17 daybreak, say the reports, “the military had second thoughts about continuing to fire on the people.”  The president received word that the High Command had “flexibilized” its position, and they demanded that he quit.  The rumor of his resignation spread through the streets; at 1 p.m., Sánchez de Lozada drafted his statement.  Three hours later, together with his closest advisers, he escaped from his residence by helicopter.  From the airport of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, they all flew that night to Miami.  Once the plane had taken off, someone sent the letter of resignation by fax from the airport to the president of the Chamber of Deputies.  In this finale to a postmodern operetta, the fleeing president, in his farewell message, nonetheless managed to accuse the social organizations of “national disintegration,” “corporatist and trade-unionist authoritarianism,” and “fratricidal violence.”
There it ended.  The insurgents had won.  Vice-President Carlos Mesa, who on the 13th had distanced himself from the president, took over the presidency.  In the next few days he promised a referendum on the export of gas, a Constituent Assembly, and other demands of the people’s movement.  Peasants returned to their communities; miners returned to Huanuni.  As the miners departed, they said to the people in El Alto, “When you need to bring down another presdient, just let us know and we’ll be back.”
The new president was not of the people.  They had not “taken power.”  They had suffered 81 dead and 400 wounded.  But they had obtained what they had been seeking ever since the Feruary 2003 rebellion in La Paz, which had already cost them another 33 dead—many of them felled by army snipers.  This time they forced out the murderer.  They had won.
Again the question arises: Was this insurrection just a violent episode of a single week, only to be quelled in a return to the normal routines of State oppression, or was it a harbinger of something yet to come, or of something already underway?
I cannot answer for now.  What I have seen, however, is that the feeling of victory is palpable, strong, and lasting; and with this strange, unusual feeling—which does not calm the people’s rage because they have gained little while seeing that the political caste goes back to its old games—the October insurgents continue their working lives and deliberate among themselves:  let’s see how we can do it, let’s see where, and let’s take care of ourselves because they are not going to want to follow through with anything; they only offer us promises so that they can get our votes. And what about all those dead, wounded, and maimed?  Was it only so that “they” could go on winning elections, with everything staying the same?  Was it for this that we put our lives on the line?
Violence continues to incubate in Bolivia: the violence of those who won but whose victory was not complete, of those who don’t want to be once again tricked by the eternal señores, the racist oligarchs of the capital; and also the other violence, that of the señores, who during this unstable interregnum are regrouping and nurturing their vengeance.

But is this a revolution?  What kind of revolution is it if it did not destroy the state apparatus and its repressive force, if a revolutionary workers’ party did not take power, if it had no leaders, if it issued no proclamations?  What kind of revolution is it if all it did was bring down a president and his clique of murderers?  What kind of revolution, if the insurgents did not stay in La Paz, if they just returned to their communities, their plots of land, their mines and workshops, their neighborhoods and their homes—in sum, their daily lives?
What has just occurred in Bolivia is an age-old phenomenon of rebellion, but it is also, at the same time, radically new.  All questions are therefore valid; let us try to answer them.
A revolution is not something that happens in the State, in its institutions and among its politicians.  It comes from below and from outside.  It happens when center-stage is taken over—with the violence of their bodies and the rage of their souls—precisely by those who come from below and outside: those who are always shunted aside, those who take orders, those whom the rulers look down on as a mass of voters, electoral clientele, beasts of burden, survey-fodder.  It happens when these erupt, give themselves a political goal, organize themselves in accordance with their own decisions and awareness and, with lucidity, reflection and violence, insert their world into the world of those who rule, and obtain, as in the present case, what they were demanding.  What comes after will come after.
If revolution occurred only when a new ruling elite took power, then where would that leave the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the revolution of 1857 in India (which the British called a “mutiny”), the revolution of 1905 in Russia, the German revolution of 1919, the Spanish revolution of 1936, the Greek revolution of 1944, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the Guatemalan revolution, the Salvadoran revolution, and so many others canonized in the histories of the Left?
In July 1917, faced with the unknowns of an unprecedented mass movement in Russia, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin asked himself, “What defines a revolution?”  This was his answer:

If we take the revolutions of the twentieth century as examples, we shall, of course, have to admit that the Portuguese and the Turkish revolutions are both bourgeois revolutions.  Neither of them, however, is a “people’s” revolution, since in neither does the mass of the people, its vast majority, come out actively, independently, with their own economic and political demands to any noticeable degree.  By contrast, although the Russian bourgeois revolution of 1905-7 displayed no such “brilliant” successes as at times fell to the Portuguese and Turkish revolutions, it was undoubtedly a real “people’s” revolution, since the mass of the people, their majority, the very lowest social groups, crushed by oppression and exploitation, rose independently and stamped on the entire course of the revolution the imprint of their own demands, their attempts to build in their own way a new society in place of the old society that was being destroyed.3
Vladimir Ilyich knew that he was facing new conditions, engendered by the expansion of capital in the preceding decades and by the violence of its wars: the first revolutions of the 20th century.  He did not define them by their leaderships, their programs and their results, but rather by their protagonists, their dynamics, and their facts.  He sought to define and to name what was new.  At the beginning of the 21st century, after another expansive wave of domination of capital in recent decades, we are once again facing the unknown.

