Adolfo Gilly  |  Trotskyist Writers  |  ETOL Home Page


Héctor Lucero

Bolivian Agrarian Reform

Its Situation and Tasks After Six Years

(December 1959)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 9, Spring 1960, pp. 9–19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Situation Of Agriculture

Some Figures

Agriculture is the main activity of the population of Bolivia, Its peasants comprise 2,125,000 persons, 63% of the total population. [1] (The 1950 census gives the figure of 1,703,371, estimated as being 63% of the total, so that the proportion practically does not vary, if it is taken into account that the forest-dwelling part of the population is not included in this figure. Of all these persons, the census estimates that only 100,000 speak Spanish.)

Agriculture is also the activity that contributes the highest quota to the national product in goods and services: in the 1950-55 period, 29% came from this sector, while mining and petroleum contributed only 25%.

According to the 1950 census, agrarian property in Bolivia comprised 80.8 million acres. Of these lands, 1,616,000 acres are under cultivation (although the CEPAL estimates the figure as considerably less, only about 988,400 acres). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, for its part, estimates the total agricultural area as 53,299,000 acres (51,891,000 of natural pastures and 1,408,000 of tilled land), and the forest area as 116,137,000 acres, thus leaving 104,523,000 acres of non-cultivatable land.

By a comparison of these figures, the conclusion is reached that the proportion of agricultural land under cultivation is very small, since it represents only between 2% and 3% of the total rural area. According to the 1950 census, 90% of this cultivated land is located on the Altiplano [the high plateau south of La Paz] and in the valleys, whereas the eastern plains (which comprise two-thirds of Bolivian territory) have only 10%.

In relation with the country’s total population, this gives a cultivated area of only two-fifths of an acre per person, which is a very low figure, as is proved by a comparison with the other countries of Latin America: in 1955, Bolivia had 0.40 tilled acre per inhabitant; Mexico, 1.88; Chile, 1.61; Ecuador, 1.11; Brazil, 0.86.

If only the active agricultural population is considered, this figure rises to 1.66 acre per active person, which is only a very slight extension; in any case it is a question of highly eroded and impoverished land.

This quantity is not very far from that of China, where the estimate is of 2.42 acres per family. [2]

The amount of irrigated land is also very small. In reality, there exist only two irrigation dams: La Angostura, in Cochabamba, which irrigates some 24,700 acres; and Tacagua, in Oruro, some 12,800. Despite the great natural possibilities for irrigation works, the rest of agriculture – practically all of it – is dependent on meteorological factors that are irregular and often unfavorable. Work on the irrigation project of Villamontes, in Santa Cruz, has been stopped, and there is a risk that the part already built (more or less half) will be destroyed and lost. Irrigation is one of the most crying needs of Bolivian agriculture.

A comparison of the 1955 figures on agricultural production with the population in this sector gives a value per active person of $119, or £42. This figure is equal to one-fourth of the gross product per active person in the rest of the national economy, and also to about one-fourth of the income per active person in agriculture in Latin America as a whole ($393, or £140) – which gives an idea of the very low level of existing productivity. If the total agricultural population is taken into account, the gross product scarcely reaches $40, or £14, per person (whereas it is $180, or £64, for the same year, in non-agricultural activities).

This explains why, with so high a proportion of agricultural population, Bolivia’s imports of foodstuffs and farm- and ranch-produced raw materials reached 38.5% of its total imports, representing the most serious drain on the country’s foreign exchange. [3]

After the promulgation of the decree of agrarian reform in August 1953, production fell approximately 15% (1954 harvest compared to that of 1950). This reduction was caused, among other reasons, by a considerable reduction of the tilled area, especially in potatoes, Indian corn, and wheat. The agitation and uncertainty about the agrarian reform had a bearing on this reduction.

But at the same time it is important to note that a remarkable increase in yield per acre in Indian corn and potatoes was recorded, which shows how the peasant, even without indispensable aid for improving his husbandry, raises the yield of his labor when he is tilling his own land and not that of the landlord. The figures are as follows:

Harvested Area, Production, and Yields of Main Agricultural Products


















Hulled corn




















Hulled barley




















Hulled rice










a) in thousands of acres; b) in thousands of tons (metric or “long”); c) in pounds per acres.

The basic situation, however, the extremely low yield of agriculture, is not a result of the agrarian reform, but an inheritance from the methods of cultivation and the system of land ownership in effect in Bolivia for centuries. The semi-feudal system constituted the greatest stumbling-block for any agrarian development. [4]

This age-old stagnation in agriculture was increased by the upsurge in mining production for the world market. It turned out to be more profitable for the big mines, instead of stimulating agricultural development, to buy foodstuffs and raw materials abroad, thus increasing the country’s dependence on the world market, and maintaining the internal stagnation, not only by their purchasing policy but also by the deformation on the economy as a whole (roads, railways, electric power, credits, etc) in favor of mining.

The April revolution and the agrarian reform nationalized the big mining companies and broke the feudal regime in the countryside. They did not, however, change the rest of the conditions produced thereby: backwardness in the methods of exploitation, imbalance between the population and the land under cultivation, lack of roads, etc, and furthermore produced some additional problems. Plowing by a wooden-stick plow (when not by a foot-plow, i.e. a simple stick pushed by the foot) continued to be the dominant reality and the symbol of Bolivian agriculture. All this had a bearing on the stagnation in production.

The agrarian reform created the conditions for a development of production, but only the conditions; they were not put to profit by complementary measures, as will be seen below.

Two Agrarian Reforms

What is, in figures, the extent of the agrarian reform?

