A Review of Proclaiming Revolution: Bolivia in Comparative Perspective


The Uncompleted Revolution

by | Dec 28, 2003

Proclaiming Revolution: Bolivia in Comparative Perspective Edited by Merilee Grindle and Pilar Domingo David Rockefeller Series on Latin American Studies, Harvard University, and Institute for Latin American Studies, University of London. Distributed by Harvard University Press. 2003

In April of 1952, Bolivia, an obscure, landlocked, country with a mining economy and an impoverished indigenous majority in the heart of South America jumped to the front pages of the world press with the news of its social revolution. The rapid displacement of its mining and agricultural oligarchies through nationalization and the expropriation of the haciendas in its highly populated Western highlands and move by its leading National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) to establish a mass-based democracy was an earth-shaking event on the Latin American political landscape. Indeed, at this moment in mid-20th century, Bolivia was only the second country after Mexico ostensibly to have embarked on a course of national social revolution.

Yet 50 years later, as the country stews in the juices of economic recession, almost two-thirds of the population remains below the poverty line, various of its social indicator rankings are on par with sub-Saharan Africa and its social inequalities among the worst in the hemisphere. On the political front, traditional political parties continue their precipitous decline and social and ethnic polarization and conflict are the order of the day.

Was this another revolution betrayed or perhaps the historians got it wrong and this was simply “proclaiming the revolution” rather than generating genuine revolutionary changes ? To address these and other important questions about this path-breaking historic episode and its continuing legacy, Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies convoked a conference of leading scholars in history, economics and political science conducting research in Bolivia over the past 40 years. The papers presented in this forum comprise this new volume, Proclaiming Revolution, Bolivia in Comparative Perspective.

Perhaps with such an outstanding line-up of several generations of junior and senior scholars—14 in total—who have devoted much of their careers to producing important publications on Bolivia in both languages, it is not surprising to find a volume of such high quality. Proclaiming Revolution offers the reader a fresh and rich menu of themes, insights, comparative perspectives, time horizons, revisionist histories, disciplinary lenses and new research for reviewing important and fascinating facets of the Bolivian revolution and its legacies.

The planners of this volume should be commended both for looking backwards in time to reexamine the building of cumulative social and political pressures beginning several decades prior to the period of revolutionary changes as well as forward right into the current political stew which is boiling over with social and political conflicts. The volume brings together new conceptual frameworks for viewing change and state reform, new lines and sources of political and social inquiry and analysis, new ways of uniting and synthesizing seemingly disparate material, creative uses of data for examining social progress in a comparative framework and new ideas of thinking about revolutionary and historical change and reform in a Third World, especially Andean society.

The recurring themes of nation and state-building processes and the variants of Bolivian nationalism are dealt with by these authors in a critical and penetrating manner. The authors present a persistent picture of weak state institutions and clientelistic-driven governance as inadequate and often counterproductive in grappling with so many of the country’s unmet basic needs and related social and developmental demands bubbling up from civil society. Although several authors point to solid and important indicators of social progress over the past 50 years, it is clear from this volume that the record for delivering on the promises of this social revolution on the balance is disappointing.

In the chapters taking a more contemporary cut on these themes, there appears to be agreement that the root causes of the many negative results lie within the country rather than outside. This state-centered argument diverges partly from various Bolivian opinion-makers and a large sector of the public who in addition to faulting the established political class identify the current economic “model,” IMF-driven neo-liberalism, as a principal source of the country’s woes. In a related vein, the unfulfilled role of Bolivia’s private sector in propelling the country’s economic growth onward and upward is viewed as another failure, albeit a direct legacy of the state capitalist model emerging from the revolution. Indeed, one has to dig deeply within the covers of this book to find a statement which critiques the current international market system and the way it is being shaped by the forces of economic globalization as many Bolivians are prone to do.

My major criticism of this volume is the absence of any detailed sociological and economic analysis of the capitalist growth of the Santa Cruz region and the associated political implications for the nation as a whole and the rural peasantry and indigenous sectors in particular. During the l950’s, the MNR laid down the tracks via land, credit, investment, foreign aid and infrastructural policies for the expansion of agri-business, cattle ranching, logging and other extractive industries in this region and eastern northern Beni and their effects subsequently have had had huge environmental and social costs. A large neo-latifundia sector has emerged as another product of the ongoing process of the re-concentration of wealth and power among a relatively small elite. The MNR’s policy bias toward Santa Cruz established another foundation for Bolivia’s internal colonialism—transfers of significant income from international loans and highland mining enterprises along with “colla” labor to contribute greatly to the creation of this new wealth of the eastern lowlands at the expense of increased poverty and debt burdens for highland indigenous communities.

The comparative country perspectives highlighted in the book’s title take shape in a variety of ways. There is a very lucid comparison with the Mexican revolution. This methodological tool is used with respect to educational reforms in Cuba and Mexico and various social indicators related to changes in education and health status for different time periods and countries/regions and between the MNR and other prominent political parties in the hemisphere. Also some of the MNR’s historical record as an “economic and social reformer” takes some hits by revisionist arguments advanced by various authors of this volume. Yet in making cross-country comparisons, the authors might have included Peru and Guatemala in relation to political violence rooted in racism and neo-colonialism toward indigenous peasants who were victims of mass killings during the l980’s which have recently been documented by various truth commissions. Might not the “opening up of the democratic system” with the expansion of citizen rights beginning in l952. have spared Bolivia such horrendous holocausts?

In pulling together the various strands of the salient, diverse contributions in her cogent concluding chapter, political scientist Pilar Domingo makes the case that perhaps the most enduring and important legacy of the revolution was Bolivia’s political culture of “contestation and political mobilization from below”. Indeed, recent evidence for this assertion is strong as Bolivia’s anti-globalization struggles have led to rolling back efforts by governments and transnational corporations to “ privatize water” in Cochabamba and massive challenges to the privatization and export of natural gas, from Latin America’s second largest reserve, through Chilean territory. One of the most active institutions, the peasant indigenous sindicato, originally created by the MNR to carry out the social revolution, in today’s global era noted for growing social and economic inequalities, provide the nation’s rural poor with one of the most effective networks in the hemisphere for putting political pressure on national governments to address their agendas. Yet as I write these words in late September, 2003, Bolivia is convulsed once again in another bitter conflict pitting the state against massive popular protests including blockades of important road arteries connecting La Paz in the altiplano. Today’s front page photos from a Bolivian daily carry images of Aymara campesinos from the Lake Titicaca region brandishing the same mausers distributed in l952 to carry out and defend the revolution. This worrisome picture is a vivid and very sad reminder, as the contributors of this fine book tell us, of how far the revolution remains from its goals of a participatory and peaceful democracy, a vibrant national economy and a just society.

Fall 2003Volume III, Number 1

Kevin Healy is an Adjunct Faculty member of the Elliott School of International Affairs of George Washington University. He is the author of Llamas, Weavings and Organic Chocolate, Multicultural Grassroots Development in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia, published in 2001 by the University of Notre Dame Press.

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