Campesino Revolution Interrupted: The Bolivian Case


In Paths of Revolution, the leftist militant, journalist, political prisoner, public intellectual, historian, Adolfo Gilly bears witness to the tumult, triumphs, and defeats of the Left in the twentieth century in Latin America. Tracing a lineage from the Cuban Missile Crisis to Central America’s guerrilla movements, from Mexico’s Zapatista uprising to the indigenous mobilizations that swept Evo Morales into power in Bolivia, in these essays, Gilly captures what drives people to action under different forms of domination and what just might stand to illuminate the state of the Left in the Americas today. 

Nicaragua and Bolivia: Two Paths (1980)

       Twenty-four years ago, having just arrived in La Paz, I saw the Bolivian miners’, workers’, and peasants’ militias. It was my first sight of figures who up to that point had been mythical as far as I was concerned: workers and campesinos, armed and organized in their unions. A knot of emotion formed in my throat. The revolution of April 1952 was still fresh, the revolution that broke out in order to carry into power Víctor Paz Estenssoro and Hernán Siles Zuazo—elected president and vice president in 1951 but prevented from taking office by a military coup. Insurrections in La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí defeated and dissolved an army formerly at the service of mining tycoons and imperialist powers, which the people had called “the massacring army.” Its weapons were transferred into the hands of trade-union militias.
        In 1952 the mines were nationalized, and in 1953 the agrarian reform was launched (when peasants had already occupied many haciendas). After that, the revolution stalled; the militias’ weapons began to age and they ran short of ammunition. The professional army was patiently reorganized, first by Paz Estenssoro and then by Siles Zuazo, and equipped with high-caliber modern weapons supplied by the US. At the same time, the state began to promote capitalist accumulation, private enterprise, and imperialist investments. The new army and new bourgeoisie developed side by side until, with the coup of 1964, that army once again seized power, resuming its murderous history. Everyone remembers one of the most notorious massacres, which took place on the feast of St. John in 1967, only months before the killing of Che Guevara.
       Bolivia has one of the strongest and most politically conscious mass organizations in Latin America: the mining unions and the Central Obrera Boliviana as a whole. But in the absence of a political party to counter the national bourgeoisie and lacking weapons against the massacring army, consciousness, combativeness, and organization may suffice for heroic resistance—with dynamite and last stands on the barricades —but not for victory. It was Juan Lechín, one of the prime movers of the policy that led to disarming the militias, who affirmed that a military coup would be resisted by means of a general strike and some roadblocks. In Argentina in 1955 and 1976, in Chile in 1973, and in other countries at other times, that old formula encouraged the most fateful of delusions: the idea that the workers might resist, after the fact and empty-handed, a military coup that has been technically and scientifically designed to slaughter them. Via the same disastrously passive policy, the Peronist union bureaucrats paved the way for the military dictatorship established in their country in 1976. And it was the Argentine military that provided advice and guidance for the [July 1980] Bolivian coup, with its methodical project of mass murder, according to denunciations recently made in Managua by Jaime Paz Zamora, the vice president-elect of Bolivia.                    
       A few days ago, watching the Sandinista militias in Estelí, I recalled the Bolivian campesinos parading by just as these were doing, a quarter of a century ago, confident of their revolution and marching with the very same gait.

        I saw the Sandinista army, and the militias, too, in Managua on July 19th. The old army has been destroyed right down to the roots, and, unlike in Bolivia, the leadership of the revolution has no intention of rebuilding it; only the counterrevolutionaries dare suggest such a thing. I observed the discipline, the supple, easy stride, the modern weaponry of the Sandinista armed forces. I recalled the Bolivians once again, presently being slaughtered by another coup, despite the indescribable heroism with which they have resisted and even dismantled so many others. And I not only saw but keenly felt the radical difference between the two. It’s right that the army should be Sandinista, despite the objections of [Alfonso] Robelo, the Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (Private Enterprise Council), conservatives, and others; it’s right for troops to train intensively; it’s right that this army should act as the shield of this revolution, until other, neighboring ones come to lighten its load and make the road ahead less arduous.

         Those who prioritize democracy over class can say what they like: the unending martyrdom of Bolivia is their answer, the unfailing result of what they propose. The Bolivian Revolution was only able to hold out for so many years because it formed militias, implemented an agrarian reform, nationalized the mines, and was sustained by unions with a combativeness and a tradition of struggle beyond compare. If it was unable to hold out longer, it’s because all of this was interrupted halfway through, and the regrouping of capitalism and its army did the rest. 

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