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.

Arturo Murillo began corruption scheme in first week of Áñez regime

On May 21 and 22, the United States government arrested Arturo Carlos Murillo Prijic, the former minister of government under the interim government of Jeanine Áñez, his chief of staff Sergio Rodrigo Mendez Mendizabal, and three of Murillo’s long-time associates. These include Murillo’s childhood friend Luis Berkman Littman, his son Bryan Samuel Berkman, and Argentine lawyer Philip Lichtenfield. The men are charged with money laundering and corrupt practices surrounding the Áñez government’s purchase of riot control munitions.

Based on the facts laid out in the indictment (Murillo is “Co-Conspirator 1”), confirmed by prior document releases in Bolivia since June 2020, this scheme is best understood not as an arms company bribing Murillo and Mendez to secure a contract, but rather the joint effort by the men involved to interpose the Berkmans’ shell company, Bravo Tactical Solutions, into an existing arms supply arrangement between a Brazilian arms manufacturer and the Bolivian government. This was done at a substantial mark-up, generating between $2 and $3 million, some $600 thousand of which were recycled back to Mendez, Murillo, and an unnamed Ministry of Defense official.

Since the public indictment provides a detailed timeline, we now know that this corrupt scheme originated in the first week of the Áñez government, before the government was even recognized by opponents, while blood was still on the ground from the Sacaba massacre, and before the second mass killing at Senkata.

I think about this crisis moment all the time; I’ve studied it intensely to understand who did what when, how hardline officials came in with guns blazing, killing more with the police and military in ten days than Bolivian security forces had killed in the past decade of policing protests. What I had not imagined, however, was that this first week was also a time for them to think about profiteering.

Arturo Murillo’s dramatic week

The week of November 10th through 16th, 2019, was a momentous one for Bolivia and for conservative hardliner Arturo Murillo.

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Spatialities of Andean Extractivism (video/talk at AAG 2021)

As part of an extended panel on the Corporation on at the American Association of Geographers meeting, I presented the following talk on Concession blocks, spiraling pits, and wily start-ups: Spatialities of Andean extractivism (AAG members only). The talk is a deep dive in the technologies and policies that connect open-pit mining w/ speculative capital, built around Sumitomo Corporation’s San Cristobal mine in Potosí, Bolivia and Bear Creek Mining’s failed Santa Ana silver mine project in Puno, Peru (prior coverage here: 1|2).

A breakdown of the observations on corporate structure is in this Twitter thread. You can watch a video of the full talk here. I’m preparing to submit an article-length version of the investigation soon.

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NACLA/NYU panel on the Bolivian election and challenges to come — 17 November 2020

The North American Congress on Latin America and New York University Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies hosted me on a panel on the 2020 Bolivian elections and the challenges that await the MAS-IPSP government, on Tuesday, November 17. The video is online here.

Bolivia’s Electoral Victory: What Challenges Lie Ahead For MAS?

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President Luis Arce’s economic model (and its limits)

Luis Arce Catacora, the economic architect of the Movement Towards Socialism during Evo Morales’ fourteen-year presidency, will take power today as Bolivia’s sixty-seventh president. Arce and incoming Vice President] David Choquehuanca were two of the longest-serving ministers in Evo’s cabinet (both from 2006 to 2017) and they stood at the core, respectively, of the party’s socialist and plurinational projects during those years.

When the Morales government came to power, it was haunted by the spectre of economic failure under the last center-left government, the 1982 to 1985 UDP government of Hernán Siles Zuazo. Morales turned to Arce, an economist who had worked in the Bolivian Central Bank since 1987, to lead his economic policy. Arce faced an incredible challenge: to thread the needle between popular demands for redistribution and an international credit market wary of leftist populism.

