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Indigenous Uprising and State Power in Bolivia


with a for ewor d by sincl air thomson
New Ecologies for the Twenty-­first Century

Series Editors:
Arturo Escobar, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Dianne Rocheleau, Clark University

This series addresses two trends: critical conversations in

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A book in the series Latin America

in Translation / En Traducción / Em Tradução
Sponsored by the Duke University–University of
North Carolina Program in Latin American Studies
of the
Indigenous Uprising
and State Power
in Bolivia

Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar

by Sinclair Thomson
by Stacey Alba D. Skar

Duke University Press

Durham and London
© 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America on acid-­free paper ♾
Typeset in Minion with Alegreya display by Tseng Information Systems, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-­in-­Publication Data
Gutiérrez Aguilar, Raquel.
[Ritmos del Pachakuti. English]
Rhythms of the Pachakuti : indigenous uprising and state power in Bolivia/
Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar.
pages cm—(New ecologies for the twenty-­first century)
(Latin America in translation/en traducción/em tradução)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-­0-­8223-­5604-­2 (pbk : alk. paper)
isbn 978-­0-­8223-­5599-­1 (cloth: alk. paper)
1. Indians of South America—Bolivia—Government relations. 2. Indians of South
America—Bolivia—Politics and government. 3. Bolivia—Politics and government—
1982–2006. 4. Government, Resistance to—Bolivia—History. 5. Social movements—
Bolivia—History. I. Title. II. Series: New ecologies for the twenty-­first century.
III. Series: Latin America in translation/en traducción/em tradução.
f3320.1.g6g8813 2014

Cover: AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa

In memory of Alfonso Gutiérrez Inzunza (1921–2007),
because his absence, as I finish this research, is the most painful.
He taught me how to love, respect, work, and cooperate.

Dedicated to Adolfo Gilly, with respect and affection,

for his tenacious efforts to understand what is happening.

Foreword: Beyond the Old Order of Things, Sinclair Thomson  ix

Preface  xix
Acknowledgments  xlvii

Part I.
Community Uprisings and Grassroots Democratization  1

Chapter 1. The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life:

The Massive Public Defiance of State Order  3
Chapter 2. Aymara Roadblocks in La Paz:
Community as a Mobilizing Force  28
Chapter 3. The Disputed Territories of the Chapare:
The Coca Growers’ Struggles from 2000 to 2003  73

Part II.
From Governmental Collapse to Pachakuti’s Suspension, 2003–2005  97

Chapter 4. Insurgent Politics:

The Rebellious Year of 2003  99
Chapter 5. Compromises and “Catastrophic Balance”:
The Confusing Year of 2004  129
Chapter 6. The Growing Tension between Emancipation, Autonomy,
Self-­Governance, and State Reconstitution in 2005  152
Conclusion: Final Reflections  175

Appendix 1: Methodological Approach  191

Appendix 2: Positions of the Three Most Important Social Voices  195

Notes 223    References 265    Index 275
Beyond the Old Order of Things

In Rhythms of the Pachakuti we can sense the reverberations of an extraordi‑

nary historical process that took place in Bolivia at the start of the twenty-­first
century. The book is the product of Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar’s political en‑
gagement in that historical process and the fruit of her research and deep re‑
flection about what took place and what meaning it holds for radical politics.
It brings together, in rare fashion, firsthand personal experience, an honest
chronicling of events, acute and provocative analysis, and passionate com‑
mitment to the project of collective emancipation.
Rhythms of the Pachakuti is an ambitious book that not only contributes
to the multidisciplinary scholarship on Bolivian politics and the broader lit‑
erature on social movements but also moves boldly into the terrain of criti‑
cal theory, challenging capitalist social relations and state-­centered political
projects of whatever stripe. It questions the aspirations to power of the tra‑
ditional Left and, by implication, the centralizing and vertical tendencies of
the Movement toward Socialism (mas) government that emerged out of the
state crisis and popular struggle between 2000 and 2005. Drawing lessons
from the insurgencies in Bolivia in that period, Gutiérrez Aguilar stakes out
an alternative “popular-­communitarian” position as a polestar for future lib‑
eration struggles.
Though of Mexican nationality, Gutiérrez Aguilar was intimately involved
in Bolivian politics for many years and acquired a quasi-­legendary status
there as an intense, brilliant activist and radical intellectual. Her own politi‑
cal formation on the Mexican Left had been linked to the Central American
liberation struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1981 she joined the forces of El
Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (fmln) operating in
Mexico. At the time, Gutiérrez Aguilar was a student of mathematics at the
National Autonomous University of Mexico (unam). In this context she met
Álvaro García Linera, a Bolivian mathematics student also immersed in the
hothouse culture of Mexico’s revolutionary Left. Along with García Linera’s
brother Raúl, they conceived of taking the struggle to Bolivia but adapting it
to the distinctive conditions of internal colonial and capitalist exploitation in
x Foreword

a country with a majority indigenous population. Gutiérrez Aguilar arrived in

Bolivia in 1984 as the group was beginning to operate. In 1985 it established ties
with a small cohort of radical Aymara militants committed to the overthrow
of a social order they perceived as profoundly racist and colonial. Among
them was Felipe Quispe, whose formation had been in the small but ideo‑
logically fierce political party Túpac Katari Indian Movement (Movimiento
Indio Túpac Katari or mitka). Together they took the name Red Offensive
(Ofensiva Roja), which by 1986 was functioning according to a dualist struc‑
ture consciously conceived in Andean communal terms. Gutiérrez Aguilar,
García Linera, and the other members with a Creole background operated in
the Red Offensive of Miners’ Cells (Ofensiva Roja de Células Mineras), while
Quispe and the Aymara members operated in the Red Offensive of Tupaj
Katari Ayllus (Ofensiva Roja de Ayllus Tupakataristas). Red Offensive pri‑
marily concentrated on ideological-­political work in the trade union move‑
ment and among rural Aymara communities. In late 1988 and early 1989 it
made the decision to privilege armed struggle and adopted the name Túpac
Katari Revolutionary Army (Ejército Guerrillero Túpac Katari or egtk). The
egtk conducted several military operations between 1990 and 1991 and was
quickly dismantled by security forces in 1992. Gutiérrez Aguilar and her com‑
rades were imprisoned, in her case for a period of five years.
In 1995, while behind bars in La Paz, Gutiérrez Aguilar wrote a fascinating
political memoir reflecting self-­critically on her own experience and its im‑
plications. Gutiérrez Aguilar’s Entre hermanos (Among brothers and sisters)
is crucial for understanding the political vision that she subsequently devel‑
oped in Rhythms of the Pachakuti. In the memoir she explains how she came
to question the vanguardist, “democratic centralist,” militarist, and state-­
centered orientation of the revolutionary Left, to which she had devoted her‑
self up until that point. The starting point was her early frustration with the
lack of transparency and critical debate within the fmln, and she recounts
the intention among the founders of Red Offensive to make their own orga‑
nization more internally democratic.
The ideological innovation of Red Offensive was to conceive of a com‑
munitarian socialism in Bolivia. This led it to engage initially in the wider
effort to help build a “community of communities.” Yet between 1988 and
1989, Gutiérrez writes, the group arrived at its essential unity and fundamen‑
tal reason for being when the members vowed their commitment to armed
struggle. This act of bonding around the existential priority of combat led the
group to turn inward. Clandestine military work inevitably displaced broader
insertion in mass political activity and the growing indigenous movement.
Foreword xi

At the same time, the conviction that only the armed overthrow of the state
could bring about revolution caused the group to define itself primarily as
against the state and thereby to enter into an ever tighter spiral of state and
antistate violence.
For Gutiérrez Aguilar, the missed opportunity of contributing further to
community self-­determination and the disastrous engagement with the state
called for a new orientation toward radical politics. She found inspiration
in the recent Zapatista insurgency in Mexico. Here was a vibrant popular
struggle whose aim was not to seize state power but to construct and exercise
its own autonomous power, a movement rooted in indigenous communities
that also had repercussions throughout national society.
In spite of the utter defeat of the egtk and the apparent consolidation of
a neoliberal regime that intentionally undermined all collective ties of soli‑
darity, Gutiérrez Aguilar retained a conviction, unusual at the time, that the
possibilities for radical political struggle remained open in Bolivia. In another
prison writing from 1996, she concluded that
whether in the Paris Commune of 1871, among Aymara community
members in 1781, the soviets in 1917, the Turin proletarians in 1921, the
students in 1968, or the women coca growers in their recent march,
in any of these actions, the decisive factor was the joining together of
women and men willing to expend all of their energy to solve in com‑
mon, at the margin of, beyond, and outside state normativity, the prob‑
lems that stifle them. In these actions, and in the different individual
and collective efforts to overcome the destiny imposed upon them and
to move fluidly as a free release of constructive energy, we find the
thread of another history that has been systematically proscribed,
the ongoing history of el poder hacer [human capability], as well as
the foundation for imagining that another form of life is possible.
(Gutié­rrez Aguilar 1996, 64)
After emerging from prison with provisional freedom while her court case
continued, Gutiérrez Aguilar became a founding member of the important
intellectual group Comuna in 1998. It was also comprised of Álvaro García
Linera, who upon release had reinvented himself as a researcher and teacher
in the sociology department of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La
Paz and was gaining increasing public intellectual prominence; Bolivia’s lead‑
ing political philosopher Luis Tapia; and Raúl Prada, a creative social theorist
who went on to a political career under the auspices of mas, first as a dele‑
gate to the constituent assembly from 2006 to 2009. In 1999 Gutiérrez Aguilar
xii Foreword

(1999a) published an existential inquiry into the logic of patriarchal domina‑

tion in capitalism and an accounting of the societal and psychic obstacles to
women’s emancipation. In the following years Comuna produced a stream
of books that combined critical theory with conjunctural political analysis to
understand the crisis of neoliberalism and the reemergence of popular poli‑
tics and insurgency. The originality, quality, and radicalism of this body of
work distinguishes it in the context of Latin American political thought in the
neoliberal period. It was notable not only for its penetrating insights into the
Bolivian political process but also the ways in which it provided an intellec‑
tual reflection of that process. Gutiérrez Aguilar’s essays on the Water War and
the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life (Coordinadora de la Defensa
del Agua y de la Vida, known locally as La Coordinadora) in Cochabamba,
where she was in fact engaged as an activist, stand out among the contribu‑
tions and anticipate her analysis in Rhythms of the Pachakuti.
Subject to ongoing court restrictions in Bolivia, Gutiérrez Aguilar returned
to Mexico surreptitiously in late 2001. She continued to collaborate with Co‑
muna at a distance and kept close tabs on the political developments and
popular mobilizations within the country. Strains within Comuna emerged
increasingly after 2006 when García Linera entered office as Bolivia’s vice
president in the mas government of Evo Morales. As mas slowly began to
consolidate state power and rein in the autonomy of the social movements
that had brought it to power, Gutiérrez Aguilar found herself compelled to
denounce the same “democratic-­centralist” tendencies of the Left that she
had repudiated years before. It was in this context of state reconstitution fol‑
lowing indigenous, popular insurrection that Gutiérrez wrote Rhythms of the
In this book Gutiérrez Aguilar’s account of the cycles of indigenous and
popular insurgency is shaped by her own role as an activist at the time, her
discussions with participants and leaders in the social movements, and care‑
ful interpretation of data culled from interviews, political documents, and
the press. This distinctive personal background, the unusual combination of
sources, and her bold political orientation make her account far more than
a conventional contribution to academic literature: it is itself a revolutionary
document reflecting Bolivia’s recent revolutionary turmoil and debate. And
for English-­language readers, it is not only the Bolivian case that deserves to
be studied and understood but also Gutiérrez Aguilar’s own political thought.
The book has the initial merit of concentrating on three cases that have
attracted widespread attention in the press and in the social sciences because
of their successful challenges to the neoliberal order that reigned in Bolivia
Foreword xiii

between 1985 and 2000. Gutiérrez Aguilar first explores the Water War in
Cochabamba in 2000 that led to the ouster of Aguas de Tunari, an affiliate
of the multinational corporation Bechtel that sought to privatize water dis‑
tribution in the region. Second, she looks at the waves of protest and urban
siege organized by rural and urban communities of indigenous Aymara that
culminated in 2003 with the overthrow of then president Gonzalo Sánchez
de Lozada, an internationally touted architect of neoliberal reform and a
close ally of the United States. Third, she considers the movement of coca leaf
growers, with their base in the Chapare region of Cochabamba, who began
by resisting the U.S.-­led War on Drugs in the Andes and who ultimately cata‑
pulted into presidential office their trade union leader Evo Morales in late
2005, at the end of the period analyzed by Gutiérrez Aguilar.
Gutiérrez Aguilar is able to write about these movements with particular
familiarity and insight because of her own political work on the altiplano and
in Cochabamba. She draws on conversations, correspondence, and interviews
with her former comrades in the egtk—Álvaro García Linera, who became
for a time a political advisor and intermediary between Felipe Quispe and
Evo Morales, and Quispe himself, who became secretary general of the Peas‑
ant Trade Union Confederation of Bolivia. She also draws on her working
relationship with Oscar Olivera, the trade union leader of factory workers in
Cochabamba who became the head of the Coalition for the Defense of Water
and Life. Gutiérrez Aguilar herself was part of the Coalition for the Defense
of Water and Life’s technical assistance team and attended grassroots meet‑
ings in which the movement deliberated on its strategies and goals. She also
gained access to rare and ephemeral documentation such as photocopies of
the notebooks of the secretary of the peasant trade union organization in
Omasuyos (pp. 125–126) and public pronouncements by grassroots organi‑
zations in the heat of the struggle such as the August 2004 declaration of
the Coalition for the Defense and Recuperation of Gas (pp. 336–340). Such
sources allow her to ascertain the movements’ popular and radical imagi‑
naries or to discern what she calls their “horizons of desire,” as well as their
limitations. These are the kind of sources that the mainstream press tended
to ignore at the time and that historians of the future are likely to overlook.
In a classic essay on the discourse of counterinsurgency, the historian
Ranajit Guha once distinguished between three sorts of sources for the
study of subaltern uprisings. For Guha, documents produced at the time of
an insurgency would constitute “primary” sources, while the works of aca‑
demic social scientists or historians writing later would constitute “terciary”
sources. Gutiérrez Aguilar’s book is what Guha would call a “secondary”
xiv Foreword

source, a record produced by someone who lived through and participated in

the events yet also writes with a partial chronological and analytical distance.
In terms of its deeper conceptual approach, Gutiérrez Aguilar’s method
recalls that of Guha in his renowned study Elementary Aspects of Peasant
Insurgency in that she subjects each of the popular movements to a careful
scrutiny that exposes their underlying principles of political organization and
consciousness. But the objective is not to elucidate these paradigms in order
to understand popular politics in a clinical fashion or to deconstruct domi‑
nant modes of thinking about the subaltern. In an unapologetically utopian
vein, that is to say in a revolutionary vein, she is interested in drawing from
these historical experiences in order to construct an alternative emancipatory
project of broad applicability in the future. Her grappling with the limita‑
tions, contradictions, and frustrations of the Bolivian movements, as well as
with their achievements, reflects her own efforts to help define a new political
agenda with the potential to advance “beyond capital and the state.”
Gutiérrez Aguilar engages with the creative work of the theorist John
Holloway, with whom she developed a close intellectual relationship after her
return to Mexico. Both had been inspired by the Zapatista movement, yet
they arrived at similar conclusions through different routes. Gutiérrez Agui‑
lar drew from her practical experience with and reflection upon power dur‑
ing her time in prison, while Holloway pursued his theoretical exploration
of power in the academy. Holloway’s Change the World without Taking Power
is a forceful (and controversial) work that argues theoretically against the
state as an intrinsically despotic form of political power. Yet one of the prob‑
lems with the book is its sheer abstraction, which can make the argument
seem inapplicable in actual historical circumstances. In Rhythms of the Pacha-
kuti Gutiérrez Aguilar draws from Holloway and adopts a similar theoretical
stance but provides a more concrete historical grounding for this position
based on her analysis of the insurgencies in Bolivia. Her overt, honest reckon‑
ing with the movements makes for compelling reading and will surely renew
debates about the prospect of changing the world without taking power and
relations between social movements and the state.
Gutiérrez Aguilar argues that a “community-­popular” political conscious‑
ness was gestating within the insurgent movements between 2000 and 2005.
With this move, she poses an alternative to the view of Bolivia’s great political
theorist René Zavaleta Mercado who had traced a “national-­popular” politi‑
cal tradition from the nineteenth century through the national revolution of
1952 and up to the democratic struggles, led by the trade union movement,
against military dictatorship in the early 1980s. For Gutiérrez Aguilar, the in‑
Foreword xv

digenous and popular political subjects in the latest phase of struggle did not
define themselves primarily in terms of the nation, were not simply seeking
participation within a more inclusive and democratic state, and did not seek
to capture state power. Rather, they were experimenting with a new definition
of “us” that pushed beyond the nation-­state, and were “proposing legitimate
autonomous ways to bring about collective coexistence and organize political
self-­regulation” (p. 418).
She cites the list of demands ( pliego petitorio) produced by the InterUnion
Pact from 2001 as the clearest expression of this utopian community-­popular
perspective (pp. 126 ff.). It sought to transform the state-­society relationship
by inverting the command structure and subjecting higher representatives to
the will of local community authorities. It asserted collective property rights
and reclaimed community control over the resources that had been alienated
from their rightful owners. This project amounted to turning the dominant
political and economic regime “upside down and inside out” (pp. 417–418).
This desired “inversion of the political order” signified an imminent Pacha‑
kuti. Gutiérrez Aguilar appropriates this semantically rich, mythically reso‑
nant Quechua term, meaning a turning or upheaval (kuti) of time and space
(pacha), for contemporary political discourse as a vernacular Andean con‑
cept of “revolution,” though one that differs from a classical Western or left‑
ist notion. Her aim is to expose the signs and promise of that Pachakuti. She
tracks its emergence and unfolding dynamics, a process that she glosses using
the metaphor of rhythms. She perceives and records their particular patterns,
their motion and timing, their pauses, stresses, and beats, their alterations
and pulsation.
We need to take seriously Gutiérrez Aguilar’s vision of the recent insur‑
gencies. In fact, despite the significant roles of Olivera, Quispe, and Morales,
and the growth of mas into a national party, there was no fixed personal or
institutional leadership during crucial phases of indigenous and popular mo‑
bilization. Furthermore, there did emerge a deep critique of the Bolivian state
as a neocolonial apparatus and of neoliberalism as a hypertrophied regime of
capitalist domination. And yet, as Gutiérrez Aguilar is fully aware, the move‑
ments never fully realized the “community-­popular” potential that she per‑
ceived in them. As she puts it, “Why, if they were indeed against the state, did
they not clearly advance beyond it?” (p. 260).
This problem is the crucial one for Gutiérrez Aguilar, and it is fascinating
to see how she grapples with it. She distinguishes between the elements of
radical imagination that constituted the internal and emergent “horizon of
desire” of the movements and the effective results of the challenge to power
xvi Foreword

that constituted their “practical scope.” Her method is designed to probe the
gap between the two, and she is too scrupulous to attribute the split merely to
external forces, as might a more facile or idealistic advocate of social move‑
ments. Through the careful analysis of her sources, she identifies one ex‑
planatory factor as being the contradictions in the content of the insurgents’
political vision. In large part this derived from contrary tendencies to re‑
pudiate the dynamics of the state and to desire fuller and fairer incorporation
within them. While she doesn’t belittle the latter, she notes that the often un‑
conscious points of political compromise, convention, and constraint point
to a major theoretical-­discursive weakness that prevented insurgent forces
from exceeding certain parameters of liberalism. She is also attuned to the
forms through which insurgent forces expressed themselves, and in this sec‑
ond explanatory factor, she finds that the trade union tactic of the list of de‑
mands (pliego petitorio) made before the state ultimately allowed the state to
reframe and resolve the process of negotiation. A third explanatory factor
involves political strategy. She traces the increasing electoralist outlook of
mas as a crucial development that undermined the partial and temporary
unity of the community-­popular perspective. In mid-­2005, when the political
order was at the point of crumbling and insurgency was spreading through‑
out the country, mas opted to prop up the government of then president
Carlos Mesa in order to ensure that elections—sure to favor mas—would be
held in December. As Mesa stepped down, popular social forces also came out
in favor of an orderly succession in executive authority while failing to gener‑
ate a transformative new agenda for a constitutional assembly.
The effects of these factors were increasingly evident at the time Gutiérrez
Aguilar was writing her book, in the early years of the mas government’s
first term. In January 2006 Evo Morales assumed the role of head of state,
with García Linera at his side. As the ruling party began to centralize power
and political representation, and the social movements began to demobilize,
Gutiérrez Aguilar found the signs “ambivalent, disconcerting, confusing”
(p. xxxix). The rhythms of the Pachakuti gradually stalled.
Gutiérrez Aguilar describes Bolivia as the “most successful example of the
recent struggle against capital and against the state in Latin America,” though
how to advance beyond them remains an open challenge. Her book captures
the exceptional political effervescence in Bolivia in the period from 2000 to
2005: the mobilizations in urban streets and plazas and on rural highways,
the popular assemblies and deliberations to take direct action or to build
local electoral alliances, the democratic interventions in municipal, congres‑
sional, and constitutional arenas of public discourse and politics. She also
Foreword xvii

registers the depth of the challenge to the internal colonial and neoliberal
regime during that remarkable cycle of insurgency. And in her dense, urgent
record and her refusal to conform to the old order of things, we can still feel
the pulsations of that creative and unfinished moment. In its restless critique
and probing aspiration, Rhythms of the Pachakuti deserves to stand as a key
text in the international literature of radicalism and emancipatory politics in
the new century.

