Resources and Revolution in Bolivia


A review of Blood of the Earth: Natural Resources, Economic Visions, and Revolution in La Paz, Bolivia, 1927-1971, by Kevin Young.

Kevin Young has written a dissertation that shows the ways in which social movements in Bolivia historically have galvanized around the control of natural resources and shaped domestic politics, economic thinking, and U.S. policy in the country. While the focus is on the city of La Paz from 1921 to 1971, the scope of the study goes beyond the city into Bolivia’s deeply divided regions and up until the present. The topic is particularly salient to the social mobilizations over resource exploitation since 2000 and the ruling MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party’s approach toward natural resources today. A combination of economic history, labor history, and diplomatic history make this a unique approach to the topic of resource nationalism in Bolivia and reflects the creative use of sources in the work.

The dissertation proceeds thematically and chronologically beginning with the twenty-five years prior to the National Revolution of 1952. The first chapter highlights the ways in which the many competing economic and political visions in La Paz during and after the pivotal 1930s Chaco War shaped the revolutionary process. Young asserts at one point that “The key historical question is not ‘why the revolution,’ but why the MNR?” (p. 26). The MNR (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement) leadership consisted of Chaco War veterans claiming to represent the “Chaco Generation” and appealed to nationalists across the political spectrum, including resource nationalists. One of Young’s more important arguments explains the co-optation of some social movements by the MNR and the suppression of others during this formative period. Young drew on sources such as the writings of leftist labor leader Guillermo Lora to explain the strong support for resource nationalism among much of the population that emerged after the Chaco War (Guillermo Lora, Historia del movimiento obrero boliviano, 1933-1952. La Paz: Los Amigos del Libro, 1980).

The next three chapters delve into the economic and foreign policy challenges Bolivia faced during the twelve years of the MNR government (1952-64). The Cold War was heating up in places like Iran and Guatemala, tremendous pressure came from below to end feudalistic agricultural practices and to nationalize resources, the mining economy was in shambles, and new theories of economic dependency dominated political discourse throughout Latin America. The MNR began to openly court the U.S. for development assistance, which came with certain strings attached. Young situates Bolivia’s social movements within these larger structural forces using a variety of sources, but especially documents from the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean. While the MNR shifted to the center and the U.S. gained more influence over Bolivia’s economic policymaking, Young argues convincingly that both the party and the hegemonic power faced significant roadblocks to their actions from Bolivian labor and other social movements.

Young devotes one chapter to three major economic programs enacted by the MNR with the strong support of the United States. The policies included an austerity program, the opening of the oil sector to private companies, and the restructuring of the mining industry. The chapter continues in the line of James Siekmeier’s work (The Bolivian Revolution and the United States, 1952 to the Present. State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011). In the following chapter, Young creatively engages USIS propaganda and MNR documents to show the frustration of both the U.S. and the ruling party toward persistent economic nationalism in the country, which thwarted economic liberalization plans.

Chapter 5 shifts away from diplomatic cables and party politics to the streets of La Paz and the urban workers. As Young shows, the urban labor unions organized alongside other groups such as students during the 1950s to shape the revolution and temper the plans of MNR centrists and the United States. The inclusion of the urban workers is an important contribution to studies of the National Revolution of 1952, most of which focus on the tin miners and peasants (see, for example, James Dunkerly, Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia, 1952-82. London: Verso, 1984; and Laura Gotkowitz, A Revolution for Our Rights: Indigenous Struggles for Land and Justice in Bolivia, 1880-1952. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

Chapter 6 addresses the oil sector after the Revolution. The oil sector had been controlled by the state oil company YPFB since the nationalization of Standard Oil properties after the Chaco War. In 1955, the MNR opened the sector to foreign companies to gain U.S. support and loans. Young shows how opposition to the opening grew in the 1960s as Gulf Oil Company came to dominate the oil and gas markets. Bolivia’s second nationalization of oil came at the expense of Gulf under a socialist military government in the late 1960s. Young explains how this nationalization was part of the longer history of resource nationalism in Bolivia and not an isolated incident.

The well-written dissertation offers much beyond the scholarship reviewed within and will impact the growing body of studies on Bolivian economic, labor, and resource history. Young’s approach broadens the scope of these areas while engaging new ground with his rich analysis of diplomatic sources, inclusion of urban labor movements, and explanation of the historical limitations to policies concerning resource exploitation in Bolivia.

Stephen Cote
Department of History
Western Washington University

Dissertation Information

Stony Brook University. 2013. 323 pp. Primary Advisor: Brooke Larson.

Primary Sources

Archivo y Biblioteca Nacionales de Bolivia (Sucre)
Biblioteca y Archivo Histórico de la Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional (La Paz)
National Archives and Records Administration II, College Park, MD
National Security Archive (U.S.)
United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean

Image: Mural, La Paz. Photo by Author, reproduced with permission of lead artist Gonz Jove.

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