Note from the field: Bolivia redefines its history [2010]

I’m reposting this fieldwork newsletter account that I wrote in 2010 because it feels relevant to current conversations about narrating American history.

Imagine for a moment the following scenario:

There’s a formal diplomatic function between the United States and France, in which the visiting French president is honoring a hero of the Franco-American effort during the American Revolutionary War. Military and civil honors are being accorded to Thomas Jefferson, say, or the Marquis de Lafayette.* The French President is there, before a special session of the United States Congress. Picture the well of the House, the assembled guests, the audience of Americans watching on video screens on the streets outside the Capitol. The first to speak, on behalf of the United States Government is Joe Biden. He strides to the podium, welcomes the French President, and begins a speech. He remembers the revolutionary era as a period of liberation for the American continent, a key point in a still unfinished process. Then he says we must think of the revolutionary period as two distinct struggles for independence and self determination: the American Revolution we all know, extending through the War of 1812; and the struggles Native Americans fought against invasion during the same decades. He says we must remember as American heroes Tecumseh as well as Jefferson, Blackhawk as much as Lafayette. For good measure, he adds Nat Turner to the list. The Age of Liberation we celebrate as the birth of our nation, he argues, will only be fulfilled when Native peoples have self governance and Blacks have ended oppression and racism against them.

I’m sure I can imagine this scene. You can too; hopefully, you just have. But those words out of the mouth of our current President or Vice President probably seem impossible. At least, I’m confident I won’t hear them. And I’m confident that if I did hear them, I would break into tears with the unexpected justice of the situation.

I mention this scenario not just because it represents a good goal, or underscores the place of talking about history in righting historic wrongs. I mention it most of all because changing the national context, it is exactly what I witnessed on the 26th of March in Sucre. The figure in question was not Thomas Jefferson or Lafayette, but Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a mestiza military commander in the wars against the Spanish from 1809 to 1825. Born in the town of Chuquisaca (now named Sucre after her contemporary military and political leader), she fought for the independence of both Argentina and Bolivia in a war in which she saw four of her sons and her husband die. It was also a war during which she gave birth to a daughter. Azurduy is embraced by nationalists and pro-indigenous activists, as an Argentine and a Bolivian, as a woman and as a soldier.

The speech was given not by Joe Biden, of course, but by Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera. Before becoming Vice President, he was a partisan of a guerrilla movement of the 1980s and 90s, a professor of sociology, and a moving force within a leftist theory collective in La Paz called Comuna.

It is one thing to sit in a graduate classroom and learn about the extended history of South America’s Age of Revolution, to learn how the indigenous revolts of the 1770s and 1780s presaged the independence wars of the early 19th century. It is a different and altogether remarkable thing to watch a country’s national leadership embrace that narrative as a way of understanding its past. One of the better aspects of fieldwork has been the opportunity to do both.

* Military commander and diplomat Lafayette was in fact given honorary American citizenship in 2002. I won’t ask you to imagine the above scenario with Dick Cheney playing the role of García Linera.

From Bolivia to Egypt: Overcoming Death and Fear

As I alternate between interviewing Bolivians about the process of mass collective action that overthrew two neoliberal governments in 2003 and 2005, and watching the unfolding uprising in Egypt by the Internet, I’m doing my best to learn from both situations. For now, here’s one bit of writing describing Bolivia’s 2003 Gas War that seems especially relevant to events in Egypt in 2011:

Hay ocasiones en que la muerte y el miedo son los puntos infranqueables que detienen una insurgencia social frente a las murallas del gobierno. Por eso el Estado necesita monopolizar la coerción legítima pues ésta, que encarna el posible uso de la violencia y muerte en contra de la sociedad, es la garantía última y final de todo orden político constituido. Sin embargo, hay momentos en que la muerte cataliza el ímpetu de la sublevación, en que la muerte es la seña que permite unificar colectividades distanciadas dando pie a un tipo de hermandad extendida en el dolor y el luto. En ese momento la muerte es derrotada por la vitalidad de una sublevación de voluntades sociales llamada insurrección.

There are occasions when death and fear are the insuperable obstacles that stand in the way of a social insurgency outside the walls of government power. For this reason, the State needs to monopolize legitimate coercion, which embodies the possible use of violence and death against the society, since this is the last and final guarantee of every constituted political order.

Nevertheless, there are moments in which death [instead] catalyzes the impetus of the uprising, in which death is the sign under which formerly distant collectivities can unify, giving rise to a sort of extended bortherhood of pain and mourning. In that moment, death is defeated by the vitality of the uprising of social wills that is called insurrection.

—Álvaro García Linera, “La sublevación indígena popular en Bolivia
[The Indigenous Popular Uprising in Bolivia],” 2004