Sinclair Thomson, New York University


In Bolivia, primarily in La Paz’s rugged and stunning altiplano, in the city of

Cochabamba and the fertile valleys that surround it, and in the lush and hu‑
mid lands throughout the Chapare region, thousands upon thousands of men
and women propelled a wave of social movements between 2000 and 2005.
These uprisings ended the neoliberal hegemonic path that had been direct‑
ing the reorganization of everyday life and economic production. In this way,
they marked a definitive end to the continued development of that process.
There was a dynamic wave of social potential that affected public life in
plural, polyphonic ways. This opened a space-­time of Pachakuti. In other
words, it produced a social context defined by disrupting what until then
had been accepted as a normal part of everyday life: the prerogative of a few
men and women, from a privileged social status and ethnicity, to govern and
determine the fortune and fate of everyone else. This included the authority,
accepted until then as legitimate, to use and manage public resources in a
predatory, selective, and, above all, private way for the sole benefit of a few.
These were the same few who for decades had reveled in their power to gov‑
ern and in their unlimited access to pleasure.
There were hundreds of community planning events to reach agreements,
to organize, generate mutual trust, and fight for and defend what belongs to
everyone collectively and what should also be collectively managed and used
for everyone’s benefit. On various occasions, the ethnic and social conflict
that defines and divides Bolivian society was clearly visible in the same way
that lightning illuminates dark nights. The visibility of the various mecha‑
nisms for political and social domination that make it possible to exploit
Pachamama (mother earth in both Quechua and Aymara) and her children
generated a growing collective response, which empowered the participation
of thousands upon thousands of men and women. They organized in com‑
munities, trade unions, neighborhood councils, federations, confederations,
and coordinating committees to transform and modify those oppressive and
unjust social dynamics. This marked the beginning of an era of Pachakuti.
This study’s research comprised two objectives. First, I sought to clar‑
xx Preface

ify the series of events that established the pattern, method, and meaning
of Bolivia’s rebellious social participation. This included Aymara peasants,
residents from El Alto and Cochabamba, the Chapare region’s coca growers,
and Bolivia’s humble and hardworking inhabitants, both urban and rural. In
other words, I sought to listen to and understand the process that produced
the rhythms of the Pachakuti. In doing so, I discovered that each of the tem‑
pos I identified is based on the following: dignity recovered in the decisive
acts of rejecting what is unjust and unacceptable; autonomy exercised in the
planning and execution of what was decided, in confronting the established
power, and in the struggle for legitimacy for empowerment; and the ability to
cooperate with others in conditions that were essentially equal although never
free of tension. Dignity, autonomy, and the ability to cooperate are the fun‑
damental notes in a symphony in crescendo. These are the threads that I have
traced to examine each mobilized social group’s movements and trajectory.
For my second objective, I sought to understand the latent, and thus more
implicit, political substance and desires found nestled in the most intimate
depths of ancestral and modern ways of organizing social life. These occasion‑
ally surfaced during the wave of uprisings, and their analysis can assist us in
the task of imagining and producing a tolerable present and perhaps a better
future. It is only there that we can pose the question of how to advance toward
the objective of Pachakuti. For this purpose, I have researched the elements
that constitute what I call the horizon of desire defined by the events in the
struggle that unfolded in Bolivia between 2000 and 2005.
I developed this dual approach by designing a theoretical strategy while
the events were unfolding. This strategy includes a sensitive analysis of social
struggles and, at the same time, a mechanism to systematically compare the
practical scope of each struggle to the interior horizon defined primarily by
collective acts. What follows are some initial reflections on this.
Theory is almost always constructed from a dominant social position. It
is a privileged location for the gaze. Therefore, it was not my intention to de‑
velop a theory with this research. Instead, I sought to outline a theoretical
strategy. This strategy would clarify, on the one hand, the most significant acts
of rebellion that occurred in Bolivia between 2000 and 2005. On the other
hand, it would provide insight for a more general reflection on the multiple
horizons of desire stemming from these collective acts of conflict and rebel‑
lion, which a particular theoretical tradition has identified as social emanci-
This project thus draws from both the study of recent history and philo‑
sophical reflection. Consequently, it does not escape the conceptual and dis‑
Preface xxi

cursive clashes between history and philosophy. The theoretical-­philosophical

character of the research—and not only historical analysis—emerges from
the goal to reflect on the social movement’s particular tendencies that could
serve to connect and understand certain political phenomena that deserve
urgent discussion.
Moreover, unlike the classical meaning of the term “theory,” a theoreti‑
cal strategy for understanding the recent social movements and rebellions
within their historical scope does not aim to conceal, in the name of objec‑
tivity, the subject it theorizes. Instead, it seeks to present the outcomes, the
facts, as practical and reflexive production from people who are socially posi‑
tioned and who assume specific political intentions, whether these are explic‑
itly stated or implied. The theoretical strategy that I propose does not follow
the tradition that privileges the production of objective knowledge. Instead, it
follows the tradition that supports practical understanding of the social ex‑
perience of rupture, resistance, and challenge to the social order. Therefore,
I am approaching emancipation in two ways. The first explores the specific
emancipatory practices that characterize the political activity of various asso‑
ciations of men and women. These groups, with their uprisings in Bolivia,
generated new perspectives to produce and define social coexistence and
“other” possibilities for self-­governance. That is why my detailed description
of the experience of mobilization and struggle occupies a privileged place in
this project. That first approach to emancipation is necessary and makes pos‑
sible a second: to critically reflect on both the explicit and potential mean‑
ings of the acts and events produced by the men and women who were their
I will therefore undertake a theoretical strategy that investigates the mo‑
ments that constitute a social rupture or a series of social ruptures. My goal
is to identify and trace the components of a matrix to make it possible for us
to analyze—desire and produce—social emancipation. I understand a matrix
essentially as a structured set of premises, conceptual connections, and argu‑
ments that identify and explain a set of phenomena. This case involves the
social ruptures produced by the popular indigenous struggles and uprisings
in Bolivia between 2000 and 2005. For that reason, my theoretical strategy
deliberately avoids the trap of representative canons or conceptual prisons.
Instead, this strategy both arises from and supports those who produced the
aforementioned series of ruptures during the recent social conflict.
The pages that follow thus trace the conflict through the periods that con‑
stituted an upheaval, a time of resistance to and defiance of the traditional
order and relationships of domination. This marked the beginning of the
xxii Preface

potential for historical transformation. My intention is to reflect on these

social events and their capacity to erode and dismantle the forms of domi‑
nation in Bolivia that existed prior to the year 2000. I will also consider the
initial political power within these emancipatory periods in order to identify
the limits of their potential and to analyze the obstacles they faced. I want to
clarify from the beginning that this study does not aspire to be a history of the
uprisings and acts of resistance that occurred in Bolivia’s recent past. Much
more research would be necessary for that. Instead, I am seeking a rigorous
critical examination of particular moments in the conflict’s development. My
intention is to link these emancipatory periods through their practical com-
prehension as concrete emancipatory political practice and not in relation to
any specific “theory.” My purpose is to explore a method for evaluating the
selected moments both in terms of their emancipatory potential and their
limitations. Therefore, this study is not intended as history, and I ask the
reader to forgive the gaps—and perhaps lack of precision—that may appear.
At the same time, I want to underscore my efforts to identify in detail the dif‑
ferent historical possibilities that emerge in each period studied. My project
is inspired by a collaborative spirit to define “social emancipation.” It is not
meant to provide a precise or meticulous recording of the events.
One belief that defines all of my life’s work, and therefore these pages, is
confidence in the potential for self-­governance and social coexistence be‑
yond the modern state and capital. Included in this is a rejection of the fol‑
lowing basic suppositions: the separation of production and reproduction
from everyday life and from the material conditions for social development
and management; the delegation of social sovereignty to “governing” rep‑
resentatives as the foundation of all political activity; and the restriction of
the individual and collective creation of values for social well-­being to the
oppressive constraints of material value and capital. In opposition to this, I
am convinced that collective production is possible from a more or less stable
practice—in time and space—of social coexistence. This need not be analo‑
gous to the form of modern synthesis, based on the state, organized through
the delegation of political representation, and founded on the primacy of ma‑
terial value, sustained competition, and wealth as private property. In fact,
this wealth should be shared. I want to clarify this essential belief further be‑
cause this book rests upon it.
My approach conceives of modern societies as made up of antagonistic
groups subordinated to capital under the illusion of being integrated into
conflictive totalities permeated by relationships of exploitation and domina‑
tion. These apparent totalities constitute themselves as an illusory social syn-
Preface xxiii

thesis—the modern state—through the construction of political and produc‑

tive mechanisms. These mechanisms provide stability in time and space by
organizing everyday life and containing internal conflict, not resolving it. The
management, administration, and control of such conflicts constitute what is
generally referred to as politics.
There are times in history when social conflicts, confrontations, and up‑
heavals transcend the constrictive framework designed for their adminis‑
tration and control. Such is the case of Bolivia from 2000 to 2005. During
such periods, the traditional illusory social synthesis that the state represents
erodes and fails. This is due to the fact that the social conflict questions, re‑
jects, and threatens at least three basic pillars of that synthesis: the dominant
group’s monopoly on decision making about key public matters; the foun‑
dations for the relationship of command-­obedience within the society, a re‑
lationship that essentially rests on the social belief in the legitimacy of the
aforementioned monopoly (such foundations depend on the social imagi‑
nary’s deep symbolic structures that recognize certain forms of domination
as acceptable; in other words, the relationship of command-­obedience is
entrenched in great hierarchical divisions between genders and ethnicities,
the most intimate in a social group); and the types of political, economic,
productive, and ritual organization within the regulatory and administrative
framework for social life that are charged with solving the basic needs of the
general population defined in the previous social synthesis.
When these three pillars that support the state order are threatened by
political conflict within a society, the hierarchy and the accepted mechanisms
of access to political authority in that social group collapse, either completely
or partially. The opportunity then arises to study in depth, and on multiple
levels, the disruption of the traditional social order. And this can be done
without having to reestablish specific, universal, and affirmative types of so‑
cial reconfiguration, either practically or theoretically. My project’s greatest
systematic exercise is to reflect on this possibility. It is difficult to maintain
that perspective because it continually goes against what has been considered
for centuries to be “political” or qualified as “political theory.”
My goal is in part to insert my contributions into a current of thought
aimed at comprehending political and social transformation as a “Coperni‑
can inversion.” This involves displacing the centrality of “state” and “institu‑
tional power” as a privileged space for politics to instead situate it in the poly‑
phonic and plural social capacity for insistently distorting the heteronymous
political order. My goal is also to open up a reflection on that great social
transformation that can be captured—and also restricted—by the modern
xxiv Preface

term “social revolution,” or that is expressed more precisely in the ancestral

Quechua and Aymara term “Pachakuti.” My starting point, then, is to clearly
affirm that society does not need new and better proposals for synthetic re‑
configuration to effect deep social transformation. These proposals would
be touted as alternatives to the current order but from a location of univer‑
sal and affirmative expression, which is the space par excellence of the dis‑
course of political philosophy. The driving idea behind my project involves
understanding and supporting social transformation. It also considers ways
to permanently reconfigure the instituted order on various levels and through
contrasting tempos. This process is expansive and permanent, albeit discon‑
tinuous. In other words, it is a process of demarcating rhythms and generat‑
ing tempos.
By framing my approach in this way, I am able to analyze social transfor‑
mation and the events of conflict, resistance, and uprising through a pro‑
found inversion. What at one moment could be considered a weakness, at
another can be seen as a virtue or vice versa. What was once an end goal can
now be seen as a means to an end and so forth.
Understood in this way, and based on my observations, I think that the
magnitude of the disruption of Bolivia’s social and political order can be
studied by recognizing the combined interplay between the following two
elements: the practical scope of the rupture under way—the extent and real
power of social confrontation—and the interior horizon of the social sectors
confronting the established order. I offer my reflections in the following pages
specifically on these two elements in order to consider their confluence and
What I am calling the practical scope of a struggle is easier to determine,
since it essentially consists of its real material force, its disruptive capacity, its
internal vitality to continue and advance, its associative networks, its impor‑
tance in the group of struggles in a country and in the world, and so on. These
are elements that can be “observed” from the outside. On the other hand, the
interior horizon is more complex. It can be studied by analyzing the discrep‑
ancy between what is done and not said, between what is said and not done,
and in what implicitly or explicitly appears to be a desire or potential. In other
words, it relates markedly to the collective type of subjectivity that is pro‑
duced during times of rupture from daily life, rebellion, and uprising. During
these periods, shared potential is revealed, while desires and utopian horizons
are articulated in a complex way. Desires and utopian horizons are generally
more perceived than observed and then formulated as hypotheses to follow.
A social rupture of great magnitude inevitably transforms social relation‑
Preface xxv

ships. Relationships of domination and exploitation are drastically altered,

both in their form and content. Moreover, there is a transformation of essen‑
tial beliefs in a hierarchical categorization of diverse segments of the social
structure. If this change does not take place, then the preceding moment was
not a social rupture of great magnitude, even though the events may have
been intense. The rupture, particularly when it is deep, can carry the social
group over the threshold for potential transformation, thus producing histori‑
cal innovation. My goal here is to learn from the recent Bolivian experience.
It is first necessary to understand the dynamic between stability and trans‑
formation in contemporary societies, which are organized as artificial state
syntheses that in reality are governed by the power of material value. With
this in mind, I will outline the notion of emancipation that informs my re‑
flection on the recent popular and indigenous movements and uprisings in
When a society faces local struggles of resistance and multiple defensive
and offensive acts of explicit conflict, it enters a period of great political in‑
stability. If neither the old forms of exercising control nor the regulatory arti‑
facts for managing the conflict on its various levels are able to function, this
opens up a threshold for possible transformation. It is then feasible to con‑
sider a process of social transformation or “change of state.” Note that we
refer to a “change of state” in lowercase letters since we are alluding to the
social makeup and its inner flows and structures, such as modes of “being”
people in the world, and of regulating their relationships with each other and
with and through things. This is not a “State” as it has been understood and
studied in certain classical branches of political philosophy. The emancipa‑
tion is fundamentally a social “change of state.” Through it, society recovers
its ability to make political decisions without having these decisions dele‑
gated from above. This gradually lessens the preference for material value
over real people. Moreover, it constitutes a distinct social relationship, one
that rests on how use value operates based on its appropriation by people who
are freely associated for autonomous ends. In this sense the “change of state”
that defines “emancipation” is constituted by events that occur over time. In
other words, it is not a location or a specific objective that could be observed
in an isolated way. Throughout history, emancipatory thresholds have been
opened up by great acts of social confrontation led by men and women in
specific historical and geographical locations. As expansive and permanent,
albeit intermittent, acts of reconfiguring the order, their greatest difficulty has
been to achieve stability during the drive for transformation beyond the act
of confrontation itself.
xxvi Preface

These notions more or less delineate a conceptual constellation around the

term “emancipation.” I will try to use these to define characteristics of mean‑
ing without confining them to or identifying them within conceptual canons.
Throughout the chapters in this book, I will review the events, discourses, in‑
tentions, and limits of the popular indigenous uprisings in Bolivia between
2000 and 2005. The theoretical strategy that I have followed consists of a rig‑
orous reflection on the constitutive moments, the founding irruption of three
great social forces whose actions shaped the period of rupture that Bolivia
has experienced. These permitted the now ongoing project of reconfigura‑
tion known as “Evismo,” which represents the political project concentrated
around the personal authority of Evo Morales.
Although René Zavaleta (1986, 9) used the notion of “national-­popular”
to understand the type of complexity that exists in societies such as Bolivia’s,
my goal is to reflect on the notion of “communitarian-­popular.” Zavaleta re‑
flected on Bolivian society as being “structured in part by colonial domina‑
tion and in part by the development of capital . . . while at the same time
maintaining preceding social and political forms” (qtd. in Tapia 2002c, 336).
In my approach I am going to consider the potential for a stable irradiation of
those previous social and political forms, which are eminently present during
periods of observable social conflict. Moreover, I will explore their potential
to be stable, structuring forces for social composition when state and national
decomposition is occurring. I will also reflect on the potential to imagine
forms of self-­governance that are not necessarily or completely state run or
My study will consider the following: what happened in Bolivia between
2000 and 2005, from a series of chronological tables and information about
who participated in the events and how they participated; what did not hap‑
pen and what the protagonists of the uprisings wanted to happen, using my
own personal experience in the Bolivian struggles as a basis for this, and
the contrasts between what the leaders of the local struggles say they want
and what they actually do and achieve; and what was achievable and what
could possibly occur in the future. This type of analysis goes against other
approaches that the dominant academic tradition currently consecrates as
legitimate for knowledge. It is therefore worthwhile to briefly consider how
social struggle is defined for the purposes of this study.
Assuming with Marx (1848) that “the history of all hitherto existing human
society is the history of class struggles,” it remains productive to ask how to
study “class struggles” or, expressed more broadly, how to understand the de‑
velopment of social conflict.
Preface xxvii