The markets were already trembling: Morales was already a bogeyman of demagogic populism. He was vilified by American diplomats for the coca leaf’s connection to narcotics and stereotyped domestically as an uninformed peasant ignorant of diplomatic protocol and economic realities. Moreover, Morales proposed a “21st century socialism” as his economic project. Everything that was an anathema to neoliberal technocrats seemed to be packaged together.

And yet, the new Morales government was far from ignorant of global economic or political realities. It still needed foreign credit, still lived in a hemisphere politically and militarily dominated by the United States, and still sought international investment. The spectre of dangerous populism, and the historical shadow of the 1982–86 hyperinflation, threatened all of those relationships. The Bolivian government could not afford to be downgraded in international bond markets, isolated like a new Cuba, or spurned by transnational corporate investors. And so, the government sent clear signals to global powers about just what its brand of populism would entail.

One unlikely emissary was Vice President Álvaro García Linera, a Marxist intellectual and former guerrilla, who spoke at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2006. “We are not,” the Vice President pledged, “a populist government with easily opened pockets and cheap promises.” He highlighted the government’s “austerity” with its officials, who would no longer put money in offshore accounts (unlike their notoriously corrupt predecessors), and its “responsible management of macroeconomics.” This was Arce’s portfolio.

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Bolivia saw massive forest loss in 2019

Widespread fires in Bolivia, which ravaged over 6.4 million hectares—6% of the country’s surface area—as of November 2019, caused massive damage to primary forests according to multiple research teams that investigate and quantify deforestation. Global Forest Watch, which attempts to quantify primary forest loss—that is, the area of untouched forest destroyed—found that Bolivia lost 290,000 hectares in 2019, nearly doubling its 2018 loss of 154,000 hectares. This brought Bolivia to fourth place among tropical countries for deforestation in 2019. Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project found that deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon increased markedly from 58,000 hectares in 2018 to 135,400 hectares in 2019, though MAAP’s study area excludes Santa Cruz department, where the worst 2019 fires occurred.

These figures are, as expected, well below the overall total area burned by fires in Bolivia, as calculated by Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza–Bolivia, which closely monitors satellite fire data. FAN-Bolivia estimated that 2.0 million of the 6.4 million burned acres were forested. The bulk of this forest loss came in Santa Cruz, where 1.9 million of a record-setting 4.1 million burned acres were forested, by FAN-Bolivia’s calculations. Of course, not all fires destroy all forest cover, not all forests are primary, and not all losses represent the first loss to an area. Global Forest Watch’s estimate of 290,000 hectares only applies forest loss that meets all three criteria. GFW has a much higher estimate for Bolivia’s total forest loss in 2019: 852,000 hectares. Much previously damaged forest, or forest never regarded as primary, burned in 2019.

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Sebastián Moro’s suspicious death during the ouster of Evo Morales

An Argentine journalist’s final report denounced a coup; his beating later that night looks like murder

Sebastián Moro was a 40-year-old Argentine journalist working for Prensa Rural, a newspaper associated with the CSUTCB national peasants union that strongly supported the government of Evo Morales. On the morning of November 9, the Morales presidency was under siege, with a widespread police mutiny backing up nationwide protests of the October 20 election results. That morning, Sebastián Moro showed up to coordinate the next edition of Prensa Rural with his supervisor José Aramayo, who also coordinated the station Radio Comunidad out of the office of the CSUTCB in the Miraflores neighborhood of La Paz. By that night, angry civilian opponents of the Morales government had broken into the compound, beaten and tied up Aramayo and senior union leader Hugo López, and delivered them to a police station.

