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The Spirit of Revolt

Prologue to Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso 2007)

Friday 16 November 2007, by ADOLFO GILLY

In Bolivia in mid-October 2003, a popular insurrection had been going on for days in El Alto, a city of 800,000 workers, peasants, migrants, and petty merchants, most of them indigenous. 400 meters below, insurrectionary alteños [residents of El Alto] controlled the gateway to La Paz and blocked the supply of fuel to the capital of the republic. Surrounded, the government decided to break the blockade with a military convoy that opened a path up to the city by firing on, and killing, dozens of people. This is how it cleared the way for trucks loaded with gas cisterns to get down to the capital.

Alteños collected their dead, held wakes in their churches and homes, and said, "Enough!" With the strength of men and women, young and old, they pulled train cars along the tracks from the station and pushed them off a bridge, so that many meters below, the cars blocked the highway leading from La Paz to El Alto-the very route by which the truckloads of soldiers had come to make way for the gas cisterns. "Enough! No one else gets through here!"

The following day, they started to descend, by the dozens, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands, to occupy the city of La Paz, while from the other side of the valley, more unending columns of Indians ascended, with the same goal: to take the capital and overthrow the murderous creole regime of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. By then, the middle class in La Paz supported El Alto and demanded a government ceasefire. The army did not dare to keep killing. The government fell, and Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada fled to the United States.

The history of this fraction of time that explodes out of quotidian time as a sort of shift in destiny; the history of this instantaneous time called revolution, its past, its ancestors, its protagonists, their reasoning and motives, is the subject of this book by Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson. They were there, and have spent years studying Bolivia’s indigenous revolts and revolutions.

A classic revolution, at the very beginning of the twenty-first century, has taken place in Bolivia, a cycle of popular rebellion that began with the "Water War" in 2000 and culminated in the indigenous insurrections of 2003 and 2005, which twice seized the capital, and forced early elections in December 2005. With an absolute majority, and for the first time in Bolivian history, an Indian leader became president of the republic.

This book boldly and rightly affirms that what happened was a revolution, and demonstrates it through history, analysis, and chronicle. A revolution, that which no longer existed, a violent and liberating revolution like all others in history: here it was again, bringing back the spirit of revolt out of grievance and out of the past.

* * *

After chronicling the cycle of popular mobilization since 2000 that led to such an outcome, Hylton and Thomson seek out its roots, premonitions, and precursors in the long time-spans of history. Bolivia is an Indian country, a place where two-thirds of the population recognizes and declares itself to be Aymara, Quechua, Guaraní, or of other indigenous groups governed since Spanish conquest by a white and mestizo minority. Since the sixteenth century, the relationship between rulers and ruled, and between dominant and subaltern groups, has had a specific feature, indelible as skin color. As in the rest of the colonial universe born in that century, the relationship took the form of racial subordination.

The first great indigenous insurrection against this domination-which preceded the Wars of Independence-was led by Tupaj Katari in 1781. Indian armies imposed a prolonged blockade of La Paz, which was only broken with the arrival of troops from the distant city of Buenos Aires, capital of the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata.

Defeat did not erase the memory for indigenous people, who have known ever since that they once laid siege to the city of the "señores," nor for the white and mestizo minority, as successive generations have transmitted until today the fear-negated, but always living on at the threshold of consciousness-of a new siege on the city by a limitless dark-skinned population.

In April 1952, a popular insurrection exploded in defense of a presidential election stolen by the dominant oligarchy. Known as the "April Revolution," rebels took the city of La Paz, dispersed the army, overthrew the president, established a mestizo government that nationalized the mines-the principal Bolivian industry-decreed an agrarian reform, and had to live for years with the parallel power of miners’, workers’, and peasants’ unions, their armed militias, and community radio stations. Of course, miners, workers, and peasants were Indians, and their indigenous languages were used to debate in their assemblies and to talk during their celebrations and in their homes.

