Interview with Bridgette K. Werner, author of “Between Autonomy and Acquiescence: Negotiating Rule in Revolutionary Bolivia, 1953–1958”

Interview with Bridgette K. Werner, author of “Between Autonomy and Acquiescence: Negotiating Rule in Revolutionary Bolivia, 1953–1958”

Bridgette K. Werner is a postdoctoral research associate and lecturer in the Program in Latin American Studies at Princeton University. She earned a PhD in Latin American history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2018. She is currently working on a book tentatively titled “‘To Make Rivers of Blood Flow:’ Agrarian Reform, Rural Warfare, and State Expansion in Postrevolutionary Bolivia, 1952–1974.” You can read her article “Between Autonomy and Acquiescence: Negotiating Rule in Revolutionary Bolivia, 1953–1958” in HAHR 100.1.

1. How did you come to focus on twentieth-century Bolivia as an area of research?

I took a gap year between my first and second years of college, which ultimately took me to Bolivia. I was one of those kids who did well in school but had no idea what I wanted to do. I spent my first year of college studying fine art and finding out it wasn’t for me. So I applied for a one-year volunteer abroad opportunity with an NGO and ended up getting an assignment to work as a tutor in an after-school program serving a marginal neighborhood in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It was a very confusing and eye-opening experience: coming from the small, rural town in New York state where I had grown up to working in a peripheral urban neighborhood in Bolivia and living immersed in Bolivian society. It was also in 2007, at the beginning of Evo Morales’s first term as Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, and in Santa Cruz where he was extremely unpopular.

There were so many things about that year that I did not yet have the tools to understand and that I didn’t even know how to ask questions about. It was the first radicalizing experience of my life. When I returned to the US, I transferred schools and found a wonderful mentor who happened to be a historian of twentieth-century Latin America. Working alongside her was immensely helpful as I grappled with articulating my questions about Latin America, history, and power and as I started to ask new questions about those things. I kept looking for environments where I could keep asking questions, and that led me to graduate school at UW-Madison, where I worked with more amazing mentors who transformed my way of thinking. I focused my research on Bolivia for a lot of reasons, but probably the most important is that I love Bolivia, and trying to understand its history has been a labor of that love.

Werner conducting archival research for the article. Photo provided by the author.

2. What was your reaction to reading Luzmila Paredes’s testimony about her husband’s assassination? How did you arrive at the decision to include details of the extreme violence of Narciso Torrico’s death?

I remember when I first read Luzmila Paredes’s testimony in its entirety: I was working through documents in my fieldwork apartment in Cochabamba, and I spent the whole day reading the commission documents that are cited in the article. Those documents included Luzmila’s testimony—the longest one—as well as many others from people who had experienced violence at the hands of the San Pedro de Buenavista townspeople, alongside testimonies from townspeople describing their fear as the campesino union mobilized and worked to make the agrarian reform real. Luzmila’s testimony offered so much important information about the limits of revolutionary change half a decade after the fact, so it was empirically fascinating to parse the kind of counterrevolutionary process she describes and contrast it with how afraid elites were of anything resembling oppositional campesino politics.

But it was also heartbreaking: the townspeople tortured this woman over the course of several days, forcing her to participate in these rituals of humiliation that were about so much more than an individual act of violence. The violence is so layered in its brutality, and it took me a while to process the analytical import of what happened to her. The specific descriptions of violence stuck with me as I began writing—I think those descriptions were the first part of the dissertation that I drafted while in the field. I came to see it as extremely important—morally, analytically—to recount specifically what happened to Narciso Torrico and Luzmila Paredes. But I also knew that I had to find a way to be clear that this was not about a fascination with violence, but rather that this violence has meaning, and very specific meanings that are layered with centuries of colonialism as well as contemporary fears of revolutionary transformation.

The reactions of the first people to read this piece when it was a dissertation chapter, or heard it presented at conferences, were very helpful as I refined my understanding of why I felt so strongly that this detail needed to be included and as I made that case explicitly with my writing. As a historian I think that honoring the experience of the people who appear in our documents sometimes means being explicit about the experiences they lived. It is very clear from Luzmila’s testimony that the specific nature of the violence she endured mattered very much to her, so how could it be immaterial to me as the person attempting to tell this story? She wasn’t the only historical actor who saw these details as important, though I think it ought to be enough that it mattered to her.