Portarit of Sebastián Moro by Cristina Perez. Text reads: "A Sebastián Moro, periodista Argentino fallecido por el golpe de estado en Bolivia, Noviembre 2019.
Photo: Jose Aramayo tied to a tree by anti-Morales protesters, November 9

From his apartment in the Sopocachi neighborhood, Moro filed a report for the Argentine newspaper Página12 titled “Un golpe de estado en marcha en Bolivia [A coup d’etat is underway in Bolivia].” article mentioned the attack on Aramayo as part of long list of attacks by the civic movement:

Because of the [police and military’s self-imposed] confinement to barracks, on Saturady there were acts of vandalism and aggression upon government functionaries, journalists, and MAS party members in different parts of the country. Among numerous acts, the governor of Oruro’s house was burned, state workers at Bolivia TV and Radio Patria Nueva denounced they were kidnapped and denied their right to work by fighting groups of the opposition who surrounded their building, and the La Paz headquarters of the Peasant’s Confederation (CSUTCB) was invaded and attacked.

Producto de los acuartelamientos, el sábado hubo actos vandálicos y agresiones a funcionarios, periodistas y militantes del MAS en distintos puntos del país. Entre varios hechos, el gobernador de Oruro sufrió el incendio de su vivienda, trabajadores estatales del canal Bolivia TV y de Radio Patria Nueva denunciaron que fueron secuestrados y privados de su derecho al trabajo por grupos de choque de la oposición que cercaron el edificio, y la sede paceña de la Confederación Campesina (CSUTCB) fue invadida y atacada

Moro, Sebastián. “Un Golpe de Estado En Marcha En Bolivia | El Escenario Desplegado Por Las Fuerzas Golpistas.” Página12, sec. El mundo. https://www.pagina12.com.ar/230124-un-golpe-de-estado-en-marcha-en-bolivia.

By the next morning, Sebastián Moro was brutally beaten and in urgent need of medical treatment. Medical and media reports described multiple “bruises, abrasions, and scratches.” At the Clínica Rengel, he was diagnosed with an ischemic stroke, a condition which can be induced by trauma. He died around midnight on the morning of November 16.

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Bolivia reacts to COVID-19: First panic, then policy

It has been just seven days since the Bolivian Ministry of Health confirmed the first two case of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in the landlocked South American country, on Tuesday, March 10. The announcement, and the attempts of two patients to seek treatment in the lowland city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra set off a wave of panic in that metropolis, marked by (as best I know, globally unprecedented) protests by doctors, health workers, and neighbors seeking to deny treatment to the infected individuals. Cooler heads prevailed, and treatment sites were eventually proposed. Channeling the panic, several national legislators proposed criminal penalties for either blocking treatment or arriving and failing to quarantine.

Meanwhile, the small highland city of Oruro experienced community transmission of the virus, which now has seven cases (one of them is linked to travel from Italy). Oruro then led a wave of departments and localities in taking community-wide measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Oruro department’s “quarantine” measures are scheduled to last from March 16 to 31.

As of March 17, Bolivia has twelve cases, including four in Santa Cruz department and one in Cochabamba. A patient who died in El Alto was reported as a suspected case, but this claim was negated by the ministry of health.

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Inter-American Commission puts a spotlight on Sacaba, Senkata massacres

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which visited Bolivia November 22 to 25, has released a visually and emotionally arresting video that highlights the testimony of survivors of the Bolivian government’s massacres of protesters in the town of Sacaba and the El Alto neighborhood of Senkata. The video interweaves survivors’ pleas with crowd shouts for “justice” and does far more to humanize the participants in protests than nearly any coverage in the mainstream Bolivian press. (Click on “CC” for English subtitles, and on “vimeo” to see a larger version.)

The Commission’s report on its visit, currently available only in Spanish, includes extensive discussion of these two massacres. What follows is my translation of a relevant portion of their text:

Massacres and murders

In the context of the crisis, and as of November 27, the IACHR received news of 36 people who lost their lives in Bolivia. During its visit, the IACHR delegation received abundant information about two massacres committed in Sacaba and in Senkata, on November 15 and 19, respectively, in which at least 18 people lost their lives.

