Review: Bolivia’s Uncertain Revolution
A review I did recently for Detroit-based magazine Against the Current.
Los ritmos de Pachakuti:
Levantamiento y movilización en Bolivia (2000-2005)
Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar
Bajo Tierra Ediciones, D.F., México. 2009.
Social Movements as Anti-State Forces
Raul Zibechi. Translated by Ramor Ryan
AK Press, Oakland, 2010, 163 pages, $15.95 paper.
From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia:
Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales
Jeffery R. Webber
Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2011, 236 pages + notes and index. $19 paper.
BOLIVIA UNDER THE presidency of Evo Morales has become a favorite topic among progressives and social democrats, who have likened his ascendency to the nation’s highest post as nothing short of revolutionary. The buzz around Morales, a long time social movement figure and the first Indigenous president of the Andean nation has only lost a little luster since his election almost six years ago.
Many otherwise critical thinkers have chosen to ignore the complex realities on the ground, instead choosing to believe that indeed major societal gains and positive changes can come through taking state power.
A landlocked nation of just under 10 mil-lion people, Bolivia was barely on the radar for many North Americans before the now famous “Water War” rocked Cochabamba in 2000. In the years that have followed, Bolivia has gone through great waves of resistance, repression, rebellion, and reform.In 2009, Mexican activist and writer Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar’s book Los ritmos de Pachakuti: Levantamiento y movilización en Bolivia (2000-2005) was published, quickly becoming a seminal text on this period in Bolivia. Gutiérrez, who lived in Bolivia between 1984 and 2001 — including years spent in prison for her political activities — looks at the roots of resistance movements during the five years that led up to Morales’ election as President.
The author’s account relies on firsthand research and interviews and a plethora of texts from a variety of political currents, as well as gems not available elsewhere including her personal correspondence with Alvaro García Linera, who today is Vice President of Bolivia. Gutiérrez shares her meticulously constructed analysis of what gave rise to today’s resistance movements in Bolivia, and how historic, cultural, and social factors influence the structures and styles of organizing that emerged throughout this period.
“Beginning with hundreds of collective actions of deliberation and decision-making, of community organizing and the construction of reciprocal trust, of struggle and defense of the commons, a number of situations were created in which the ethnic and social antagonisms that penetrate and fragment Bolivian society were enlightened with the clarity lightning offers in those dark nights,” writes Gutiérrez in the introduction.
Gutiérrez doesn’t use a cookie-cutter ideological lens through which to understand events in Bolivia, but instead draws upon her previous work critiquing revolutionary strategies and the “struggle to take power” in Latin America in the 20th century.
“I did not try to develop a theory but rather to outline a theoretical strategy that would allow on one hand, to once again make intelligible the profound actions of insubordination which occurred in Bolivia between 2000 and 2005 and, on the other hand, to provide elements for a broader reflection on the multiple horizons of desire that are displayed from such collective actions of antagonism and insubordination and which, in a certain tradition, have been designated with the term social emancipation,” she writes.
She takes John Holloway’s idea of “changing the world without taking power” a step further, modifying his formulation thus: “Taking power is a condition neither necessary nor sufficient to change the world.”
Class and Communal Struggles
Los ritmos de Pachakuti penetrates processes and methods of organizing rarely visible to outsiders, examining the roots and growth of the organizations and spaces that brought about the successful “Water War” in Cochabamba in 2000, Aymara organizing in El Alto, the “Gas Wars” of 2003 and 2005, and coca growers struggles in the Chapare region.
Three main tendencies in Bolivian social movements from 2000-2005, as identified in Los Ritmos de Pachakuti, are rural and primarily urban struggles that operated autonomously and flexibly in fluid cooperation with each other; communal uprisings, especially among Aymara people, which created physical and symbolic limits to the representation of colonial and state power; and the social struggles of coca growers, which followed a trajectory of displacing traditional elites though electoral means.
“From this general characterization, we discovered a harsh and increasing systematic tension between a ‘communal-popular’ perspective and another, which is clinging to a ‘national-popular’ horizon,” notes Gutiérrez. She later clarifies that while this tension exists, it is also not possible to separate these two currents completely, thus problematizing any attempt to understand Bolivian movements through a lens that identifies with one or the other.
Gutiérrez is deeply intertwined with movements in Bolivia, and also an academic (the first version of the text was developed as part of her PhD thesis). Los ritmos de Pachakuti is heavily footnoted and detail oriented, which assures its worth for people studying Bolivia but renders the text rather dense for a more casual readers. At the moment Los ritmos de Pachakuti is available in Spanish through Bajo Tierra and Sísifo Editiones, but an English translation is forthcoming.
Dynamics of Dispersing Power
More recently, book length works by critical scholars and activists have begun to appear in English, challenging dominant narratives about 21st century Bolivia.
Last summer, AK Press published an English translation of Uruguayan writer Raul Zibechi’s Dispersing Power, which examines contemporary Aymara organizing in the city of El Alto. Zibechi notes that Morales’ inauguration “presented an unprecedented challenge to Bolivian social movements,” and is clear about his own views that “the state and capitalism are inseparable,” and thus “there is no point in blaming the government or issuing calls of ‘betrayal.’”
Zibechi spends the bulk of Dispersing Power examining how the Aymara movement in El Alto has organized over the past decades, and especially since the first major Aymara uprising against neoliberalism in 2000. He says the uprisings in Bolivia since 2000 represent the most important “revolution within a revolution” since the Zapatista uprising in Mexico began in 1994.
