The Wars of Rich Resources

Against the Current, No. 197, November/December 2018

Nancy Postero

Blood of the Earth:
Resource Nationalism, Revolution, and Empire in Bolivia
By Kevin A. Young
University of Texas Press, 2017, 288 pages, $27.95 paperback.

KEVIN YOUNG’S BLOOD of the Earth lays out a critical moment in the history of Bolivia’s long entanglement with natural resource extraction: the mid-20th century. He draws a complex and fascinating picture of the struggles over mining and oil from the Chaco War in the 1930s through the 1952 Revolution and the unraveling of the revolutionary state in the 1960s. The author is an assistant professor of history at University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Young argues that Bolivians’ desire for control over their resources, what he terms “resource nationalism,” has been a central logic visible across these periods, a “structure of feeling” that motivated both revolution and social protest. As an anthropologist of contemporary Bolivia, I found this history to be extremely helpful for understanding the debates and dilemmas of Bolivia’s current revolutionary period.

While a history of resource extraction could begin in any number of eras — the stripping of Cerro Rico in Potosí in the colonial era being only one — Young begins at the end of the Chaco war (1932-35), when most people in Bolivia were lamenting the tremendous losses of people and territory in the brutal war waged in the desert between Paraguay and Bolivia.

The overwhelming feeling was that this war had been fought over the oil resources in the Chaco desert, and the majority blamed the bourgeoisie for its bad governance of both resources and war.

In the years that followed, in Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America, a growing sentiment emerged demanding national sovereignty over resources, industrialization of the raw materials, and more equitable distribution of the profits.

Throughout the book Young makes clear the many, often conflicting, strands of political and economic thought at play in this emerging logic, describing how it was viewed and debated — by various Marxists (including Trot­skyists), the national bourgeoisie, miners, factory workers, military leaders and the Bolivian media. He also shows how strongly the United States opposed this notion, which was contrary to the interests of U.S. corporations.

Young does a very nice job of situating the Bolivian debates in the larger debates across the region about economic development and imperialism, such as the dependency movement and the larger anti-Yanqui feelings. The book is supported by Bolivian archival material, newspaper reports and intellectual writings, as well as extensive reading of U.S. diplomatic correspondence.

Pressures on Nationalist Revolutionaries

The central focus of the book is the rise of the MNR (Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario, National Revolutionary Movement) party, which after the Chaco war brought together many strands of dissent against the oligarchy, and carried out the 1952 revolution. The Estado de ’52, the revolutionary state, made important reforms for Bolivia’s poor and indigenous citizens, including universal suffrage, expanded education and agrarian reform.

Many other authors have described the party and the nationalist revolution, but Young gives us a particular view of the MNR and the state it established, looking specifically at the tensions between the bourgeois MNR elite, the U.S. government that pushed it to the right, and the more radical social movements that pushed it to the left.

This tension is really the best part of the book for me, as it shows the way politics and ideology are always evolving in contingent fields of force. Young shows how the MNR rode the wave of resource nationalism to control the state, despite the deep ambivalences of its leaders who continued to support a much more conservative approach, including allowing private and foreign companies to exploit resources.

Workers’, miners’ and peasant organizations were a strong force, always threatening the MNR with a second, more violent revolution, and this forced the MNR to nationalize the mines, establish a co-government with workers, and generally support the call for national resource sovereignty.

Yet the MNR was also pushed in the other direction by the United States. Citing the letters and writings of U.S. diplomats at the time, Young shows that rather than the anti-communism that most people see as the main impetus for U.S. involvement, Washington appeared to worry most about challenges to corporate control.

The U.S.-Bolivian relationship was complex. Instead of trying to overthrow the MNR, as it had done to reform governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), in Bolivia the United States sought to exploit and support the “moderate” elements within the MNR, urging them to discipline the workers, compensate the owners of the mines that had been nationalized, pay their foreign debt, and privilege private companies over state enterprises — ideas that will sound very familiar to those who have observed the neoliberal agenda a few decades later.

Young’s description of this relationship is nuanced: the MNR does not come off looking like dupes or victims of U.S. domination, but rather as a conservative party pushing a specific version of resource nationalism, negotiating between all parties to hold power — ultimately unsuccessfully.

Exploitation vs. Popular Power

This is another contribution: Young shows how the notion of resource nationalism was understood by various sectors in very different ways.

Parts of the Left, especially the miners, pushed the state to go beyond producing raw materials — for instance, to invest in smelters to process the minerals. The MNR resisted these demands, taking U.S. advice to revamp the mining sector, implementing instead the Triangular Plan that greatly reduced labor’s voice, and carrying out a very unpopular economic stabilization plan to counter inflation.