This decision emerged over time, partially owing to the moral obligation I felt as a historian, partially because this violence was evidence of a specific kind of counterrevolutionary fear that motivated brutal retribution, and also because the key campesino leaders that I follow throughout the remainder of the book project constantly refer back to what happened to Narciso Torrico and Luzmila Paredes. This was also evidence that this violence had a meaning for others who heard about it. Other campesino leaders latched onto the fact that the townspeople had not been satisfied simply with killing Narciso but that they also dismembered him, and they referred to these events years later in public statements, often also noting what the townspeople had done to Luzmila. Those details meant something specific to them and became part of a narrative about violence, revolution, and counterrevolution that motivated continued struggle. But I think, most importantly, that I couldn’t leave Luzmila Paredes’s voice in the archive.

3. How did the performance of violence, both spectacular and quotidian, contribute to the re-creation, transformation, or reification of the existing social order in northern Potosí?

What I found in this research is that the effects of the 1952 revolution, and especially of the agrarian reform, were very unevenly distributed. In the region where most of my research is focused—the Valle Alto of Cochabamba—the prerevolutionary land tenure and labor systems were essentially overthrown through these massive campesino mobilizations during 1952 and 1953. By contrast, in northern Potosí revolutionary transformation was slower, arrived later, and faced different kinds of obstacles. I am in the process of revising this article into a chapter for the book, and what I’m finding is that one of the key differences between these two regions is that the local social strata itself was much more horizontal in northern Potosí: the gradations of class differentiation are finer than they were in the Valle Alto but made sharper by much clearer racial distinctions between Indigenous ayllu communities and mestizo towns.

In this sense, the local elite in northern Potosí was a very marginal elite, and the privileges associated with that status were structured by access to land, to campesino labor and surplus production, and disassociation from indigeneity. It seems that the fact this elite class’s privilege sort of balanced on a knife’s edge actually provoked greater violence against organized campesino groups that threatened the status quo—their privilege was precarious to begin with. Obviously this is a fairly unstructured comparison, but the point is that within this more subtle class hierarchy we see more concerted and violent attempts to reassert the status quo, both on a daily basis (such as the violent enforcement of trueque) and more spectacularly (such as in the case of Narciso Torrico). This is the kind of violence that is intended to remind subalternized people of their place in the local social hierarchy and remind them of the consequences of crossing certain lines. At the same time, mobilized campesino unions were beginning to exercise violence aimed at transforming the status quo, such as laying siege over the town or blocking roads—intimidating local elites and signaling a disadvantageous power shift. In essence, what was playing out at the time of Narciso Torrico’s assassination was a series of attacks that went back and forth between the town and countryside and materially and symbolically signaled a struggle over the status quo and provoked increasing fear on the part of elites. These groups were essentially fighting over whether or not the revolution would come to northern Potosí, and in that process the violence drew out the contours of the social order that was being, by turns, re-created and transformed.

Victor Paz Estenssoro with Peruvian president Manuel A. Odria, January 1954. Image hosted by Nando M . G. Licensed under CC BY 2.0; image resized to 1.55 MB. (Find the original here.)

4. How did peasants challenge decisions by peasant leaders they disagreed with or felt had betrayed their interests?

This is such an important question, and one that I am still grappling with as I continue to work on this project. I think the answer varies greatly by the precise historical moment, region, and larger context. For example, it is evident in the documents I studied for this article that in the region of northern Potosí Narciso Torrico was not the only campesino union leader and that he had rivals who disagreed with his politics and methods. In the sort of classic logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” those campesino leaders sometimes made unexpected alliances in order to undermine their rivals. However, what the campesino rank and file thought of these processes is much harder to access in the archive. In the  Valle Alto at other moments in time, I have been able to find that campesinos in subunions would realign their organization with a union higher in the organizational structure if they disagreed with a leader, but a lot of these disagreements were sort of kept within the structure of the union hierarchy, even if one of the main critiques was of the hierarchy itself.