In the first place, there are two agrarian reforms: the legal one and the de facto one. The de facto agrarian) reform, carried out by the peasants, starting in 1952, and especially in 1953 and 1954, by the armed seizure and parcelling-out of the land, was the factor that determined the proclamation of the August 1953 decree, so as to act as a brake on the seizures.

The reform carried out from below by the peasants themselves embraced the vastest traditionally peasant zones of the country. No exact figures about its extent exist, but the parcelling out of land was carried out especially in the departments of La Paz, Cochabamba. Potosi, and Oruro, involving the majority of the estates, and on a smaller (though still extensive) scale in Tarija and Chuquisaca. The eastern departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando (the eastern plains) underwent this process only in a reflected manner, because of the different character of the exploitation and the farm population existing there (these departments represent only 10% of the Bolivian cultivated land, and there are no Indian peasants there).

On the other hand, the legal reform, according to the dispositions of the 1953 decree, fell far behind the de facto expropriations. Here are the figures:

According to the 1950 census, there were in the country 86,534 farm properties, with a total area of 80,925,000 acres. Of this total, up till August 1959, according to the data of the Servicio Nacional de Reforma Agraria, there have been attributed and turned over to the peasants – with legal titles – only 806 properties, with a total area of 1,872,800 acres. The number of persons granted titles scarcely reaches 29,216. (The same source estimates the number of peasant heads of families, that is, with a right to a parcel of land, as 532,680).

That is to say that there remained to be legally distributed, on the sixth anniversary of the agrarian reform, no less than 79,072,000 acres. Even if it is taken into consideration that, out of this total, a good part represents properties in the east that have not been claimed by the peasants, the figure of land distributed turns out to be ridiculous, and even more so the number of peasants who have “legally” become owners of land: 29,216, in contrast to the 2,000,000 peasants in the country.

In the same way that there are two agrarian reforms, there are two obstructions to agrarian reform.

On the one hand, the legal agrarian reform, the delivery of title-deeds to the peasants, is paralyzed by the enormous bureaucratic apparatus created by the decree on agrarian reform and by the government. Judgments for the attribution of land remain stuck in this apparatus. The Central Campesina de Ucureña has explained the incredible red tape that each judgment has to go through before the title-deed is granted to the peasant. [5]

On the other hand, from the viewpoint of capitalist law, the validity of these title-deeds could be rapidly rendered questionable by a new reactionary regime in power. A Silist deputy has already demonstrated how the government itself is preparing the conditions so that the landowners can at the proper moment demand the invalidation of these title-deeds and the return of their lands. [6]

The de facto agrarian reform, concerning the lands that the peasants occupied and have been working for their own account since 1952, 1953, and 1954 (years of the wave of land seizures), has also suffered from another obstacle: the peasant has the land, but all the other factors of production (seeds, fertilizers, irrigation, methods and tools of cultivation, marketing, etc) remain the same as before. The peasant has been left to his fate. The agrarian reform has stopped at the simple possession of the land.

Productivity has remained stagnant at a very low level. For example, in the region of Lake Titicaca, with the primitive methods of cultivation in use, yields are obtained of only 2,670 to 3,560 pounds of potatoes per acre, while on the Peruvian Altiplano some 8,900 pounds per acre are achieved.

The same occurs with stock-raising, whose yields, according to the CEPAL, are “impressively low.” And stock-raising is of great importance in the production of rural Bolivia, since it contributes more than 40% to the total gross product of the farm sector. In sheep-raising, predominant on the Altiplano, there is a yield of wool of not much over one pound per animal, which is only one fifth or sixth of the average yields of other countries; and a yield in meat of 22 pounds per animal, which is less than half of that obtained in countries whose stock-raising is more advanced. [7]

To the very limited area under cultivation per inhabitant, there must be added the fact that the land in question has for centuries been subjected to inefficient exploitation, without manure, fertilizers, etc, and is in an advanced stage of erosion, especially on the Altiplano – all of which results in very low fertility. On the Altiplano (except in the more fertile regions round Lake Titicaca) only a fraction of the tillable land is exploited each year, the rest being left fallow for periods as long as nine years. For example, in the province of Dalence (Oruro), out of 35,600 acres in exploitation, only about 8,900 acres, that is, one fourth, are actually cultivated each year.

All these figures, due to the primitive methods used, could be greatly increased with only slight improvements. But the MNR government, in this aspect, has not carried out the slightest agrarian reform. It is, for its petty-bourgeois leadership, a responsibility as grave as or graver than the paralysis in the delivery of title-deeds to the peasantry.

On both fronts, the capitalist government not only have paralyzed the agrarian reform, but in fact – despite using it as a propaganda theme – are sabotaging it, working against it, working for the landowner. Under the exigencies of imperialism, and with its help, they have surrounded the peasant by a double barrier: the barrier of law and the barrier of hunger. Lately, they have been trying to prepare the military barrier.

Situation of the Peasantry

Living Standards

Although production has remained stationary or fallen off, the revolution has meant a considerable rise in the peasant’s standard of living.

The standard of living has risen generally in terms of consumption, since the peasant no longer has to pay land rent to the landowner. The surplus of labor that went into the hands of the owner of the land now remains for the peasant himself.

But more important for the peasant than the relative rise in his consumption – which has fallen again with the general impoverishment caused by the Stabilization Plan – has been the change in his social situation, the suppression of the personal services of the feudal type that bound him to the landowner and the land: “pongueaje” and “mitanaje.”

Herein lies the main difference from the previous regime, and the principal reason why the peasant is resisting and will resist, arms in hand, any attempt at a return to the past. The increase in his trade-union and political gains, in his human dignity, do not appear in statistics, but they do in the consciousness of every peasant, as good things, just as concrete as wheat and corn.

