Spanning the 1920s to the presidency of Evo Morales, this history traces how resource nationalism has pitted ordinary Bolivians against conservative Bolivian leaders, US officials, and foreign investors in a struggle to control the country’s natural wealth.
Conflicts over subterranean resources, particularly tin, oil, and natural gas, have driven Bolivian politics for nearly a century. “Resource nationalism”—the conviction that resource wealth should be used for the benefit of the “nation”—has often united otherwise disparate groups, including mineworkers, urban workers, students, war veterans, and middle-class professionals, and propelled an indigenous union leader, Evo Morales, into the presidency in 2006. Blood of the Earth reexamines the Bolivian mobilization around resource nationalism that began in the 1920s, crystallized with the 1952 revolution, and continues into the twenty-first century.
Drawing on a wide array of Bolivian and US sources, Kevin A. Young reveals that Bolivia became a key site in a global battle among economic models, with grassroots coalitions demanding nationalist and egalitarian alternatives to market capitalism. While US-supported moderates within the revolutionary regime were able to defeat more radical forces, Young shows how the political culture of resource nationalism, though often comprising contradictory elements, constrained government actions and galvanized mobilizations against neoliberalism in later decades. His transnational and multilevel approach to the 1952 revolution illuminates the struggles among Bolivian popular sectors, government officials, and foreign powers, as well as the competing currents and visions within Bolivia’s popular political cultures. Offering a fresh appraisal of the Bolivian Revolution, resource nationalism, and the Cold War in Latin America, Blood of the Earth is an ideal case study for understanding the challenges shared by countries across the Global South.
- List of Abbreviations
- Introduction: Natural Resources, Economic Visions, and US Intervention in Twentieth-Century Bolivia
- 1. The Road to Resource Nationalism: Economic Ideas and Popular Coalitions in La Paz, 1927–1952
- 2. A New Type of Bolivian Economy: Competing Visions, 1952–1956
- 3. The Political Economy of Containment: Privatization, Austerity, and the MNR’s Shift to the Right, 1955–1964
- 4. The Battle for Men’s Minds: Economic Paradigms, Propaganda, and the Iconography of Revolution
- 5. The Limits of Containment: Anti-Austerity and Resource Nationalism in La Paz Factories
- 6. Oil and Nation: The Crusade to Save Bolivia’s Hydrocarbons
- Epilogue: Resource Nationalism and Popular Struggle in the Twenty-First Century
- Appendix: Professional Backgrounds of Key Middle-Class Participants in Economic Debates, 1940s–1960s
Natural Resources, Economic Visions, and US Intervention in Twentieth-Century Bolivia
Bolivian social movements captured the world’s attention in the fi rst years of this century. From 2000 to 2005 they defeated a plan to privatize water, toppled two governments, and catapulted an indigenous union leader, Evo Morales, into the presidency. While a host of demands fueled this cycle of revolt, anger over the private appropriation of Bolivia’s natural resources was the single most important unifying issue. The catalyst for the popular coalition that ousted President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003 was the government’s plan to export unrefined natural gas to the United States at cheap prices rather than refining the gas domestically and producing hydrocarbon derivatives or at least demanding a bigger share of the proceeds. More than a decade later, debates over natural resource wealth continue to dominate the Bolivian political scene.
Recent struggles over extractive resources have their roots in the mid-twentieth century. Natural resource wealth—particularly tin and oil—occupied the central position in the popular nationalist imaginary that developed starting in the 1920s and crystallized with the 1952 revolution. At multiple political junctures from the 1930s through the 1960s, resource nationalism—the idea that resource wealth should be used for the benefit of the nation—would be the key factor uniting mine workers, urban workers, students, war veterans, middle-class professionals, and other urban sectors. Natural resources do not always spark only conflict and division, as some of the scholarly literature suggests; they can also generate powerful political coalitions. The popular coalitions that emerged between the 1930s and 1960s left enduring legacies that are still being felt today.
