Sinclair Thomson: Interviewed about Bolivia's political changes

Historians in the News

Jeffery R. Webber caught up with New York University historian Sinclair Thomson on September 7, 2007 in Montreal to discuss indigenous and popular politics in Bolivia and the character of the Evo Morales government. The interview was also an opportunity to learn about some of the theses advanced in the new book Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007), which Thomson co-authored with Forrest Hylton.


JRW: In a 2005 New Left Review article, co-authored with Forrest Hylton, you write: “If Latin America has been the site of the most radical opposition to neoliberal restructuring over the past five years, Bolivia has been its insurrectionary frontline.” You argue that the current insurrectionary cycle “constitutes the third major revolutionary moment in Bolivian history.” Before tackling the contemporary situation, can you take us through some of the background of the first two revolutionary moments?

ST: The way we’ve conceived of it, the three revolutionary moments would be, first of all, the indigenous anti-colonial revolution that took place in the late 18th century, in 1780 and 1781. This was an insurrection that liberated most of the southern Andean territories in a region from what is today southern Peru down through Bolivia and into northern Argentina. The Spanish colonial government was largely wiped out in this territory and there were only a few Spanish cities that held out under siege against indigenous forces that were mobilized in the tens of thousands.

Tupac Amaru is the most commonly known figure in the leadership, a descendant of Inca nobility who wanted to restore Inca sovereignty in the Andes. In Bolivian territory there were other regional leaders, the most famous of whom is Tupaj Katari from the region of La Paz. Tupaj Katari is today a major historical hero for the indigenous movements in Bolivia.

That movement was eventually put down after about a year, and yet Spanish colonial government was never fully restored after that. There was a political stalemate, with colonial forces holding on, but within a generation Spanish colonial forces would be overthrown by a new anti-colonial rebellion led by creole elites; that is, descendants of European colonizers. It was no longer an indigenous movement, that which overthrew the Spanish rule. In our view the independence movement which took place in the 1810s and 1820s was not a true social revolution, given its leadership and dynamics. It was a political revolution, but it was headed by creole sectors of the elite who managed to reconsolidate power in their own hands, with little redistribution of wealth internally or transformations in political representation. It was not an insurrectionary process in which the revolutionary forces rose up from below. So we don’t actually include the independence wars (1809-1825) as a distinct revolutionary moment, because we are thinking about these revolutions as social revolutions primarily. Obviously this is a matter of historical debate. James Dunkerley, in his important new book Bolivia: Revolution and the Power of History in the Present (Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2007) does argue for the revolutionary nature of independence....

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