The trade union, the union militia, universal franchise, discussion and participation – even though limited – in the political life of the country, the victories over the landowners and their political agents, all violently expelled from the Bolivian countryside: all these mean, for the peasant, a rise in his living standards.

This rise has meant, furthermore, an automatic rise in living standards, in gains, and in freedoms, for the rest of the laboring population, for it is known that its situation, even in its privileged sectors, is permanently conditioned by the situation of the more numerous and more exploited strata.

“Comunidades” [A]

Furthermore, there has been an improvement in the situation of even those peasants who already possessed land before the agrarian reform, as is the case with many “comunidades.” The “comunidades” are generally to be counted among the most impoverished sectors of the peasantry. Their number before the agrarian reform (1950 census) reached 3,779, with a total of 320,818 members of “comunidades.”

As a result of the permanent appropriation of their lands by the neighboring landowners, the “comunidades” have been left with the poorest land, with the poorest yield. Furthermore, they bear in themselves the germs of their own dissolution: in many of them, each peasant is the owner of his plot of land, there remaining in common only the pasture-lands, and there have been formed strata of rich, middle, and poor peasants who have the worst and smallest plots. The first-named have gone on increasing their properties at the cost of the last, with loans, etc. What is more, the “comunidades” are accustomed to give work to peasants from outside themselves, the upper stratum thus transforming itself into an exploiter of outside labor – very ill-paid, of course.

Now these “comunidades” were under the permanent pressure of the neighboring landowners, under the exactions of the authorities of the provincial or departmental capital (police, judges, mayors, et al.) and of the middlemen for the sale of their products, and lacked any support or aid. With the growth of peasant power since the April revolution, all these abuses, when they have not been entirely abolished, have been driven back very considerably, and the Indian of a “comunidad” enjoys a series of liberties and possibilities that were previously denied him, including access to the market (although the abuses of the middlemen have not stopped).

Stagnation of the Revolution

Nevertheless, in spite of the great gains achieved, the peasantry has been deeply affected by the stoppage in the advance of the revolution. The whole weight of the country’s backwardness, which the petty-bourgeois leadership has been powerless to overcome even in part, continues to lie on the peasant.

Under the pressure of the peasants themselves, one of whose most burning and constant concerns is education, the government have made a certain effort to combat illiteracy, that had been totally neglected by the regimes of the oligarchy, have built schools in the countryside, have considerably increased the number of primary teachers, etc.

But in face of the hair-raising figures on illiteracy – 70% of the population – what has been done is very little. Such illiteracy cannot be radically fought against from above, by merely official action, without appealing to a mobilization of the peasant masses themselves for this goal, and, above all, without raising in large measure the material standard of living. The great peasant masses remain isolated from the main circuit of culture. Furthermore, at no moment has the problem of teaching the peasantry to read and write in its own native language (and not in Spanish, indeed a foreign language for them) been faced up to – the only effective way of fighting illiteracy not only among the children but among the whole adult peasantry. [8]

Such social gains as social security have not reached the rural regions. Medical and hygienic care continue to be very deficient. Infant mortality reaches one of the highest levels in Latin America: 150 per thousand up to one year, and 30.36 from one to four years, for the country as a whole – which presupposes a still higher level for the rural regions, where there is practically no medical and hygienic care.

The food diet is poor in an absolute sense, inferior to that of the Latin American countries of the lowest consumption levels. According to statistics, in the peasant families of the Altiplano (poor zones), the following is the annual per capita consumption of the main foods in the diet: wheat, 31 lb; meat, 9 lb, 4 oz; potatoes, 84 lb, 4 oz; corn, 64 lb, 8 oz; sugar, 2 lb, 3 oz; rice, 1 lb, 1 oz. [9]

The extremely low per capita income, in comparison with other under-developed countries in Latin America, has already been pointed out. Other data aid in determining the social situation of the peasantry. The lack of roads and bridges to connect the zones of production with the market is very great. What is more, transportation is expensive: a Bolivian peasant pays more to travel with his products in a truck than does a US passenger in a latest-model bus. [10]

The scanty electrification of the country is felt not only in industry and the mines, but especially, as is logical, in the countryside: 70% of the Bolivian population does not enjoy the benefits of electricity, a percentage in which the entire peasantry is included. [11]

Available Land

The problem of the land is posed in some zones under a new aspect: that of the excess of population for the available land. This is aggravated by the fact that agricultural zones of potentially great richness are cut off and isolated from the consumption markets (for example, the upper Beni, 62.5 miles from La Paz). In some regions of the Altiplano and the valleys a high demographic pressure exists. Whereas in Santa Cruz there is a density of 2.1 inhabitants per square mile, in Cochabamba this figure rises to 25.4, in La Paz to 20.2, and in Sucre to 15.5. These averages, however, do not give a real idea of the density in the zones of greatest agricultural concentration: for example, in the Go-chabambine provinces of Jordán, Quillacollo, and Punata, the density reaches respectively 170.9, 155.4, and 160.6 per square mile. Furthermore, the increase in population in the Altiplano and in the valleys, where no more land is available (unless the methods of cultivation, irrigation, etc, are changed), is 25,000 persons a year, who can be only partially absorbed by other zones or other activities. The government’s colonization plans, which consisted simply in moving peasants from the Altiplano and the valleys to the eastern plains of Santa Cruz (and lately to tropical zones like Caranavi), and there just abandoning them to their fate – equally with those who stayed in their original places, for that matter – failed, logically, on account of the inadaptability and desertion of the persons moved.