It is not easy to call this Bolivian insurrection a “revolution.”  It is not easy to begin again with that old tale when there seemed to be “consensus” that revolutions were a thing of the past and that from now on all we would have would be elections, democratic transitions, governabilities, agreements and consensus.  It is not easy to have to deal once:4 again with the intractable: revolution, once again here, once again violent, confused, dirty, ill clad, ill fed, ill spoken, stinking of poverty, once again violently bringing down on us its bodies and its dead.
Better perhaps to say that this was not a revolution but rather a big riot, a rebellion, an insurrection which made many mistakes, which had no leading party, which was only for gas and for the sowers of coca, a people’s movement, a big uprising and little more.
This leaves us with the balance-sheet drawn by the newspaper La Razón, lucid conservative mouthpiece, which on October 30 wrote:  “In a confused, amorphous and bloody conflict of 41 days, the Bolivian president had resigned, defeated in a battle that he never led, asphyxiated by his closest circle, isolated from others, but certain that he did nothing wrong in his second term of 437 days, begun on August 2, 2002.”  With a certain disenchantment at this collapse without honor and glory, the columnist added, “Presidential conservatism prevailed, inspired by a technocratic approach to governance and by a passion for surveys conducted in people’s homes.”
“Confused, amorphous and bloody conflict”: each of us describes, with our own words and feelings, what we see from our vantage-point and what we perceive on the basis of our social position and consciousness.  That of La Razón’s commentator cannot help but be a consciousness that is upset by the events that his perceptions recorded.
I maintain, by contrast, that what we are witnessing is a revolution, whose moment of triumph was the taking of the city of La Paz and the flight of the government of Sánchez de Lozada on October 17, 2003.  I do not know what will come after.  I know that revolution is once again alive in these Latin American lands, even if to conservative eyes it appears as “a confused, amorphous and bloody conflict.”

The Indians, the cholos, the men and women of the subaltern classes, with their ways of organizing themselves and deciding, with or without their many-layered organizations, with the leaders that were at hand, with the violence of their bodies and their dead and with the fury of their souls, took La Paz, paralyzed the army, and brought down the president and the government of the murderers.  Whatever happens afterward, which we don’t yet know, this is called revolution.  To deny it the name is to deny its protagonists—the Indians, the cholos, the women and men of Bolivia’s subaltern classes—their difficult victory.  Better we should have faith in them.

Campero, Ana María, “Los piqueteros de la esperanza,” Pulso, Oct. 24-30, 2003, p. 6.

Escobar de Pabón, Silvia, “Ajuste y liberalización, cuna de los movimientos sociales,” Pulso, Nov. 14-20, 2003, pp. 8-9
García Linera, Alvaro, “El Alto insurrecto,” El Juguete Rabioso, La Paz, Oct. 12, 2003.

Mamani, Pablo, “Levantamiento en El Alto: el rugir de la multitud” (

Rivera Cusicanqui, Silvia, Oprimidos pero no vencidos: Luchas del campesinado aymara y qhechwa, 1900-1980, 4th edition in Spanish. La Paz: Ediciones Yachaywasi, 2003.

Serulnikov, Sergio, “Costumbres y reglas: Racionalización y conflictos sociales durante la era borbónica (Provincia de Chayanta, siglo XVIII),” in Forrest Hylton et al, Ya es otro tiempo el presente: Cuatro momentos de insurgencia indígena, La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2003, pp. 78-133.

1. Gilly’s words here are violencia popular.  It would be misleading to render this, however (especially to US readers), by a phrase like “mass violence” because, as is evident in what follows, the actual application of deadly force in these confrontations came almost entirely from the direction of the State.

2. Led by the MNR (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario) in response to the government’s veto to its victory in the 1951 election, the 1952 Revolution was supported by a broad-based alliance of the progressive elements of the professional class, intellectuals and students, organized labor and landless peasants.  With the crucial support of workers’ militias, the MNR established a revolutionary government that nationalized without compensation the foreign-owned mining industry, conferred improvements in wages and benefits for workers, enacted a substantial land reform, and severely constrained the power of the armed forces.  The U.S. policy of “constructive engagement” with the MNR regime strengthened the party’s conservative fraction, which progressively took control of the process and by the late 1960s managed to reverse the revolutionary conquests of the 1950s.

3. The State and Revolution, chapter III, section 1.

4. Gilly’s play on words, tratar con lo intratable, resists direct translation.

This entry was posted in 39, Volume 19, No. 3. Bookmark the permalink.