Resource nationalism is especially important for understanding the tumultuous rule of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR, Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario), which took power when the revolution triumphed in 1952. While most of the MNR leadership favored a relatively conservative version of revolution, urban popular sectors like factory workers, students, and war veterans articulated more radical visions. Subterranean resources—tin, oil, and eventually natural gas—were at the center of their visions, with proposals revolving around how to use these nonrenewable resources as a lever to diversify and industrialize Bolivia’s mono-export economy while promoting a progressive redistribution of wealth. Although the MNR was nominally at the helm, the party’s control over urban popular sectors remained superficial and tenuous. By the late 1950s diverse voices began accusing the MNR of betraying its pledge to use Bolivia’s resources for economic development and social welfare. The alienation of the MNR’s support base in the cities and mines compelled the MNR and its major foreign ally, the US government, to resort to military repression after 1956 and facilitated the party’s ouster by the army in 1964. Yet the decade of the 1960s also witnessed the emergence of a new popular coalition independent of the MNR that focused on the effort to protect Bolivia’s state oil company.
Appearances of coalitional unity were also deceptive, however, for resource nationalists were a very diverse crowd. Some sought to replace capitalism with socialism, some just wanted to ameliorate capitalism’s worst excesses, and some favored economic modernization but not redistribution. Conservatives used resource nationalism as a way to defuse class conflict and avoid confronting inequality. Some were driven by a chauvinistic nationalism more akin to fascism than socialism. The failure of popular nationalist coalitions to confront ethnic, gender, and regional hierarchies also hindered unity. The economic and political visions of urban Bolivians, even most of those on the socialist left, excluded or marginalized the rural indigenous population. Women experienced a parallel subordination.
Resource nationalism, even more so than other nationalisms, may be particularly prone to this mix of progressive and exclusionary potentials. On one hand, it constitutes a powerful challenge to capitalist markets, private property rights, and the prerogatives of both imperial and regional elites.3 On the other hand, resource-nationalist coalitions tend to conceal drastically different visions for the future, and resource nationalism itself is often used to silence the demands of subordinate groups. Bolivian resource nationalism, with both its tremendous power and its internal tensions and contradictions, is the primary subject of this book.
Extractive Economies and Resource Nationalism
Economic dependence on extractive industry is an enduring predicament throughout much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. A large body of economic literature has linked extractivism to high poverty and inequality, low growth, and structural tendencies toward rent-led development. Paradoxically, resource-poor countries may be better off in some respects than those that are rich in natural resources, as “resource curse” theories argue. Scholars in this school highlight the ways that dependence on a single primary export commodity can deform a country’s economy, leaving it especially vulnerable to fl uctuating world market prices. Part of this alleged curse is the so-called Dutch disease, referring to how a primary export boom can lead to appreciation of a country’s currency; appreciation makes imports cheaper and exports less competitive, thus hindering the development of other export sectors and domestic industries. Extractivism can also have far-reaching consequences for the rest of a society. Many political scientists argue that resource wealth can distort a country’s political institutions, giving rise to a rentier state uninterested in responding to the long-term needs of the population through diversifi cation, progressive tax reform, and other policies. Historical studies of Latin America have often focused on Venezuela’s oil wealth and its implications for state formation, culture, and popular consciousness.
Dependence on primary exports is usually accompanied by subordination to foreign capitalists or at least domestic elites far removed from their fellow citizens. Resource nationalism has thus remained a crucial element in the political cultures of many resource-abundant countries. Resource nationalists are united by their demand that the home nation be the main beneficiary of natural resource extraction. Beyond that goal their specific policy proposals vary signifi cantly, from advocating the total exclusion of private enterprise to merely favoring higher taxes on private companies, higher market prices, technology transfer, the training of national technicians, or other benefi ts. Most go further and advocate specifi c uses for the proceeds, for instance to fund diversification programs, the development of manufacturing, or increased social spending. Many resource nationalists also condemn their countries’ economic elites—who are symbolically excluded from the “imagined community” of the nation—and demand a more equitable distribution of wealth. Some, as in Bolivia in the twentieth and twenty-fi rst centuries, insist that the natural resource sector in question should itself be industrialized, meaning that exports like natural gas would be further processed in the country prior to export.