In general terms, we can establish at least two possible approaches to

understanding and studying who is part of the struggle and how the collec‑
tive goals are articulated. First, the approach that we call “sociology” seeks
to identify who or what social classes are and only then register the concrete
modes of their “struggles.” Second, the “critical” approach focuses on the
“struggle” itself, on the concrete development of the conflict, and on the spe‑
cific method of confrontation. It then attempts to examine who struggles and
how, what social organisms bring them together, and what epistemic horizon
they unveil.
The “sociological” approach is inscribed in the dominant academic tra‑
dition. It encompasses the traditional, “official” Left as well as new theories
concerning “social movements.” These are understood as more or less fixed
configurations of subjects united by interests that are defended against the
interests of other economic, social, and political projects endorsed by other
“subjects.” These subjects are identifiable and their behavior can be described
based on principles that are considered “rational” and that give coherence to
the sum of their actions.
The foundation for this way of thinking is objective identification, even
if understanding the events is sacrificed in the process. To identify means, in
the broadest sense, rigidly associating a “term”—a word—with an “object,”
or referent, and assigning a meaning to it that would describe or contain, in
the most precise way, the traits and/or attributes of the referent in question.
This is the key theoretical crux from the positivist agenda for knowledge and
the logic that for decades defined it. Understanding, as a subjective point of
reference in the collective production of the world and as a subjective ex‑
perience of linking to preexisting meanings while at the same time being an
opportunity for their transformation, is something radically different from
what preceded it.
The most meaningful objective of my research is to discuss what supports
an understanding of the social conflict’s development. That is because that
subjective experience forms the basis for what makes emancipation possible.
In the critical Marxist tradition that informs my project, the category of “class
struggle” plays a central role. Furthermore, within this dual term—“struggle”
and “classes”—I place the main emphasis on recording, knowing, and under‑
standing the “struggle.” I share the following view with Sergio Tischler:
Struggle? Resistance? The question immediately emerges about the
content of said concepts and, following this one, the question of who.
Then we are very likely to find ourselves faced with many who’s, many
xxviii Preface

struggles and the collective not as an abstract composed of a group of

subjects who affirm their quality as individuals, but as a real form of exis-
tence that is produced as an “instant” of negation/overcoming (in the form
of collectivization) the split on which closed individuals and the control
of capital are based (subject/object, labor/capital, state/society, etc.). In
this sense, the collective is an action that transgresses and explodes the
apparent form of social objectivity, manifested as a separate and au‑
tonomous world that submits human beings to its logic. And that “in‑
stant” is class understood as condensation of the insubordination of the
materiality of human existence in this very act, condensation then from
labor as self-­determination rather than its existence as salaried labor
(subordinated to capital). Or to the human doing as opposed to being, to
use John Holloway’s words. (Tischler 2004a, 113; emphasis added)
In this sense, one of the keys to critically reading reality consists of not start‑
ing with the identification and delimitation of the various individual groups
that constitute the social corpus and that come into conflict but rather privi‑
leging the study of the moments in which the negation or overcoming of
such individual status occurs. This then opens up periods of collectivization
and practical attunement. In other words, the gaze is focused on explaining
the conflict in a way that breaks the conceptual fetish of categorization as
the basis for knowledge. This generates creative, ambiguous moments when
human bonds are redefined through expansion, increased complexity, and
access to various types of social power (Colectivo Situaciones 2002).
In my research for this study, I traced the stories behind the various groups
that shaped the Bolivian struggle between 2000 and 2005, their local histo‑
ries and their institutional organization. I also avoided becoming mired in
what could be called the paradox of theory about social movements in Latin
America. Various theoreticians from the Left represent this paradox. After
documenting the crisis of what is known as the “classic” or “Fordist” working
class, they embarked on a search for “new subjects” or new “forms” of orga‑
nization and of unique social existence. However, they retained the former
conceptual matrix that focuses on being over doing. In other words, instead
of directing their attention to the practical unfolding of the struggles—the
assault on capital as well as the polyphonic wave of resistance, uprising, and
rebellion—they prefer to locate and label the “new subjects” with one or more
analytical terms. This allows them to identify the conflicts and account for
them externally and vertically.
There are two ways to frame this paradox related to traditional “class
Preface xxix

struggle.” With the first, resistance is understood as merely a reaction to the

initiatives and actions used by capitalism. Ultimately, this is what happens to
Toni Negri and Michael Hardt (2000, 2004), for example. The second recog‑
nizes the autonomy of social acts of insubordination during periods of rup‑
ture. However, theorists are obsessed with fitting these acts into rigid frame‑
works that again make the “subjects” externally identifiable. The most notable
example of this effort in Bolivia is Álvaro García Linera.
A second important topic for studying the development of social conflict
concerns the articulation of collective goals. These refer to the ways in which
the overall meaning of the struggle is produced during the act itself and the
process for strengthening the challenge to the state and to capital. During the
sixties and seventies, a classification of those goals existed: economic and/or
political, democratic and/or socialist, among other criteria. And the charac‑
terization of the struggles, based on the goals that they explicitly upheld, was
usually classified under the pairing reformist/revolutionary or democratic/
socialist. These types of classifications fell out of use after the collapse of the
Soviet Union. Despite that fact, and although other terms are used and sup‑
ported by different types of arguments, the theoretical framework has been
restored, and this restoration unfortunately conserves the basic classificatory
The following are two of the essential premises for this framework: First,
by conceiving—studying and understanding—society as a whole, the “politi‑
cal” is basically understood as a way to regulate and/or direct that totality.
In this way, projects and proposals are only understood as “political” when
they are posed as a “totality.” This first premise offers two options: the “social
whole” is understood as internally susceptible to harmonization through the
law, which is the theoretical basis for liberalism, or the “social whole” is per‑
ceived as divided by antagonistic contradictions, and a need arises for a revo‑
lution to generate a new “social totality,” which would no longer be antagonis‑
tic. This is the central proposal offered by the dominant version of Marxism.
This first premise is complemented by the second premise that society should
be governed by a special body of people. These rulers function socially as ad‑
ministrators who make decisions about things and control relationships be‑
tween people through things.
It is now possible to outline the differences between these two ideas that
are fundamental to all political thought. If the existing social whole is open to
harmonization, what is required is the production of institutions and prac‑
tices that guarantee “governability,” whether from the Right or the Left. This
would be through various attempts at social planning. On the other hand,
xxx Preface

if the social totality is internally torn by antagonism, it is necessary to over‑

come that totality’s internal conflict in order to produce an “other” order that
would constitute a new totality. This second approach is generally accepted
by the traditional revolutionary Left. It offers various alternatives depending
on how it proposes to overcome the current social totality’s order and what it
suggests as a basic “order” for the new totality.
In summary inherent in the aforementioned framework is a fundamen‑
tal assumption: to view society as a totality. This perspective is shared by
both the classic Right and Left. When this assumption is accepted, it brings
with it other abstract principles that guide the study of what happens within
a society. One such principle that comes from what is known as classical or
vulgar Marxism identifies “historical necessity” to defeat the capitalist order.
That is one of the principles that I am interested in discussing in this research.
Variations of classical Marxism suggest the idea of historical necessity to
defeat the capitalist order. This is generally based on analyzing history as an
objective and observable process that can be “scientifically” studied by objec-
tively understanding the development of the contradictions between “pro‑
ductive forces” and “mechanisms of production.” These contradictions are
essentially perceived as ultimately a driving force both for history as well as
for the inevitable fall of the capitalist regime.
In contrast to this preceding view, critical Marxism is understood as a
theory of social struggle rather than a totalizing theory of capitalist exploita‑
tion and domination and the historical necessity to defeat it. It thus empha‑
sizes social conflict and the real ways in which some men and women struggle
against capitalism. In other words, it defines the struggle as a concrete devel‑
opment of a unique social reality that challenges the totality of domination-­
exploitation. It thus breaks from a teleological view of history because it ac‑
cepts each struggle as uncertain and potentially capable of creating something
new. This approach explicitly seeks to develop a way to theorize the numerous
acts of uprising against the capitalist order, which refers to the specific ways
the particular context evolves for the construction of an “epistemic horizon.”
In other words, this approach makes it possible to analyze the deep content
of such struggles rather than being limited to recording them as mere anoma‑
lies. Moreover, they would not be perceived as movements that just fade away.
Precisely in that sense, my perspective opposes orthodox Marxism’s “grand
narrative,” which assigned social acts of struggle or resistance a value within
the previously assumed “general sense of history.”
According to Holloway, orthodox or traditional Marxism included in its
variations two basic suppositions as the basis for understanding history. The
Preface xxxi

first is the theory of the historical necessity for socialism to prevail over capi‑
talism. The second involves privileging the knowledge about such a necessity
over real struggles against capitalist exploitation and domination. This in‑
cludes recognizing and understanding the laws of history that determined the
necessary decline of capitalist society (Holloway 2001a, 174). For a long time,
there was a set theoretical framework founded on these ideas, which framed
a specific understanding of the political aspects of social struggle. This view
of history includes various guiding assumptions. The following are three of
them: the idea that the development of capitalism itself prepares the material
conditions that lead to socialism; the understanding of socialism basically as
“nationalization of modes of production” and “economic planning”; and the
suggestion that the principal activity of the “revolutionary subject”—whether
the working class, the working class in alliance with poor farmers, the work‑
ing class organized in a revolutionary party, and so forth—should be to “take
political power,” which is managed by the state, in order to support the goal of
building socialism. This group of assumptions can be called “orthodox Marx‑
ism.” Although there has been varying emphasis on each of the aforemen‑
tioned three ideas, they have constituted the general theory within which the
political contents and meanings of social struggle were understood, classified,
and evaluated for several decades in the twentieth century.
Critical Marxism begins with a critique of these assumptions. It theorizes
that society is torn between those who work and those who control and reap
the benefits of other people’s labor—the capital/useful labor contradiction. It
then focuses on the various ways in which those who work resist and struggle
against the conditions imposed on them. In this sense, for critical Marxism,
history’s path can essentially be understood by documenting and meticu‑
lously studying the development of the conflict. This analysis would focus on
the side of the social conflict where those who work and produce wealth are
concentrated in multiple ways. Consequently, there is no historical necessity.
Instead, there is a continuous act of resistance and collective creation that
is produced within particular conditions of material production and capital
accumulation. There are no objective economic laws that determine the need
for socialism. Instead, the social conflict’s development has a specificity that
defines what is referred to as the present in each historic moment.
At least two questions (see Holloway 2004) arise from these theoretical as‑
sumptions: First, is it possible to reveal a general meaning, a political horizon,
from the recent struggles, movements, and uprisings against capitalism that
would suggest that they could possibly be in tune or linked? Second, to what
extent are such social struggles directed not only against but beyond capital‑
xxxii Preface

ism? In the research that informs this project, I continually dealt with these
questions, outlining possible responses. And as I asked myself these ques‑
tions, I repeatedly happened upon two central themes. The first of these was
how to be able to understand the sometimes drastic and at other times subtle
changes in the social temperament. These enable widespread and creative acts
of cooperation that undermine the dominant social order, thus overwhelming
institutional frameworks. The second was how to imagine and contribute to
analyzing the ongoing transformations, beginning precisely with that collec‑
tive subjectivity in a state of insubordination. In other words, I also found it
necessary to further clarify the notion of “human emancipation” as a concep‑
tual constellation that defines recent social struggles. I offer some preliminary
responses to these two questions below.
Regarding the first problem, in a world torn by conflict and tension, there
is no pure or disinterested knowledge, only knowledge that is site specific
and intentional. With this in mind, I argue that the analytical study of the so-­
called new subjects, privileging their classification, sooner or later re-­creates
a type of relationship of subordination between those who make up the “new
subject” studied and those who classify it in one way or another, or even those
who pay so that it can be studied precisely “in that way.”
In contrast, the theoretical approach—academic or militant—focuses on
the conflict itself. It considers the concrete and contradictory development
of the site-­specific social conflict and, in particular, the tension involved in
how that development is experienced by those who produce it. This theoreti‑
cal approach facilitates understanding the various ways the conflict is defined
and, occasionally perhaps, a type of subjectivity that rejects various mecha‑
nisms for social subordination, both in daily life and in moments of overt
social rebellion. This approach also makes it possible to distinguish between
differing degrees of contesting the social order, and it does so without having
to appeal to a teleological position. Moreover, there is even the potential to
compare different human experiences as parallel, contrasting their possibili‑
ties and limits.
Judged from the standpoint of capital, intangible labor, exchange value,
and state power, modern social conflict advances through plundering, pillag‑
ing, exploitation, and contempt. This conflict can also be viewed, however,
from the side of active labor, the “making useful,” the privilege of use value,
and the practical capacity of diverse human communities to cooperate with
each other. From that perspective, that same conflict is viewed as leading to
autonomy, the reappropriation of common assets, the rebuilding of a sense
of justice and respect. The following open questions can then be considered
Preface xxxiii

from this second angle: What can we learn from this diverse, energetic, and
multitudinous group of collective acts? In what way do these struggles illumi‑
nate emancipated forms of coexistence? To what extent do they break from
subordination and exploitation, and how do they foretell a different future
even if they are again subjected to the capitalist order? In what way do they
contribute to the transformation of social relationships?
These concerns constitute the heart and soul of my research, clearly merg‑
ing historical, philosophical, and epistemological analysis. Moreover, these
fundamental questions, posed from the perspective of emancipation, form
the basis for my study of what occurred in Bolivia between 2000 and 2005.
They are necessary for establishing clues to identify the common character‑
istics shared by the polyphonic contingents and social groups that organized
during those years to plan, make decisions, speak, and act. My purpose is to
attempt to use words to re-­create the subjective experience of the doing un‑
leashed against capital in some of the conflict’s most crucial moments. This
also involves examining the concrete ways in which the men and women who
mobilized have also tried to go beyond capital, either explicitly or implicitly.
In order to do this, it is necessary to study the actual development of the up‑
risings, investigating power’s most profound challenging tendencies. These
have essentially been constructed over the last decade from social structures
that are apparently “not political,” such as community, neighborhood, or
family. My research thus focuses on articulating the struggles and conflicts
that spread throughout Bolivia at the dawn of the twenty-­first century and to
learn from what they teach us, once again, about human emancipation.
To accomplish this task, it is possible to investigate the most chaotic mo‑
ments of social rupture. Three levels of analysis, exemplified by the following
three questions, could potentially help us clarify what is occurring: Which
men and women within a society decide to fight and how do they do it? How
do they organize and what discourses do they produce? What space do they
create for meaning? Moving fluidly between these three questions, I will out‑
line ideas throughout the book about how, during the years of mobilization
in Bolivia, there were profound ruptures with two of the twentieth century’s
most emblematic political philosophies: statism and liberalism. From 2000
to 2005, the repeated waves of uprising, confrontation, and selective autono‑
mous management of life and public affairs shattered two notions. The first
was the restricted image of voting citizens. These were thought of as people
who exercised their rights in the privilege of private property and in political
participation through the existence of political parties, so vital to the demo‑
cratic process. The second was the image of the corporate militant committed
xxxiv Preface

to some type of sectarian, labor, or traditional political organization loyal to

a set of practices and institutionalized, hierarchical structures that consti‑
tute a state. During those five years in Bolivia, the vision of collective action
was chaotic and sporadic. It grew out of a collective and plebeian democ‑
racy, through meetings, blocking highways, and building barricades. This is
a democratic way to act and organize social existence. However, it has been
consistently devalued, both symbolically and practically, during the years
of Evo Morales’s government by state professionals with political decision-­
making power and public influence. I hope to make a contribution to social
emancipation by documenting and analyzing these ruptures, which I propose
as a conceptual constellation.
According to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, “emancipa‑
tion” is the “action and effect of emancipating or emancipating oneself.” The
verb “to emancipate” has two definitions: “a) to liberate from parental au‑
thority, from tutelage, or from servitude; and b) to liberate oneself from any
type of subordination or dependence.” These two definitions of the verb “to
emancipate” refer to ending a relationship of subjection. Another possible
characteristic of the verb “to emancipate” depends on whether such action
is considered reflexive—X emancipates itself from Y—or whether it is done
to a second subject: X emancipates Y. The first alternative is inherent in my
definition of social emancipation in this study. It is just as Marx referred to
the proletariat: “emancipation of the workers will be by the workers them‑
selves.” Moreover, the notion of “social emancipation” that I am interested in
discussing must be understood as both transitive and reflexive. The subject
that acts does so in reference to itself. Etymologically, the verb “to emanci‑
pate,” according to Toni Doménech, literally means “removing the hand of
the master from oneself ”: “ ‘Emancipating oneself ’—liberating oneself from
paternal tutelage—means ‘becoming a brother.’ Emancipated from the tute‑
lage of my master, not only can I be a brother to all the ‘children’ who shared
reality with me under the same noble tutelage, but I can also be the eman‑
cipated brother to all those who were under the tutelage and domination of
other patriarchs” (2004, 14).
The notion of “emancipation” presupposes a relationship of subjection,
either binary or plural, that is severed by the previously subordinated part
that has the resolve and ability to do so. “Emancipation” has generally been
considered primarily in “political” terms, which means analyzing certain
established relationships of power that, from modernity, are defined in rela‑
tion to the state and/or capital. Framed in this way, the most radical question
is how working society can emancipate itself from the state and capital. As
Preface xxxv

John Holloway (2001a) has stated, this consists of thinking about how con‑
temporary insubordination moves against and beyond capital and the state.
There is a copious amount of literature on this topic and on some other re‑
lated questions, such as “revolution” and “communism.” It is not my present
intention to offer a systematic account of that discussion. Instead, my goal is
to delineate some elements to define “emancipation” as a notion that is open,
negative, and significant in order to outline a “conceptual constellation.” Ac‑
cording to Adorno, “cognition of the object in its constellation is cognition of
the process stored in the object,” or, stated another way, “to become aware of
the constellation in which the thing stands means so much as to decode the
one which the latter bears within itself, as what has come to be” (1966, 166).
One cannot think critically without some type of conceptual framework.
Therefore, I believe that in order to reflect on emancipation, it is advisable
to begin with certain historical experiences of struggle systematized in philo‑
sophical formulations. I join Holloway in thinking that it is necessary to con‑
sider “changing the world without taking power.” The first step involves aban‑
doning the idea of “social change,” which was part of what is referred to as the
“revolutionary strategy” prevalent during the twentieth century. Although we
have already reviewed this, let’s summarize it now.
Essentially, what is known as the “revolutionary strategy” proposed a par‑
ticular notion of change based on the struggle to take power. It consisted
of building organizations that were highly cohesive, hierarchical, and disci‑
plined. These could organize the various social struggles in a particular coun‑
try and lead them, of course. In general, with this objective in mind, revo‑
lutionary party activity identified, classified, and sought to subordinate the
actions, perspectives, and intentions of local struggles and of diverse groups
of men and women in their numerous personal struggles. The key aspect
of this strategy was the radical and systematic confrontation with the state.
The objective was to displace the social sectors that occupied its institutions
in order to then transform them from top to bottom. In this sense the logi‑
cal foundations for this argument consist of establishing the existence—and
conceptualization—of at least two specific, distinct, and opposing entities,
the state and the revolutionary party, and to account for their “opposition.”
Following this reasoning, the notion of revolutionary change remains con‑
strained to altering the group occupying the state apparatus and destroying
institutions and previous hierarchical relationships to build new ones.
However, if we part from the opposite premise, defining “social emanci‑
pation” as “changing the world without taking power,” we have to abandon
the universal modern goal within the general definition of emancipation and
xxxvi Preface

simultaneously relinquish the point of reference on the totality. I will attempt

to do this in a series of theses that will frame the meaning of “social eman‑
cipation” as a constellation. For my argument, I am modifying Holloway’s
thesis in the following way: taking power is neither a necessary nor sufficient
condition to change the world.
If self-­emancipation consists of changing the world and vice versa, mean‑
ing if emancipation is first and foremost political activity and collective prac‑
tice for transforming the world, then it is a praxis of disruption and escape.
It is a material and symbolic disruption of the existing order and an escape
from the semantic and symbolic contents that precede us and that give ma‑
terial existence and meaning to what is already established. Therefore, self-­
emancipation basically consists of carrying out shared acts of resistance and
struggle to transform social, economic, and political relationships. This then
enables collective, autonomous decision making and the regulation of social
coexistence based on this type of decision making.
Current emancipatory struggles are occurring in the midst of neoliberal
capitalist relationships and under the political order in nations that are be‑
coming ever more transnational. Therefore, the meaning and outcomes of
recent emancipatory struggles are potentially ambivalent, disconcerting, and
even confusing. During the last decade, various social movements have man‑
aged to topple governments and limit plundering and neoliberal domination.
Defined in this way, recent struggles of social movements in Latin America
have been emancipatory struggles. They have opened channels so that society
can directly intervene in politics, establishing vetoes to different policies by
neoliberal governments. However, many of these policies remain in effect
and the social order of exploitation and economic and political exclusion
continues intact. Worse yet, this paradox appears to have emerged in various
“progressive” governments in Latin America.
With that being said, social struggles and indigenous uprisings over the
past decade have revealed the profound ruptures, inequalities, and conflicts
that tear apart societies in our continent’s nations. These tensions, which were
explicitly exposed by the indigenous uprising in Bolivia, triggered the domi‑
nant class’s sudden political and institutional collapse, although it has quickly
managed to begin a vigorous reconstruction.
In this way the Bolivian experience demonstrates the power of inertia from
state domination and the capitalist order. It obstructs, entraps, or hinders the
raw potential to change the world in the context of such acts of rebellion and
insurgence. The goal of my research is thus to think specifically about the dif‑
ficulties of changing the world as well as transforming social relationships and
Preface xxxvii

established policies so that men and women from the masses are able to build
self-­governance based on their own traditional organizations. The entire pre‑
ceding analysis leads to one preliminary affirmation: social emancipation is
not achieved directly via the classic revolutionary strategy for taking power
or from its lighter version of controlling the government apparatus through
elections that seek a future constituent assembly. And it is not achieved di‑
rectly because, quite simply, social emancipation is different from a group of
people, linked broadly through political affiliation or ethnicity to the insur‑
gent contingents, who manage a society’s institutional framework “on behalf
of the people.”
The electoral control of the government apparatus, even the taking of state
power through revolution, has too often hindered the deepening of the trans‑
formative and liberating potential that comes from the act of rebellion. More‑
over, this is precisely what allows some party or political faction to come to
power or for an organization to take control of the state. Furthermore, in
specific cases in which some revolutionary or “popular” party has taken gov‑
ernment or state control, there has been a tendency toward a decline in col‑
lective potential to participate in public affairs, which constitutes an essential
aspect of current emancipatory struggle. However, this contradiction should
not suggest categorically that government or state control by some faction of
the mobilized population would always be counterproductive and block the
struggle for emancipation in every historical instance.
In this sense, and in strictly hypothetical terms for the sake of clarifying
the argument, it is possible to consider both questions as logically indepen‑
dent of one another. In concrete political-­practical terms, however, this affir‑
mation demands clarification. What I am arguing is that collective emanci‑
patory action and its deep transformation of social, economic, and political
relationships needs to be considered from a separate and distinct channel from
the political struggle for government and state control. This is because they
move at different speeds and through different paths. These two types of so‑
cial action are separate and independent of one another. This is despite the
fact that each exists in relation to the other because together they define po‑
litical reality at a given place and time. Therefore, what occurs in one of these
political spaces and times is not unrelated to what is happening in the other
one and vice versa.
At a meeting of the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life (Coordina‑
dora de la Defensa del Agua y de la Vida, known locally as La Coordinadora)
in Cochabamba on March 11, 2006, with Evo Morales’s Movement toward
Socialism (mas) government recently installed, this problem was presented
xxxviii Preface

