Bolivia captured international attention with the 2005 election of President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president. Since then, many books and articles have explored Bolivia’s place in the regional turn toward new Left politics—with some defining the election as part of a broader global struggle against the excesses of neoliberalism, and others celebrating the rise of indigenous political power as a new form of postcolonial liberation. Much of the literature, written by outsiders, rarely focuses on the ideas, principles and choices of those actually shaping Bolivia’s new politics.
Las vías de la emancipación: Conversaciones con Álvaro García Linera (The Paths of Liberation: Conversations with Álvaro García Linera) is an exception. This small volume is the record of nine conversations (held between September 2005 and August 2008) with Álvaro García Linera, Bolivia’s vice president and the intellectual architect of Evo Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) government. The conversations, conducted by Argentine journalist Pablo Stefanoni, Ecuadorian sociologist Franklin Ramírez and Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa, reveal the thinking of Bolivia’s new political elite in a way that other books on the new regime have failed to do. In particular, they offer a fascinating portrait of one of Bolivia’s most prominent leftist intellectuals.
García Linera is given the freedom to provide his perspectives on the goals and objectives of his country’s newest “revolution in democracy”—a catchphrase first used by former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada during his first government (1993–1997). But this freedom is also one of the book’s shortcomings. The nonadversarial approach of the interviewers leaves many of García Linera’s arguments unchallenged, and as a result, Las vías de la emancipación fails to fully explore important developments such as the 2008 recall referendum, the autonomy movement in eastern Bolivia and any contradictions or tensions in the “revolution in democracy.”
The book offers a succinct intellectual portrait of García Linera himself, who emerged as the public voice of Bolivia’s indigenous movement in the 1990s after an early career as a student radical, labor activist and community organizer. His radicalization deepened when he became involved in the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army, a Marxist-indigenous guerrilla group active from 1990 to 1992, and for which he was imprisoned for five years.
While in prison, Bolivia’s future vice president dedicated himself to a close reading of Marx’s Das Kapital and to writing an academic treatise on the letters of Vera Zasulich, a late-nineteenth-century Russian anarchist leader who won fame for her attempted assassination of the Czarist governor of St. Petersburg. Zasulich later rejected terror tactics and converted to Marxism. She became a key leader of the movement to translate Marx’s works into Russian and spread his views. What drew García Linera’s attention to Zasulich? What lessons, if any, did he find in these works for Bolivia’s future political development? Unfortunately, the interviewers leave these questions unexplored.
However, the conversations do offer a glimpse of the intellectual roots of García Linera’s political philosophy which, as he describes it, merges Marxism with an “indigenous vision” in which “symbols (and) narratives that permit the unification of [national] identity around the Aymara” can be constructed. According to García Linera, a Bolivian political-cultural identity must be built upon Aymara (a “nation”) rather than Quechua (only a “proto-nation”) ethnicity. Among the prominent left-wing thinkers invoked during the conversations are British historians E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm; U.S. sociologist Charles Tilly, who explored social movements; Italian neo-Marxist philosopher Antonio Negri; and French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who pioneered the field of cultural hegemony.
The conversations are mostly undated. They often allude to, but rarely explain, specific events, forcing even readers familiar with Bolivian political history to wonder whether they occurred before, during or after particular events. The single dated conversation took place on August 10, 2008—the day after autonomy referendums were held in the indepence-minded eastern regions and several weeks after the election of an opposition indigenous female prefect (governor) in Chuquisaca. On August 10, there was also a national recall referendum in which both Morales and opposition prefects won popular backing.
But these important events are not mentioned. Instead, the bulk of the August 10 conversation tackles class theory and the role of intellectuals in perpetuating neoliberal ideology and class structure.
Under prodding by the authors, García Linera does discuss his government’s limitations and shortcomings in some of the later conversations. But the prodding seems halfhearted: one gets a clear sense that the authors share their subject’s worldview. For example, García Linera argues that state intervention must “generate wealth, because we need much economic wealth to promote the other modernizations,” but he is not pushed to explain how that differs from the professed goals of previous development-oriented regimes, which, like the present government, favored state-directed exploitation of hydrocarbon and mining resources.
In that same conversation, García Linera is challenged on the apparent contradiction that the MAS espouses a “bottom-up” approach to politics, yet continues the historical Bolivian tendency to centralize power. When he is reminded that the Right also favored centralized power, he responds that the current government is justified because it has different goals: “recovering state enterprises,” as opposed to neoliberal privatization.
In an era when Bolivian politics is deeply polarized, this book does little to advance the debate needed for the country’s development. Nevertheless, as an intellectual biography of a key player in the nation’s new politics, it makes an important contribution to understanding Bolivia today.