HAHR Forum on Contemporary Bolivia and History

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In the wake of recent events in Bolivia, we have asked some of the scholars who have published on the country in HAHR‘s pages to reflect on the following question: “What would you say is the key piece of historical context for understanding the contemporary political developments in Bolivia?”

Rossana Barragán is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social History. Her article “Working Silver for the World: Mining Labor and Popular Economy in Colonial Potosí” appeared in HAHR 97.2.

Vicissitudes of mining in the Evo Morales government

Why did the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) and the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB) request the resignation of President Evo Morales on November 10?[1] And how are we to understand the fact that these traditional leftist organizations (the COB and the FSTMB) and a civic organization (COMCIPO) supporting the interests of Potosí opposed an indigenous president who proclaimed socialism and sovereignty by the people? In the present Bolivian crisis, Potosí played a role. Three key aspects are important: Potosí’s contribution to the economy, government policy regarding lithium, and the ambivalent relationship between the government and mining cooperativists.

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Sarah Hines is assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma. Her manuscript-in-progress is titled, “Water for All: Community, Property, and Revolution in Modern Bolivia.” Her article “The Power and Ethics of Vernacular Modernism: The Misicuni Dam Project in Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1944–2017” appeared in HAHR 98.2.

Revolutions and Counterrevolutions in Bolivia, Past and Present

Since Morales resigned on November 10, 2019, debate has arisen in Bolivia and beyond over whether to call his ouster a coup. Those opposed to labeling it a coup worry that doing so overemphasizes the sway of the military and ignores the role that Morales’s own missteps and popular protests against him played in forcing his resignation. Hesitancy also owes to concern that calling his ouster a coup could open the door to deeming popular revolts that overthrow right-wing governments like those in 2003 and 2005 coups as well.

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E. Gabrielle Kuenzli is an associate professor at the University of South Carolina. Her article “Acting Inca: The Parameters of National Belonging in Early Twentieth-Century Bolivia” appeared in HAHR 90.2.

Citizenship, Decolonization, and Historiography in Bolivia

Important historical contextual factors in understanding contemporary Bolivia are definitions of citizenship, decolonization, and historiography. Now that Evo Morales Ayma is in exile, how will he be remembered and recast? Did the Morales presidency represent the culmination of an autonomous Indian political agenda, as Pablo Ramírez would suggest, and an extension of what Ramírez refers to as the Zárate Willka Movement of 1899? This interpretation locates indigenous politicians on the historical margins of the nation, an intrusion with the intention of advancing a specifically Indian political agenda rather than as central protagonists of national political reform. It is significant to note that Morales had a clock installed on the exterior of the congressional building in La Paz on which the hands turned counterclockwise, symbolizing his political project intent on decolonizing Bolivian politics and society. If you stand at in the Plaza Murillo and look up at it, it is a striking message of change. In this sense, Morales advanced a political project from the center of national politics. It is worth reconsidering if Zárate Willka’s political project also envisioned national change rather than solely Indian autonomy, thereby identifying a history of indigenous political involvement in national politics from 1899 to 2019.

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Elizabeth Shesko is assistant professor of history at Oakland University. She is author of Conscript Nation: Coercion and Citizenship in the Bolivian Barracks (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020). Her article “Mobilizing Manpower for War: Toward a New History of Bolivia’s Chaco Conflict, 1932–1935” appeared in HAHR 95.2.

As a student of the Bolivian military, I’d like to focus my comments on a term that caused much debate among Bolivians and Bolivianists in the wake of Evo Morales’s departure from the presidency: coup. This is a term that anyone familiar with Bolivia encounters on a regular basis. English-language scholarship, travel guides, and even the Guinness Book of World Records frequently tally coups in Bolivia. In a certainly nonexhaustive search, I found 60 books and articles offering a number or stating that Bolivia had suffered more coups than any other country in the world. The most common total provided is 188, but they range from 150 to “over 200.” This trope serves as a pithy way to signal the country’s instability (or perhaps ungovernability) and the oversized role that the military has played in politics.

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Carmen Soliz is an assistant professor of Latin American history at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her article “‘Land to the Original Owners’: Rethinking the Indigenous Politics of the Bolivian Agrarian Reform” appeared in HAHR 97.2.

Evo Morales: His Political and Economic Legacy

Evo Morales first came to power in 2005 with the support of a coalition of multiple social sectors. His most important support came from the coca leaf growers (cocaleros) in the Chapare region. The cocaleros have a long history of struggle against US policies of forced eradication of the coca leaf that started in Bolivia in the late 1980s. In 2005, Morales also gathered garnered the support of urban and rural sectors who rose up against the effects of 15 years of neoliberal reforms that had auctioned public companies to foreign investors. These sectors demanded the nationalization of gas, Bolivia’s most important export since the 1970s, and of the country’s strategic resources including water and electricity, among others. Morales also came to power with the support of the National Peasant Federation (CSUTCB) and indigenous organizations from the lowlands (CIDOB) and the highlands (CONAMAQ). In Bolivia and Latin America Morales represented a different economic model, one that protected the rights of Mother Earth.

Read the full post hereBridgette K. Werner is a postdoctoral research associate and lecturer in the Program in Latin American Studies at Princeton University. Her article “Between Autonomy and Acquiescence: Negotiating Rule in Revolutionary Bolivia, 1953–1958” is forthcoming in HAHR 100.1.

On November 6, near the city of Cochabamba, mob violence struck against the mayor of the municipality of Vinto in the midst of increasingly violent protests following the October 20 elections. Opposition protesters kidnapped Patricia Arce Guzmán and burned the Alcaldía of Vinto. They accused Arce of supporting a pro-MAS group that had attempted to break an opposition blockade, resulting in two deaths. The mob of masked protestors then force-marched Arce barefoot to the blockade at Huayculi, painted her red, cut her hair, and forced her to sign a resignation letter, all the while berating her with shouts of “asesina de mierda.” In videos circulating on social media, Arce can be heard stating that she is willing to die for MAS’s proceso de cambio.

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Kevin A. Young is assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His article “From Open Door to Nationalization: Oil and Development Visions in Bolivia, 1952–1969” appeared in HAHR 97.1.

A coup overthrew the Bolivian government. The coup was spearheaded by the country’s racist oligarchy and backed by the United States, but it was also supported by portions of the Left, the labor movement, and the middle class. The latter groups had some legitimate grievances: for instance, the regime had sometimes treated dissent with a heavy hand and had made only limited progress toward transforming the country’s economic structure. Yet it had also facilitated major gains for workers, peasants, and indigenous people. It was those gains that drew the rage of the oligarchy and its allies in Washington. And it was the oligarchy that came out on top after the coup. Once in power it unleashed massive violence against those who resisted.

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Top image: Mercha a favor de Evo Morales – Buenos Aires. November 18, 2019. Photograph by Santiago Sito, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Find the original here.)

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