Bolivian Horizons: an Interview with Historian Sinclair Thomson
Jeffery R. Webber caught up with
JRW: In a 2005 New Left Review article, co-authored with Forrest Hylton, you write: “If Latin America has been the site of the most radical opposition to neoliberal restructuring over the past five years,
ST: The way we’ve conceived of it, the three revolutionary moments would be, first of all, the indigenous anti-colonial revolution that took place in the late 18th century, in 1780 and 1781. This was an insurrection that liberated most of the southern Andean territories in a region from what is today southern
Tupac Amaru is the most commonly known figure in the leadership, a descendant of Inca nobility who wanted to restore Inca sovereignty in the
That movement was eventually put down after about a year, and yet Spanish colonial government was never fully restored after that. There was a political stalemate, with colonial forces holding on, but within a generation Spanish colonial forces would be overthrown by a new anti-colonial rebellion led by creole elites; that is, descendants of European colonizers. It was no longer an indigenous movement, that which overthrew the Spanish rule. In our view the independence movement which took place in the 1810s and 1820s was not a true social revolution, given its leadership and dynamics. It was a political revolution, but it was headed by creole sectors of the elite who managed to reconsolidate power in their own hands, with little redistribution of wealth internally or transformations in political representation. It was not an insurrectionary process in which the revolutionary forces rose up from below. So we don’t actually include the independence wars (1809-1825) as a distinct revolutionary moment, because we are thinking about these revolutions as social revolutions primarily. Obviously this is a matter of historical debate. James Dunkerley, in his important new book Bolivia: Revolution and the Power of History in the Present (Institute for the Study of the
The second major revolutionary moment for us, in these terms, would be the 1952-1953 National Revolution in Bolivia, in which indigenous peasants and working class forces rose up in conjunction with the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), a middle-class, nationalist political party. Together their combined forces overthrew a “semi-feudal” oligarchy associated with the wealthy tin barons and big landlords in the countryside.
This revolution was not a socialist revolution, although there were important Marxist and socialist elements present within it, especially within the mine workers’ movement. Overall it added up to a nationalist rather than a socialist revolution. But it did transform social relations in important ways: there was state takeover of the mining sector; a very important redistribution of land – the second deepest land reform in
And then the third revolutionary moment for us would emerge out of a cycle of insurgency that begins in 2000 with the Water War in Cochabamba and which builds in 2001, 2002, and in 2003 really comes to a head with the uprising in October that overthrew the neoliberal regime of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. That opened up a fully revolutionary period in Bolivia in which popular forces both in the countryside and the cities came together: both indigenous and from other working sectors; students; a variety of different mobilized organizations – neighbourhood associations, market vendors, trade union organizations of all sorts, coca growers, and rural agricultural producers, or peasants – all joined forces. They overthrew Sánchez de Lozada and set the parameters for national political and economic debate.
After 2003 we have an open period in which the traditional political elites have been pretty much swept aside through popular mobilization. The right has lost any kind of hegemonic project for
One of the demands of protesters in 2003 was for a restructuring of the hydrocarbons (natural gas and oil) sector.
The earlier neoliberal law on hydrocarbons was scrapped, but the
Out of those elections Evo Morales, and the Movement to Socialism party (MAS) were elected. Morales took power in early 2006. We see the election of Evo Morales as an effect of the revolutionary process that had been underway since 2003. Although the government itself cannot be properly considered to be a revolutionary government, it is the effect of a revolutionary process which is still underway.
We are still in a phase in which this third revolutionary moment has not been entirely played out, or resolved.
JRW: Before we get further into the details of the Morales government, can you describe the relationship in broad terms between the organized trade-union and party Left and the indigenous movements throughout the twentieth century, and how this relationship changed between 2000 and 2005, if it did in fact change.
ST: One of the ways we’ve tried to understand these revolutionary moments is to look at the relationship between the indigenous majority in Bolivia and other radical or dissident sectors which in contemporary times would be on the Left, in the trade union movement, urban working classes, industrialized workers; and in earlier historical moments, some dissident members of the elite who are looking for an alliance with indigenous forces.
In our view, the reason why these revolutionary moments – which are rare and unusual – have taken place is that there has been a kind of convergence between an indigenous tradition of political struggle and another tradition of political struggle. At times this is represented by the Left, and at times is represented more by what we call national-popular forces, which may not identify completely with a Marxist or socialist project, but which tend to be anti-imperialist and critical of an oligarchic elite that has managed power in
If we look at the twentieth century to the present, we think the key to understanding a revolutionary moment like that of the 1950s and that of today is the convergence between these two streams of political struggle. These streams have tended not to intersect, but to have been somewhat at cross purposes, unable to communicate or to join forces for different reasons. But in those exceptional moments when they come together, they are capable of producing profound, radical political change.