This demographic pressure is being translated in the valley of Cochabamba by a new form of the land problem, in which the young people, when they start a family, demand a new redivision of the already existing little plots of about 2½ acres, while the old people, logically enough, refuse to subdivide even further areas that are already so small. This new sharing-out is called by the peasants the “iguala” [roughly, “an even divvy”], and is one of the sources of conflicts in the valley.

All these problems have received only very small-scale attention from the government. Not only because of their capitalist policy of abandonment of the masses’ needs, but also because of a lack of real communication between the masses and the bourgeois power personified by the state: the raising of the economic, social, and cultural living standards of the great masses of the rural regions, with all their backwardness and the problems this pulls along in its wake, is a task that is impossible without incorporating the initiative of the masses themselves. It cannot be done from above, even if the government felt any interest: it runs up against insurmountable walls.

The government have entrusted to the agencies of imperialism the carrying out of experiments in some of these aspects: the Servicio Agrícola Interamericano (SAI) for production techniques, and the Servicio Cooperative Interamericano de Educación (SCIDE) for education. Both have wasted the country’s money, with a swollen bureaucracy, with very little effective results, and with an abundance of imperialist propaganda, which increases the hostility with which they are received in the countryside. [12]

Some peasant unions in the valley of Cochabamba are maintaining schools, run by juntas formed by the peasants themselves, with much better results than those of the SCIDE, for they are based on the needs, problems, and psychology of the peasant himself. “Comunidades” of the Altiplano also have schools and hire teachers with their own funds, but these are so scarce, and so little adequately trained teaching personnel is available, that the teaching is very backward, and the children take years to learn to read and write.

Political Situation in the Countryside

The Peasant Revolution

The peasantry did not participate directly in the insurrection of 9 April 1952. But the revolution had deep repercussions in the rural regions. Above all, the destruction of the army opened the gates so that the peasants, without the threat of being massacred by the forces at the orders of the landowning oligarchy, might hasten to seize the land.

The revolutionary method, from below, arms in hand, used to carry out the agrarian reform, showed itself once more to be the only effective one for the sharing-out of the land and the destruction of agrarian feudalism.

The peasant mobilization, furthermore, gave the mass backing that was indispensable for the support of the workers’ gains achieved by the April insurrection. The COB [Bolivian Trade-Union Federation] was transformed into the expression and the instrument of the worker-peasant alliance sealed after April.

Together with the occupation of the land, a wave of peasant unionism developed. And, together with the unions, peasant militia were formed, with a de facto centralization in Ucureña, the capital of the agrarian reform.

The duality of power established in the country after the April revolution between the capitalist government and the trade unions was and is expressed more deeply than elsewhere in the peasant unions and their militia. In the zones of the greatest peasant concentration and tradition, such as the valley of Cochabamba, a real state within a state was formed. Within its confines, the peasant unions exercised and continue to exercise an authority superior to that of the state: they distribute land, dispense justice, decree judgments, possess militia and places of arrest, authorize or deny transit, and even marry and divorce.

On the disappearance of the latifundia and the expulsion of the big landowners from the countryside, the unions seemed to have lost their reason for existence, if they are to be understood as organs of economic struggle of the toilers of the countryside against the boss that exploits them. But the unions took on a new characteristic: that of being the instruments of defense of the gains that had been won, first of all, the land; and that of being the deliberative and executive organisms for all the problems of peasant life, organs of the peasants’ power. The arming of the peasants and the militia transformed them into one of the pillars of agrarian unionism.

In reality, this mass arming is the force that has prevented or checked the blows of the counter revolution in trying to regain power, and, by its very existence, the deep roll-back of the revolutionary gains that the capitalist government would have desired.

The peasantry has entered into the national political life through its unions. The winning of universal franchise, in the peasant consciousness, is linked up with its political expression through the union. The union or agrarian centre is the central point for any political participation or intervention by the peasantry.

This is one of the most profound and irreversible advances of the Bolivian revolution. Since the April revolution, there has arisen and been formed in Bolivia a peasant different from the traditional one: a peasant who, even with limitations, intervenes in trade-union life, possesses his rifle or sub-machine-gun, has won his own land, feels himself to be an active part and support of the revolution, which did not arrive from above but was made, by himself in the countryside and defended by himself, arms in hand, more than once; he has, collectively, a certain degree of centralization and of political life through the agrarian unions and of participation in, the COB and feels himself to be a factor of some weight in the political life of the nation. This peasant has already ceased to be that backward and apathetic base on which the reaction has always counted for support or protection in order to hem in the proletariat.

The Struggles in the Countryside

Several years of the agrarian reform without a noticeable increase in their income, in their material living levels, with the paralysis in the delivery of title-deeds, with the abuses and personal enrichment of the MNR peasant leaders, etc, went on stimulating discontent in the countryside. It was not for all this that the April revolution had been made.

In an apparently isolated form, a new series of peasant struggles began since 1957 and 1958.

* * *

The evolution of the struggles in the countryside formed one of the principal events of the revolution during 1959. This evolution can be graphically summarized in the personal fate of the former Minister of Peasant Affairs, Vicente Alvarez Plata. In April he had to resign as a result of being repudiated by the peasantry of the entire country (which, in its repudiation of the minister, was in reality expressing its discontent with the policy of the government). In the following months he engaged in a campaign to split the peasant organizations of the Altiplano. In November, he was killed by the peasants of Atahuallpani (close to the Peasant Central of Achacachi), during one of his splitting tours at the service of Siles.

* * *

The death of Alvarez Plata is not an isolated deed. It is part of the armed struggle, of the beginning of the peasant war that is developing, from the north of Potosi in 1957–58 to the Cochabamba conflicts and the Achacachi struggles in 1959. Large quantities of weapons continue to pour into the countryside: the peasants are seeking to arm themselves by every means. This is not a matter of individual impulse but a collective tendency, which has the presentiment that new events and still graver clashes are approaching.