Resource extraction and the nationalist sentiment that so often accompanies it have become increasingly central to world events in the early twenty-first century. The explosive economic growth of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), declining supplies of many natural resources, and the wasteful and fossil-fuel-based structures of production and consumption in the global North have accelerated a race for resources with profound implications. This context, in conjunction with rising global inequality since the 1970s, has made subterranean resources a focus of popular mobilizations across the world. In Latin America, the Middle East, and northern Africa, resource nationalism has animated recent debates over wealth distribution, democracy, indigenous rights, and ecological crisis. Protesters have demanded a reorientation of economic policy to increase the fl ow of rents to “the people,” and some have also put forth proposals for diversification and industrialization. These mobilizations, in turn, have confronted the perennial problems of co-optation, repression, foreign imperialism, divergent agendas among the protesters themselves, and the perils inherent in resource-based development. They have also been forced to deal with questions that were marginal to policy debates until recently, particularly involving indigenous territorial rights and environmental destruction.
Recent resource struggles and debates have not emerged out of thin air. In the decades that followed the famous 1917 Mexican Constitution, which declared natural resources the property of the nation, Latin American nationalists engaged in heated debates over resource wealth, economic development, and socioeconomic rights. These debates were by no means restricted to economists and policy makers, as the Bolivian case makes clear. Given the continued centrality of resource conflicts around the world, now is an opportune time to reexamine the long cycle of Bolivian mobilization that began in the 1920s. This period can help illuminate developments across the global South in both the twentieth and twenty-fi rst centuries.
Legacies of Revolutionary Struggle
Much research of the past several decades has stressed the role of popular actors in the formation of modern Latin America. Historians have shown how political institutions, economic history, and social relations have been shaped in part by popular initiatives. Twentieth-century Bolivia, with its highly organized civil society and array of powerful social movements, offers remarkable examples of how ordinary people can infl uence history.
The enduring impact of Bolivia’s mid-century social movements has remained underappreciated until recently, however. Most contemporary accounts of the MNR period argued that the revolution resulted in major changes to the country’s political, economic, and social structure. They highlighted especially the agrarian reform initiated in 1953, the establishment of universal suffrage, the nationalization of the country’s large mines, and the downsizing of the old army. Yet most of these accounts insisted on the MNR’s role as a vanguard force in the revolution, downplaying the initiative of popular groups.
Starting in the late 1950s, a second wave of studies presented a much more critical view of the MNR. Disillusioned nationalists and Marxists described a party that had betrayed the revolution by welcoming foreign capitalists back into the country and repressing popular demands for redistribution. Some of these critics also downplayed the MNR’s importance to the revolution. Trotskyist writer Guillermo Lora, for instance, portrayed party leaders as cynical opportunists who manipulated popular radicalism, while nationalists like Sergio Almaraz Paz and Amado Canelas criticized the MNR’s alleged betrayal of resource nationalism. By the 1970s and early 1980s a spate of studies expanded on this analysis, painting the MNR as a relatively conservative force in the country. Following the emergence of a new indigenous movement in the 1970s, revisionist critiques appeared from a different angle. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui and others published historical studies highlighting the paternalism and ethnic assimilation-ism of the MNR. They especially criticized how the MNR cultivated clientelistic ties with campesino (peasant) leaders and how its agrarian policy prioritized individual over communal landownership. While these studies were much more attuned to popular mobilization, their main emphasis was on the co-optation and defeat of popular forces.
Recently a third, postrevisionist school has begun to temper this critique. New research has stressed the complicated dialectic between popular forces, particularly the peasantry, and the MNR government, revealing the limits to MNR power. Some researchers have emphasized the enduring structural changes brought by the revolution, such as the agrarian reform that had benefited about half of the Bolivian population by 1970. From the perspective of diplomatic history, recent research has also pointed out how MNR officials after 1952 were able to exercise significant power vis-à-vis foreign forces like the US government, for instance by playing up the threat of a radical turn in the revolution in order to obtain more US aid. Indeed, the very fact that Washington chose to aid the MNR rather than try to overthrow it seems to reflect the constraints on US imperial power.