in the following way: “The question of how to govern is really mas’s problem,
while the question that we are still facing is the problem of power, its disso‑
lution and disruption.”
There are numerous advantages to stating things this way. First, it puts the
problem of the subject of social emancipation in its proper place. It distin‑
guishes between the diverse, plural masses, faced with the problem of how to
dissolve the power apparatus, and the particular body that temporarily occu‑
pies the political apparatus. No progressive or revolutionary government in
history has concerned itself with the question of how to dissolve the power
structures allowing for “self-­governance,” admitting plurality, and facilitating
conditions for society’s self-­regulation. Basically, there are two predominant
relationships that define social divisions. One involves those who work and
those who live off of the labor of others. The other is between those who gov‑
ern and make decisions and those who obey and suffer the decisions of others.
In general the variety of governmental models suggests the different possible
combinations between the social groups broadly defined in this way and the
specific ways they intersect. In the current Bolivian government, for example,
its “popular” character comes from the fact that those who occupy the state
apparatus are not directly members of the elite who have traditionally lived
off of the labor of others.
It is important to note an obvious distinction between the plural, tumul‑
tuous, insubordinate, and collaborative subjectivity that continues in recent
experience to be linked to a reflection on social emancipation and the defi‑
nition of its challenges and difficulties. Another issue involves the numerous
possible types of governing bodies that face a whole series of pending tasks.
This is undoubtedly something altogether different, which is what Cocha‑
bamba’s Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life helps clarify above. An‑
other equally convincing example, similar to the previous one, is the Zapa‑
tista perspective. For the Zapatistas, existence is not defined by one unified
type of politics but by two classes of politics: the official one and the “other”
one. However, at the moment, we do not have a very clear idea how to define
the characteristics of that “other” type.
The second advantage of the aforementioned assertion by the Coalition for
the Defense of Water and Life is that it distinguishes between administrative
and governmental tasks that are part of leftover institutions and challenges
from those who insist on social emancipation and who cannot relinquish re‑
flections on power and politics now. What this means is that there is an under‑
lying conflict. On the one hand, there is a question of power, politics, and the
construction of self-­governance on the basis of self-­management of common
Preface xxxix

goods and social wealth. On the other hand, there are social struggles from
the last decade that demand a response to the ways in which collective co‑
existence can be regulated in a non-­liberal way, meaning in a way not based
on delegated representation or the alienation of self-­agency and with direct
shared decision-­making power.
This problem is not an insignificant one. It stems from and seeks to pro‑
vide a solution to the fundamental question of managing to stabilize in time
a mode of social regulation that is outside of, against, and beyond the social
order imposed by capitalist production and the liberal state. Up to now, the
social energy that has overwhelmed institutions designated to regulate po‑
litical participation has had a resounding success in various Latin American
countries. However, it is paradoxical because “it is a success and then it’s lost,”
as noted by the Ecuadorians from the Confederation of Indigenous Nation‑
alities of Ecuador (conaie). The sweeping acts of insubordination and defi‑
ance against rules and schedules of production of capital and the state have
set the historical stage for the continued relevance of reflections on social
Although these tremendous acts have overwhelmed the institutional
framework and this excess of social energy has eroded neoliberal hegemony
and halted its advance, they lack an explicit horizon of desire once they can
veto the actions of others. We understand a horizon of desire as similar to a
metaphor for what is collectively desirable and feasible. This facilitates a com‑
mon meaning out of numerous collective actions. I reiterate that such an ab‑
sence is clearly expressed in the principle that conaie affirms: “we achieve
successes that mask defeats.” It is also revealed in the analogy expressed by a
resident from Cochabamba’s “May 1” neighborhood. Referring to the current
Bolivian political process, he stated that “we did not want to build ourselves
a little room in their home. We wanted to build a new home.” More clearly,
Eugenio Rojas, the current mayor of Achacachi and kamayu (guerrilla orga‑
nizer), points to the Aymara uprising between 2000 and 2005 and asserts that
“we have known how to destroy institutions, but we have not been able to
build new ones.” This last example also clearly shows the difficulty of express‑
ing the goal for “our own way of doing things” to be the one that is established
as legitimate and legal.
In order to consider these questions, it is worth reflecting on the dual na‑
ture of time under the capitalist order. It is possible to distinguish between
at least two different temporalities: a time of everyday life and a time of rup‑
ture, which is a rupture of everyday life. In traditional culture, everyday life
is marked by and interrupted by festivals. For that reason, when they truly
xl Preface

come from below, movements and struggles resemble festivals. They are col‑
lective enterprises in which what has been accumulated during normal times
is squandered in search of some purposeful shared objective. Therefore, it
happens that the time of rupture of everyday life, be it during a festival or a
rebellion, is filled with what is collective, tumultuous, innovative, excessive,
and dangerous.
However, during the time of everyday life, everyone, each individual, each
domestic unit, each community, union, neighborhood, or colony, is busy in
their own way with their local productive and administrative affairs. In gen‑
eral this is based on repetitive and known behaviors that define this time as
predictable and quiet. This time is the one that is more easily subsumed and
absorbed by state rules. If the times of political rupture of everyday life by the
state and its domain can be referred to as an “electoral festival”—as opposed
to the disruption and festive excess of social uprising—then the regular time
of the state comes from the permanence of what are usually referred to as
“regulations.” In other words, this is the mode that is accepted as organized
and desirable and imposed as legal when it comes to doing everyday things in
their minutiae. It is defined by the dominant logic, which carries it through‑
out the state system. It is worth outlining some ideas on these topics since a
decisive aspect of the “question of power” is concentrated there.
I must underscore that social emancipation is an infinite, albeit discon‑
tinuous, ever-­changing, and sporadic collection of shared acts of insubordi‑
nation, autonomy, and, by extension, self-­governance. It is not an endpoint
or the conclusion to a previous ongoing process. It consists basically of ini‑
tiating a different space-­time in economic, social, and political terms, which
stands in contrast to and as an escape from the capitalist order and the state.
It is an autonomous space-­time that can either be anchored territorially or
not. In it, at least three traits of nonstate and noncapitalist regulation of co‑
existence prevail, which have been supported historically by men and women
in the struggle: deliberative assembly for decision making; horizontality as a
fundamental organizational trait; and rotation as the mechanism for desig‑
nating who should carry out a specific organizational duty within the ever-­
changing collective body.
Political activity, understood as the regulation of social coexistence, oc‑
curs in space and in time. This makes social emancipation above all a contest
for space and time. In moments of tension and confrontation, emancipatory
struggle generally takes the form of a contest either for time—in societies that
are more fully capitalist—or for space—in societies where agrarian canons of
existence prevail. This is despite the fact that, fundamentally, the first severely
Preface xli

lacks tangible space and the others are unable to establish their schedules as
the legitimate standard for coexistence. Therefore, autonomous social self-­
regulation is based, above all, on the practical potential for a group of men
and women to have spaces and times at their disposal, and to have the ability
to occupy those spaces and to guide those times so that they can become the
basis to satisfy necessities and to achieve desires in an autonomous manner.
This conflict for an “other time” and for an “other space” is clearly revealed
in moments of intense social confrontation. However, such a conflict sub‑
sides—even though it persists—in “normal times of the state.” This means
in “moments of peace” when the waters of explicit social confrontation calm
down. Such inertia from the “normal time of the state” is, perhaps, one of the
greatest obstacles to emancipation, above all because its existence is appar‑
ently intangible. Or when it does become apparent, it is accepted without too
many objections when an almost natural character is attributed to it.
There is documented testimonial evidence of state inertia’s domestication
and harnessing of the mobilized population’s emancipatory force over time.
This includes the previously mentioned statement made by Eugenio Rojas,
expanded upon here: “We are prisoners of these institutions. Everything re‑
quires paperwork here. There is always oversight. . . . We have known how
to destroy institutions, but we have not known how to build our own insti‑
tutions. . . . And now our [Aymara] social organizations are going to be out‑
side [of the Constituent Assembly] barking like a dog.” The suggestion that
“we have not known how to build institutions” demonstrates that Rojas does
not suggest the particular ancestral manner of doing things as the legitimate
way to define political governance and “policy making.” Rojas, an influential
representative of the Aymara resistance in recent years, does not affirm that
the mechanisms for planning and organizing collaboration and regulation of
productive life, political and ritual, which spring up from communities, are
the institutions that should eventually be recognized as legitimately govern‑
mental. There is an underlying problem in this suggestion that I will explore
in detail in later chapters of this book.
For his part, Oscar Olivera stated in various assemblies and meetings of the
Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life in 2006 that they were debating
the possibility of “constructing autonomous municipalities.” Obviously, that
discussion was occurring long before the dominant classes, principally from
the country’s western region and the political Right, seized on the issue of
autonomy as the key to the discourse on restructuring. Oscar Olivera states
that “(despite not conforming to the Convocation Law of Bolivia’s Constitu‑
ent Assembly . . .) the challenge continues to be ‘self-­governance.’ It is pos‑
xlii Preface

sible to begin ‘constituting-­building’ autonomous municipalities, because if

we are going to be autonomous, we cannot limit ourselves to antiquated laws.
Our particular organizational structures have to be ‘legal’ and our methods of
self-­governance and exercising power also have to be legal. What is ours has
to become not just legitimate but the ‘legal axis’ for the nation’s functioning.”
This does not only mean considering new institutional models that would
favor more widespread participation by the general population but also it
refers to, above all, occupying space. It also means that non-­state practices
that regulate social coexistence and the struggle in marginalized regions mark
the rhythm of time, assigning a new meaning to the term “to legalize.” The
neighbors in Cochabamba’s southern zone, organized in their independent
committees and their drinking water cooperatives, also confronted these
issues with much greater intensity. They were still working in 2006 on reach‑
ing agreements for the following objectives:
1. Repeal of the Law of Popular Participation.
2. Collective and autonomous decision making and management of
public resources.
3. Full ratification of the agreements made by open town hall meeting or,
in its absence, the Municipal Council’s holding of public meetings.
4. Rejection of mechanisms for political patronage and nepotism to
perform the duties of the mayor’s office. The mechanisms include,
among others, the requirement to make bids for construction projects,
complying with the official registry of businesses, and having an nit
number (official tax id, and so on).
5. Submitting clear accounts regarding public funds managed in the
mayor’s office but in accordance with our uses and customs. The state
accountants should be the ones who learn our method for keeping
accounts, not the other way around.
The problem that Cochabamba’s residents were facing in early 2006 was
clearly not how to support or oppose Evo Morales’s government. Nor were
they discussing how to “stabilize” the antiquated framework of domination
with minor modifications. They were focusing their attention on the fun‑
damental question of how to develop and legalize their particular collective
forms of decision making and management. The principal problem was how
to build “new” institutions or how to “escape” the logic that permeates pre‑
existing institutions during times of “peace.” In any case the central problem
is undoubtedly the stabilization in time of locally rooted community politi‑
cal practices that allow coexistence to be regulated by other political forms
Preface xliii

and other ethical criteria. Recall the statement made earlier by a resident of
Cochabamba’s “May 1” neighborhood: “We did not want to build ourselves a
little room in their home. We wanted to build a new home.”
Finally, the question of refounding a different country, which is one of the
ways to refer to the contemporary emancipatory horizon, depends upon re‑
moving oneself from the established conceptual and normative framework.
This defines, legitimizes, and disseminates a different way of reasoning and
arguing, and it legalizes direct social practices of self-­governance and coexis‑
As Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui states, “the confines of the nation are a
straightjacket for indigenous and popular struggle in Bolivia”; this is not only
because it is founded on a “restricted citizenship” but also because “the mo‑
nopoly to name and set norms” is imbedded in the idea of the nation, and of
course in the nation-­state (Rivera Cusicanqui qtd. in Escárzaga and Gutiérrez
Aguilar 2006). Rivera Cusicanqui is correct when she suggests that the elites
hold a monopoly on naming and setting norms in Latin America, although
they are sporadically surrounded by the insubordination of indigenous and
popular masses. It is a heavy anchor that fixes social relationships in the past
and inhibits and traps the collective production of political horizons. We in‑
habit a universe with different definitions, and struggles unfold in it.
Production of a common sense of dissidence in Bolivia has taken place for
the most part during moments of confrontation. It has occurred in the midst
of the explicit unfolding of social antagonism, such as during “war.” More‑
over, it has almost always been formulated negatively: against the forced
eradication of coca, against privatization of water, against the sale of natu‑
ral gas under conditions imposed by transnational corporations, and so on.
This is when the most profound planning agreements have been generated.
An exception is what is referred to in Bolivia as the October Agenda (2003),
which linked numerous objectives in a positive way. One was the national‑
ization of hydrocarbons (oil and gas) and other resources whose control had
been assigned to transnational corporations. Another called for the establish‑
ment of a sovereign constitutional assembly, with full powers and not based
on party affiliation. However, when the insurrectional population names its
desire, when it expresses a demand forcefully, then “policy making” comes
into play to take it and tie it to the past.
Beginning with the language in which the law is written, and continuing
with the concepts that are inscribed in it, the regulatory system lacks any
neutrality at all. Categories such as “public-­social property” do not fit within
liberal legal frameworks. Moreover, it is not possible to grant “private” corpo‑
xliv Preface

rations the right to establish fines, and it does not make sense that the right to
participate is closely linked to the obligation to participate as well as to the act
of residency, all definitions of “public-­social property” in traditional cultures
in Bolivia. Nevertheless, “public-­social property” was how they referred to
the type of water company that the neighborhood residents in El Alto wanted
to build for themselves after the transnational Suez-­Lyonnese des Eaux finally
left. The qualifier serves to clarify their desire: they did not want the company
to be public-­municipal in the traditional sense, meaning managed by groups
of outside technicians and by political bureaucratic-­administrative teams. Of
course, they did not want it to be private either. They wanted to implement
a type of direct collective property, distinguishing between ownership and
management, similar to how the other “public” tasks are organized in the
communities and neighborhoods in the city of El Alto.
The right and obligation to participate connected to the act of residency in
many Aymara and Qhiswa communities is the basis for individual possession
of a share of common wealth—in this case land and water. Yet this principle
simply does not work. It does not fit within the liberal regulations regard‑
ing land tenancy, nor is it accepted as legitimate for regulating ownership of
real estate. How is it possible then to transform the organization of property?
Under what conceptual framework is a horizon of desire articulated if it first
requires a tremendous leap of semantic exodus?
Something similar occurs with respect to political representation. For the
state, “democratic expansion” means organizing more and more elections,
which are always restricted by political parties. Even the mechanism for a
binding referendum acquires a liberal form because the government main‑
tains the prerogative, among other things, to formulate the question to be
answered. With this in mind, how is it possible to legalize political practices
that do not fit within the conceptual framework, much less in the previous re‑
public’s structure for policy making? How is it possible to “legalize” the type
of political institutions that originated in the community and in new urban
associations with members of the assembly chosen by consensus and with
obligatory participation and rotating leadership?
To understand the recent social events of resistance and uprising in Latin
America, it is important to trace the numerous, widespread, recurrent acts
of insubordination that men and women have carried out in recent years. It
is also important to be familiar with organizational structures and political
practices that have allowed such actions to occur. Only in this way can we find
the keys to thinking about emancipation. To this end, we must collectively
Preface xlv

work together on producing meanings, among other things, that escape the
prison of liberal terms, concepts, and norms.
There is a debate regarding whether these groups and their actions are
simply reformist or whether political parties and other organizations have
suddenly brought these groups together to introduce a radical discourse into
their actions. These questions merely obstruct the understanding of how criti‑
cal subjectivity is formed during and after rebellious acts. There needs to be
a reflection on the authentic radical nature of rebellions by diverse groups of
men and women who have strengthened their unity through other rebellions
and thus made their shared objective more widespread. I think that this per‑
spective relates to what we used to call “emancipation.” Furthermore, work‑
ing on this is also contributing to “changing the world.” My project thus seeks
to contribute in some way so that the second Pachakuti movement, now par‑
tially suspended, can move forward.

There are numerous people and institutions both in Mexico as well as in

Bolivia to thank for their support, solidarity, criticism, and encouragement
in this project. In Bolivia my primary gratitude is to the Coalition for the De‑
fense of Water and Life, to Oscar Olivera, and to the men and women from
Cochabamba’s neighborhoods and valleys. With them I learned, imagined,
discussed, and promoted many of the issues that I am now presenting in an
organized and somewhat more rigorous way. Also in Bolivia I am profoundly
grateful to the Aymara men and women from Omasuyos, Camacho, Ingavi,
and Los Andes and to the miners from Caracoles and Chojlla, whose fate I
shared for nearly two decades, for all they taught me and for how they helped
me grow.
For this research, special thanks go to Luis Gómez and Marxa Chávez for
their invaluable support, constant criticism, and dear friendship. Without the
two of them, who shared their eyes and hands with me in Bolivia, this re‑
search would have never been completed. I thank Fabiola Escárzaga for her
constant companionship and the strength she gave me in 2006 during my re‑
turn visit to Bolivia. In La Paz, Dunia Mokrani, Luis Tapia, Claudia Espinoza,
and Pablo Mamani helped me, more than they know, with their comments,
hints, and suggestions. I also thank Raúl Zibechi and Colectivo Situaciones
for their comments and critiques on the rough draft of this book.
Here, where I was born, I am deeply grateful to the Mexican people who
worked to finance the grant number 174119 that the National Council on Sci‑
ence and Technology (conacyt) awarded me between October 2004 and
February 2008. This research would not have been possible without that sup‑
port. I also sincerely thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Institute of
the Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla for its openness, constant
support, and warmth. Two of my teachers from the institute deserve special
mention, John Holloway and Sergio Tischler, dear friends who always chal‑
lenge me in our discussions. I want to give special thanks to Carlos Figueroa,
coordinator of the graduate degree in sociology at the Institute of Social Sci‑
ences and Humanities–Autonomous University of Puebla ICSyH-­buap, for
his always friendly willingness to work with me on my project.
xlviii Acknowledgments

Last, I am deeply grateful for the constant support from my family, from
Eugenia Aguilar, and my brothers. They have always made it easier to get
through tough times, and they always give me strength to achieve my goals.
A special mention goes to José Luis Álvarez, compañero, stability, and anchor.
Thank you very much.