The restlessness and clashes in the rural regions do not have their real origins in the internal conflicts within the MNR, although these brought on the outbreak thereof. They are rather the expression of a deep discontent in the peasantry, which for the moment is finding no other outlet to show itself.

They are also the expression of the lack of any workers’ leadership that channels and offers a revolutionary way out for the peasants’ needs and demands. And they express, simultaneously with the combativity and new mobilization that are spreading among the peasantry, the beginning of a decomposition of the forces of the revolution, which, unable to find real ways out, are getting into confused clashes.

The new peasant mobilizations, the death of Alvarez Plata, the resistance to the army in Cochabamba, the “strong point” set up by the peasants in Achacachi [B] – these open a new stage in the political evolution of the peasantry. The rule of the government up till now has been based fundamentally on the separation and difference in levels between the workers’ and the peasants’ struggles, in control over the peasantry, in the de facto dislocation of the worker-peasant alliance by the Lechinist policy of abandoning the peasantry and sabotaging the alliance.

The bases for this rule are disappearing. The ever greater mobilizations are bringing the government directly face to face with the peasantry. The collapse of the Falange since its 19 April defeat is another element that forces the government to present itself as frankly opposed to the peasantry. By losing the Falange, the capitalist government have lost their most priceless instrument for bringing pressure to hold back and confuse the peasantry. They can no longer argue, as they used to do, that any worker or peasant mobilization objectively favors the putschists and brings the revolution into danger. They can no longer dangle the scarecrow of the Falange, which was especially used against the peasantry. Now it is the government who are forced to assume directly the role of holding back peasant advances. All this is speeding up the political evolution of the peasantry, is still further compromising the fundamental bases of the government’s stability, and is developing the preconditions for once more setting up the worker-peasant alliance.

Under these conditions, the best agent of Siles for his policy of holding back and dispersing the peasant forces is the Lechinist leadership, which is demonstrating as never before its treacherous and criminal role. The workers’ leadership, especially that of the miners, is the natural centralizer that the peasants need, all the more so in their present problems. The government’s greatest fear is the regroupment of the workers and the peasants. Its main goal is to keep up the dispersion and paralysis of the COB, to break up any attempt at reunification. For this, its agent is Lechinism, which is acting as. a supplement to the policy of Paz Estenssoro, and is consciously maintaining the division and separation of the workers’ struggles among themselves, of the peasant movements among themselves, and between the workers’ and peasants’ movements as a whole and the petty bourgeoisie.

This action of Lechinism, however, is possible only to the extent that a revolutionary leadership does not arise with sufficient strength, determination, and authority to carry out this regroupment. The objective situation, the development of consciousness among the peasantry and the proletariat, their growing confrontation with the government – all these tend to help such a leadership to emerge, to create better preconditions for it.

But only the concrete presence of the revolutionary Marxist leadership, that of the POR (Partido Obrero Revolucionario), even as a minority but in the fundamental places, can bring about the achievement of this perspective. It is the absence or weakness of this leadership that enables Lechinism to be able to continue its labor of sell-out and capitulation. It is this weakness which, in the last analysis, constitutes the main reason why the elements of stagnation and decomposition of the revolution are developing, why in the rural regions they are expressed by clashes among the peasants themselves and in the abandonment of positions already won.

The New Peasant Leadership

The peasant masses have resisted up till today, as the worker masses have done, on the basis of an unheard-of heroism, suffering incredible privations, and witnessing every day the desertion and capitulation of the leaderships. At a frightful level of underconsumption, the peasant and worker masses have defended their revolution, have taken up arms dozens of times against the government themselves, to defend their gains. Their action and armed presence have, fundamentally, prevented the MNR itself from establishing the capitalist dictatorship, as it tried to do with Siles, with Cuadros Quiroga, with Guevara. The masses “cut down to size” various candidates for dictatorship, and not only Unzaga de la Vega.

But the government and imperialism also have gone on speculating on the situation of hunger and impoverishment, on unemployment, on low agricultural production, to make the workers and the revolution retreat. The fundamental motive for the actions of the government has not been economic but political. Their main goal today is not to increase production, but to liquidate the duality of power, to put an end to the power of the unions and militia, especially in the rural regions and the mines. Even undertakings like the various colonizations (Santa Cruz, Caranavi, etc) had as their unconfessed purpose the creation of a counterweight to the poor and combative peasantry of the Altiplano and the valleys. In this purpose, they have, for the moment, failed.

The fall in production and in living standards is a new factor of dispersion of the workers and peasants, and the government want to disperse these forces by any means at all. They demonstrated this by provoking various mine strikes (that of March 1958 was the clearest example), and they demonstrate it in the countryside, where their policy is that of weakening the peasantry by hunger in order later to surround it by arms. This policy is dictated by imperialism. That is the condition it poses for continuing, by its aid, to maintain the MNR in power.

The agrarian reform, made from below, went much further than was suitable or acceptable for the capitalist regime. In order to re-establish the full functioning of capitalism, the agrarian reform must retreat, the countryside – like the mines – must again become a field for capital investment, capitalism must return to the rural regions. Not, this time, in the old form, which cannot be resuscitated, but by eliminating the peasant unions and militia, and clearing the way for a new capitalist concentration of agrarian property; it is not by chance that the MNR theoreticians insist on taking the Mexican revolution as the example of their future.

The peasant movement needs a new national leadership. But the peasantry cannot by itself generate a new centralized leadership. Already at the previous stage it was the petty bourgeoisie that imposed a leadership from above, but basing itself on the Lechinist workers’ leadership. The appearance and acceptance of a new workers’ leadership will open the way to centralize a new peasant leadership on a national scale.