Building upon this recent scholarship, I argue that popular mobilization before, during, and after the MNR period had enduring legacies that are essential to understanding present-day Bolivia. The revolution was not simply a story of popular defeats. Despite the revolution’s rightward shift and the MNR’s overthrow in 1964, some significant changes persisted long after that. In the realm of economic and fiscal policy, the MNR and subsequent governments were unable to initiate a full-scale reversal of progressive nationalist reforms. The country retained a large public sector into the 1980s, including state control over most of the oil and mining industries and educational expenditures that were high by Latin American standards. In the realm of political culture, resource nationalism has survived as a defi ning aspect of the country’s mainstream discourse until the present, to the point that even neoliberal measures like the privatization of mining in the 1980s and of oil in the 1990s have been publicly justifi ed using resource-nationalist language. Although the revolution’s legacies in popular political culture are impossible to quantify, they are perhaps even more significant than the policy legacies. In the early twenty-fi rst century a series of mass mobilizations reminded the world that the resource nationalism, anti-imperialism, and egalitarian values that animated past struggles had not faded away. These ideas have remained core elements of urban Bolivia’s enduring, if ever-evolving, “political cultures of opposition.”
My emphasis is not on MNR diplomats or government leaders. While the skillful diplomacy of Bolivian officials played some role in allaying US suspicions about the revolution, the demands and mobilization of ordinary Bolivians were more important. Specifi cally, it was the threat of more radical forces displacing the MNR that ultimately lent the Bolivian diplomats their power when negotiating US aid packages and export contracts. Though MNR leaders used that threat to their advantage, they were also unable to fully control it. Popular forces constrained both the US and MNR governments, and it was those forces that were primarily responsible for the revolution’s long-term imprint on society.
At the same time, I do not wish to overstate the impact of popular resistance. Radical dreams were indeed crushed, and one need only visit Bolivia today to see that the legacies of colonialism (formal and informal, foreign and internal) and other forms of exploitation continue to be felt. I also want to avoid fetishizing popular resistance as inherently heroic. As noted above, such resistance takes many forms and often incorporates oppressive elements within it.23 Even Marxists and anarchists were not immune to the influence of patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism. The contest among currents and tendencies within Bolivia’s political cultures of opposition, and the implications for the course of history, form an important subplot in the chapters that follow.
Resources and Revolution
Bolivian sociologist René Zavaleta argues that a popular nationalist consciousness emerged in Bolivia in the aftermath of the Chaco War with Paraguay (1932–1935). For Zavaleta the war was a “constituent moment” that helped give rise to a “national-popular” collective identity. At the heart of this emergent revolutionary nationalism was resource nationalism, which prioritized the protection of Bolivian resources and usually carried a vague orientation in favor of a more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power. Resource nationalism became the centerpiece of popular economic thought starting in the 1920s and after the war served as a consistent unifying force for popular coalitions.
Although the MNR eventually triumphed over competing opposition parties, it did so by riding the crest of a popular wave. Its recipe for success lay in selectively appropriating ideas already in circulation yet keeping its program sufficiently vague to avoid alienating the disparate groups affiliated with it. Its leaders attacked the anticapitalist left, with its imagery of global and domestic class conflict, and instead promoted a development vision based on mutual benefi ts. The only losers in this vision would be a small cabal of oligarchs and nebulously defined “imperialists.” Bolivian capitalists were explicitly included in MNR conceptions of the national community, and most foreign capitalists and Western governments were spared the imperialist label. In this sense the MNR was a classic populist regime and decidedly less radical than many other leftist and nationalist groups of the pre-1952 era.