Translator’s Acknowledgments
My deepest gratitude is to Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar for entrusting her ideas to
me and for providing me with contacts in Bolivia for research to accomplish
this project. In Bolivia, Oscar Olivera and Ismael Saavedra especially helped
me understand the meaning of rhythms of the Pachakuti. Interviews in
Bolivia by my research assistants, Ana Mendieta and Katharine Calvey, were
also invaluable resources. I am thankful for the Connecticut State University-­
aaup grant that made my research in Bolivia possible.
I am also grateful for support from the National Endowment for the
Humanities (neh) to participate in the summer 2013 institute “The Centrality
of Translation to the Humanities.” The directors, Elizabeth Lowe and Chris
Higgins, gave me numerous opportunities to grow as a translation scholar.
Special thanks go to Suzanne Jill Levine and other institute scholars, espe‑
cially Sandra Kingery and Karen Rauch. While I must acknowledge that any
views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this book do
not necessarily reflect those of the neh, I must also note that this fellowship
from the neh was vital for this project’s final revision.
Most important, I want to thank those who supported me in this project
from beginning to end, including the editors and reviewers at Duke Uni‑
versity Press and my family. Thank you all for your constant support and
Part I Community Uprisings and
Grassroots Democratization

April 9, 2000, marked the forty-­eighth anniversary of the Bolivian National

Revolution of 1952. The nation was under martial law, which was defied for
the first time during the “democratic period.” 1 This challenge was led by
rebellious popular mobilizations in several locations throughout the coun‑
try.2 April 9 was a historic day. A crowd of neighbors from Cochabamba’s
southern zone, accompanied by peasants with irrigation rights from nearby
valleys, took control of the water utility Aguas del Tunari. A few months
earlier, the company’s property had been licensed to that consortium, a sub‑
sidiary of the U.S. transnational Bechtel Corporation. They stormed the prop‑
erty on April 9 and announced an end to the “contract” that privatized the re‑
gion’s water management. That same day, in another corner of Bolivia, at four
thousand meters above sea level, in the chill of the fall wind in the area sur‑
rounding Lake Titicaca, thousands upon thousands of Aymara community
members from the Omasuyos region and nearby provinces entered Achaca‑
chi, the provincial capital. They freed prisoners and emptied public offices.
State documents accumulated over the years fed the flames of a gigantic bon‑
fire in the town square.
In the midst of this indigenous and grassroots uprising, very few remem‑
bered the popular mineworker insurrection that forty-­eight years earlier had
forced the fall of what was called the “oligarchic state.” That fall had paved
the way for the limited “nation-­state” that Bolivia experienced during the fol‑
lowing three decades. Yet the popular indigenous residents from both sides
of the Cordillera Real of the Andes were not celebrating that national day. In‑
stead, they were again demanding above all else respect for their rights. The
Bolivian Republic’s chain of command began to disintegrate. Military forces
in the street, on roads, and in towns could not stifle the rebellion that had
exploded in the region over the threat of water privatization. Over time, the
2 Part I

anger from an endless chain of offences and plundering was being condensed
into civil action.
During that first April, people rejected government plans and refused to
respect state control. And they did so in a tumultuous and disorganized way,
as they have learned to live, organize, and rebel since ancient times: by them‑
Throughout this part, I will outline the way in which the moment of rup‑
ture that began in 2000 was constituted. I believe that the matrix for under‑
standing the politics, organization, and meaning of the subsequent “social
revolution” that unfolded in Bolivia during the following years can be found,
as a seed, in the most significant mobilizations and uprisings during that year.
For the purposes of this project, the year 2000 begins more precisely in Janu‑
ary 2000 and ends at some point in 2002, which is when the first great and
dynamic wave of indigenous and popular rebellion seemed to quiet down. My
intention is to investigate the fundamental characteristics of this matrix from
various angles. The matrix unveils a “type of politization” (Tapia 2002b, 17).
It also frames a method for social articulation that can illuminate possibili‑
ties for unification and social self-­governance beyond state practices. In addi‑
tion, this represents the potential to defy the principles for the preservation of
capital. Throughout the next three chapters, I will present elements from the
following three contexts: the initial Water War in Cochabamba; the primarily
Aymara indigenous community uprisings from La Paz’s altiplano region; and
the mobilizations and roadblocks to defend coca production, which were led
by the Chapare region’s coca growers, commonly known as cocaleros. There
are four central questions that echo throughout all three chapters in this part:
Who is involved in the mobilization? What did they do? What did they say?
And what were they seeking?
1 The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life
The Massive Public Defiance of State Order

In this chapter I will present a version of how the event known as the Water
War occurred in Bolivia. I will also explain Cochabamba’s regional political
organization known as the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life (Co‑
ordinadora de la Defensa del Agua y de la Vida), also called La Coordinadora,
which is how I will refer to it here. The Water War marks the beginning of
the Bolivian people’s struggle to regain social agency against the plundering
of public resources, and it is a key event in the struggle to recover common
property, which exists beyond the state. Therefore, I will begin here.

La Coordinadora and the Water War

La Coordinadora was established on November 12, 1999, in a meeting con‑
vened by the Departmental Federation of Irrigation Farmer Organizations
(fedecor) from Cochabamba. This association’s members are locally known
as regantes, farmers with irrigation rights. The meeting was held at the head‑
quarters of the Federation of Industrialists of Cochabamba, which includes
participation from different professionals and engineers in the region, mem‑
bers of the Bar Association and Engineering Association, as well as environ‑
mentalists. Two items brought them together. The first was the scandalous
contract that conceded the service of water and sewer systems in the city of
Cochabamba and the surrounding area to the Aguas del Tunari consortium,
which was a local subsidiary of the Bechtel transnational corporation. The
second was the passage of Law 2029 for Water and Sewer. This law established
the regulatory framework to seize water systems management from local and
municipal control in order to transfer it to private hands and regulate it top-­
down from a state structure known as the Water Superintendency.1
Three sectors were represented there: peasant farmers dependent on irri‑
4 Chapter 1

gation, industrialists, and environmentalists. Each sector had its own history
of defending water rights and collective—community and labor—rights, and
they had all been critical of liberal state mechanisms for seizing and priva‑
tizing resources that had once been public. La Coordinadora was thus estab‑
lished as a space for coordination and struggle. Its purpose was to prevent the
seizure of water, understood as a public resource and managed independently
by farmers who used it for irrigation, and privatization of the water supply
system for the distribution of drinking water, which had always been under
municipal control. La Coordinadora also opposed the new legal frameworks
that regulated water through concessions granted by a top-­down, unmanage‑
able state entity: the Water Superintendency.
Therefore, since its inception, La Coordinadora constituted a space to
bring diverse people together. Faced with certain governmental decisions,
these people were forced to join forces to defend water, a basic shared neces‑
sity. Given that each of the affected sectors suffered the aggression differ‑
ently, they each understood the threat of Law 2029 and the concession of con‑
trol and distribution of drinking water in a different way. However, founding
La Coordinadora opened up a space for planning par excellence. First, they
managed to define as a group the unique way in which each sector was af‑
fected by what the government was imposing. Second, they viewed the way
that each sector endured this state imposition as nothing more than a par‑
ticular manifestation of the pervasive aggression directed at all of them and at
society in general.2 From this “basic consensus,” La Coordinadora, as a group,
managed to develop a way to overcome the aggression it faced. This was La
Coordinadora’s most important contribution to the legacy of Bolivia’s recent
Let’s review briefly La Coordinadora’s three sectors and each one’s contri‑
bution, as this will help us answer who constituted La Coordinadora. I think
this question presents a better method for an in-­depth understanding of the
event’s social meaning, rather than the question “what is La Coordinadora”;
however, this is not meant to negate the validity of the other approach for
studying social reality in certain contexts.

The Irrigators Organized in FEDECOR

La Coordinadora’s principal social force, since its inception during the Water
War and for several years thereafter, was the peasant irrigators from the four
areas that comprise the Department of Cochabamba’s interandean valley
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 5

The irrigators were members of fedecor since 1997, belonging to orga‑

nizations to defend and manage water for irrigation since 1992. They repre‑
sent the vast majority of men and women in Cochabamba’s valleys who live
and work within a community framework largely defined by domestic units.
In Cochabamba’s valleys there exists a local ancestral knowledge for using,
managing, and protecting water. It is based on a complex and varied mosaic
of “uses and customs” primarily founded on the autonomy to regulate water
usage according to complicated supra-­community agreements. Generated in
meetings, these agreements are obligatory for anyone who depends on and
who has rights to use a common water source. Omar Fernández and Carmen
Peredo, important protagonists for the defense of water, affirm the following
in relation to “the types of water rights”: “The irrigators established various
types of water rights, reflected in the different relationships surrounding ac‑
cess to it and its use. In the same way, within each irrigation system, the irri‑
gators have a process of defining and consolidating their water rights over
time. Each irrigating family has rights to water, expressed in water ‘rotations,’
or regular access to water on a predetermined schedule. The requirements are
defined based on the characteristics of the rights” (Peredo, Crespo, and Fer‑
nández 2001, 12).
Since approximately 1990, the Bolivian State, some ngos and certain “de‑
velopment assistance” corporations, such as the German gtz, began an ex‑
tensive evaluation of the Cochabamba valley’s hydraulic resources. They were
essentially promoting “projects for the modernization of irrigation systems.”
These are designed top-­down, following a technocratic rationality. Examples
of this are the Inter-­valley Irrigation Program sponsored by the departmental
government and backed with German funding. It planned to consolidate an
irrigation system in Totora Kocha, a reservoir-­lake in the Cordillera Tiraque
mountains. Another was the Laka Laka Irrigation System, whose water source
is the Calicanto River (Peredo, Crespo, and Fernández 2001, 14). The farmers
from the valley region accepted the construction, expansion, and mainte‑
nance of the irrigation systems. However, from the beginning, their particular
form of water resource management, based on ancient Andean practices of
land and water use under communal control, clashed with modern admin‑
istrative logic.
At the same time, due to Cochabamba’s urban growth, the authorities
sought a corresponding expansion of the water supply for urban use. Their
intended use for the water, which is very scarce in the region, sparked con‑
flict between various levels of government bureaucrats and agrarian users of
water sources in the nearby valleys. Omar Fernández explains it as follows:
6 Chapter 1

We irrigators did not have a formal organization. Well, you could say
that there were informal organizations, but they were not even part of
the peasant union. They existed with their own uses and customs, with
their own distribution, etc. But they had not managed to come together.
So, I was with the irrigators from Tiquipaya, and we asked ourselves:
why can’t we work together? Besides, laws started appearing since about
1985, and we noticed that those laws were beginning to affect us. For that
and other reasons, we joined forces. Another strong motivation to come
together has been that the city of Cochabamba has planned to drill wells
in our communities to take water to Cochabamba, drinkable water, and
this has also caused the overexploitation of underground water sources,
leading to environmental damage. In many of our communities, the first
thing that has happened is that they have lost their natural springs. For
us, the springs are the water’s eyes emerging from the land. There were
irrigation systems flowing from those springs as well. But with what
they have done making wells, those water’s eyes have dried up and the
humidity has also dropped. . . . That was the first impact on us. (Qtd. in
Ceceña 2002, 52)
Regarding the organization of fedecor, Omar Fernández suggests the
following: “After the Agrarian Reform (1953), the peasants’ water usage re‑
spected the Andean systems of ‘mitas and suyus.’ 4 Relationships of reci‑
procity and fairness were widespread, including communitarian work in the
reservoirs or for improving irrigation systems defined according to mitas or
suyus. This process generated organizations of irrigators who work under an
organic structure; the community assembly is the final authority. They were
autonomous and followed a path toward consolidation, finally arriving at a
matrix organization: the Departmental Federation of Irrigation Farmer Orga‑
nizations (fedecor)” (Peredo, Crespo, and Fernández 2001, 18).
Primarily an agrarian water management organization, fedecor had dedi‑
cated eight years between 1992 and 2000 to reconstructing ancient commu‑
nitarian practices for water management. It also provided information about
these practices, simultaneously giving them “legal existence” and a modern
“name”: the Irrigators’ Federation, with legal status.5 In its statutes, agreed
upon in 1997, fedecor established itself as “the matrix organization for all
the systems and irrigation organizations in the Cochabamba valleys whose
principal purpose is the integral management of water resources through
uses and customs.” According to Carmen Peredo, this means “respect for
natural authorities, for the communitarian way of solving problems of access
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 7

to water or to improving its infrastructure, respect for water rights and dis‑
tribution” (Peredo, Crespo, and Fernández 2001, 57). Therefore, at least since
1997, which is three years before the Water War, fedecor had become an
official voice in the departmental and national government for questions and
problems related to water, hydraulic projects, irrigation systems, and the like.
Moreover, since that time, two important fedecor leaders, Omar Fernán‑
dez and Carmen Peredo, were systematically studying the traditional system
of water usage. Omar Fernández presented “The Relationship between Land
and Water in Tiquipaya’s Peasant Economy” as his thesis for graduation at
the Universidad Mayor de San Simón (umss), the regional public institution
of higher education. In 2000 Peredo also presented a law thesis at umss titled
“Rules Proposal for the Applicability of Law 2066 Based on Uses and Cus‑
toms.” In other words, by the year 2000, fedecor had already accumulated
extensive organizational and investigative efforts.
Furthermore, the irrigators also led at least three great mobilizations in the
period immediately prior to the Water War:
1. On August 21, 1998, with a gathering of nearly twenty thousand
irrigators, and coinciding with a coca farmers’ protest that included
Evo Morales’s participation, the irrigators presented Cochabamba’s
parliament with a legal proposal for regulating water according to its
uses and customs.
2. At the end of 1998, the so-­called Well War occurred when inhabitants
of the central valley refused to allow the Municipal Service for
Drinking Water Company (semapa) to drill a series of deep wells,
which opened a space for negotiation.
3. Finally, on November 4, 1999, roads were blocked for twenty-­
four hours in the area around Vinto and toward Sacaba. The army
intervened militarily in the roadblock, meeting with resistance from
the irrigators. Specifically after that roadblock on November 4 and the
repression that followed, La Coordinadora was founded on the twelfth
of that same month. (Interview with Omar Fernández in Ceceña 2002,

The Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers

While the irrigation farmers constituted the principal force behind La Co‑
ordinadora in terms of organization, capacity for mobilization, and knowl‑
edge of the water issue, Oscar Olivera and the Cochabamba Federation of
8 Chapter 1

Factory Workers (ftfc)—known simply as the Factory Workers (Los Fabri‑

les)—contributed their own resources. This included contacts with the press
and intellectual media, their ability to present problems publicly, and their
widespread moral authority.
The ftfc, affiliated with the General Confederation of Factory Workers of
Bolivia and the Workers’ Central of the Department of Cochabamba, and in‑
corporated as such into the Bolivian Workers’ Central, was an anomaly within
Bolivia’s classic union framework at the end of the twentieth century. As in all
parts of the world, neoliberal reforms inflicted a systematic attack on labor
rights that dramatically weakened traditional union structures (see Gutiérrez
Aguilar 1998; García Linera 1999). However, in Cochabamba, a small-­scale
organization had received increasing attention at least since 1997. This was the
ftfc and in particular their executive secretary Oscar Olivera.
Several years prior to 2000, Oscar Olivera began a process of visualizing,
organizing, and denouncing precarious work, the so-­called labor flexibiliza‑
tion and the anomalous forms of subcontracting that are common in a large
number of work centers. Above all, this made it possible for him to erode the
liberal discourse of “modernization” and “progress” associated with neolib‑
eral reforms and the sudden loss of collective bargaining and labor rights.
Based on a network of efforts with intellectuals and youth, the ftfc created
the Group of Work and Support for Cochabamba Factory Workers, which
was dedicated to studying and systematizing work conditions in the region’s
factories and shops. Olivera, for his part as a union leader, invited the press
to make “surprise visits” to shops and factories where serious violations to
workers’ rights had been documented. In this way he denounced the most
extraordinary abuses. All these efforts aimed at exploring labor conditions
under the neoliberal order gave Olivera insight into the concrete forms of
family, artisan, and organized labor in small shops. These three forms of labor
constituted the majority of the workforce in the region at a time when facto‑
ries were being drained by layoffs and irregular contracting, which, for that
very reason, caused the union structures to lose their bargaining power with
the state.
Throughout 1998 and 1999, Olivera held regular press conferences on the
deplorable working conditions faced by the population, publically denounc‑
ing the worst labor rights violations. These press conferences made him a criti‑
cal, known, and credible expert on “the effects” of neoliberalism in Bolivia. At
the same time, they afforded the factory workers a much more precise under‑
standing of what was happening in society in general, such as the plundering
and looting that took a toll on the entire population in various ways.
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 9

Furthermore, for three decades the ftfc controlled certain material re‑
sources, which were put at the disposal of the mobilized population dur‑
ing the Water War. They included a union headquarters in the city’s main
plaza, where La Coordinadora would work for years; a factory workers’ sport
complex, where various open meetings took place in an actual stadium; and
another group of properties that were put at the disposal of different sectors
of the population—whether they were unionized factory workers or not—
who were fighting in the struggle to defend water. This fact, occurring from
the year 2000 onward, marked true innovation in union behavior, as it went
against general procedures for workers who, following labor-­union stan‑
dards, only utilize assets at their disposal to defend their own members. The
ftfc opened its spaces so that the “simple and hard-­working” population as a
whole, with or without a formal contract, affiliated with a union or not, could
have access to them. Oscar Olivera affirms the following:
Organically, the working class has been completely debilitated in many
parts of the world—and particularly in Latin America. There are fewer
and fewer workers organized in labor unions. More than an organic
participation of factory workers going out into the street and blocking
roads to protest along with other sectors, our contribution has been as
a reference. . . . The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life is an
organization that is a kind of citizen’s union. It brings together various
social sectors, both from the city as well as from rural areas. It differs
from traditional unions because, although it is similar to a traditional
labor union, it is more expansive to include the entire society. (Ceceña
2002, 68; emphasis added)
Thus, in effect, La Coordinadora’s office, its meeting spaces, telephone,
the factory workers’ auditorium, and its “sports complex” were put at the
disposal of Cochabamba’s mobilized population. This afforded a very solid
material backing for the type of “citizen’s union” that Olivera mentioned. All
those resources contributed in an important way to unite the growing social
energy from the rural areas horizontally with the existing unease in the city.
This unification occurred during numerous meetings and rallies convened
by La Coordinadora.
On the other hand, Oscar Olivera lives in a neighborhood on the west‑
ern end of the city of Cochabamba that is not connected to the central water
distribution network. He and his neighbors receive water in their homes
from a collective, independent system. The residents contributed to the drill‑
ing of a well that provides drinking water, and that well is managed locally.
10 Chapter 1

In other words, Olivera and his family, just as many other factory workers,
union leaders, and residents of Cochabamba’s suburban areas, were not
simply aware of the existence of various independent drinking water net‑
works throughout the city, but they were members of them and had partici‑
pated in them.
With that experience, having accrued vast prestige, and thanks to an ex‑
tensive network of relationships with the press and with intellectual and labor
union sectors, Olivera and the factory workers reacted to Cochabamba’s
water problem during the second half of 1999. This included the concession
contract from the water distribution company to the Bechtel transnational
corporation and the risk that Law 2029 meant for the irrigation farmers and
for the population in suburban areas. In that way, they became La Coordina‑
dora’s principal cornerstone.

The Environmental Defense Committees and the Professional Schools

Environmental activists from the region and some representatives of Cocha‑
bamba’s regional professional schools also held an important place in the
Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life. They contributed legitimacy,
capacity for technical discussion, and influence among the middle class. Two
environmental groups deserve particular mention: the Cochabamba Envi‑
ronmental Forum and the Committee for the Defense of Water. Formed in
1999 when the political elites began discussing the law for water privatization,
both groups merged after learning that a contract had been signed with the
Bechtel Corporation, under the name Aguas del Tunari, conceding control of
the distribution of drinking water. Gabriel Herbas, an important leader in La
Coordinadora, explains the situation:
In 1999, we learned that the Cochabamba mayor’s office had underwrit‑
ten the contract with Aguas del Tunari. Since we connect environmental
issues to water issues, we immediately understood the problem both in
terms of the concession and the subsequent price increase. We began
investigating . . . and in the month of July 1999, we published our first
manifesto as the Committee for the Defense of Water. It included a
series of partner entities, unions, civil engineering associations, archi‑
tects, economists, biochemists, and various others who used it to make
their voices heard. We purposely convened all these sectors, which had
been left out of the process for concession to Aguas del Tunari. Our
effort was well received because it was organized by environmental
organizations rather than political parties. (Qtd. in Ceceña 2002, 30)
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 11

These organizations were very important in the months leading up to the

Water War. They carried out several media campaigns, organized forums and
conferences, and published articles in newspapers explaining Law 2029 in
detail and how, in that law, an article that privatized virtually all the water in
the country was “secretly introduced” (Herbas qtd. in Ceceña 2002, 31). Simi‑
larly, in their public statements, the Committee for the Defense of Water’s
technicians and intellectual leaders began educating the entire population.
First, they explained the most obscure intricacies of the concession contract.
Second, and perhaps most importantly in the long run, they explained the
new state structure for regulating natural resources developed to limit the
influence of the long-­standing industry-­based ministries and the implemen‑
tation of the so-­called Superintendencias, which were regulating authorities.
This transformation of the state apparatus was presented during Sánchez de
Lozada’s first government (1993–1997) as “modernization.” There was a con‑
solidation of markets in Bolivia to produce and manage resources that had
previously been public, such as electricity, hydrocarbons, mining, and water.
In this sense the Superintendencias—energy, hydrocarbons, mining, and
water—constituted the central bodies for regulating new markets for each of
the aforementioned activities, which concentrated all decision-­making power.
Public forums were held to explain and discuss all of this in 1999. This
allowed Cochabamba’s population to clearly understand that the state had
abandoned its traditional task of responding to public demands—for ex‑
ample, the value of drinking water—in order to presumably define itself as a
kind of intermediary in a market within which private companies would sell
their services. Moreover, this information allowed the ftfc and its May 1st
Union School to carry out extensive campaigns explaining the significance of
so-­called state modernization.
This alliance between intellectuals and academics disturbed by the liberal
processes of state modernization and the concession of public resources to
private companies generated information on various levels and from differ‑
ent directions. This spurred an intense political process that Cochabamba’s
society experienced over the following years. Virtually every neighborhood
and location in the entire valley knew what a Superintendencia was doing—
especially the one regulating water—and how they were planning to imple‑
ment a “water market.” Of course, this was in addition to being informed of
the abuses and secrets in the actual Cochabamba contract conceding water
This group of professionals and experts contributed knowledge, techni‑
cal skill, and specific critical elements that were used extensively within La
12 Chapter 1

Coordinadora. They sought to inform the population of what was happen‑

ing and to debate expertly with the different governmental commissions that
tried to negotiate ways out of the conflict during January and February 2000.
Moreover, in the midst of these heterogeneous social processes to debate pub‑
lic matters, it became clear that the confrontation transcended breaking the
contract for water concession. It required the modification of Law 2029 as
well as important aspects of the recently created liberal state structure. It be‑
came evident that the underlying question consisted of the “social recovery of
common assets” and that this linked it to a struggle both against and beyond
the corporative power of transnational corporations, as well as the Bolivian
state and its regulations.
It is also worth mentioning that several of the most important experts at
the beginning of the Water War very quickly abandoned that role. However,
they left copious information and arguments to those who followed.6 As nu‑
merous local social leaders—of neighborhoods, unions, work centers, and so
on—began to understand the content and progression of liberal transforma‑
tions in the state apparatus, there was one question that most preoccupied
the mobilized population: Who decides public matters? This challenged the
power of the regulating authorities and, in general terms, liberal state logic.
This aspect of the Water War marked an authentic political innovation in
Bolivia at the beginning of the twenty-­first century. It will merit a more de‑
tailed reflection later.