“The Aymara experience is not only linked with the continental struggles but it also adds something substantial — the construction of actual non-state powers,” writes Zibechi. The forms that autonomous Aymara organizing takes in El Alto include the provision and organization of municipal works; operation and maintenance of schools, parks, and radio stations; and conflict resolution and community justice systems.
These non-state powers are most often realized through general assemblies, neighborhood council meetings, barrio community groups, and a unique character defined by Aymara sociologist Félix Patzi as “authoritarianism based in consensus.”
Zibechi explains that during moments of insurrection or uprising, “confrontation, even armed, does not require a special body separated from the community.” Instead, the mandatory and continuous rotation of tasks that exists in Aymara culture, social movements and non-state structures of everyday life extend to armed insurrection when the circumstances require.
One of the prominent themes in Dispersing Power is the way the movement in El Alto functions to do just that. El Alto is divided up into 500 urbanizations of between 300 to 1000 residents, meaning that these neighborhood assemblies remain small enough to allow for the non-delegation of power to a smaller coordinating body within the assemblies.
Zibechi contrasts this with the recommendations of a US Agency for International Development report, which indicate that the agency would like to see the city divided up instead into neighborhoods of 3000 to 5000 people. USAID urges policy moves and incentives to centralize neighborhood organizations in El Alto, which Zibechi argues is because their dispersion “impedes the creation of an urban-political panoptic — political, but also social, cultural and organizational — that could encapsulate broad populations under the same umbrella of control.”
According to Zibechi, the dispersion of power has another important element: the avoidance of creating hierarchical leadership structures. This is done in part through the continuous rotation of tasks, and through a requirement of reaching consensus in assemblies.
“The institutionalization of social movements is one way of establishing state powers, in which the leaders — or the bodies of leaders — are separated from the movement as a whole,” writes Zibechi, indicating that a key success of the Aymara movement is the active avoidance of institutionalization and the separation of leadership from the movement.
Zibechi’s work is an important contribution to understanding struggle in Bolivia, and interesting because of his choice to concentrate on ongoing resistance movements instead of critiques of the Morales administration.
From Rebellion to Morales
Jeffery Webber’s From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales, can be read as an academic, carefully crafted complement to Zibechi and Gutiérrez’s work. “The aim is to offer an overall portrait of some of the key dynamics of the Bolivian process, something that has not yet been accomplished sufficiently in English,” writes Webber in the introduction.
From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia is an ambitious project: it advances 16 theses about the ongoing political process in Bolivia, moving from analysis of conflicts that became national flashpoints, like the 2006 miners’ strike in Huanuni, to the economic and intellectual currents underpinning the Morales administration.
The book’s focus is not so much the architecture of resistance and social movements, as on furnishing concrete examples of how the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) has had a hand in demobilizing social movements and, as the title suggests, channeling countrywide rebellions into a reformist project under the guise of what Webber calls “reconstituted neoliberalism.”
“At the same time Morales speaks about anticapitalist ecological politics to the international media, his domestic policies reinforce a complex and reconstituted neoliberalism, based on the export of primary raw materials, such as hydrocarbons and mining materials,” writes Webber.
Unlike Zibechi and Gutiérrez, whose work is primarily focused on autonomous, often Indigenous organizing outside of state structures, Webber believes that taking state power still constitutes part of a revolutionary project in Latin America: “Developing the widespread combative impulse and anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist sentiments into a continent wide socialist consciousness with organizational capacities to contest the ruling classes of each country leaps out as the immense outstanding challenge.”
Whether or not one agrees with Webber’s assessment of struggle, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia offers well documented critiques of how the Morales administration is failing to live up to the expectations of those who expected radical change to come though a state that has been reclaimed, at least in part, by individuals who come through social movements.
Webber argues that from 2000-2005, Indigenous liberation and socialist revolution were “organically linked,” and says the two have since been “artificially separated” from each other by the ruling MAS. “The undoing is lost on many sympathetic analysts on the left,” he writes.
Departing from Zibechi, however, one gets the distinct sensation that Webber feels that the government has betrayed revolutionary movements in Bolivia. “The MAS bears considerable responsibility for allowing the autonomist right to partially reconsolidate itself over this period,” he writes, referring to the separatist threat posed by landowning elites especially in Santa Cruz province.
Webber argues that the ascendancy of the MAS could facilitate the continuation of neoliberalism in Bolivia and the reconsolidation of racist elite power. He notes that according to some analysts, “…the smooth reproduction of the capitalist system in the Bolivian context was more probable under the MAS than [the neoliberal coalition] PODEMOS.”
At times, however, Webber’s orientation prevents the complexity on the ground in Bolivia from emerging, particularly with regards to the cultural, social and historical factors connected to the fact that the country has an Indigenous majority. Writing that the period between 2000-2005 represents “the most important surge in left-indigenous popular mobilization on the continent,” and referring to the “domestic balance of racialized class forces,” he makes an uneasy pairing of “Indigenous” with the western concept of “left.” Introducing a majority Indigenous society as “racialized” gives the impression that skin color can somehow be separated from colonization and resistance.
Further, in his discussion of Bolivia’s social formation, Webber begins by describing the state in the late 19th century, neglecting to describe the thousands of years of Indigenous occupation, governance and economies that existed prior to nation-state formation post conquest.
Webber’s writing style is academic, and doesn’t draw nearly as much from interviews and first-hand experience as Gutiérrez, instead relying primarily on previously published academic and journalistic work, as well as a good deal of economic data. That said, in many ways From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia is more accessible to non-specialists or people who are not familiar with the region.
Taken together, these three works offer a comprehensive analysis of Bolivia in the 21st century.