After a long period of vicissitudes and tenacious resistance, beginning in the 1980s the new power of the neoliberal world reorganized Bolivia, closed the mines, dismantled trade unions, and dispersed workers and their settlements. The April Revolution was no more than a historical reference. Order was re-established. Once again, Indians were put in their place.

But like all domination with racial roots, nationalist ideology and the shared symbolism between dominant and subaltern groups was merely a thin, formal layer, and hegemony a fractured and fragile covering. Underneath lived the persistent and vast human community of the indigenous, those life-worlds that filmmaker Jorge Sanjinés called "The Clandestine Nation." Since Tupaj Katari, and even before, those worlds never ceased to emerge, here and there, to break up the surface of domination with violent local revolts which were rapidly put down and punished, but not forgotten.

This nation, negated by the liberal republic, was also nearly invisible for the republican left, which confused it with Indian positions in economy and society: peasants, factory workers, miners, petty merchants, artisans. The republican left did not, therefore, see the ancient place that this nation occupied in the colonial world and that persisted in the republic: Indians, people the color of the earth; Aymaras, Quechuas, Guaraníes, Urus, those who, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, claim to be the most ancient of human beings.

Each time the country today called Bolivia begins to move, the clandestine nation reappears, or better, makes itself violently visible and audible, as Edward P. Thompson put it, taking leading places on the stage previously occupied by noisy politicians, bureaucrats, military men, investors, and their scribes.

That is how it made itself present in October 2003 when people descended on La Paz and took it over, unfurling their flags and symbols and putting forth their bodies, and their dead, as Thomson and Hylton note: "Beginning with Warisata in September, and spreading to El Alto in October, the mourning of martyrs provided a time to express grief and fury, to bolster the spirit through ritual and reflection, and to dedicate ongoing struggle to those who had lost their lives. The martyrs also provided a new example of indigenous patriotism in Bolivia, insofar as Aymaras were the ones defending the nation against foreign control."

Revolutionary Horizons speaks to us of continuities and ruptures in time, of the cruelty and fragility of internal colonial domination, of centuries-old dispossession and impious exploitation; of the immaterial inheritance of memories and experiences; of how the spirit of revolt has been transmitted across generations through protest, mass clandestinity, and everyday life amidst discrimination and difference. The inheritors and bearers of Andean civilization might well say, "Generations come and generations go, but the earth lasts forever."

The authors put it as follows: "In this book, we approach revolutionary ’horizons’ not only as those perspectives of men and women in the past who looked upon the possibilities of future social transformation. For there is another sense of the word. At an archeological site, the phased strata of the earth and the remains of human settlement that are exposed by careful digging are called ’horizons’. We offer this then as an excavation of Andean revolution, whose successive layers of historical sedimentation make up the subsoil, loam, landscape, and vistas for current political struggle in Bolivia."

Thus the revolution of October 2003 and its aftermath in June 2005 are presented as the condensation, in two decisive moments, of the previous experiences of rage, humiliation, and desire: a resounding explosion, an illumination that lights up an instant, a break in the time of everyday life in which linear time, circular time, and messianic time whirl and mix together. This temporal break passes, and does not last, but its resonances and dissonances never die down. They come to be known as years and lives unfold, Thomson and Hylton tell us at the end of their book.

* * *

A victorious revolution, like the Bolivian one in October, implies a deep change in institutions and political leadership, which happened in the presidential elections of December 2005 and the inaugural ceremony of Indian President Evo Morales in January 2006. Although connected, the new political leadership and the revolution that brought it about are two phenomena that differ in substance.

The new power is a result of the revolution, not its embodiment. In their final reflections, Hylton and Thomson tackle this crucial question. People do not go into a revolution on behalf of an image of the society of the future, Leon Trotsky noted, but because present society has become intolerable. Their revolt nurtures itself on the image of enslaved ancestors, not the ideal of liberated descendants, wrote Walter Benjamin.