The Sequence of the Water War

and a Reflection on Subsequent Events

A Brief Synthesis of the Events of the Water War

The Water War was organized from the start as a systematic “assault” on Law
2029 and on the concession contract with Aguas del Tunari to deliver drink‑
ing water. That does not mean that the Water War was envisioned and de‑
signed for a special team to follow a set course to the letter; that could not be
further from the truth. What is true is that, with a deep understanding of the
control and water management problems provided by the peasant irrigators
and with the meticulous study of the concession agreement undertaken by
environmentalists, from January 2000 they worked collectively and openly to
elaborate common objectives achievable through social mobilization. These
objectives included reversing the concession contract and modifying Law
2029 in its most extreme points. This element formed the basis for the solid
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 13

pact between the city and rural zones during the course of the confrontation.
Above all, that commitment, previously agreed to and discussed, outlined the
choices that the spokespersons and representative leaders from La Coordina‑
dora were making as the events unfolded. It is worth emphasizing here how
important it was to establish clear autonomous objectives for the movement.
A very broad spectrum of Cochabamba’s population knew how the conces‑
sion agreement for Cochabamba’s water had been negotiated with Aguas del
Tunari, and they understood the threats that it contained and what Law 2029
meant. This enabled the articulation of a flexible action plan to approach the
conflict multilaterally. The rhythm of social mobilization and the tone of the
action were generated during meetings. Furthermore, the objective, under‑
stood by all as a kind of prior agreement, defined the “us” that produced dis‑
cussions and that led to La Coordinadora’s communiqués and resolutions
(see table 1.1 in appendix 2).7
La Coordinadora’s first protest was a roadblock from January 10 to Janu‑
ary 14, 2000. It was put in place as negotiations began. After a tense meeting
attended by hundreds of neighborhood residents and peasant irrigators, who
acted as delegates representing their “roadblock points,” the decision in favor
of the roadblock was communicated to the general population by explaining
that the “first battle of a long struggle to recover water and life had been won.”
Naming the protest in this way eventually gave the event a general meaning,
and it quickly became the accepted way to refer to the collective undertaking:
the Water War.
The second action, or rather the “second battle of the Water War,” con‑
sisted of what was called “Taking Cochabamba” (February 4–5). According
to the organizers, the goals of this protest were “to seal the union between the
city and rural zones in an embrace” and to underscore La Coordinadora’s in‑
fluence while negotiations were at a standstill. This led to a civil riot, a semi-­
insurrection with participation from the entire Cochabamba population and
extensive rural contingents.
Finally, the third moment in the Water War is what is known as the April
conflict, conceived from the beginning as the “final battle.” It began with a
new roadblock, followed by occupying the water company, and it ended with
a general rebellion that General Bánzer’s government could not silence.
There were at least three levels of participation throughout the Water War.
The first consisted of a very well-­organized and unwavering protest by the
peasant irrigators who maintained the roadblocks by rotation, taking turns,
similar to the way they manage the use of water. The second was the massive,
angry response by the urban population that built the city’s barricades and
14 Chapter 1

kept Cochabamba in a state of chaos. And the third involved participation by

the “water warriors.” Without having been assigned the task, these young stu‑
dents and residents, who were mostly from the city of Cochabamba’s south‑
ern zone, assumed the role of frontline brigades.
Finally, it is worth noting that in the moments of extreme upheaval, dur‑
ing the confrontations of January, February, and April, the Chapare region’s
coca growers also joined the struggle, demonstrating solidarity with inhabi‑
tants from the city of Cochabamba and from the nearby interandean valleys.
During the months from January to April, the most prominent leaders
from La Coordinadora, who called themselves “spokesmen,” particularly
Oscar Olivera and Omar Fernández, had to use everything in their power to
make some sense of the events that were quickly unfolding.8 That was where
La Coordinadora gained its extensive experience in bringing groups together.
It is no simple task to rally such diverse contingents and to get them in tune
with each other for a joint struggle. That was the origin of La Coordinadora’s
alternating strength and weakness. When it functioned as a space for struggle,
La Coordinadora acquired visibility and presence. Its activities multiplied
during times of struggle. On the other hand, as it was not an institution, it
essentially disappeared when the population withdrew. In a way La Coordi‑
nadora faced a very complex problem common to any social structure that
considers itself a “space of confluence for struggle,” the question of perma‑
nence over time. Nevertheless, with respect to its organization, La Coordina‑
dora followed an interesting path, which will be the focus of the reflections in
the second chapter of this book. For now, it is worth outlining what happened
after April 2000 when Bechtel was ousted.

La Coordinadora’s Subsequent Tasks

On April 9 the people of Cochabamba cordoned off and occupied the facili‑
ties of the old municipal water and sanitation company (semapa), which
some months before had changed its name from Aguas del Tunari. On April
11 the Bolivian state repealed the Law 2029 and passed the law amending the
Water Law that recognizes the water cooperatives and associations as legiti‑
mate entities for providing services under the title Drinking Water Service
Provider Entity (epsa). Over the following weeks, La Coordinadora named
engineer Jorge Alvarado as semapa’s director, and it created new manage‑
ment for the company made up of people designated by both La Coordina‑
dora and Cochabamba’s mayor’s office. A period of great exuberance and
social creativity then began, which lasted approximately one year. Cocha‑
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 15

bamba’s public discussion and extensive political activity centered on the fol‑
lowing topics:
• To state clearly and publicly the collective rejection of defining water
as a market commodity, for any reason, under any pretext, or in any
form. It was up for discussion at the time if water should be understood
as a public right, if its access should be considered a human right, or
if it constituted a common good. In any case it was fundamentally
understood by everyone involved that its commercialization was not
• To plan and carry out “semapa’s social reconstitution.” This referred
to a complicated attempt to produce a transformation within the
“recovered” municipal water company that included both the organi­
zational and labor structures. It also sought to redefine the relationship
between “the company” and Cochabamba’s population in a way that
would lead to the construction of what was referred to back then as
“social control.” 10
• Based on the above, the practical limits for the normative framework—
liberal state—were collectively established. As part of this process, there
was an attempt to “reconstitute public property under social control.”
This paved the way for the slogan for achieving a “constituent assembly
without party intervention to build the country in which we want to
live.” 11
These three topics were approached collectively and actively, and they
merit further reflection. The backbone of the “interior horizon” of Cocha‑
bamba’s political activity for a long time, they clearly influenced the national
political landscape that followed.
On the first topic, dozens of forums, conferences, seminars, and colloquia
were organized to define and clarify water as a commodity, as a right, or as
a common good. These conversations also broadened the collective under‑
standing of the meaning and profound implications of each of these ways to
define water. Some were small and spontaneous, carried out in different pub‑
lic locations, such as the Auditorium of the Workers Federation, the offices
of Foro Cochabambino del Medio Ambiente (Cochabamba Environmental
Forum; focomade), and different university facilities.12 Others were much
larger and had greater resonance, with the presence of international experts
on the topic. Their conclusions appeared in the press, and they acquired col‑
lective importance through the general dissemination and discussion of their
fundamental messages on the local radio station.13
16 Chapter 1

These various actions for public planning on a topic of such decisive im‑
portance for collective life empowered numerous political groups throughout
Cochabamba’s valleys and connected diverse social sectors. Over the course
of eight months, almost no one was excluded from the discussion about what
to do with water, how to conserve and purify it, and how to widen its distri‑
bution. There was a widely held belief that there would be no toleration of
any future attempt by traditional party elites and transnational corporations
to plunder resources.
In a vast sea of circulating opinions, proposals, and discussions, La Co‑
ordinadora decided to create a technical support team. This team’s primary
goal was to articulate a reasonably clear vision of the following: the water
problem in Cochabamba, semapa as a company, and possible structural
changes within it; and strategies to promote social participation to manage
the company’s activities. The technical support team identified three under‑
lying problems, which were the focus of its activity. The first was the question
of semapa’s legal property. The second concerned the administrative reorga‑
nization of semapa’s operations, placing emphasis on disrupting the relation‑
ship between the company’s employees and the general population. The goal
here was to break the “company-­client” relationship. Finally, accomplishing
these two previous goals would lead to establishing conditions for semapa’s
integral redefinition as a “public company under social control.” To achieve
this, “an ambitious organizational plan at the grassroots level in the urban
zone” was proposed. It consisted of contributing to “establishing drinking
water committees in various neighborhoods throughout the city,” 14 which
“would be independent of the Neighborhood Councils and of the party in‑
fluence that corrodes them” (Gutiérrez Aguilar 2001a, 203).
A question arose after recovering semapa’s privatized legal property:
How would it be possible to recognize the widespread feeling of public prop‑
erty shared by the region’s citizenry beyond defining the legal character of
semapa simply as a municipal company (Gutiérrez Aguilar 2001a)? To tackle
this question, they coined the term “social property,” which was used to em‑
phasize the nature of what they sought to construct. “Social property” was
different from the traditional forms of “state” property (state, municipal, de‑
centralized, and so on) and from “private” property (individual, by shares,
There were legal obstacles to defining the company this way. Cocha‑
bamba’s population had “deprivatized” and “reconstituted” semapa, but it
still had to fit within the existing regulatory framework. On the one hand,
they had to preserve the municipal public property as a decentralized com‑
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 17

pany with “limited” management autonomy. This forced La Coordinadora

and its technical support team to focus their attention on the ways to guaran‑
tee a real link between semapa and the population, decentralizing decision
making, and incorporating mechanisms for social participation. The goal to
construct the company as a self-­managed social property thus clashed with
the existing legal infrastructure and was limited by the bureaucratic frame‑
work. However, during this entire planning process and the analysis of the
mechanisms and rationale for state regulations, a question arose that grew in
importance over time: How to promote social wealth beyond the mere legal
status of companies as state institutions? In Cochabamba the problem with
offering practical answers to this question sparked a discussion of the need
for a constituent assembly.
At the risk of oversimplifying, it is possible to affirm that the following
ideas were widespread at the grassroots level: Now that semapa has been
deprivatized, we cannot create a company in the way we consider necessary
because the laws prevent us from doing so. Conclusion: we need to change
the laws. This very simple portrayal of the issues at hand speaks to a pro‑
found transformation in social attitudes that took place over approximately
two years in Cochabamba and its surrounding valleys. As the population
began to exert its authority, the law clearly represented an obstacle to limit
the collective will. They chose to change the law rather than adopt the tra‑
ditional attitude of restricting the collective will to fit the regulatory frame‑
work. Moreover, they made this choice knowing that the objective may not
be immediately achieved. This led to talk about the desired objective, and in
Cochabamba it sparked a discussion about the constituent assembly, an idea
that went beyond a response to the practical difficulties for “reconstituting
semapa.” 16 The following general definition was developed and widely dis‑
tributed during those years (2000–2001): “The Constituent Assembly is a new
type of political organization created to participate in, to discuss, and to de‑
cide upon collective matters” (Gutiérrez Aguilar 2001a, 209).
Conceptualizing the constituent assembly as a “decision-­making politi‑
cal organization” relates more broadly to other issues that La Coordinadora
had redefined as the new way to experience politics. In that context the con‑
stituent assembly was perceived as and expected to be an authority for civil
society’s political organization. It would enable working men and women to
recover the capacity to plan and participate in public matters. In other words,
the constituent assembly was considered a way to recover and exercise politi‑
cal sovereignty, meaning the capacity for decision making and participation
in public affairs, which is currently mortgaged in the political party system.
18 Chapter 1

This description of the assembly clearly does not propose redefining the re‑
lationship with the state. It is suggested as a tool to break the relationship with
the state and to build capacity for decision making on public affairs based on
other practices.17 La Coordinadora explained these ideas in various ways over
the following years; however, except in notable moments, it did not achieve
a conceptual hegemony of the type that had existed in Cochabamba between
2000 and 2001. Later, when in 2007 the constituent assembly finally began its
efforts under Morales’s government, La Coordinadora’s most distinguished
members and spokesmen were no longer part of the organization.

The Coordinadora’s Attempts to Create Links beyond Cochabamba

We already mentioned the particular confluence of social forces that gave
birth to La Coordinadora in November of 1999 as a noninstitutional articu‑
lation of the struggle. Still pending is a more detailed reflection on the limit
of these “spaces of confluence for the struggle,” namely its permanence over
During the year 2000, La Coordinadora went from directing the first suc‑
cessful popular uprising since the 1985 liberal structural reforms to trying
to guide the subsequent “social reconstitution” of Cochabamba’s municipal
water company, semapa. This second objective, however, was not La Co‑
ordinadora’s only activity after April. Besides continuing to urge public dis‑
cussion concerning the privatization of natural resources, with emphasis on
water although not solely on it, La Coordinadora’s leaders promoted links to
other social forces. In particular they sought to engage with the Aymara orga‑
nized in the United Confederation of Working Peasants of Bolivia (csutcb)
and with the Chapare region’s coca growers. None of these efforts was with‑
out tension.
Between the end of 2001 and 2003, La Coordinadora periodically linked
organizations in the multifarious Bolivian social struggle, which included the
Aymara community members and the Chapare region’s coca growers. La Co‑
ordinadora put its know-­how and skills developed in 2000 at their disposal. It
is virtually impossible to offer an exhaustive list of the numerous activities that
La Coordinadora’s leadership carried out during those years, above all be‑
cause their lack of institutional formality implies scarce attention to “listing”
and “documenting” activities undertaken. Nevertheless, it is worth mention‑
ing the space assigned to La Coordinadora within the facilities belonging to
the ftfc. Known as the Blue Room, this became the central space for coordi‑
nating local resistance efforts and, at times, national ones for many years.18
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 19

The Blue Room is a large space on the third floor of the ftfc in Cocha‑
bamba’s Central Plaza. It is furnished with a large table for meetings, some
thirty to forty chairs, a telephone, and a computer. This room became a space
to meet with people from other sectors, and it is primarily a space for infor‑
mal gatherings during times of great social upheaval where people can plan,
make agreements, and organize joint committees. Even now, La Coordina‑
dora’s physical space constitutes a certain type of “agora,” a public place for
meeting and decision making. Most people there belong to or represent some
neighborhood, trade, union, labor group, or even formal political organiza‑
tion. At the meetings, importance is given to anything occurring on a national
scale and, when that is the case, they assess whether or not to have a more
open invitation to the public to plan and decide on whatever the topic may be.
This is a type of elastic, independent, nimble organization that easily shifts
from a small meeting between representatives to an open convocation, rallies,
or large events. As it does not belong to “anyone” because it encompasses
“everyone,” it represents the potential to identify a new type of citizenship.
Oscar Olivera expresses this idea when he describes La Coordinadora as a
kind of “citizen’s union.”
La Coordinadora’s membership is essentially based on an individual’s
voluntary decision to join. Beyond words, it implies individual and above
all collective participation in discussion and decision making about ques‑
tions of collective agency. La Coordinadora has thus continued to be a privi‑
leged space for autonomous noninstitutional politicization for the myriad of
heterogeneous social networks that form Bolivia’s social fabric.
Although it is committed and participative, La Coordinadora’s loose and
informal associative form presents serious risks, particularly during elec‑
tions. Various representatives, senators, and employees from different parties
have previously been prominent figures in La Coordinadora. Even so, this
space and its most well-­known spokesman Oscar Olivera always stayed out
of the electoral activity that they nevertheless represent. It is possible to argue
that La Coordinadora, after the Water War, has essentially been defined by
its multiple efforts. At the risk of oversimplifying, we can summarize these
efforts as follows: expanding active solidarity through participation and social
mobilization for the most important struggles from those years, especially the
roadblocks in La Paz and the protests against the forced eradication of coca
in the Chapare region; systematic activity to analyze, clarify, report, and dis‑
cuss government actions that either sought to contain the advance of other
struggles or that specifically provoked some sector; and constantly pushing
for open and public planning on topics affecting the population as a whole,
20 Chapter 1

which included organizing countless gatherings, “schools,” forums, meetings,

symposia, and rallies, principally in Cochabamba.
In addition to the aforementioned efforts to articulate and stimulate politi‑
cal planning, La Coordinadora’s most prominent spokesmen Oscar Olivera
and Omar Fernández served for over two years as mediators between Felipe
Quispe and Evo Morales with varying degrees of success on each occasion.
Oscar Olivera offers the following explanation:
[La Coordinadora’s activity] has led to our occupying a space as me‑
diators with moral authority, a position that allows us to call people
together, to weave together that social base that is now fragmented,
distrustful, submissive. That is what we want and the possibilities exist.
I have discussed this with Felipe [Quispe] and Evo [Morales], noting
that La Coordinadora has brought them together. . . . [However,] there
is a big difference in attitude between the caudillos and at the grassroots
level. When we managed to bring those two caudillos together, at one
point in the Aymara conflict in the highlands [September 2001], it was
incredible to see them together! And people wept at the embrace they
gave each other. I was there as a spectator. They looked like peasants
seeing each other after a long time: “brother, it’s so great to have done
this! . . .” Then you saw feelings of joy and hope in people. But the
elections came—in 2002—and you again see the selfishness. Each is
running on his own ticket because one does not want to change the
color of the ballot and the other one wants to be first because he is older.
(Interview with Oscar Olivera in Ceceña 2002, 77)
Olivera and Fernández made various attempts to reconcile Felipe Quispe
and Evo Morales between September 2000 and June 2002, when the general
elections were finally held.19 These agreements were usually not easy because
they were always marked by the profound rivalry between these two figures
for leadership. They generally limited themselves to agreements, which were
not always kept, to carry out simultaneous protests. Even so, these agree‑
ments often contained different lists of demands. There were also promises,
which were similarly not always kept, to appear together for negotiations.
Since March 2002, when the electoral process began, and with both Morales
and Quispe having their own “registered” party before the National Electoral
Court—Morales’s Movement toward Socialism (mas) and Quispe’s Pacha‑
kuti Indigenous Movement (mip)—these agreements became more and more
difficult. In a letter from Álvaro García Linera, dated December 2001, he ex‑
presses these difficulties very well:
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 21

