HAHR Forum on Contemporary Bolivia and History

HAHR Forum on Contemporary Bolivia and History

Bridgette 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, Arze can be heard stating that she is willing to die for MAS’s proceso de cambio.

It was a shocking scene, but not an unfamiliar one. Deep in the Prefectural Archives in Cochabamba lies a similar story of violence against an Indigenous woman in the region of northern Potosí. Late one night on an abandoned hacienda in January 1958, townspeople from San Pedro de Buenavista attacked peasant leader Narciso Torrico and his pregnant wife, Luzmila Paredes. Torrico and a cohort of peasant leaders had been unionizing the region’s predominantly Indigenous peasants in favor of land distribution, as decreed in the 1953 agrarian reform. A complicated figure, Torrico landed on the revolutionary side of the line in deeply divided times, and the challenge he presented to local structures of power did not go unnoticed by San Pedro’s townspeople. In the attack, the townspeople killed Torrico with a rudimentary hand grenade. They then severed his head, and after severely beating his widow and threatening to kill her, the townspeople marched Paredes over multiple days to the town of San Pedro. They forced her to walk barefoot, carrying her husband’s head in a shawl tied across her back. Each time the group stopped to rest, her captors forced Paredes to kiss Torrico’s head. When they reached the town, the townspeople made Paredes display her huband’s head so that it was visible to onlookers as she processed through the town, grasping it by the hair and ear as the townspeople jeered and spat on her. She was then imprisoned for nine days without food or water.

Both of these events can be understood as hate crimes, characterized by both physical violence and cruel humiliation and executed within an ethos of counterrevolutionary reaction concentrated through the prism of deeply embedded racism. Racism reifies and concentrates counterrevolutionary hatred and violence, in Bolivia and elsewhere, making stark and visceral the punitive and vengeful content of that violence. Whether or not Patricia Arce identifies as Indigenous is perhaps beside the point. On the whole, MAS’s proceso de cambio opened space for Indigenous women in public life—and particularly in government and public institutions. Much more than a gesture toward inclusiveness in Bolivian public life, the proceso de cambio represented the very real reconfigurations of power experienced since Morales was first elected in 2005. That Indigenous women have become visible representatives of MAS and of the proceso de cambio that has empowered the country’s Indigenous majority in tangible ways also makes them extremely vulnerable symbols of what many have recently come to see as a corrupt political project constructed on strong-arm rule and now electoral fraud. Indigenous women’s bodies have historically been a key site on which threatened elites inscribe their objections, anger, fear, and resentment. Racism and racist violence lurk just below the surface of political life in Bolivia. As the adage goes, history does not repeat, but it often rhymes.

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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.)