Ben Dangl’s book examines how centuries of indigenous resistance towards colonialism and capitalism in Bolivia produced the government of Evo Morales and the country’s subsequent economic growth.
In the heyday of the Pink Tide in 2011, glancing at a political map of Latin America would reveal a continent dominated by the Left. Fast forward to the present and the map has been radically redrawn to reflect the Right’s resurgence, with Bolivia one of few isolated red beacons – along with Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and, in its fledgling stage, Mexico – under President Evo Morales and his party, Movement towards Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS).
The poorest South American state has been the inarguable success story of 21st century socialism in Latin America. Bolivia’s GDP rose consistently between 2009 and 2013 and the government won praise from the UN for the highest rate of poverty reduction in the region, with a 32.2 per cent drop between 2000 and 2012.
But Bolivia’s decisive left turn in the 21st century should not overshadow its longer, less lauded history of indigenous resistance to ‘hatred, racism, discrimination, and individualism’. It is this history which Ben Dangl’s latest book, The Five Hundred Year Rebellion, addresses.
The book is based on Dangl’s recent PhD dissertation and draws on 15 years spent as a reporter on Bolivian issues. The work is journalistic in style, very readable and will no doubt prove a useful resource to students and non-academic readers alike.
‘[C]olonialism’, observes Dangl, ‘robbed indigenous people of their land, gold, culture, and political institutions, but also of their histories.’ Unpicking the role that history, memory and myth play in Bolivia’s indigenous movements,
Chapters one, two and three deal with the rise of katarismo, a revolutionary ethno-syndicalist movement which operated between 1970 and 1990. Dangl’s focus is to be welcomed here, as although katarismo has become an increasingly popular subject of study in Bolivia, this has not been reflected in anglophone scholarship.
Another major focus of the book is the Andean Oral History Workshop (Taller de Historia Oral Andina — THOA), a remarkable grassroots initiative which emerged in the 1980s in La Paz amid renewed interest in indigenous affairs. Much of the THOA’s work involved recovering and recording oral histories of the caciques apoderados, a network of indigenous leaders who mobilised over land and legal rights in the first three decades of the 2oth century.
Dangl quotes Humberto Mamani, a THOA member, who explained that their organisation’s recovery of indigenous histories of resistance ‘was like gathering different parts of a letter torn into many pieces, and when it was put together, we could read all of them and say, “This is our history.” This is the history that we did not know, that was divided in many parts.’
The strength of the book lies in carefully curated testimonies such as these. Dangl lets the voices of activists and thinkers shine through and invigorate prose which at times feels purely descriptive. Highlights include interviews with 96-year-old Gregorio Barca, the son of indigenous leader Santos Marka T’ula, and with Evo Morales himself in 2003, then a cocalero leader. ‘We, the indigenous people, after five hundred years of resistance, are retaking power,’ Morales, knee-deep in his electoral campaign, tells Dangl. ‘This retaking of power is oriented towards the recovery of our own riches, our own natural resources.’
Dangl does not shy away from the tensions in Morales’ vocal stances on environmental protection which comes as he pursues an extraction-based economic model. This has incurred criticism from some left-indigenous sectors, such as Mama Nilda Rojas, a leader of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), a national association for indigenous groups founded in 1997. Rojas tells Dangl, ‘[t]his government has given a false discourse on an international level, defending Pachamama, defending Mother Earth’, when in reality, ‘Mother Earth is tired’.
Dangl reveals that for many political activists, the past is not so much remembered as it is relived in the present. Marxa Chávez, an Aymara sociologist and activist, testifies to the importance of social memory during protests in 2000 and 2003 against neoliberal policies. She says, ‘when people at the road blockades and protests evoked eighteenth century rebel [Túpac] Katari, they were recovering not just “empty words” but “an idea of collective power … It was truly a rebel memory, a recollection that you, yourself, were performing through the assemblies, through the meetings, through the control that you demanded of your leaders.’
Elsewhere readers will appreciate Dangl’s keen eye for detail. He quotes contemporary accounts describing the 18th-century rebel hero Túpac Katari as possessing eyes, ‘though small and sunken, along with his movements demonstrated the greatest astuteness [viveza] and resolution; of slightly whiter colour than most of the Indians from this region’, for example.
Above all, Dangl highlights the indigenous scholars who throughout the past century, ‘decolonised history by looking to each other, to community elders and ancestors, for histories that had been passed down from generation to generation but were not accounted for in the libraries and archives of the nation.’
Dangl’s emphasis on oral history as a decolonising tool here requires some qualification however. The notion that Andean indigenous histories, both pre-Columbian and (post)colonial, are non-literate is very powerfully instilled in academic approaches to Andean indigenous peoples. But recent scholarship has begun to complicate this. Anthropologist Tristan Platt’s 2018 book Defendiendo el techo fiscal: Curacas, Ayllus y Sindicatos en el Gran Ayllu Macha, Norte de Potosí, Bolivia, 1930-1994 is a catalogue of a hitherto closed archive of documents relating to struggles over land and civil rights in the early 20th century, written in Spanish, owned by the Macha Ayllu (indigenous community) and overseen by a curaca (leader). The curaca in question could neither read nor speak Spanish but was nonetheless all too aware of the historical value of the documents he protected for decades.
None of this detracts, however, from what remains a powerful and informative exploration of memory and history in movements of resistance. Ben Dangl has produced a lively and important work which will fascinate those interested in Latin American social movements and indigenous histories of decolonisation.
The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia (Ben Dangl, AK Press, 2019)