The vision of the mainstream MNR leadership was never fully embraced by the population, however. Even after 1952, the party’s political hegemony would remain fleeting and superficial, with its legitimacy persisting only to the extent that it was perceived as fulfi lling revolutionary values. Workers, students, and others articulated radical conceptions of revolutionary nationalism that went well beyond the MNR’s vague and relatively conservative program, even as they continued to offer formal allegiance to the government. In the late 1950s and 1960s, as policy shifted rightward, a range of popular forces united around a resource-nationalist and anti-austerity agenda that challenged government policy from the left. These forces included not just the country’s famous mine workers, whose radicalism has been the focus of many studies, but also a host of urban groups such as factory and construction workers, teachers, students, and war veterans. The increasing alienation of these groups from the MNR contributed to the regime’s downfall in 1964. This political trajectory contrasts with that of other postrevolutionary situations (Mexico, Cuba, and China, to name three) in which the new regimes were able to consolidate strong and durable states based in large part on mass consent.
Popular interventions in economic policy debates were remarkably constant and visible in mid-century Bolivia, in part due to the virtual absence of formally trained economists. These interventions offer insight into the contours of popular economic thought. In addition to newspaper accounts of events, I make use of two broad categories of sources. First, statements and resolutions from unions and other grassroots organizations provide a sense of their members’ beliefs and demands. While usually authored by organizational leaders, such sources offer valuable clues about rank-and-file sentiment. In organizations that are at least moderately democratic, leaders’ rhetoric— if not their actions—will normally give an approximate refl ection of their constituents’ views. My second and less conventional source for gauging popular sentiment is the declassified records of the US government. US agents in Bolivia were unlikely to exaggerate the unpopularity of foreign capital, the US government, or their own activities. Their candid observations about ordinary Bolivians’ resource nationalism and egalitarianism thus provide reasonably reliable measures of public attitudes.
My argument about resource nationalism is more controversial than it might appear. Some Marxists have downplayed the importance of popular nationalism in twentieth-century Bolivia. A Bolivian Trotskyist historian once told me that such sentiment had “existed only in Zavaleta’s mind.” Students of Bolivian labor history have gravitated toward the mine workers in part because they view that sector as having had a proper, internationalist sense of class consciousness; other work-ing-class sectors and the peasantry, meanwhile, are often dismissed as politically backward and easily duped victims of elite manipulation. Such portrayals are empirically dubious on several levels. They exaggerate the quiescence of the latter groups, they wrongly imply class consciousness and nationalism to have been mutually exclusive, and they dismiss popular nationalism as simply a sign of false consciousness. While I sympathize with those who are suspicious of nationalism in all its guises, I see no sense in denying its historical importance in the country’s political culture. We can acknowledge that nation-states are artificial constructions while still striving to understand the consequences of nationalist sentiment.
In Bolivia those consequences were very real, including for the Marxist left. The inability of Marxists to garner the allegiance of the majority of workers owes much to the resonance of resource nationalism and the MNR’s success in delivering at least modest benefi ts, both perceived and real, to its supporters. Marxists and anarchists did still exercise influence on political and economic debates, and one argument of this study is that nationalism and anticapitalism often reinforced rather than contradicted each other. But the existence of a nationalist reform party deprived competitors to the MNR’s left of formal support.
My analysis of Bolivian resource nationalism and anti-imperialism will also be controversial among those who, from the opposite end of the political spectrum, dismiss such sentiments as conspiracy theories motivated by xenophobia and irrationality. Even some recent academic literature has pathologized popular sentiment in this way, bemoaning the “deep-seated loss aversion” of the Bolivian masses with regard to the country’s resources. I present a more nuanced picture of Bolivians’ thinking about natural resources. Popular visions were more diverse and sophisticated than many commentators have suggested. Anti-imperialism was not so much a product of visceral anti-Americanism as it was a targeted rejection of the economic vision of the US government and its Bolivian allies. Moreover, most Bolivian anti-imperialists were not opposed to all elements of US or Western influence, for they selectively appropriated certain ideas and discourses promoted by Western intellectuals, social movements, and institutions.
