The National Revolution of 1952

25 Jul, 2014 | Sorcha Thomson

History & Politics

A Plea for Remembrance

‘To remember the past is to give the young people an understanding of our history, one they can use to change things in the present, and the future.’—Greta Maria, 32

When investigating the role of the National Revolution of 1952 in contemporary Bolivian identity, the memory of Bolivia’s mid-century history appears to suffer a generational rift. Asked what she knows about the revolutionary events of 1952, Viola, 19 years old, turns to her mother with a blank face and pleading eyes. Her innocent ignorance exposes the failure of the revolution to maintain prominence in the consciousness of Bolivia’s youth. Sorcha Thomson explores the significance of 1952, and the importance of remembering what Carlos Mesa describes as both its ‘lights and shadows’.

The events of 1952 cannot be viewed in isolation from the long history of Bolivian oppression, struggle, and defeat. In the countryside, the semi-feudal structure ensured 8 percent of the landowners held more than 95 percent of arable land. In the mines, three families controlled 80 percent of the industry, accounting for 80 percent of Bolivia’s exports. The indigenous population had no rights; they were dispensable assets to the ruling elites.
The events of 1952 emerged as a response to this ingrained and often violently enforced culture of exploitation. In 1946, the ideals of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers' Party (POR) were adopted by the Union Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia, asserting their goal for the seizure of power by the workers. With the 1951 elections, won by the middle-class Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) but immediately annulled by the ruling military regime, the popular party, led by Victor Paz Estenssoro, were forced into exile. Having been denied their constitutional revolution, the masses took up arms in a violent uprising. From Cochabamba, Oruro, and Potosí, workers marched to the capital. In just three days the illegitimate government was defeated, and the captured prisoners forced to march through the city in their underwear. By April 11, there was no longer a state army in Bolivia. The only armed force in the country was between 50,000 and 100,000 men organised into militias by the unions. Real power was in the hands of workers. It would appear that a popular revolution had occurred.

However, as the exiled leaders of the MNR returned to govern the newly mobilised Bolivian masses, the ideals of revolution were diluted in political pragmatism. Despite legislative success in the granting of universal suffrage and education, demands for the nationalisation of the mines and agrarian reform were delayed and modified to allow continued dominance of the ruling elites. As such, the struggle created a semblance of triumph, but the culture of exploitation and inequality persisted to dictate society.

Felix Muruchi, whose autobiography charts his movement ‘from the mines to the streets’ as a result of the revolution, describes the succeeding years as a process of ‘self-colonisation’. Indigenous people were required to reject their roots and adopt Western clothing and language in order to enjoy social acceptance. The criollo minority maintained an exclusionary society, blocking the newly franchised majority from integrating socially, economically, and politically. To become a participating Bolivian required a mutation of identity; race continued to dictate status. It is this failure to transcend the culture of racial discrimination that has emasculated the revolution in both the official histories of Bolivia, and the popular consciousness of its citizens.

Mario Murillo, Bolivian historian and author of But The Bullet Does Not Kill The Target, has made a significant contribution to the historiography of the revolution. His work places emphasis on the human voices of those who experienced the revolutionary events. This oral history offers an alternative to the traditional presidential history that dominates understanding of the Bolivian past. As an astute historian, he dismisses a direct link between 1952 and contemporary life, ‘as nothing is a direct consequence of anything in history’. However, he does judge that ‘Bolivia was never the same after 1952’. The indigenous population had won the basic rights to gain a foothold, though a loose one, in Bolivian society.

Sixty-two years on from the uprising, as personal memory of the events slips from the living to the departed, it is necessary to assess the ways in which the revolution is represented in the Bolivian national consciousness. For the spirit of revolution and the ideals that accompany it to continue, it is necessary for the younger generation to remember both the ‘lights and shadows’ of 1952. In conducting interviews on the streets of La Paz, not one person under the age of 20 displays any awareness of the national revolution; ‘No, no sé nada’ is the recurring and disappointing theme.

However, Jaime Ortiz, a teacher from La Paz aged 54, demonstrates a greater understanding: ‘I don’t think it was really like a revolution, because it was unfinished. It had the spirit of a revolution, but things didn’t get done’. In his opinion, the significance of 1952 lies in this spirit: ‘It gave us the idea to start something different. Now, we can use these basic ideas to bring real change’.

And it is real change that is being promised by the presidency of Evo Morales, the first indigenous man to hold the office. His rise to power was made possible by the revolutionary actions of the miners of 1952. However, his rhetoric negates the uprising to a period of Bolivian history he describes as ‘colonial, not ever revolutionary’, claiming his own as the first and only true Bolivian revolution. His leadership is bringing tangible benefits to the conditions of indigenous life and has ‘refounded’ Bolivia as a plurinational state, constitutionally recognising the languages and cultures of the indigenous peoples. Yet in this plurinational state, ethnicity continues to act as a social indicator and a political tool. In order to move beyond essentialised identities founded in racial difference, it is necessary to remember and maintain the revolutionary spirit that has been the driving force of Bolivia’s progress to equality.

The lack of awareness amongst the Bolivian youth surrounding the events of 1952 is mirrored by the lack of official memorialisation in La Paz. The only permanent commemoration exists in the Museo de la Revolución Nacional, an imposing building at the head of the Plaza Villarroel. Despite the grandeur of the approach, the internal exhibition provides sparse information about the revolutionary events. Beautiful and obscure murals depict in rich colours a symbolic representation of the struggle. Yet the details, characters, and culmination of the revolution are undetectable; the only mention of Juan Lechín Oquendo, leader of the labour movement, exists as a small plaque at ground level. Here, it seems, empty grandeur and abstract art have taken the place of genuine remembrance.

Despite the notable limitations of the process in 1952, the rights it won for the majority of Bolivians should not be discarded to the dustbin of history. Historian James Cone offers a profound warning: ‘Amnesia is the enemy of justice’. To forget the past is to deny the lessons it can offer. The events of 1952 remind us of the power of popular mobilisation behind a cause. And its aftermath highlights the limitations of a revolution when faced with a culture hostile to its aims.

While 1952 did not provide immediate relief to the long history of Bolivian inequality, it did provide the fundamental tools through which the oppressed could lay claim to a Bolivian identity. The revolutionary ideals served as a template for the future Bolivia, even if this process was interrupted by 50 years of capitalist exploitation and military rule. Remembering this revolution is as important as the march upon La Paz 62 years ago. To forget would be to degrade the human lives lost in pursuit of an egalitarian Bolivian nation, and to fail in our duty to learn from their struggle. The blissful ignorance of youth, while beautiful in its innocence, bodes precariously for the future.


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