EDITORIAL BY Caroline Risacher
Since Bolivia became independent in 1825, the country has had more than 190 revolutions and coups d’état. Chronic political instability has plagued Bolivia since its infancy, but it has also shaped a nation of people who are not shy to raise their voices and march down the streets in protest. In fact, Bolivia was the first country in Latin America to claim its independence from the Spanish Empire, in July 1809 – even if this revolution was short-lived.
The word ‘revolution’ comes with a heavy political connotation; labelling a movement a revolution confers a legitimacy that a rebellion or a revolt doesn’t carry. It helps sell a programme and justify political choices. (Look at the Cultural Revolution in China, which led to the death of more than 400,000 people in an effort to make the Chinese Communist Party look better after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward.) Nowadays, it can seem that if one wants to be viewed as a revolutionary, one only need display a specific rhetoric and symbolism. Anyone sporting a green cap with a red star in honour of Comandante ‘Che’ Guevara can call themselves a revolutionary.
So what does the word mean today? The word itself comes with its own contradiction. It derives from the Latin verb revolvere, ‘to revolve.’ It was originally applied to the motions of the planets and conveyed regularity and repetitiveness. It was first used to refer to human affairs in 1688–89 in England to describe the Glorious Revolution. The 1789 French Revolution solidified the word to signify the very opposite, namely, the sudden and unpredictable. Today, with the term ‘revolution’ comes the idea that something new and radical is happening, that whatever situation was before will be improved following the revolution. The word is instrumentalised, used when appropriate and discarded when not.
In this issue of Bolivian Express, we are looking back at the history of Bolivia through that revolutionary lens. The influence of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia reached Bolivia soon after but became a fully fledged political force with the creation of the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR) in 1935 following the Marxist-Trotskyist ideology. The POR never took off as a mass party but played a critical role in a key moment of Bolivian history: the National Revolution of 1952. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and to this day the Trotskyist influence in Bolivia is still very much alive. It survives in the remains of an ageing POR but also in the current government. The vice president himself, Álvaro García Linera, claims a Marxist-Trotskyist background.
9 October was also the 50th anniversary of the death of revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, a divisive name in Bolivia but one that still manages to gather and unite thousands of idealists against el imperio. This month, we also remember Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, a figure who, after ‘Che’, represents in Bolivia the fight against the many dictatorships that have afflicted the 20th century.
In the last 10 years, Bolivia has experienced a profound transformation. The past revolutions, revolts and rebellions have taken the country to where it is today, and now new revolutions are brewing. The new 2009 Constitution is one of the most progressive in Latin America, but societal changes are slow to follow. This year, the reform of the penal code has been stirring a tense debate around the topic of abortion and its decriminalisation.
Álvaro García Linera wrote about the beginning of ‘a revolutionary epoch’ in Bolivia following the Water Wars of 2000. There is a certain irony (or contradiction) for an incumbent government to glorify revolutions and revolutionaries, movements and people that by definition stand against the status quo and aim to dislodge it. At the government-sponsored commemorations of the Russian Revolution, Vice President García Linera claimed that ‘for revolutionary processes and changes to be successful, there needs to be some control from the state, especially when it comes to outside threats.’ Ultimately, the revolutionary gene, the drive to fight for a better life, is at the center of the Bolivian ethos in all political, social and economic spheres; it is something that unites the people in their differences.
ARTICLES FROM THIS ISSUE
A culture of Silence
22 Nov, 2017 | Fruzsina Gál
Abortion and a novel conversationOn 30 September 2017, the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies approved a revised version of the nation’s penal code that could make abortion laws more flexible in the country...
Portrait of Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, a symbol of Bolivia’s fight for democracy
22 Nov, 2017 | Adriana Murillo
Illustration: Hugo L. CuellarIn the 1980s, during the dictatorships of Luis García Meza and Luis Arce Gómez, many important leaders and figures of Bolivian civil society were disappeared or assassinat...
Partido Obrero Revolucionario
22 Nov, 2017 | Charles Bladon
Photo: Adriana MurilloThe old guard of Bolivian TrotskyismSince 1825, there have been 88 governments in Bolivia, with an average of 2.2 years per government. Chronic political instability has become s...
Fifty Years After Che
22 Nov, 2017 | Matthew Grace
Photos: Adriana Murillo and Charles BladonGuevara’s Bolivian Legacy—and Its ContradictionsOn October 9, 1967, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, famed Marxist revolutionary, was executed by the Bolivian military...