Nor were popular demands as unrealistic as critics often allege. While these demands did sometimes reflect overly grand expectations for rapid economic development, their basic analysis of Bolivia’s underdevelopment was quite reasonable. The blame they directed at foreign enterprise was usually grounded in fact. And they were right to focus attention on how the Bolivian government might increase its share of natural resource rent and utilize it to foster redistribution, export diversification, national food production, and perhaps limited industrialization, either by processing raw materials domestically or fomenting consumer goods industries.
The barriers to these goals in a small, landlocked country like Bolivia were formidable; extensive industrialization, in particular, was much less realistic than in larger countries like Brazil or Mexico. But there was no objective economic or geographic reason preventing Bolivia from achieving, within the span of a generation or two, an economy that was considerably more diversifi ed, stable, and equitable than the one inherited in 1952. Small, resource-abundant countries are not simply doomed to perpetual poverty and underdevelopment. Historically, resource-rich countries have varied significantly in terms of their developmental advances, from relative successes like Norway to notoriously corrupt and exclusionary cases like Nigeria, and a broad spectrum of examples in between those two poles. Bolivia’s natural resource wealth could have been reinvested in productive ways while also allowing for substantial increases in immediate consumption. Even if Bolivian activists have sometimes harbored overly optimistic expectations, neither their critiques nor their prescriptions for alternative policy can be dismissed as irrational fantasy.
While I am largely concerned with ideas, ideas do not exist in a vacuum. Economic ideas are never implemented based merely on their technical merits. Although economists, advisers, and other individuals may play significant roles in shaping policy trajectories, their power to do so is mostly a reflection of the balance of forces in the broader society. This pattern was true of those interests that sought to contain the Bolivian Revolution and of those workers, students, peasants, and others who sought to deepen it. Any study of ideas must therefore trace the political conflicts among the key players.
Bolivia, the United States, and the Cold War
The US government was one of the key players in Bolivia’s political conflicts. While it has often responded to revolutionary change with violence, in Bolivia it sought to influence events in more subtle ways. Starting in 1953 it used foreign aid and tin purchase agreements as means of restraining resource nationalism, progressive fi scal policy, and the power of labor. US policy makers forged an alliance with so-called moderates in the MNR who shared the US interest in suppressing more radical forces in Bolivia. Accompanying these levers of influence were extensive cultural and educational efforts. The US Information Agency (USIA) was deployed to Bolivia with the goals of “promoting popular acceptance of private capital investment” and convincing Bolivians “to think and act in ways that will further American purposes.” The US Information Service (USIS, as foreign branches of the USIA were known) showed films in schools, factories, and neighborhoods and organized public photo exhibits, distributed educational leaflets, and ran a “news placement” program in which papers published unattributed articles written by USIS agents. These efforts were all part of what US officials called “the Campaign of Truth” and “the battle for men’s minds.”
In addition to highlighting US strategies, USIS records reveal what was really at stake in Cold War Bolivia. The battle was not between totalitarianism and democracy, nor was it primarily motivated by superpower conflict or US fears of Soviet-style communism implanting itself in Bolivia. Rather, the main threat was Bolivian revolutionary nationalism, which conjured fears of resource nationalism, material redistribution, and an independent foreign policy. USIS agents sought to replace Bolivians’ resource nationalism, demands for redistribution, and suspicion of imperialism and private enterprise with faith in the mutually beneficial nature of capitalism. For the most part, this mission aligned with that of MNR officials. The real battle during these years was among competing visions of economic and social development and among more expansive and more limited conceptions of democracy—conflicts not adequately captured by standard characterizations of the Cold War.
My analysis of the contest among these competing visions adds to a growing body of literature on the Cold War in Latin America that has redirected attention from the motives behind US policy making to the question of “what was being fought over in Latin America itself.” In Bolivia and elsewhere, US intervention did not encounter empty terrain but rather added to an existing cauldron of confl icts. Integrating the toolkits of social and diplomatic historians allows for a fuller understanding of Cold War–era Latin America and of the transnational negotiation of power in the region. At the same time, I am still interested in the motives behind US policy, since this question is closely related to the issue of what was being fought over. More often than not, US officials’ perceptions of what was at stake were reasonably accurate, and those perceptions helped shape policy. Moreover, I would argue that neither the motives behind US policy nor the issues at stake have been adequately understood. Traditional accounts, like offi cial rhetoric, have typically argued that superpower rivalry and anticommunism were the central determinants of US policy. I argue instead that the main threats to US state and corporate interests were economic nationalism, redistributive demands, and independent foreign policies. I further maintain that many US government offi cials understood those threats and that their policies consciously aimed to counter them.