Regarding the meeting with [Evo and Felipe], the meeting went well
after taking a long time to get started, although it was marked by a
somewhat bitter flavor given the topic at hand: the elections. Evo came
with his showcase of offers. . . . Felipe, for his part, had his doubts, but
he was backed by a whole brood of greedy campaigning Indianists (both
young and old) willing to risk it all to gain access to some post in the
name of the “Indian cause.” In the meeting I realized that I don’t have
the stomach for this. So I distanced myself, made recommendations
(that I wrote to you about a while ago), and I attempted to mediate
the entire discussion with the future of social movements. Everyone
was in agreement. Yet when the time came (to make decisions), they
quickly turned to the pragmatics of the positions, the candidacies, the
electoral process, etc. It seems to be the same as the armed struggle
mess; the electoral mess has its own logic, its own dynamic that works
independently (from more profound projects for transformation). All I
could do in the end was phone Oscar and tell him that there is very little
possibility for agreement. (Personal correspondence with Álvaro García
Linera, December 20, 2001)
In the end, given its organizational looseness, La Coordinadora never
managed to overcome the regional margins of its public activity in any deci‑
sive way. However, it did manage to get itself in synch with other social or‑
ganizations, such as fejuve-­El Alto and various organizations for drinking
water management in Santa Cruz, for example. It was also able to share all of
its experience in defending water, as well as its knowledge about the intrica‑
cies of government regulations and the ways to evade or confront them. On
the other hand, the mediation strategies that La Coordinadora generated, in a
contradictory and difficult way, also managed to “irradiate” other geographic
zones and relevant topics. This led to wide-­ranging agreements at various
levels. We will discuss this later when we analyze the process concerning what
is referred to as the Coalition for the Defense and Recuperation of Gas. In
any case La Coordinadora seemed to “grow” as a noninstitutionalized social
configuration more through replication than structural growth. In summary,
during the Water War, and above all through La Coordinadora’s activities, the
meaning of what may be thought of as politics became inverted. This pro‑
duced a discourse that would later be profoundly influential.
22 Chapter 1

The Horizon of Meaning Opened by La Coordinadora

It is not an exaggeration to underscore the radical organizational innovation
that La Coordinadora represented in the year 2000 as a loose connection be‑
tween heterogeneous social groups that achieved the first “popular triumph.”
That triumph was Bechtel’s expulsion and the modification of the Law 2029
after fifteen years of neoliberal reforms and the constant suppression of acts
of resistance, which were basically in self-­defense.
To end this chapter, I will briefly outline what I consider most important
in the struggle undertaken by thousands of people from Cochabamba within
the space of confluence, planning, and constructing meaning, which La Co‑
ordinadora represented. I will first address the way La Coordinadora pro‑
posed confrontation from political and material autonomy, and then I will
present the elements that made it possible to glimpse—and sporadically ex‑
perience—emancipatory social agency capable of inverting the order of capi‑
tal and the state.
La Coordinadora always remained outside of institutional regulation and
frameworks. Oscar Olivera expresses this idea as follows:
I believe that La Coordinadora is now a space. I refer to it as a space
because we have yet to meet the minimum requirements for it to be an
organization. We do not have financing from anyone. We do not have
our own statutes. Not having statutes was one of the obstacles blocking
La Coordinadora from taking possession of the water company [di‑
rectly, in April 2000]. We were illegal. We were legitimate, but we were
illegal. A lot of people said: “Oh no! Because we don’t have statutes, legal
status, we have lost the ability for the people to run the company.” We
said: “No, we don’t want it.” First of all, we don’t want to be legal because
all of the system’s institutions are corrupt, every last one. We do not want
recognition from these people who are corrupt, who are rotten. We are not
interested in that recognition. What interests us is being recognized by
you, compañeros. But it is as if people are starting to change a particular
belief, because people refer to a “corrupt state,” but later they go and
ask for recognition from that corrupt state that has been in power for
years. . . . On the topic of the statutes, they set certain rules of the game
that later lead to a fight to control the organization’s leadership. In other
words, this creates factions and similar things. Here, on the other hand,
everyone comes and goes. Yes, we are the spokesmen when something
happens, but there is an inherent revocability. We cannot proceed on
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 23

our own ignoring what the people want. (Interview with Oscar Olivera
in Ceceña 2002, 76)
These reflections by Olivera are important because they express the will
shared by the spokesmen and most prominent figures from La Coordinadora
to maintain a space to connect diverse social forces in a way that functions
outside of the Bolivian regulatory and institutional framework. In my opinion
the explicit desire to “be illegal” implies that they do not want to be subjected
to established power structures. Meanwhile, Oscar Olivera was the executive
secretary for the ftfc, and Omar Fernández was the executive secretary for
the fedecor. This is an interesting contrast as both were formally elected
heads of organizations with “judicial legal status” (statutes, legal recognition,
internal regulation). Yet both perceived the association for the struggle that
occurred within La Coordinadora as a space that did not require institutional
This desire for “noninstitutionality” proved shocking not only to the gov‑
ernment but also to people’s “common sense” as well. It is worth mentioning,
since it goes beyond mere anecdote, that the word “Coordinadora” is a sin‑
gular feminine noun in Spanish that sounds like it could refer to a woman.
For that reason, “La Coordinadora” was often confused with “the female co‑
ordinator” who was wisely leading the uprising, although no one knew who
she was. The fact that it was such a novel form of coordinating the struggle
added to that confusion. La Coordinadora functioned outside of the “nor‑
mal” known and predictable organizational framework of popular Bolivian
struggle: unions and trade associations. Many people, even those participat‑
ing in meetings and mobilizations that had been convened by La Coordina‑
dora, believed that this title in fact referred to a real woman. On February
10, 2000, an article from Cochabamba’s newspaper Los Tiempos ran with the
title: “More than Once, La Coordinadora Was Confused with a Woman.” That
article cites declarations made by Oscar Olivera. He states the following:
In a heated meeting that took place before the pressure measures began
early in the year, one of the factory worker labor leaders affirmed in
salient parts of his speech: “Compañeros, we believe the time has come
to know who the Coordinadora is.” The others attending the meeting
had to explain to him that “the people who were at the meeting were the
representatives of the water defense entity.” Another occasion was in
a meeting of the water committees held in a suburban zone of the city.
After listening to Omar Fernández’s and Oscar Olivera’s explanations, a
retired professor remarked: “Now we want you to report on the dealings
24 Chapter 1

with the government, and let ‘La Señora Coordinadora’ do it herself. We

want her to introduce herself.”
The chaos that ensued was such that it nearly brought the meeting to a
standstill. The strangest anecdote of all, however, occurred during the con‑
frontations in February when, during a short ceasefire between the police’s
tear gas and the popular offensive, some nuns made their way to the heart of
the conflict and offered to take “La Señora Coordinadora” to their convent to
protect her from the repression.
Also on February 13, 2000, an editorial in Cochabamba’s newspaper Opi-
nión read as follows:
I would like to meet the Coordinadora! Who is this woman so brave
she has made the government tremble? That was the question posed by
an elderly woman at noon on February 4 in the midst of the K’ochala
uprising. This is clearly an innocent statement by someone who must
surely be a direct descendent of one of the Heroines of la Coronilla from
the 1812 fight for independence. It suggests bravery, on the one hand,
but also the dramatic quality that that epic achievement had for the
defense of life. It was admiration on the one hand, but also the desire to
follow that paradigmatic social behavior.
Beyond anecdote, it is astonishing that some people in the uprising could not
immediately understand how their own act of coming together and fighting,
in a way absolutely independent from known institutionalism, constituted
the meaning of the term “Coordinadora.” They instead wanted to specifically
identify a “woman.”
It was also worth noting that the government did not have to actually rec‑
ognize La Coordinadora’s real existence beyond its criticized “legal inexis‑
tence.” This means that the mobilized population, through actions and per‑
sistence, forced the government to recognize an entity that openly refused to
follow established laws. In January 2000, before and during the Water War’s
first act of protest, known as “the first siege,” the government spent several
days arguing that La Coordinadora did not have a legitimate negotiator since
it “did not exist” as a “legal representative” for anyone. It even accused La
Coordinadora of being a “ghost organization” (Opinión and Los Tiempos,
January 10–15, 2000). Faced with the continuing roadblock, the government
finally had to negotiate with “the ones who don’t exist.” This institutional
discourse gave rise to popular humor. In the parades and preparatory cele‑
brations for Carnival that year, groups of young people dressed up as ghosts
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 25

wearing signs that said “Aguas del Tunari,” the company contracted for the
water supply that they were fighting against. The government’s accusation
that La Coordinadora was a “ghost organization” thus provoked a popular
reply qualifying Aguas del Tunari as a ghost company.
Ultimately, La Coordinadora’s lack of institutionalization was the foun‑
dation for its political autonomy. It was similarly defined by the material in‑
dependence of its members. During the Water War, groups of people mobi‑
lized and protested independently both in material terms and on the political
decision-­making map. Each water committee, each neighborhood associa‑
tion, each vendor and trade association, each union, and so on participated
in the meetings and in the different roadblocks and protests representing
their own organizations according to their own associative practices and pro‑
cedures for membership.20 Both the ftfc and fedecor, organizations with
legal personnel, had certain resources at their disposal, and they put their
own funds from union dues to work for the uprising. This gave La Coordina‑
dora significant material independence. For example, it had a place for meet‑
ings, to hold rallies of varying capacity, and it had some financial resources
for the most urgent immediate expenses. This allowed it to have complete
political autonomy for years.
La Coordinadora essentially facilitated the use of all the combined re‑
sources, both from unionized sectors as well as from workers who were not
unionized, as “use value” to serve the uprising and collective decision making.
La Coordinadora’s activities generated a tremendously powerful space for
cooperation between different groups. More or less beginning in February
2000, the government began circulating the accusation that “obscure entities
financed La Coordinadora,” to which La Coordinadora’s spokesmen carried
out a campaign in response. They explained that the uprising really did not
prove “costly” because the “costs” consisted of collectively using what they
already had. After the initial impulse of the struggle, and especially beginning
in 2001 and 2002 when it became necessary to assign certain tasks related
to water management, that response changed. Then a series of new, related
problems emerged associated above all to the functioning of a “nonexistent
legal entity.” It continued this way until La Coordinadora’s end, with inter‑
national financing organizations, and primarily with ngos. These problems
are vast and complicated. They deserve their own discussion that will be ad‑
dressed in the general reflection on the obstacles to social unification through
extra-­institutional means.
La Coordinadora introduced a different way of “making politics.” In other
words, it opened a horizon of meaning—situated in space and marked by
26 Chapter 1

time—that allowed people to “make politics in a direct way” without collaps‑

ing under the weight of the state. As the most prominent spokesmen from
La Coordinadora affirm, the struggle in Cochabamba produced several out‑
comes: “people lost their fear,” “people recovered their voice,” people under‑
stood that “they could win,” 21 and people did not place themselves in the
role of “petitioners” to the state. They presented themselves as independent,
meaning as a group of people who could meet, plan, decide, and achieve
a goal.22 These results, together with the accomplishment of having built a
space for collective planning, marked the beginning of a generalized percep‑
tion of Cochabamba’s men and women as no longer “obedient” and “power‑
less” compliers to decisions made by others but as capable and responsible
people who could intervene in, gain knowledge about, and provide solutions
to social problems. In Bolivia this all defined a “new shared meaning of dis‑
For more than fifteen years, labor’s best creation, the Bolivian Workers’
Central (cob), was defeated not only through repression but also
through the absence of an alternative social horizon. The legitimate
defense of the conquests never went beyond evoking pacts of the nation‑
alist state, and so-­called socialism, an elaborate overhaul of state capi‑
talism. . . . Cochabamba, and to a certain extent the Aymara uprising in
the altiplano, has broken this bleak collective predisposition. La Coordi‑
nadora’s proposal for a self-­managed company has shattered the false
duality between private/state that has guided contemporary political
models. Just as political will was expressed as something controlled by
everyone from rallies to meetings, La Coordinadora’s assembly affirms
that collective wealth, such as water, should be treated the same way.
It should be managed by those who use it. It should be self-­managed
by the citizens themselves. With this comes a new sense of social sov‑
ereignty previously held by the state. What is shared, or collective, no
longer belongs to the state, which has been demonstrated to be a type of
private property for government bureaucrats. What is shared, in com‑
mon, is not the purview of an “illusory community” of bureaucrats; it is
the management run by everyone. It is the ethical sense of responsibility
and some techniques pertaining to such a case, such as rallies, meetings,
rotation of posts, social financing. . . . Two new long-­term social pro‑
posals remain: self-­management and community. A general meaning
of social dissidence grew during the 1940s in the twentieth century and
was fed to us. Similarly, at the dawn of the twenty-­first century, another
The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life 27

meaning has been born now from the impetus of a social rebellion. The
construction of a horizon of action that represents an alternative to the
one that exists inevitably passes from now on through those two great
discursive junctures of the masses in action: political-­economic self-­
management and the community or broadly defined ayllu. (Gutiérrez
Aguilar, García Linera, Prada, Quispe, and Tapia 2000, 177)
Two basic concepts in this horizon, community and self-­management, be‑
came the cornerstone of meaning of an important aspect of the Bolivian up‑
rising as a whole: social reconstitution of wealth and the refounding of the na‑
tion. This is despite the fact that one outcome from all of this, especially after
Morales took office as Bolivia’s president, has been the restructuring of the
state as an entity that is separate from and privileged above the social whole.
Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, La Coordinadora initiated a
“strategy for articulation,” a way of formulating political problems through
the question, “Who decides public matters?” The importance of this for the
emancipatory struggle is not insignificant. Even today, it remains the founda‑
tion for open political debate in Bolivia. A communiqué from La Coordina‑
dora dated January 20, 2000, expresses this in the following way:
What is really being discussed?
What is really being discussed is the content of government
decisions. Are the decisions being made in the population’s interests or
are they simply adapting to what foreign financial entities prescribe? . . .
This is the underlying problem. Who decides the population’s present
and future, its resources, and its work and living conditions? Regarding
water, we want to decide for ourselves: that is what we call democracy.
There was a rejection of the prerogative of political leaders to monopolize
political decision making on questions that affect everyone. There was also a
persistent challenge and rejection of private plundering of social wealth by
transnational corporations. Under these basic notions, the recurrent collec‑
tive mobilization and uprisings continued to unfold until 2005. Let’s now
consider two other sides of these struggles.

1. It was also often known at the time as the Red Ayllus (Ayllus Rojos), using the
Andean term ayllu for indigenous communities.
2. Gutiérrez Aguilar and Iturri Salmón (1995) was later republished as Gutiérrez
Aguilar (2006).
3. Gutiérrez Aguilar (1996) was later republished in Gutiérrez Aguilar (2006).
Gutiérrez plays here with the double meaning of the Spanish term poder, which can
be a verb, meaning “to be able,” or a noun, meaning “power.” She essentially counter‑
poses human capability and creativity (el poder-­hacer) against the imposition of
power (el poder-­imposición). John Holloway would subsequently draw the same dis‑
tinction between what he termed “power-­to-­do” (potentia) and “power-­over” (po-
4. See Gutiérrez Aguilar’s (1999b, 2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2002) essays in several Co‑
muna publications.
5. The book was initially published in 2008 as Los ritmos del Pachakuti: Movili-
zación y levantamiento indígena-­popular en Bolivia (2000–2005) (La Paz: Textos Re‑
beldes, 2008). In a notable sign of the international interest in Bolivia at the time and
of Gutiérrez Aguilar’s own international engagements, the book was also published
the same year by Tinta Limón in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Gutiérrez Aguilar
was engaged with intellectual and activist groups on the autonomist Left. Colectivo
Situaciones contributed the prologue to the Argentine edition.
6. Holloway has long been based at the Autonomous University of Puebla, where
he codirects the seminar on Subjectivity and Critical Theory. Gutiérrez Aguilar took
up a teaching position at the university in 2012.

1. This metaphor, which casts moments in the struggle as lightning bolts that
allow us to see what was hidden in the darkness, comes from Raúl Zibechi (2006).
2. It is worth clarifying the unique, intimate relationship that I maintain with
what is, according to academic standards, my “object of study.” I lived in Bolivia be‑
tween 1984 and 2001, and I was fortunate to know about and participate in various
organizing and political efforts in that country.
224 Notes to Preface

3. Concrete emancipatory political practice—the first order—occurs chaoticly

as part of the concurrent processes that constitute a movement or uprising. It posits
central questions: What should we do? How do we move forward? It thus relates to
what the twentieth-­century revolutionary Left defined as “tactics.” Moreover, there
was always a discussion of its agreement with what was referred to as “strategic,”
although the clarity of such agreement often remained uncertain.
4. I am borrowing Sohn-­Rethel’s (2001) notion of “social synthesis,” a concept
that makes it possible to consider the totality without necessarily recurring to the
notion of a “state,” a more semantically charged word. However, I use his term in a
slightly different way.
5. I want to clarify that this affirmation does not imply my commitment to any
defense of “state property” for wealth; although I do not reject it either. Above all, I
argue that domination and exploitation by capital and by the state rests on the im‑
possibility for the majority to live “without having to ask permission from anyone.”
For a discussion of this, see Doménech (2004).
6. For the sake of analysis, I occasionally accept the validity of considering a so‑
cial totality within the state, although I never overlook the fact that it is an illusory
synthesis of supposed common interest. In any case I am always guided by Bloch’s
(1959) critical principle: “What exists cannot be true.”
7. With this reference to “permanent” although “discontinuous”—which could
also be substituted by “intermittent”—I am indicating the type of rhythms that form
the foundation for nearly all vital processes: from the circulatory system’s systole-­
diastole to the ebb and flow of social movements. This pattern of what we could call
“vital times” contradicts, antagonizes, and permanently overflows the state and capi‑
tal’s homogeneous, identical, and linear false times. Framed in this way, the prob‑
lem of the intermittent permanence of “social acts that reconfigure the given order”
consists primarily in not inserting the living rhythms of social conflict into the iden‑
tical times of capital’s normativity. The possibility for that occurs, fundamentally, in
the universe of meaning and not so much in the spaces of organizational forms or of
institutional “structures,” although these are undoubtedly necessary.
8. The contemporary critical approach borrows from various sources, including
the following: Adorno (1966), Benjamin (1942), Bloch (1959), and Horkheimer (1968).
However, it has been developed independently by authors such as John Holloway
(2001) and studies by Sergio Tischler (2005). Although inspired by different philo‑
sophical sources, other interesting interpretations of the recent struggles and prob‑
lems with social emancipation overlap and dialogue with the aforementioned list,
such as Colectivo Situaciones (2002, 2005) in Argentina and Raúl Zibechi (1999,
2003, 2006) in Uruguay.
9. There was a canonical approach to understanding “class struggle” from the
Left that existed until the 1980s. It was outlined in manuals sponsored by the Social
Sciences Academy from the former Soviet Union and the Cuban government. In
particular, the Spanish versions directed toward Latin America, with widespread cir‑
Notes to Preface 225

culation, were compiled by Martha Harnecker. For approaching social conflict from
a primarily Anglo-­Saxon perspective, it is worth mentioning the so-­called theory of
social movements. One of the most influential authors in our milieu is Sidney Tarrow
(1994). This study will not discuss these various positions. Instead, it will present
another method for analyzing social struggles.
10. For a discussion of this based on the philosophy of logic, see Gutiérrez Aguilar
11. I share many of the principles held by John Holloway throughout his writings,
particularly in Class = Struggle (Holloway, comp., 2004).
12. Colectivo Situaciones, reflecting on the events of December 19–20, 2001, in
Buenos Aires, conclusively affirms that “the insurrection on December 19th and 20th
did not have an author. There are no political or sociological theories available to
completely understand the logic that arose during those more than thirty uninter‑
rupted hours.” To begin this task for understanding, it suggests that “the new social
protagonism, as a method for intervention, shares a common basis with postmod‑
ernism: market conditions. But it rejects its conclusions: that the market’s omnipo‑
tence no longer leaves any room for liberation struggles” (Colectivo Situaciones
2002, 26, 33).
13. The manner in which Negri and Hardt proceed in their two famous texts Em-
pire (2000) and Multitude (2004) is to first document the transformations inherent
in domination by capital and the exploitation of labor and then explain the destruc‑
tion of the centrality of the Fordist type of industrial work world. Once this has been
documented, they address the plurality of resistance struggles and the multiplicity of
recent rebellions. They propose a comprehensive category for these: “the multitude.”
This category is then proposed for analyzing social existence rather than the empty
term “working class,” which was part of the official Marxist tradition for decades. In
this way, by substitution, there is a paradox and the criticism loses focus. What is re‑
tained and theoretically reinstated is capital as a fetish that represents social sover‑
eignty and political initiative. These ideas have been thoroughly discussed in Mexico
at the Social Sciences and Humanities Institute of the Meritorious Autonomous Uni‑
versity of Puebla Seminar on Subjectivity and Critical Theory during 2004 and 2005.
14. In Bolivia, utilizing a type of sociological tool from Pierre Bourdieu, Álvaro
García Linera (1999, 2001) documented the decline and disintegration of what he
calls the “old Bolivian working class.” Recently, the same author, along with Patricia
Costas Monje and Marxa Chávez León, directed and published research financed
by Oxfam and Diakonia (García Linera 2004b). It consists of a broad documenta‑
tion of diverse human groups who were protagonists in the struggles between 2000
and 2003, focusing its attention on their institutionalized structures and on their
so-­called mobilization repertoires. This perspective served for the “stabilization” of
social movements that the Morales government has absorbed, tending to make them
extensions of government action.
15. This is principally the separation between what will have a “social” or “eco‑
226 Notes to Preface

nomic” nature, which is then clearly distinguished from the “political” nature of the
events. Another confusing characterization arises from this dichotomy: the “anti‑
capitalist” and/or “antistate” nature of each struggle.
16. John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas are among the classic theoreticians from this
tradition. Their interesting and complex political theories consider the issue of tear‑
ing contemporary society from capital in order to preserve it. Particularly worth con‑
sulting are Rawls (1971, 1993) and Habermas (1992). On the other hand, for Bolivia,
Álvaro García Linera (2004a) follows another tradition in his Estado multinacional.
He preserves the liberal idea of the notion of delegation of social capacity to decide
on a representative and the complex theory of representation.
17. For a more thorough discussion of this, it is worth consulting Ávalos Tenorio
18. John Holloway (2001, 165) suggests that “the objective [of critical theory] is not
to understand reality but to understand (and through this understanding to inten‑
sify) its contradictions as part of the struggle to change the world.”
19. Various theories that seek to document the tension between conservation and
change in social phenomena consider social movements solely as anomalies, as dis‑
solvent fluctuations of social order that should be assimilated. The notion is based
on the existence of a supposed “general social equilibrium,” which operates through
argumentation. In particular, see Habermas (1992).
20. Guillermo Almeyra, for example, theorizes the limits and the political impo‑
tence of contemporary social movements (Almeyra, 2004).
21. John Holloway, based on a revision of Marx’s early writing, proposes recover‑
ing a useful distinction between “abstract labor” and “useful labor” as elements of the
“double character of labor.” The distinction allows Holloway to further investigate
the character of the so-­called capital/labor contradiction. Holloway, analyzing the
“double character of labor,” connects the following sequence of concepts with each of
these traits: “abstract labor” is the authentic source of value and demands the division
of labor; on the other hand, “useful labor” (or “making useful” to place more empha‑
sis on the difference) is at the core of the production of use values and the possibility
for cooperative acts (Holloway 2007).
22. There has been a proliferation of conflicts in Latin America since the late 1990s
that are generally conceptualized and organized under the term “social movements.”
Analysis of this topic consists primarily of one of the following approaches: attempt‑
ing methods of classification from “organizational novelties” that have been gener‑
ated prior to and following conflicts; starting with a hypothesis about the genesis of
these collective actions; or privileging the study of “identities” that confront each
other. We have already mentioned that there has been an established “approach” to
“social movements” in Bolivia since 2005 (García Linera 2004b). It was also widely
accepted because its author became the country’s vice president. This created a type
of subordinate relationship between the Morales government and some representa‑
tives of these movements.
Notes to Preface 227