The Sacaba massacre occurred on November 15. The Commission received information from witnesses, according to which members of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba arrived in a peaceful demonstration to the Sacaba municipality, demanding the return of Evo Morales to the government and recject the interim government. At the Huayllani bridge, located at kilometer 10 of the highway from Cochabamba, the combined forces of the Police and Armed Forces had established a security cordon. At the moment the demonstrators attempted to pass through, they were first contained and told verbally that the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) was on its way to mediate; nevertheless, according to information received, a few moments later the police and military agents would open fire against the civilian population gathered there, which they also would attack with tear gas, beatings, and kicks. In these acts, nine people were killed: Omar Calle, César Sipe, Juan López, Emilio Colque, Lucas Sánchez, Plácido Rojas Delgadillo, Armando Carvallo Escobar, Marco Vargas Martínez, and Roberto Sejas. Numerous people were wounded, including by bullets, who were received by various hospitals in Sacaba and Cochabamba.

The commission takes note of the existence of different versions of how these events unfolded. On one hand, some state authorities, including the Forensic Investigation Unit (Instituto de Investigaciones Forenses; IDIF) and the police command, have accused the demonstrators of having shot one another, proposing reasons such as the caliber of the bullets that were recovered from the bodies of the dead and wounded. On the other hand, the numerous testimonies received by the IACHR are consistent in indicating that the demonstrating people were unarmed, advanced peacefully by their own initiative, and were attacked with fire arms, teargas canisters, batons, and other weapons by the security forces, in a sudden and surprising manner. Security force helicopters participated in the operation, as even the Police Commander of Cochabamba testified before the IACHR.

The Senkata massacre occurred on November 19. According to information received, a group of partisans of the MAS carried out a blockade around the oil and gas plant of the Senkata sector, in El Alto. That morning, sixty container trucks of gasoline and natural gas were allowed to leave the plant, after which the demonstrators had knocked down one of the walls on the perimeter of the plant, at which time they were contained by the firearms of the combined forces of the Police and Army. In these acts, nine people were killed by gunshots: Devi Posto Cusi, Pedro Quisberth Mamani, Edwin Jamachi Paniagua, José Colque Patty, Juan José Tenorio Mamani, Antonio Ronald Quispe, Clemente Mamani Santander, Rudy Cristian Vásquez Condori, and Calixto Huanacu Aguilar. Among those who were killed are several people who do not seem to have participated in the blockade, but rather were simply passing through the zone on the way to their homes or workplaces. There were also numerous people wounded by gunshots, beatings, inhalation of gas, and other related causes, who were attended in various hospitals in El Alto. Just as in the Sacaba massacre, some public functionaries, both forensic and police, have questioned whether the bullets that killed these citizens had been shot by the regulation weapons of the security forces. With respect to that, according to public declarations and those made before the IACHR, insistently reiterated by the victims themselves, these people were publicly demonstrating without violence and were the object of repression by state agents using firearms. There have also been public denunciations of the disappearance over various lifeless bodies of people who had died in the the same massacre, which would have been taken by state agents so that no one would have word of these dead people. In particular, cases of [such disappearances] denounced before the IACHR include that of a peasant woman, and of a girl around 12 years old, among others. The victims of this massacre consistently signal that the number of those killed is much more than the nine that have been reported up to now.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights emphatically condemns the massacres of Sacaba and Senkata, in which [the perpetrators] incurred in grave violations of human rights. According to the Commission’s criteria, these acts can be characterized as massacres given the number of people who lost their lives in the same way, time, and place, and because they were committed against a specific group of people. In addition, the patterns of the wounds that have been recorded offer serious indications of practices of extrajudicial execution. The right to life, protected under the American Convention [on Human Rights], is inviolable, and due to its essential character is the precondition for the exercise of all other human rights. The organs of the Inter-American System [of Human Rights] have reiterated that the use of force by the state must be bound by the principles of exceptionality, legality, necessity, and proportionality. As well, the Bolivian state is reminded that lethal force many not be used merely to maintain or re-institute public order; only protection of life itself and physical integrity against imminent and real threats is a legitimate objective for the application of deadly force by state agents. In this sense, the IACHR urges the [Bolivian] state to immediately and urgently implement mechanisms to prohibit and effectively impede the use of lethal force as a control measure for public order in cases of public demonstrations. The Commission also reiterates that firearms and their munitions must be excluded from control operations of social protest, and that police or military functionaries that may enter into contact with a demonstration should not carry fire arms or other lethal weapons. Additionally, the Commission urges the state to rapidly carry out its international obligation to investigate, judge, and sanction those responsible for these criminal acts.