The chapters that follow focus special attention on the city of La Paz, the Bolivian capital situated nearly twelve thousand feet above sea level on the arid altiplano, the sprawling high plateau region east of Lake Titicaca. For over a century La Paz has been the political capital of the country, making it the most important site of popular mobilization, protest, and debate. What happened in La Paz had major implications for the rest of the country, and its political centrality made it a hub for communication with other regions. If certain features like its ethnic landscape—heavily infused with Aymara indigenous people and culture—made it somewhat distinct from other cities and regions, it was also increasingly connected to the rest of the country in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Thus, while not a comprehensive study of Bolivia, this book is more than just a study of La Paz.
Chapter 1 traces economic visions and debates in La Paz during the quarter century before 1952. In it I examine the rise of resource nationalism in the years just before and after the Chaco War, describing the 1937 nationalization of Standard Oil’s properties—the fi rst such nationalization in Latin America—and a 1939 measure to increase state control over mining revenue. During these years resource demands became increasingly central to popular political culture, a shift that was most apparent in the rise of the MNR party in the 1940s. Resource nationalism was not the only motivation behind popular mobilization; a variety of political projects in and near La Paz confronted a host of other problems as well, from capitalist workplace relations to ethnic and gender hierarchies. But the rise of the MNR entailed the partial suppression of these other agendas. The chapter presents an explanation for why the MNR was able to triumph over other opposition forces prior to 1952, highlighting the party’s vague populist program and ability to appropriate others’ ideas.
In chapter 2 I examine economic policy debates in Bolivia in the early postrevolution period, analyzing proposals for resource-based development, diversification, and redistribution. I highlight a fundamental conflict between advocates of social revolution and more moderate voices who sought mainly capitalist modernization and diversifi cation, or economic revolution. This conflict did not correspond neatly with party affiliations, for the MNR itself was also deeply split. I situate this tension in the context of broader Latin American debates about economic development, external dependency, and social justice taking place in the postwar years. Structuralism and dependency theory both found deep resonance in Bolivia, though the popular beliefs on which they were based—above all, progressive resource nation-alism—predated these doctrines’ formal introduction around Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. This second chapter also introduces the question of US intervention and how the US government sought to contain the Bolivian Revolution by bolstering the power of the MNR’s more conservative voices. The aims of MNR moderates did not align precisely with the US agenda, but the moderates shared the US interest in limiting the scope of the revolution and were willing to compromise even their own modest plans for change when faced with threats from below and pressure from the North.
In chapters 3 and 4 I explore this theme of revolutionary containment in more depth. The first of these two chapters concerns three major economic policy reforms undertaken by the MNR with strong US support: a 1955 oil privatization law, a monetary stabilization and austerity program begun in 1956, and the 1960s Triangular Plan to restructure the mining industry. These plans were not simply imposed by the imperial power; they were favored by most top leaders in the MNR as well. It was not out of concern for economic efficiency and growth that US and MNR leaders supported these reforms, and indeed, none of them was particularly successful in those regards. Rather, the reforms gained official favor because of their political implications. They were designed to undermine resource-nationalist policies, reduce the power of labor, and favor the Bolivian middle and upper classes along with US companies and creditors. Alternative proposals made by unions and others in Bolivia were disregarded.