Whatever may be the vicissitudes through which peasant organization and struggles may pass, the capitalist petty bourgeoisie can no longer impose on them from above a more or less viable leadership, nor can capitalism liquidate or uproot the peasant revolution in Bolivia. But a new orientation, a national organization of the struggles, and a national peasant leadership, can emerge only from the junction of the permanent peasant combativity with a new revolutionary proletarian leadership.

The evolution of the peasant situation, of the political consciousness of the peasantry, have been a process of extraordinary richness in this most recent period. In it there exist in potential great possibilities for a new development of the revolution and of the worker-peasant alliance, but at the same time serious dangers of an increase in the decomposition and disorientation of the revolution.

The decisive factor for ensuring that the outcome of this crisis is a revolutionary one and for avoiding a deeper trend towards decomposition and even defeat, is the intervention of the revolutionary Marxist leadership, of the POR. This intervention is the guarantee of once more soldering and re-erecting the worker-peasant alliance, with a programme that corresponds to the present problems and struggles, through the main worker and peasant unions, that are the ones which will bring a definitive solution to the destiny of the revolution.

December 1959

[The present article is, for reasons of space, being published in two parts. The second part, referring more concretely to the programme of transition and the revolutionary party’s tasks in the rural regions, will appear in our next issue. We have, furthermore, considerably reduced section III, also for space considerations, while trying to retain those aspects of the greatest general interest.]

Updating Addendum

In recent months the situation in Bolivia has been affected by important events. Since the present article was written (December 1959), not only have the peasant mobilizations continued to go forward, but the workers also have succeeded in hitting serious blows at their class enemy, strengthening the outlook for a new stage, for new opportunities to pull the revolution out of the stagnation in which the petty-bourgeois leadership of the MNR has been confining it.

Among these events there are to be noted:

  1. The Proclamation of Achacachi, made by the peasants of that region in defense of their land, adopting a series of programmatic points from the POR, and under that party’s inspiration.
  2. The armed victory of the miners’ militia in Huanuni, where an insurrection of the Huanuni miners against the trade-union apparatus – terrorist in nature, and armed to the teeth – set up by the government and by the MNR right wing (Guevara), received the support of the miners’ militia of Catavi-Siglo XX, and ended in the complete triumph of the workers.
  3. The candidacy of Victor Paz Estenssoro–Juan Lechin, announced in February at the MNR Convention, for the next presidential elections (June 1960), which won out over the candidacy of the MNR right-wing headed by Guevara.
  4. The defeat in March of a Guevarist coup d’état against the candidacy of Paz–Lechin, carried out by a sector of the carabineros, who had to surrender after a day of fighting against a sector of the army and the union militia.

The above-mentioned events have for the moment sealed the defeat of that MNR wing that is most tied up with imperialism. The Paz–Lechin candidacy has been strengthened, and it is certain that it will carry with it an important sector of the masses, since the peasants still nurture hopes about Paz Estenssoro for a solution of their problems, and the workers see in Lechin their own leader raised to be the vice-president of the Republic.

Nevertheless, although the MNR may thus for a time maintain its control over the masses, that control will be exercised under very different conditions from those of the past. Not only have the masses worked up intense struggles against the MNR government headed by Siles, but also victories such as that at Huanuni, won by themselves without any aid or support from above, have strengthened their confidence in themselves, and powerfully increased their independence toward the official apparatus of the ruling party and the capitalist state.

The Paz–Lechin candidacy, while giving a certain extension of time to the MNR, means an encouragement for the struggles of the masses; and it is this that is feared by imperialism, the MNR right wing, the oligarchy, and Paz Estenssoro himself. That is why the right-wing opposition has gone to the extent of armed insurrection; and new pressure and struggles may be expected right up till the elections. In this sense, the defeat of the Guevarist coup d’etat means another factor of encouragement for the masses, of weakening of the pro-imperialist tendencies and of Paz’s own position as a brake on the masses.

Because these facts are simultaneously encouraging the workers and peasants to carry forward the struggle to get out of the stagnation in which the revolution now is, Paz Estenssoro will not be able, from the presidency, to provide any real solution to the deeper problems of the revolution. The capitalist regime in Bolivia no longer works, yet Paz Estenssoro, with the help of Lechin, intends above all to defend that regime against the assaults of the masses.

All the problems of agrarian reform, of nationalization of the mines, of workers’ control, of the living levels of the toilers, etc., are posed with greater or lesser sharpness in the next period, in the face of a workers’ and peasants’ movement which, although electorally supporting Paz Estenssoro, has developed a deep critical spirit and a great confidence in its own strength, concentrated and organized in the mass worker and peasant unions and in the armed militia.

To this must be added, as an element in the masses’ development, not only the colonial revolution as a whole, but, much more concretely, the example of the Cuban revolution, which has enormous repercussions in the consciousness of the Bolivian masses.

In the inevitable crisis and confrontation with the masses to which the MNR – this time with Paz Estenssoro and Lechin (its last reserves of prestige) – will find itself led, it is the POR which is called on to put itself at the head of the masses, offering an answer in the form of a programme and an organization for the needs for which the masses are mobilizing in this whole period, and which can find an adequate solution only along the path of struggle for the workers’ and peasants’ government, and its establishment in fact.

All the problems of the peasants’ revolution raised in this article will arise even more acutely in the next period, in the face of the incapacity of the capitalist regime and its “left” (Paz Estenssoro–Lechin) to bring to them the slightest effective solution.