A revolution means that nothing goes back to being what it was before in the spirits of the living and their relations with each other. It also pays homage to the dead, rescues the memory and the trials and tribulations of humiliated ancestors, and renovates the symbolic universe. That is why a revolution has repercussions in place and in times yet to come. But its duration is short. And if, when it manages to triumph, a revolution engenders a new political leadership, the insurrection is neither embodied by nor prolonged in it, and the break in time closes: "mais il est bien court le temps des cerises." What then follows concerns a subsequent time, even as the new leadership continues to affirm, "I am the revolution."

It is important to debate and assess the composition and subsequent changes in political leadership that arise out of a revolution. But to subsume its analysis and its meaning in this fashion is to lose one’s way and to enter into a shadow play. This is frequently done by those who, without suspecting it, have themselves become shadows of real life, which goes on elsewhere, far from them.

The history of revolutions is usually treated in terms of the consolidation of a new order. In other words, revolution is a necessary prelude to the new order. This is not the way this book considers the third Bolivian revolution, which inaugurated the twenty-first century on the altiplano.

Thomson and Hylton concede the importance of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), headed by Evo Morales, as a channel and political instrument for the popular insurrection, in which social movements played the leading role. They note, "Morales and MAS tail-ended, rather than led, the insurrection of 2003 and 2005. [But] in the electoral arena, Morales and MAS have served as the only effective vehicle for national articulation of the heterogeneous movements."

Nevertheless, they continue, this does not authorize the leadership to uphold that in the future indigenous sectors do not need representation as Indians (in the Constitutional Assembly, for example), on the grounds that "they have already received representation - through MAS." Instead of continuing to resist, the official argument runs, these sectors "need to locate themselves in this new time of occupying structures of power."

Both historians go against such an argument: "Whatever their intent, such statements de-authorized, marginalized, and silenced indigenous demands. It was a new example of the condescension that has plagued Indian-Left relations historically and that has pushed indigenous activists into more radically autonomous positions." An indigenous president is not enough to turn the clandestine nation into the Republic.

It is necessary, of course, to understand the inelastic limits that those who govern run into, whether it be the ferocious resistance of the classes that have been displaced from power, and their political and economic representatives, foreign as well as domestic; or the steel cage in which the new global neoliberal order encloses possibilities of action, along with the imminent presence of its powerful material base-the Pentagon, the military force of the United States; or the material limits of scarcity, national isolation, and poverty.

In the words of the authors, "There are consequences of the present whose force will be difficult to obstruct or reverse in the near future. And yet, if history has shown that revolutionary moments leave an indelible mark on the future, it has shown that internal colonialism and class hierarchies are durable structures as well."

But for this very reason, the popular movements that gave rise to the new configuration of state power cannot lose themselves in it. They must maintain not indifference or neutrality, but rather their autonomy and independence.

* * *

We need to treat the history of revolutions as the history of those unique moments in which the forgotten, the oppressed, the humiliated-those who make the world with their hands, bodies, and minds-rise up and suspend the time of contempt to inaugurate a new time; moments, unforgettable whether long or short, of revelation of their own being, their own intelligence, and their own inheritance, which is that of all human beings.

"Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden," wrote Walter Benjamin in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History." There, the spirit of revolt survives and burns in secret, in diverse times and places.

Those moments in which that spirit comes to light and stirs like gale winds, those breaks in time whose duration should be multiplied by their intensity, can later be suspended and converted into memory and the past. But they also become lived experience and, as a result, ongoing reverberations into all the possible futures of those who lived through those moments as a people.

These are the themes of this exceptional book, which is the work of two historians who have followed and lived Bolivian life. Revolutionary Horizons is a chronicle, a history, and an archaeology of indigenous insurgency on the Andean high plains, and, at the same time, a mature fruit of study, experience, and reflection.

A longtime participant-observer of Latin American revolution, Adolfo Gilly is a professor of history at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and the author of numerous books on history and politics, including the classic The Mexican Revolution: A People’s History (New Press, 2006 [1971]).