Speaking beyond the case of northern Potosí, campesinos’ grievances against the union structure are most evident in criminal court documents, where campesinos often criticized the union leaders for exercising power beyond their position, or “usurping functions” of the state. This speaks both to the nature of campesino leadership, as well as to a broader issue of state neglect and impunity in the Valle Alto region that is evident by the early 1960s, but perhaps the most relevant point is that campesinos had very little recourse against their leaders, short of shifting their loyalty to a rival, or denouncing them in the courts. We see these processes accumulate over time: for example, in the early 1960s when the Cliza and Ucureña unions in the Valle Alto went to war, José Rojas came under a lot of criticism from the rank and file as well as rival leaders, but it took a long time for him to fade from union leadership. This war—the Ch’ampa Guerra, as it is generally known—is one instance in which campesino objections to leaders’ decisions became an explosively violent fault line in the Valle Alto.

5. What can we learn about local versus national politics from the series of conflicts in 1958, and what were some of the outcomes of this year of periodic violence?

The national versus local issue is a really key one throughout my book project. What I am finding is that national issues were often filtered through local concerns first. As campesino leaders and unions made choices about who to support politically at the national level, for instance, they did so considering what those alliances could mean locally—sometimes with respect to what kinds of benefits might come to local communities (i.e., investment in education, infrastructure, etc.), and sometimes with respect to how a specific national ally might counterbalance a local rival. At times, national politics seem only to have been important insofar as they provided leverage in local struggles. This is not to suggest that campesino politics operated only within the frame of a narrow provincialism but rather that campesino union leaders who were beholden to local constituencies were primarily motivated to ensure that the benefits of the revolution came to their communities and were protected. They often made decisions regarding national political processes according to these metrics.

Specifically from the conflicts of 1958, we can see the series of pressures at play in local and national political spheres. For example, despite José Rojas’s alliance with the state, he demonstrates his unwillingness to simply go along with state-directed pacification efforts—particularly when faced with the facts of Torrico’s assassination. What he seems to be seeing throughout the series of pacification attempts and the violence in northern Potosí is an alternative reality: the kinds of mobilizations he led across Cochabamba in 1952 and 1953 did not face this kind of opposition from elites but they very well could have. Instead of Narciso Torrico martyred and dismembered, it could have been Rojas. But at the same time, Rojas can’t simply abandon his allegiance to the MNR because it would endanger the gains of 1952. So instead he walks this careful line between his responsibilities to his local community and the demands being made of him from the national level. I think part of what we learn is about the complexity of this kind of political brokerage: while he resists national pressures at certain moments, at the final pacification Rojas parrots the state’s script on bad campesino leaders and bad townspeople—a kind of both sides-ism that signals a departure from his more revolutionary persona.

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet chased down what happened in northern Potosí specifically after 1958, but in Cochabamba and adjacent regions 1958 was the start of the unraveling of the alliance between campesino communities and the MNR (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, the revolutionary party). The pacification process and its many failures had implications generally for how people were thinking about MNR rule, and those implications reverberated more deeply during the Ch’ampa Guerra, which began in late 1959. By the early 1960s, it is fairly clear that the MNR has abdicated responsibility for violence in rural areas—very much a pattern of state neglect, abandon, impunity—and campesinos start to look favorably on military leadership, which contributes to rural support for the 1964 coup. In this sense, again, the specifics of local conditions structured how campesinos responded/reacted to opportunities and limitations presented by the national political arena.

6. Read anything good recently?

Oh yes! I am preparing to teach a course on Indigenous social movements this fall, so I recently read Nancy Postero’s The Indigenous State, Benjamin Dangl’s The Five Hundred Year Rebellion, and Mark Goodale’s A Revolution in Fragments all in quick succession to prep the Bolivia unit. They all offer such a wonderful and multifaceted view of recent processes in Bolivia, which I hope will help my students understand the complexities of the last couple of decades of transformation. I also recently finished Nick Estes’s Our History Is the Future in preparation for the same course—highly recommended.

Top image: Bas relief sculpture on the Museo de la Revolución in Plaza Villarroel, La Paz, Bolivia. Workers and peasants stand united, carrying numerous symbolic items. Text declares, “The National Victory of April 9, 1952, gave us liberty.” Photo by  Carwil Bjork-James, May 27, 2013. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0; image resized to 1.9 MB. (Find the original here.)

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