The state did establish and support a state-led oil company, the YPFB, over U.S. wishes, and eventually the United States did support the smelter and the YPFB, understanding that not to listen to workers’ demands might mean instability and possibly more radical revolutions.

Young demonstrates the extensive U.S. efforts to influence not only the state’s economic policies but also the “hearts and minds” of the Bolivian population. The United States Information Service produced a massive output of films, textbooks, and material for Bolivian media, pushing the values of discipline, hard work and capitalism.

Young takes a close look at one sector, factory workers in La Paz, to show how complexly debated these issues were and how different sectors of the Left differed in their positions. Overall, the workers continued to support the MNR while pushing the state to take further steps to meet the revolutionary promises.

The book shows the gradual unraveling of the MNR, as the contradictions between support for the revolutionary agenda versus a model based on resource extraction and cooperation with foreign companies became unworkable. Young describes the military populist governments that followed to show how their administrations also used the resource nationalism discourse, but to very different ends.

The last chapter examines the campaign to save the “last hope” for Bolivian economy, the oil and gas sector which was taking off in the lowlands, and to strengthen the YPFB and its control over resources. The high point came in 1969, when military president Ovando, with the urging of a Leftist writer turned Minister of Mines and Petroleum, Marcelo Quiroga, nationalized Gulf Oil.

Young argues that the conflicts over hydrocarbons in the 1950s and ‘60s highlighted the failure of the MNR and the U.S. government to achieve hegemony, particularly the inability to control the urban workers. (171)

Despite massive U.S.-sponsored propaganda and intellectual production, workers and peasants continued to protest and to hold strong to the (ultimately correct) notions underlying resource nationalism: that foreign corporations had benefitted from resource exploitation over Bolivians, that the United States was pressuring the MNR to act counter to the people’s needs, and that simple extraction of Bolivia’s riches by others had not been sufficient to bring about greater development for Bolivia’s majority.

The New Revolution

Despite all its internal contradictions and opposing interests, Young suggests, resource nationalism set the parameters of Bolivian political discourse in the mid-century period, limiting the ability of the state, global capital, and the United States to exercise their interests. (175)

As mentioned at the outset, I found this book particularly important now, as we examine the legacy of yet another revolution, this time the “cultural democratic revolution” of Evo Morales and the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo, Movement Towards Socialism) party, which took power in 2005.

Much has been made in Bolivia of the parallels and differences between the MNR and the MAS, and Young takes this up in his epilogue. While there are important differences — the important role of indigenous actors in contemporary Bolivia, the urgency of climate change and environmental concerns, and the diminishment of the U.S. role in the region — Young argues that there are important parallels.

Morales came to power after the water and gas wars of 2000 and 2003 respectively, when popular sectors renewed their calls for resource nationalism. He also carried out a very popular “nationalization” of the hydrocarbon sector, and in the 2009 constitution, the product of a Constituent Assembly, the state retains overarching control of non-renewable resources. Also, like the MNR, the MAS has been slow to industrialize the resources sector.

I find the parallels incredibly compelling. In my own work, I have shown how the MAS also suffers internal contradictions — this time between those pushing a cultural and political agenda of indigenous values and those following a more economic agenda based on extractive development.

Morales began his administration promising to represent indigenous peoples and their values, especially vivir bien, or living well, a notion of sustainable development based on indigenous cosmovision. This was part of a larger commitment to decolonize Bolivian society and re-found the state as a plurinational society.

Yet over the arc of his time in office, Morales has gradually moved away from these promises to argue instead for “economic liberation,” by which he basically means resource extraction with some limited public redistribution (Postero 2017).

Listening to Morales and his allies argue that national sovereignty should trump even local indigenous claims to their lands (as in the widely discussed TIPNIS controversy), one can hear very clear echoes of the resource nationalism of 60 years earlier that Young describes.

During my last field work trip to Bolivia in 2015, I asked an Aymara resident of El Alto, the migrant city above La Paz, what he thought of the decolonization the new constitution called for. He told me he was glad the Constituent Assembly had “nationalized” the hydrocarbon sector (it did not seize control of assets, but rather renegotiated existing contracts to give the State the majority of the profits), and that the result has been really good for the people. There is “lots of money circulating” now, and that is why so many people support Morales (Ibid., 148).

The idea of national sovereignty over resources remains very deeply held across the country. This man would probably not use the term resource nationalism, but it is clear that many Bolivians, especially the majority who live in cities, continue to demand that their state control valuable natural resources, and distribute the profits to them.

November-December 2018, ATC 197