Image above: Relatives of Antonio Quispe lead the procession of the victims killed during clashes with police at the Senkata fuel plant. Photograph: Getty Images.

From Seattle to Bolivia: My Journey from Protest Participant to Ethnographer of Revolution

Twenty years ago today, I joined a massive direct action protest to stop the World Trade Organization from making neoliberal economic policy into a virtual treaty for most of humanity. In time, my involvement there drew me to the movements in Bolivia that challenged the same policies, and to a decade of work documenting their capacity to overthrow governments in South America. Here’s a bit of how I followed that path… The following is excerpted (with some small revisions) from my forthcoming book The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia. Available in spring 2020 from University of Arizona Press.

You can get updates on the launch of The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia, and a monthly digest of writing and photography on Bolivia, social movements, indigenous rights, protest tactics, and revolution from Carwil Bjork-James. Sign-up here.

I first encountered Bolivia’s remarkable political upheaval as part of the movement against corporate globalization. The nongovernmental organization that had just hired me, Project Underground, was one of dozens of international solidarity groups weaving bonds among community leaders from the global South, American union workers, environmental activists, and direct-action protesters, in preparation for the Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. My first day on the job, I boarded a bus in Oakland, California, to bring about eighty environmental rights activists directly to the protest against the WTO.

Just before 7:00 a.m. on November 30, 1999, the N30 Global Day of Action, about two dozen of us formed three circles where Pike Street and Boren Avenue cross. In each circle, we linked arms through long tubular “lockboxes.” Sliding our arms into the tubes, and clipping our wrists to a concealed pin, we made circle a unit, breakable only at the risk of serious harm to the limbs concealed within. I got to know my coworkers while helping to occupy this intersection and thereby block the delegates from reaching the meeting. We shared the crossing with dozens of other protesters ready to link arms at a moment’s notice. Any delegates looking for a way into the Ministerial Meeting would have to push their way through us or another group of protesters ringing the Seattle Convention Center. By nightfall the first day of talks had been canceled, and Seattle’s mayor had declared a state of emergency. Surrounded by this display of North American resistance, long-skeptical delegates from the global South saw that U.S. and European negotiators lacked the support of their own people. Many African, Latin American, and Asian delegations then emerged as critics of the WTO’s plans for the seamless flow of capital and commodities, and the talks collapsed. The Direct Action Network, the coordinating body that orchestrated the blockades, mushroomed into a movement of tens of thousands of activists eager to converge upon summits of the powerful, including the World Petroleum Congress, Democratic and Republican political conventions, and the World Economic Forum. Seemingly overnight, challenges to the power and global reach of corporate capitalism became front-page news.

The collapse of the Ministerial Meeting led to cancellation of the Millennium Round of free-trade negotiations just as Bolivians were facing the real effects of corporate-designed trade and investment policies. The government had been aggressively seeking foreign buyers for public enterprises and utilities since 1993 and had found one for the municipal water company of Cochabamba in September 1999. The privatized company’s first water bills—some of them double or triple the previous rate—came out on December 1, 1999. Protests in downtown Cochabamba on that day coincided with the arrest of more than five hundred protesters—including me—in Seattle. By April three waves of mass protests had rocked Cochabamba and thrown out the foreign owners of Aguas del Tunari, restoring public ownership of the city’s water utility.

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