1. Unless otherwise indicated, all figures in this article are taken from El desarrollo economico de Bolivia, a study made by the Economic Comission for Latin America, United Nations (Comisión Economica para America Latina, CEPAL) in 1957. It is difficult or impossible to obtain more recent statistics that are reliable and well-organized.

2. Solomon Adler, La Economía China, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1957.

3. Agriculture could, within a short time, not only completely satisfy national consumption, but also provide foreign exchange by means of various export items (some of which are exported today on a limited scale): rubber, chestnuts, coca, coffee, cocoa, pyrethrum, tea, quinine, vanilla, etc.

4. The CEPAL describes this phenomenon as follows: Among the causes at the origin of the backwardness of agriculture in Bolivia, there must be mentioned in the first place the system of land-holding which was in effect until August 1953, the date on which the decree of agrarian reform was issued. The latifundist and semi-feudal system existing until that date proved to be almost completely impenetrable to the advances of agricultural technique, and in the majority of the estates the use of extremely antiquated methods of exploitation persisted, while the peasant continued to have miserable living standards. The estate-owner – usually absentee – unloaded his responsibility on to a bailiff, who had no more technical knowledge than his employer, and who tried to force production out of land that was steadily more exhausted without concerning himself about restoring to it its lost fertility. The application of the minimum norms of animal health or plant genetics, and the use of fertilizers and soil-conservation methods, were virtually unknown practices. In the same way, the tools of labor were generally very primitive, similar to those used in colonial times. For his part, the peasant, who had to devote between two and four days of the week to toiling on the owner’s land, as a compensation for the use and products of a little plot or “sayana,” generally followed the same methods of production as these used on the estate. The result of all this was very low unit yields, which contributed to giving agricultural activity a mere subsistence character, without any definite market purpose. The great mass of the peasantry took for sale in the urban centres only a minimum fraction of its production, for the purpose of obtaining the monetary means to buy those goods that it could not produce on its own land. For this same reason, the native almost never set any value on his personal labor, which often prevented enterprises of a market type from competing with him.

To this there must be added the personal obligations and unpaid labor of a feudal type owed by the tenant and his family to the landowner and the “estate mansion,” and his situation as a serf bound to the land, much more oppressive and onerous than the simple labor-rent relationship indicated here.

5. On 20 December 1958 the Central de Ucureña approved the following resolution, to be presented by its fraternal delegation to the IIIrd Peasant Congress in La Paz:


Despite the passage of more than five years since the promulgation of the Fundamental Law of Agrarian Reform, it has not been applied with due despatch, thus causing, by this delay, demoralization and distrust in its benefits, and creating an oppositional atmosphere which is put to its own profit by the reaction for its purposes of trying to win back power.

Agrarian procedure is very costly and slow because of the intervention of too many functionaries, slowing down the timely application of the law.

A claim deposited five years ago with the Junta Rural has gone through a regular Calvary, and in the majority of cases still continues its heavy-footed advance.

After the two required hearings have been held, the plans and reports of the experts are obtained, and brought before the Agrarian Judge, where, the claim having been formalized, the proof of the demand is brought forward, with the presentation of ownership deeds, a certificate of the tax-list value of the estate, and the testimony of witnesses.

Once judgment has been pronounced, the records are presented to the National Council of the Agrarian Reform, where they are taken over by one of the Secretariats. Then they go on to the Technical and Juridical Department for the respective reports needed by the officer called the Vocal Relator in order to prepare his Writ of Judgment. Once this has been approved and the parties notified, either of them may have special recourse to an appeal for reconsideration, the applicability or inapplicability of which is resolved by the Plenum of the Council, which is difficult to obtain.

In the hypothetical case that the case has succeeded in getting through all this red tape, it is turned over to the Ministry of Rural Affairs, where, after a report by the Legal Section, a Supreme Resolution is prepared, which is transmitted to the services of the President of the Republic, a higher instance where it undergoes a new revision by their Legal Section, which can annul, at any moment and for any motive, everything that has been previously accomplished.

Once the respective Supreme Resolution has been decreed, the case goes back once again to the Ministry, and thence to the Council; from the Council to the original Agrarian Tribunal, for a new examination, which very often takes place with no reference to the Supreme Resolutions.

Once the reexamination has been carried out, everything goes back to the Council for drawing up the title-deed, for which purpose the records go to the Technical Department to have the lines of demarcation drawn up, and to the Title Section to have the title-deed made act.

The title-deed having been drawn up, it is signed by the President of the National Council of the Agrarian Reform, and then taken to the President of the Republic, with whose signature it returns once more to the Council.

Lastly, the title-deed is retained until a certain date is reached, and, contrary to the provisions of Article 103, overelaborate commissions are named for the delivery of the title-deeds, involving immense expense for the National Treasury (in order to use as a pretext later for the non-existence of funds for really necessary and urgent expenses), with the aggravating circumstance that often definitive possession is not even established by a document in legal form.

A certification of the essential legal papers, with the original of the title and an inscription in the Register of Rural Taxes, will serve each party involved as sufficient official title, the two parties being allowed to separate out their original documents.


Because of this slowing-down of justice, there exist fundamental differences between the present situation and labof on the parcels of land, and the data produced by the procedure, with the result that the Writs of Judgment and the Resolutions are different from the reality, aside from the fact that there have been caused great expenses that have upset the peasant’s economy –

Be it resolved:

Sole article: To ask the State Authorities to shorten agrarian procedure, making il; more dynamic and effective, so that it may not be outstripped by the revolutionary process.