This occurred at mid-century with major mobilization of peasant forces in the countryside, over a period of years in the late 1940s leading up to 1952 and 1953. At the same time you have the emergence of a powerful mine workers movement, organized through trade unions, and some nationalist and leftist political parties, especially the Trotskyist party, the Revolutionary Workers Party (POR). And then you also have the role of the MNR in 1952 and 1953. What happens in this moment is that indigenous peasant forces join up with trade union proletarian and Centre-Left political parties. But they join up as junior members in a unified front. The POR, the Trotskyist party, and the MNR, the nationalist party, are leading and steering the process; they are working with and offering concessions to indigenous peasant communities to join into this nationalist movement.
The result provides significant advances. The agrarian reform leads to a major transformation of land tenure in
Neoliberalism has had a devastating toll in
In that political vacuum which was opened up by the decline of the organized trade union movement due to neoliberalism, peasant forces and indigenous forces – and in particular coca growers – began to organize in a much more autonomous fashion; they adopted an increasingly radical ethnic discourse, an Indian discourse for self-determination, moving away from the older class discourses which were prevalent since the 1950s.
When the latest cycle of insurgency happens, starting in 2000, indigenous initiatives led the way. Much of the mobilization was happening in the countryside in the form of road blockades and peasant sieges of the cities, including the capital,
At the same time, indigenous discourses assumed greater prominence, not only with indigenous communities in the countryside, but also increasingly in the city. The uprising in 2003 began in the countryside, in places like Warisata and Sorata, but moved quickly to the urban setting of El Alto. And in El Alto, over 80 percent of the population identify in one way or another with an indigenous group, the Aymara people or the Quechua people. This population is increasingly adopting an indigenous identity, assuming forms of indigenous political discourse, and is made up of people who are themselves migrants from rural communities or the offspring of migrants from rural communities. So there are major sectors of El Alto who have a strong Aymara identity.
There are also important sectors of the city of El Alto who have arrived from the mining centers which were so heavily hit after neoliberal restructuring, and privatization of the mines; people who were left without jobs and who migrated to the city of El Alto to try to struggle to find some kind of livelihood, usually in the informal sector during the neoliberal period.
So in El Alto you find the convergence that I was talking about before between indigenous social forces and other working class forces, people identified with the class struggle and with the very militant political consciousness that existed in the mines historically in
But there’s an important way in which indigenous leadership, indigenous initiative, and indigenous discourse become central to the uprising in 2003. And in 2005, with the subsequent wave of insurgency you see indigenous communities again mobilizing around the country as well as mine workers again playing an important role. You can see the convergence.
In the end, the government that emerged out of this series of protests, the Movement to Socialism, is a movement that has taken up this indigenous discourse as central to its own political agenda. And that is itself a reflection of the power that indigenous forces have acquired in this period, in contrast to the earlier periods in Bolivian history when they tended to be junior partners in an alliance.
JRW: Turning to the Morales government itself, two questions: how much does the new government reflect the objectives that were expressed by the indigenous and popular movements from 2000 until today; and at the same time, could you comment on the huge range of descriptions of this new government, ranging from revolutionary socialist to neoliberal? Obviously, it cannot be all things. So what is your perspective on that?
ST: In many ways MAS is a political expression that reflects the convergence of these two traditions that I have been talking about, an indigenous and a national-popular tradition. We can see this in different ways. Symbolically, you can see it in the fact that the leader of the party, Evo Morales, is himself of indigenous background, and has taken on increasingly an explicit identification with indigenous society.
His vice-president, and partner in government, Álvaro García Linera, is someone of creole ancestry, meaning the white descendant of Europeans born in the
The MAS’s political agenda combines indigenous demands with national-popular demands. What would be the indigenous demands that MAS has claimed to represent? First of all the idea that it is a revolutionary government whose aim is to decolonize the Bolivian state and Bolivian society. The argument here is one that comes from indigenous intellectuals, that
At the same time the MAS has made central to its whole agenda the nationalization of natural resources, which is an old national-popular demand going back to the 1920s and 1930s. The Left and nationalist sectors earlier in the twentieth century called for mines to be turned over to the state, and land to be turned over to Indians. That slogan, voiced from the Left, in figures like the Trotskyist leader Tristan Marof, was taken up as the central slogan during the national revolutionary period of the early 1950s.