23. We have witnessed the development of a tumultuous array of multitudinous

social actions centered on these issues in various countries throughout our Americas
in recent years. These include the insurrection of very diverse urban and suburban
groups in Argentina in December of 2001, as well as the mobilizations and sieges that
allowed Bolivians and Ecuadorians to change presidents and expel transnational cor‑
porations. Among the acts of insubordination and struggle that follow these patterns,
there is also, of course, the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, and its later construction
of governing Caracoles networks of resistance and autonomy for supracommunal
self-­regulation. Other examples include the camps of Brazilians “Sin Tierra” in the
Landless Peasant Movement, and the recent efforts in Oaxaca, Mexico, to construct
a space for non-­liberal planning and political deliberation.
24. According to Raúl Zibechi (2003), all of the new forms of protest and the de‑
velopment of social conflict ultimately “correspond” to the liberal economic and
political structure marked by deindustrialization, the loss of collective rights, and the
complete subordination of local governments to transnational power. Later, and
more conclusively, Zibechi proposes not keeping with the explicative canon that de‑
mands “labeling” and “defining” each “social movement” with complete clarity. In‑
stead, he suggests the notion of “society in movement” to specifically study the types,
the intensity, and the methods of the developing conflicts. This path seems very fer‑
tile to me.
25. See the Spanish Royal Academy’s Diccionario de la Lengua Española, twenty-­
first edition (Madrid, 1992). In the Larousse Spanish dictionary (Consultor de Larousse
sobre sinónimos y antónimos, vol. 2 [Ediciones Larousse, Barcelona-­Mexico City]),
there are synonyms of “to emancipate”: “1) to free, to make independent, to liberate,
to ransom, to manumit; 2) to dissociate, to separate.” The antonyms of the first are
the following: “to dominate, to colonize, to submit, to enslave”; and in the second, “to
subject and to retain.” I think it is worth keeping these variants of the word’s meaning
in mind throughout the argument.
26. Raúl Zibechi’s (1999, 15) affirmation can be read with this same meaning:
“to speak of emancipation supposes referring to a social subject capable of self-­
emancipation, a task that can only be realized through autonomy.”
27. For a more detailed discussion, see Tischler and Bonefeld (2003). For a discus‑
sion about the topic in Bolivia, see Gutiérrez Aguilar, García Linera, Prada, Quispe,
and Tapia (1999).
28. Miguel Guatemal and Pablo Dávalos, both Ecuadorian, offer the clearest ex‑
planation of this concept. Guatemal was an organizational leader for the Confed‑
eration of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (conaie), and Dávalos was an aca‑
demic and social activist linked closely to the indigenous movement. During the
Second Andean-­Mesoamerican Conference, billed as “The Indigenous Movement,
Resistance, and the Alternative Project,” held in La Paz, Bolivia, in March 2006,
they pointed out that the repeated uprisings and indigenous movements in Ecuador
have achieved “triumphs that mask defeats.” Both shared the collective experience of
228 Notes to Preface

having lived “the euphoria of collective triumph,” which later acquires a sense of fail‑
ure, tainted by an unpleasant experience of frustration. They referred in particular to
the indigenous occupation of Quito in the year 2000 to protest the “dollarization of
the economy.” The force of this uprising caused the ouster of Ecuador’s president and
nearly obliterated the party institutions responsible for political negotiation. How‑
ever, they bitterly noted: “After overthrowing [President Jamil] Mahuad, dollariza‑
tion stayed with us.” Something very similar is expressed by participants in the most
important Argentine social movements of 2000 and 2001, and it is analogous to what
is being experienced in Bolivia today. In this sense philosophical reflection on the
profound meaning of social actions in order to understand the phrase “triumphs
that mask defeats” is a relevant topic hanging in the balance of the recent struggles
in South America.
29. “Constructing self-­governance” is a way of naming the challenges that some
social forces are faced with both in the Aymara highlands and in the Cochabamba
valley. It is also, to a certain extent, what the Zapatista rebels have begun to build
in the territory they occupy in Chiapas, Mexico, through the governing Caracoles
networks of resistance and autonomy. This important aspect of the emancipatory
struggle deserves its own reflection.
30. This is currently occurring in Bolivia. There are already voices that can be
heard speaking of the success of the “Bolivian strategy” that “combines” social mobi‑
lization with electoral participation.
31. To reflect on the difference between “multitude” as a subject of the emancipa‑
tory act and “people” as an “object of the government,” a pertinent and fertile dis‑
tinction is the one Paolo Virno (2003) presents between “multitude” and “people.”
For him, “multitude,” among other meanings, is the “group of ‘social individuals’ ”
who are made individual through the culmination of a complex process of singula‑
rization. Therefore, they openly maintain their plural and heterogeneous traits. On
the other hand, the term “people” refers to the complicated modern construction of
a supposed “general will,” which homogenizes and unifies. It forms the basis for run‑
ning a unified government.
32. With this, it is possible to understand the role of “progressive governments”
and their current importance in Latin America. To a certain extent, these progressive
governments also function—although not exclusively—as a type of counterinsur‑
gent maneuver in that they reinforce the institutions that collapsed during the period
of uprisings and insurrections, rebuilding the space and time of the state. Through
their actions and beyond their speeches, they revise and strengthen certain relation‑
ships of command that have nothing to do with leadership that is horizontal, autono‑
mous, or by assembly. Above all, this is how they reinstate in a confusing manner
the excision between those who govern and those who are governed, reinforcing the
political decision-­making monopoly that had previously been held in check.
33. During recent years, progressive governments in Latin America have at‑
tempted to rebuild the institutional framework weakened by previous movements.
Notes to Preface 229

Essentially, in order to “heal the social wounds,” they have appropriated the deepest
social ruptures in each particular society. In Argentina they appeal to the wound left
by the dictatorship from 1976 t0 1983, and in Bolivia they emphasize the indigenous
34. In the Mexican case exactly the opposite is occurring. Therein lies its openly
conservative nature: the business elites directly occupy government institutions and
unlawfully retain the prerogative of political decision making.
35. The notion of a horizon of desire also comes from Bloch’s theory that suggests
the following: “Impulse manifests itself at first as an ‘aspiration,’ as a kind of hunger.
If the aspiration is felt, it becomes a ‘desire,’ the only sincere state experienced by
mankind. The desire is less vague and general than impulse, but at least it is clearly
directed outwardly. . . . (For the desire to be satisfied) it has to direct itself clearly
at something. Thus determined, it stops moving in every direction and it becomes a
‘seeking’ that has and does not have what it pursues, in a movement toward an ob‑
jective” (Bloch 1959, 74). I understand the absence of a horizon of desire precisely
as taking the insubordination movement in every direction, which strengthens it in
some ways but weakens it in others.
36. In Bolivia the struggle against the state in recent years has been based on a
successful ability to control space. The current issue is the struggle for the reappro‑
priation of time and for the right to establish patterns to measure it. In Mexico the
Zapatista struggle and the indigenous movement have been successful by carrying
out their actions in a time that can be thought of as “autonomous.” Currently, the
central question in Mexico is the struggle to reappropriate space or territory.
37. This would be a good method perhaps to describe, on a very general level, the
way of life of the most dense and solid Andean indigenous community framework,
which continues to enjoy a high level of autonomy and a certain capacity for relative
expansion. Francisco López Bárcenas makes the following statement on the struggle
of indigenous peoples in Mexico: “Resistance is a collective force of peoples to not
stop being what they have been. Struggle is the confrontation to not remain in the
location in which they have been placed” (personal conversation with López Bárce‑
nas, March 2006).
38. Oscar Olivera stated this during an assembly of the Coalition for the Defense
of Water and Life that took place in Cochabamba on March 11, 2006.
39. This is from a meeting with the Committee for Drinking Water in the May 1
neighborhood on March 10, 2006. These points constitute a summary of remarks by
more than forty leaders of the Association of Independent and Community Water
Systems in Cochabamba’s Southern Zone (asica-­Sur) in a general meeting on the
night of March 10, 2006.
40. The Law of Popular Participation is a legal entity. Among other things, it pro‑
moted the decentralization of a portion of public resources, and it transferred vari‑
ous previously centralized duties to municipal councils. The distributed resources are
small and the duties to carry out are highly regulated. This law enacted in 1995 during
230 Notes to Part I

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s first term as president was applauded by the apologists
for liberal-­procedural democracy who classified it as a “democratizing action by the
state.” The population in towns and municipalities, especially rural and/or small
ones, soon came to perceive it as a vehicle for state interference at the municipal level,
classifying it as a barrier to decision making in accordance with traditional customs
and legal practices.
41. For information on organizational structures in El Alto, see Mamani Ramírez
(2005b) and Zibechi (2006).
42. For Virno (2003, 72), the “exodus . . . modifies the conditions in which the
protest takes place rather than presupposing them as an unmovable horizon.” In re‑
ferring to a “semantic exodus,” I am borrowing this idea to refer to the universe of

Part I: Community Uprisings and Grassroots Democratization

1. The term “democratic period” refers to a time that began in 1982 when the
military dictatorships ended. It is still continuing. The first president following the
“return to democracy” was Hernán Siles Suazo. Since then, all governments have
either been selected through regularly scheduled elections or in elections that were
held ahead of schedule, Paz Estensoro (1985) and Evo Morales (2005), or they have
been designated through constitutional mechanisms of succession. Given Bolivia’s
history of political instability and the brutality of its military coups, the “conserva‑
tion of democracy,” understood as respect for the legal procedures needed to create
a government, is a value that wide sectors of the population share. However, discuss‑
ing Bolivian democracy in very general terms is dependent on the “contents” of that
type of governing structure.
2. The previous occasion in which “martial law” was challenged in a powerful,
massive way was during a coup d’etat against Alberto Natusch Busch on November 1,
1979. The fall of Natusch’s government is remembered in the popular imaginary as
the prelude to the end of military governments, what is known as the “democratic
opening” in 1982.

Chapter 1: The Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life

1. As in every Latin American country, “neoliberal structural reforms” also
brought substantial changes to the governmental administrative-­bureaucratic frame‑
work. The change most clearly addressed by the protest was the structure of the
Superintendencies (water, energy, mining, and so on), which seek to regulate the
space and time of public life as if it were a market. In other words, they view them‑
selves as mediators in that space, defining possible social interactions as solely mer‑
cantilist relationships.
Notes to Chapter 1 231

2. See especially, Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida 2001a, the docu‑
ment titled “Departmental Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life” from January
28, 2000. Its argument is structured in the following way: “Question 1: What is the
problem with water in Cochabamba? This means to clearly establish the problem to
overcome. Question 2: For whom does La Coordinadora speak? The response to this
is that the peasants who rely on irrigation, the urban committees for drinking water
who are not part of the central distribution network, and users of drinking water who
are connected to the network all speak through La Coordinadora. Question 3: Why
are Law 2029 and the concession contract with Aguas del Tunari not good for us, the
people of Cochabamba?” The way in which La Coordinadora expressed its objectives
and its measures will be analyzed later in more detail.
3. “The valleys of Cochabamba cover diverse areas at different altitudes. We will
consider the participation of four in the water conflict: the Valle Alto Basin, Sacaba,
the Central Valley, and the Lower Valley” (Peredo, Crespo, and Fernández 2004, 11).
4. “Suyu” is a Quechua word that means space or place. It also refers to a par‑
ticular extension of land, a certain right to water, or to an amount of work. “Mita” is
an Andean practice that refers to rotational access to water or rotating work shifts.
It was utilized during colonial times as an institution to regulate the forced work of
indigenous peoples in silver mines.
5. The backbone of fedecor is the Tiquipaya-­Colcapirhua Association of Irriga‑
tion Systems (asiritic). It was founded in 1992 and combines more than two thou‑
sand users and families. Its first president was Omar Fernández (Peredo, Crespo, and
Fernández 2004, 57).
6. Two cases exemplify this extreme: Representative Maldonado and Doctor
Soria. Both attempted, through all means and channels at their disposal, to take the
movement in less radical directions, vying for personal gain. They were not expelled
from the movement; they abandoned it.
7. The book Nosotros somos la Coordinadora [We are the Coordinadora] was
published in 2008 to celebrate the anniversary of the Water War. It includes various
communiqués and documents from the year 2000. Their analysis reveals the internal
logic of La Coodinadora’s discourse: to establish the “we” in the leadership and to
describe the goals of the struggle in the clearest way possible.
8. La Coordinadora’s most prominent leaders from January to April were Oscar
Olivera, Omar Fernández, Gabriel Herbas, and Gonzalo Maldonado.
9. One of the most important examples of this was the following: “The El Paso
community transferred water from one of its wells to the urban population (in the
northern zone) for free. This was over a period of a few weeks and equaled half of the
water processed by semapa” (Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida 2001a,
public declaration by Oscar Olivera on May 8, 2000).
10. There were various efforts to carry out the “takeover of the drinking water
supply company in Cochabamba” and to “establish methods for social control.” For
232 Notes to Chapter 1

the objectives of this study, it will be essential to consider the work of the technical
support team for La Coordinadora during the period from October 2000 to Febru‑
ary–March 2001. I participated directly then as a member.
11. This statement—or variations of it—was reflected in innumerous flyers,
speeches, pamphlets, and posters.
12. This was the meeting place for professionals and environmental groups that
participated in La Coordinadora.
13. The most important of these seminars took place at the end of November
2000 in the city of Cochabamba. Maude Barlow, a well-­known Canadian activist and
defender of water rights, attended along with other influential people, mainly from
English-­speaking countries.
14. Some years later, this early organizational effort formed the Southern Zone
Association of Independent Drinking Water Systems (ASICA-­Sur).
15. These distinctions were the product of equally broad planning. In December
2000 and January 2001, the technical support team organized at least two open meet‑
ings with Cochabamba’s population to determine semapa’s legal character. This was
in the midst of governmental declarations in the media arguing that the leadership
and semapa’s director were “illegal.” They also criticized the way that La Coordina‑
dora was influencing the duties and projects that the company was initiating at that
time. There were several proposals on “how to reorganize semapa.” Some suggested
“the formation of a type of society based on shares distributed among all users and
neighborhood residents” or organizing a large cooperative. There was also a pro‑
posal to maintain semapa’s public-­municipal character. The latter was the option
that eventually prevailed, most of all due to the numerous bureaucratic-­legal difficul‑
ties that any change to the legal status would require, which included the requirement
to obtain a “transmission of public patrimony law.”
16. For a concise discussion of the popular roots of the desire for a Constituent
Assembly, see Mokrani and Chávez (2006). See also Olivera and Lewis (2004), par‑
ticularly the chapter “For a Constituent Assembly: Creating Public Spaces.”
17. For information, see the semimonthly newspaper Así es, numbers 1 and 2, La
Paz, Bolivia. See also Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (2001b, Actas
del Foro Sobre Asamblea Constituyente [the publication from the event that was held
in November 2000 in Cochabamba]).
18. While there is no record of daily activities, meetings, and contacts, some of
La Coordinadora’s members keep a dossier of letters and documents that show what
was occurring in Cochabamba during that time. There are dozens of letters from
trade organizations, neighborhoods, associations of vendors from the main mar‑
kets, and from political organizations of all sizes. They document the specific water
problem experienced by each one of those organizations, and La Coordinadora is
“asked”—more or less—to “consider the specific problem.” Many of these letters
were answered during those months, either verbally or in writing, more or less with
the same argument: “La Coordinadora is not an entity to ‘manage complaints’ or
Notes to Chapter 2 233

‘process business matters’; your specific problem is similar to all these others, and we
have to respond equally to all with our decisions and possible solutions.” Although,
of course, when someone from La Coordinadora could “lend a hand” in some spe‑
cific case, there was an attempt to collaborate (Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y
de la Vida 2001b).
19. The year 2002 was a general election year in Bolivia. Elections were announced
in March 2002 and took place on June 30 of that year. Among the eleven parties
that participated on the ballot, both Morales’s mas party, which received second
place overall in the voting, and Quispe’s mip were included. The mip was created
in November 2001 and obtained 6 percent of all the votes. For information, consult From that moment, mas became the principal opposition party
with an important number of representatives and senators.
20. The communiqué from La Coordinadora dated January 28, 2000, states: “Our
voice is not aligned with parties or political offices. Nor can it be bought by private
enterprise or hidden interests. We speak what we feel and what the population com‑
municates to us. That is why we are different from other institutions and individuals
who reappear today and seem ambivalent; those who say that they have or who have
been deceived, or who have carried out public functions in an indolent manner.”
21. Communiqué from La Coordinadora dated February 6, 2000.
22. Claudia Espinoza, in a note from the national weekly publication Pulso
(May 5–11, 2000), states the following: “What occurred in Cochabamba was not a
mere warning to the political system for it to just tighten some loose screws. . . .
No one there was asking for or demanding ‘fair rights’ from the state, as old-­style
unionism usually did to generate agreements by negotiating the terms of subordi‑
nation. This time, popular organizing efforts imposed their own style of making
politics. People ignored the political agency and the legal authority offered by the
ballot box.”

Chapter 2: Aymara Roadblocks in La Paz:

Community as a Mobilizing Force
1. I understand “lifeworld” as the intersubjective space-­time of meaningful acts
in which human beings live and interpret their existence each day. For a discussion
of the use of this term, see Gilly, Gutiérrez Aguilar, and Roux (2006).
2. For discussions regarding different positions on the Aymara indigenous com‑
munity, see Rivera Cusicanqui (1984, 1993); Spedding and Llanos (1998); Untoja
(1992); Canessa (2006); Albó (1996). A detailed description of both the diverse theo‑
retical positions as well as the historical evolution of the Aymara community can be
found in Chávez (2006).
3. Two classic studies of “the Aymara identity” and about “Andean politi‑
cal thought” that explain various and valuable elements of the imaginary and cos‑
mogony of the inhabitants of the Bolivian and Peruvian highlands through exhaus‑