In chapter 4 I approach containment from a different angle, using the records of the USIS and the MNR’s own statements and propaganda. Although USIS records offer insights about US thinking and strategy, they also reveal the failures of the US-MNR project. USIS agents are remarkably candid about the “uphill struggle” facing them. Although most Bolivians were not formally Marxists or even anti-capitalists, a “leftist thought pattern” was widespread and posed constant problems for capitalists and Western governments in the country.41 The MNR had nationalist credentials that US agents did not, but it too faced a growing crisis of legitimacy in the late 1950s and early 1960s as its economic policy shifted to the right. If revolutionary resource nationalism had become the hegemonic political framework in Bolivia, the MNR’s conservative conception of it had not. The increasing resort to violence by the US and Bolivian governments after 1956 ultimately refl ected the failure of nonviolent persuasion to reshape Bolivian political culture.
In chapters 5 and 6 I expand upon this argument. The case study in chapter 5 of the La Paz working class, focused on factory workers, shows the extent to which labor militancy constrained the ability of both the US and MNR governments to contain the revolution. By the late 1950s, as the full implications of the 1956 stabilization plan became clear, factory workers were consistently challenging MNR economic policy from the left. This history challenges the notion that mine workers were the singular driving force behind working-class militancy. Especially noteworthy is the extent to which factory workers and other working-class sectors concerned themselves with economic issues that did not directly affect them. For example, they were leading participants in the debates over tin, oil, and gas, demonstrating the way in which resource nationalism inspired mobilization across diverse popular sectors. This concern for broad social questions by unions—sometimes called “social-movement unionism”—has been common in Bolivian history and is crucial to understanding popular politics in the country.
Chapter 6 presents debates about hydrocarbons. By the early 1960s the MNR’s reopening of the oil sector to private companies had become a focus of controversy, especially as the 1956 austerity plan drained the Bolivian State Oil Fields Company (YPFB, Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos) of much-needed resources. The US-based company Gulf Oil became the prime target. At a time when Bolivians increasingly pinned their hopes for national development on the promise of oil, and soon natural gas as well, Gulf came to signify the betrayal of revolutionary values by the government. The 1960s saw a reprise of earlier coalitions as diverse sectors joined calls for defense of YPFB and for the nationalization of Gulf’s concessions. In 1969 a short-lived military government sympathetic to economic nationalism finally expelled Gulf from the country.
Popular power notwithstanding, however, the movements I analyze in chapters 5 and 6 also embodied some of the conservative elements within popular political culture. While these chapters highlight popular accomplishments, I also call attention to a recurrent set of contradictions within lo popular in general and within resource nationalism in particular. These contradictions helped preclude the cross-sector popular coalitions, especially urban-rural coalitions, that might have prevented the conservative turn in the revolution.
In the epilogue I reflect upon continuities and changes since the 1960s, focusing on the cycle of mobilization in 2000–2005 and the presidency of Evo Morales that began in 2006. Despite important changes, key currents in Bolivian political culture—especially resource nationalism—have endured over time. Those currents testify to persisting social and economic problems as well as the inability of successive Bolivian governments and their foreign allies to extinguish deep-seated beliefs about natural resources, socioeconomic rights, and democracy.
"The importance of this book to contemporary conversations about extractivism in Bolivia cannot be overstated."
Latin American Perspectives
"[Young] draws a complex and fascinating picture of the struggles over mining and oil from the Chaco War in the 1930s through the 1952 Revolution and the unraveling of the revolutionary state in the 1960s."
Against the Current
“A very important contribution for experts and non-experts alike. Young’s argument is a new, fresh way of looking at both Bolivian revolutionary thought and recent Bolivian history. No one else that I know of has focused on ‘resource nationalism,’ which Young argues persuasively is key to understanding Bolivia in the twentieth century and beyond.”
James Siekmeier, West Virginia University, author of The Bolivian Revolution and the United States, 1952 to the Present
“'Resource nationalism’ is a very suggestive concept that can be applied to other countries in Latin America (and probably other parts of the world, such as Africa) very productively to understand domestic politics in relation to the great powers, such as the United States.”
Erick D. Langer, Georgetown University, author of Expecting Pears from an Elm Tree: Franciscan Missions on the Chiríguano Frontier in the Heart of South America