The MAS made this central to its own agenda, following in the footsteps of the popular movements. In 2006, on May 1 they carried out their own version of a nationalization of natural gas, which has been analyzed across the board, as an extremely radical measure or a very timid measure for state control over natural resources. So here again in the MAS you see the combination of both indigenous and national-popular demands and discourses being expressed.
Many of the contradictions in this government have to do with the fact that it has been trying to please such disparate social forces. It has been trying to represent indigenous groups and coca growers, but also appeal middle-class sectors and to gain legitimacy as a reformist government. The MAS was in fact elected because it won a significant portion of the middle-class vote in 2005.
At the same time, it has tried to get along with transnational companies in the hydrocarbons sector, the
This kind of balancing act, in which it has tried to conciliate all of these different sectors, has grown increasingly unviable. The personal popularity that Morales has enjoyed and the credibility that his government possessed in the early days are gradually being exhausted. There is increasing frustration on all sides. The scale of conflict is intensifying.
How do we characterize this kind of government? The government has never described itself as being socialist. It has declared itself a revolutionary government, but not a socialist government. So, I don’t think there’s any question of it being a revolutionary socialist government. It is closer to a revolutionary nationalist government in the Bolivian tradition. In fact, the MAS has often modeled itself on the MNR in terms of its own aspirations for power; just as the MNR modeled itself on the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of
It is a government that the indigenous movements also look upon with ambivalence. The indigenous movements see Evo Morales as a legitimate representative of their people, and critically support the government because of his presidency. At the same time they are suspicious of the government because the cabinet, the ministers, most of the state is still in the hands of non-indigenous sectors, and sectors who do not necessarily share the indigenous agenda.
This is a situation which is contradictory, and which looks increasingly unsustainable. Indigenous forces have started to move away from the state, although they had been collaborating with it to a certain extent since Evo Morales took power.
I am not inclined to characterize it as a revolutionary government per se, even if we were not thinking about this as a socialist revolution. It does see itself as a revolutionary nationalist government, but the issue is the extent to which it is actually following through on the aspirations which were expressed by popular sectors in the insurrections of 2003 and 2005. It has not put itself at the head of those popular demands. It has pursued its own political party interests for purposes of governability, as part of a bid for hegemonic power, rather than trying to carry through the more radical demands which were expressed by the popular movements.
We can see this in the form of the so-called nationalization of hydrocarbons. The result was not a more radical measure of expropriation of foreign property, but an attempt to work out some kind of negotiated agreement in a joint-venture between the Bolivian government and foreign capital. There has been talk of an ambitious agrarian revolution, and yet to date land redistribution has not been carried out. The Constituent Assembly had the potential to be a revolutionary forum in which different sectors of Bolivian society could debate a new Constitution for the country and redesign state-society relations; it offered an interesting kind of space for society to debate its own future, and for social organizations to have a direct voice in the decision making for how the society should be restructured. However, the MAS did not allow for a Constituent Assembly in which popular forces and popular organizations could express themselves directly. Instead it sought to close down the forms of political representation which had been opened up through the revolutionary process. It sought to force all popular energies to be channeled through the MAS itself, in order to make itself the sole representative for popular forces, as it has done. This in many ways restricted the possibilities that had been created through the insurrectionary process. As a result many popular organizations were frustrated and put into a secondary role, expected to support the government while postponing their own demands for change.
This is a fairly typical kind of historical process in a revolutionary moment. What we’re seeing here is a classical scenario in a sense. The way in which the Constituent Assembly was negotiated by the MAS, using it to reach an agreement with right-wing sectors to allow MAS to constitute itself as the only viable political force in the country and excluding popular forces from a direct political role, this constituted a kind of closing down of the revolutionary opening which took place in 2003. I think that this process of closure is not over, and this political process is not over. Things could shift if the current balance of forces proves to be unsustainable. Things could reopen. Things could spin out of control into some kind of right-wing counter-revolutionary recovery. But we have entered a new period of stalemate, between the rising counter-revolutionary forces, the MAS government somewhat in the middle but increasingly unable to direct the process, middle classes drawing back from the MAS but lacking any mainstream political alternatives, and then the popular social forces which are increasingly frustrated with the lack of forward progress.