6. In a February 1957 interpellation to the Minister of Rural Affairs on the development of the agrarian reform, Deputy Lopez Avila (MNR) stated the matter as follows:

Sometimes I have thought, with deep grief and sadness, of the embarrassing situation of the peasant enjoying title to his property, if political contingencies should produce a change in the present revolutionary regime. Many of them have received title, many of them have occupied their land, but can it be said that the peasants can defend and maintain their property rights forever? I think not; I am pessimistic about this sort of thing, fellow deputies, for the following reasons: by Decree 03525 of 15 January 1953, disposition was made that the payment that the peasants must take to the landowners as a result of the agrarian expropriation must be carried out by means of the system of 25-year bonds; in the meantime, all the plots of land, the harvests, the tools, remained legally mortgaged to the Agricultural Bank of Bolivia. And who was it that was to issue the bonds? The state, under the guarantee of the signatures of the Controller-General of the Republic and the Treasurer-General of the Nation. Very well, fellow deputies, these bonds do not exist; therefore, the peasant has not paid the value of the land granted him by the agrarian reform. So then, when, from the classic viewpoint of contracts, the cancellation or payment of the thing or goods transferred is lacking, the contract is imperfect, and the agreement has not been formally carried out (Article 19 of the Political Constitution, and Article 290 of the Civil Code). It must be added that Deputy Lopez Avila is a landowner in Chuquisaca ...

7. An FAO expert, A. Quezada (Estudio socio-economico y agropecuario de la provincia Dalence, quoted by the CEPAL) describes as follows the livestock situation in the Altiplano, Department of Oruro:

There are no enclosures or special pasture areas; no selection of pasturage is made; there is no rotation of pasture-crops; no forage has been introduced except barley; there are no silos; basic notions about the feeding of animals are unknown; there are no pure-bred animals; the peasants have not even the elementary genetic or veterinary understanding. As a result of the aforementioned negative factors, the weight and productivity of the animals are excessively low. In this zone it requires approximately 30 to 62 acres to support one cow; from 10 to 20 for a llama; from 5 to 10 for a sheep. All the animals that are bred are native; any exotic ones have become acclimated and degenerated. They are given scarcely any salt; they receive neither vaccination nor medication. The climate, especially the dryness, is also unfavorable.

In this zone a cow gives birth, on an average, every three years. It is milked for one month, with a yield of about one quart of milk a day. Sheep are shorn every two years, with a yield of 1½ pounds of wool per head. The ewes produce, on the average, one lamb per year. They are milked for two weeks, with a daily yield of about 3½ ounces of milk per head. There are few hogs. Their condition is lamentable, as can be demonstrated by how little weight they reach (a maximum of 77 pounds). That is to say, they have all the characteristics of purely subsistence livestock.

8. Asthenio Averanga M., in Aspectos generales de la población boliviana, 1956, p. 94, demonstrates, in statistical tables with corresponding graphs, the direct correlation between the population that speaks Spanish and that which can read and write, province by province: the respective curves follow almost parallel trajectories. [The main native languages are Quechua and Aymara.]

9. A. Quezada, op. cit., consumption of a typical Indian family of Dalence (Oruro).

10. J. Roy Alvarez (a UN technician), Revista de la Facultad de Economía de Oruro, no. 10–18:

A passenger who travels in the back of a truck, seated as best he can manage on its freight and unprotected from the weather, pays 8 dollar-cents per kilometre [13 dollar-cents per mile]. In the United States, the bus passenger, with a reclinable seat and air conditioning, pays about ten dollar-cent per mile.

11. It is of interest to quote the figures of the CEPAL on electrical consumption compared to other countries, as an indication of the level of general development. In the following table, for Bolivia and Chile there has been discounted the industrial consumption of the big mines, but not the corresponding mining population. Figures are of annual kWh per inhabitant in 1954: Bolivia, 57; Uruguay, 359; Argentina, 339; Chile, 329; Brazil, 205; Cuba, 174; Colombia, 157; Peru, 148; Ecuador, 64; Dominican Republic, 55; Nicaragua, 45; El Salvador, 40; Paraguay, 33.

12. Lucha Obrera (no. 102, first half of January 1959) recorded the following information:

The peasants of Ucureña have approved a resolution to be presented by its fraternal delegation to the Peasant Congress in La Paz, judging the labors of the Servicio Agricola Interamericano (SAI): that “it goes along without any control” without fulfilling the plans foreseen. The resolution shows that the SAI has not increased agricultural production; that it has not directly taught the peasants any improvements in cultivation; that it has no aided in obtaining modern technical tools and means of labor that make agricultural mechanization possible.

That besides not having fulfilled these projects, the SAI has pushed aside national agronomic engineers, and used an incompetent foreign element that is settled in the principal capitals of the Republic and in the United States, visiting only on very rare occasions the place of their work, the countryside, of whose needs they are ignorant, as they are of the idiosyncrasies of the Bolivian Indian.

That the SAI has a many-branched bureaucratic plant that is vegetating in offices with luxury and comfort imported from the United States, while the Bolivian Indian is struggling in a daily fight against drought, hail, phytoptera, dust-storms, frosts, ticks, the steady erosion of the land, and other calamities, without any of the technical leadership, which is, however, so trumpeted and publicized, with a profusion of photographs that are a fiction and a snare.

That the SAI has granted scholarships to its own employees so that they may go through the different states of the Colossus of the North, wasting Bolivian money that could be used for the practical solution of the basic problems of agriculture, seeing that the scholarship-holders have brought back no benefits to the country on their return from their tours.

That the SAI has covered up for all the big landowners, who, as a revenge for the agrarian reform, are sabotaging it.

Editor’s Notes

A. “Comunidad”: a form of collective land property and work, inherited from the Incas. It is a survival of primitive communism which has undergone an advanced process of degeneration.

B. See Fourth International, No. 8, Winter 1959–1960.

Adolfo Gilly Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 26 March 2016