JRW: I’m interested in hearing more about the MAS’s role in trying to balance these social forces with irreconcilable fundamental interests, and how this is an untenable, unsustainable moment. My own sense is that these conflicting interests have been expressed most clearly around the Constituent Assembly process, both within the assembly and on the streets. I’m also wondering about something else that few people have talked about: where is the military in this context? The oligarchy in the eastern lowlands seem to be rearticulating their political forces, through their civic committees, as you mentioned, and through the departmental prefectures (governorships) of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija, and the political party, PODEMOS. But where is the military in all of this? Obviously, when they speak publicly military officials say their job is to uphold the constitutional order, but militaries don’t typically announce coups beforehand. One often finds out about plans for a coup only after the coup has taken place. What are the chances of a counter-revolutionary reaction channeled through the military?
ST: It’s not always easy to know what’s going on in the minds of the military. But my sense is that historically the Bolivian military has played contrasting roles. The Bolivian military has, of course, for decades in the 1960s through to the early 1980s constituted a counter-revolutionary, authoritarian force which took expression in military governments, like those of Barrientos, Bánzer, García Meza. Obviously, the military can pose a counter-revolutionary threat. The possibility of dictatorship is something that many Bolivians are very familiar with, and know within their own lifetimes.
The Bolivian military has also flipped at times historically, and sided with national-popular sectors. This occurred most strikingly in the 1930s, when the oligarchy was on the defensive. Nationalist military figures joined with trade unionists in the aftermath of the Chaco War (1932-1935), and it was those military governments which brought about the first nationalization of oil and major trade union reforms, especially a labour law in 1938 that was fundamental for the subsequent development of the trade union movement. It was also the military which instituted a National Convention in 1938 that was the equivalent of the Constituent Assembly today. Out of that National Convention very important pieces of legislation were passed, including the declaration that private property rights could never be absolute in Bolivia; that private property had to perform a social function; and that where private property was held in a way that was not productive for the economy, for society, it could be seized by the state and handed over to those who would work it for productive ends. This is very important legislation which created the basis for the agrarian reform in the 1950s, and creates the possibility for a transformation of the land tenure regime in the eastern lowland regions today. Again, the military played an important national-popular role when oil was nationalized in 1969. The military government of Juan José Torres was in power when the Popular Assembly of 1970 was held, a very unstable, left-wing popular expression that was subsequently overthrown by a right-wing military reaction.
The point is that there have been, historically, progressive and nationalist forces within the military who would see things in the same perspective as a revolutionary nationalist movement or government in
One of its most significant weaknesses of the Right which is being rearticulated today in the lowlands is that it does not have strong links in the military. There have been military governments – like that of Arze Gómez or the Bánzer regime – with significant connections (including drug connections) to the lowlands. But at the moment, the eastern lowlands do not have a controlling presence in the Bolivian military. I imagine it’s an area that they’re working to redress now, but it’s not something that they can transform overnight. I think it’s going to be a longer term project for the Right in the lowlands, to gain more of a foothold in the military.
In the more recent cycles of insurgency, the Bolivian military has functioned in places like
But for the time being, the civic organizations are really spearheading the counter-revolution. These civic organizations represent business and especially landholding interests in the lowland region. But the elite in the lowlands is itself divided in some ways, and it does not have perfect control over popular sectors. Evo Morales did win over 30 percent of the vote there in the last presidential elections. So there are fissures and conflicts – class conflicts and ethnic conflicts – opening up in the lowlands as well.
Counter-revolutionary forces are on the rise. The military is something to keep an eye on. But my sense of it is that a reaction is not going to come immediately from the military.
JRW: A last question. The Morales government has been in power for only a little over a year and a half, so it is difficult to tell, but what has been the response of the US state to the Morales government? You mentioned the well-known role of the US in Latin America, supporting oligarchic social forces through “democracy promotion,” something that William I. Robinson has talked about, supporting right-wing civic groups through funding, through the National Endowment for Democracy, and other American institutions. But has the Bush administration vacillated in terms of how it has read Evo Morales? If you look back at the MNR in the 1950s the
ST: Yes, that’s interesting. In the 1950s the
With the MAS, the
The Bush administration has in some ways not been all that concerned with the Bolivian government. Its attention has been directed elsewhere, obviously in the
When Morales was elected and hydrocarbon reform instituted, there was concern in international financial sectors that the so-called nationalization could be a negative example for other parts of
The relations between the
The Morales government has tried to cultivate relations with the Democratic Party and the
We’ll have to see if the current stalemate leads to new political mobilization in
Jeffery R. Webber is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto and a member of the New Socialist Group.