Republished with permission from the Hispanic American Historical Review
A coup overthrew the Bolivian government. The coup was spearheaded by the country’s racist oligarchy and backed by the United States, but it was also supported by portions of the Left, the labor movement, and the middle class. The latter groups had some legitimate grievances: for instance, the regime had sometimes treated dissent with a heavy hand and had made only limited progress toward transforming the country’s economic structure. Yet it had also facilitated major gains for workers, peasants, and indigenous people. It was those gains that drew the rage of the oligarchy and its allies in Washington. And it was the oligarchy that came out on top after the coup. Once in power it unleashed massive violence against those who resisted.
The year was 1946. Although the hyperlinks above are from 2019, the description applies equally well to the July 1946 overthrow of Colonel Gualberto Villarroel. The deposed government had sponsored a historic Indigenous Congress, decreed an end to forced labor in the countryside, promoted the formation of a mineworkers’ federation, and asserted greater state control over the mining industry. It also displayed some conservative tendencies, for instance in its hostility to leftists in the labor movement and its tight fiscal policy in the midst of declining real wages. The result was an unlikely coalition of opponents: capitalists, the middle class, and the US government, but also Stalinists and anarchists. On July 21 a mob killed Villarroel and hung his body from a lamppost in La Paz’s central plaza.
The leftists initially celebrated. In a series of manifestos in the weeks that followed, the La Paz anarchist federation wrote that the Villarroel regime had “reduced the people to a state of slavery.” It decried all previous politicians, who, “without distinction, have brought ruin to this country.” Anarchist-feminists in La Paz wrote that the “Popular Revolution” of July 21 had toppled “an absolutist tyranny” and had “definitively crushed the insolence, terror, and criminality” of the “Nazi-fascists obsessed with State power.” The anarchists predicted a brighter future of “accelerated revolutionary progress,” wherein any new would-be tyrant would “be swept away by the action of the pueblo.”
They were too optimistic. The regimes that held power for the next six years were brutally repressive, and the Left was the main target. When the anarchists forged a powerful interethnic coalition to confront the landed elite, the state responded by killing scores of them and decimating their organizations. The Stalinists, too, found that Washington and the Bolivian Right soon turned on them.
There are of course many differences between 1946 and 2019. Unlike Villarroel, Evo Morales was democratically elected. Evo had a much longer presidency. Villarroel did not have to contend with thousands of phony Twitter accounts spreading fake news. And Evo has so far escaped the lynch mobs.
But the parallels are striking. In each case the forces of domestic reaction and empire were abetted by a similar cocktail of circumstances. Each coup won support from many leftists and liberals, who wagered they could get their complaints addressed by a new government while preventing the Right from capitalizing on the situation. Some went so far as to equate an imperfect reformist government with the Far Right. They dismissed other leftist voices who critiqued the limitations of the existing government but stressed that a right-wing government would be far more harmful.
The overthrown governments were also weakened in part by their own errors. Both could have done more to foster participatory governance and grassroots leadership. Both failed to address the contradictions around them in a revolutionary way. This is not to say, as some are now saying about Evo, that they “brought it on themselves.” But some of the governments’ decisions did make them more vulnerable.
I think the lessons of 1946 have been widely ignored. This isn’t the first time they were ignored: similar dynamics contributed to the coup of 1964, which ushered in 18 years of military regimes. Both leftist activists and reformist governments should consider what these disastrous outcomes can teach us about how best to pursue progressive change amid conditions not of our choosing. There is no easy answer to the question of “what is to be done,” but 1946 and 1964 offer clues about what we should avoid doing if we don’t want to empower the Right.
The most urgent task right now, however, is not to dissect the causes of November 10 but to stop the repression being carried out by the de facto regime of Jeanine Áñez. International solidarity can play a major role here. In Bolivia, courageous resistance in the face of state terror has forced the Áñez regime to backtrack on some of its most authoritarian plans, while it persists with others. The resistance has forced significant concessions, though many grassroots leftists are wary of regime promises.
The Áñez regime will end. But dozens of Bolivians have already paid with their lives. And whether there will be fair conditions for new elections is very much in doubt: the MAS party is in disarray, and the coup regime has harassed human rights monitors, threatened journalists, and removed critical coverage from state-owned media (most of the private media is of course hostile to the Left). What sort of regime will come next, and how much freedom of maneuver it will have, is unclear.
This article originally appeared in the Hispanic American Historical Review on December 18, 2019 and was part of a forum in which historians responded to the question, “What would you say is the key piece of historical context for understanding the contemporary political developments in Bolivia?” This article is republished here with permission.
Richard T. Chu, Five College associate professor in the history department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is teaching and conducting oral history projects in Springfield and Amherst, MA through his course “Asian-Pacific American History, 1850-present” (History 253). When asked about his motivation to document the lives of Asian Americans in Western Massachusetts, Professor Chu tells Past@Present, “Teaching about the history of racism and marginalization of Asian Americans over the course of my career at UMass has helped me realize that the field of Asian American Studies, which was born out of the activism in the 1960s against the Vietnam War and the fight for civil rights and against racial prejudice, should remain true to its activist roots, in that teaching ‘about’ Asian Americans means also ‘working in solidarity’ with them outside the classroom.”
Born and raised in the Philippines, Chu moved to the U.S. in 1992, and joined the UMass History department in 2004. His research and publications focus on Asian American history, the history of the Chinese and Chinese mestizos in the Philippines and of the different Chinese diasporic communities in the world, centering on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, empire, and nationalism. He started teaching Hist 253 as a general education course, focusing primarily on the history of Asian Americans in the whole nation. In Spring 2017, he started to add the civic engagement component to his course, and in Fall 2018, began teaching it as an honors course.
Roeun Chea’s interview, being shown at the culminating event December 8, 2018 at UMass Center in Springfield. Born in Cambodia, Chea was forced into a concentration camp under the reign of the Khmer Rouge, where he remained for three years. Now 50 years old, he came to the U.S. thirty years ago after spending three years in a Thai refugee camp. Access interview here.
When asked why he chose to focus his oral history projects on Springfield and Amherst, Chu says, “Springfield and Amherst chose me. These two cities have significant populations of Asian Americans, so it was but natural that the bulk of my work is focused on working with their communities.” Chu believes that it is important to come up with projects that would benefit both these communities and UMass students. That is why he is now engaged with the Bhutanese Society of Western Massachusetts; Bayanihan Association of America, Inc. (a Filipino-American association); the Regional Tibetan Association of Massachusetts; the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts; the Vietnamese Catholic Community of St. Paul’s Church in Springfield; and the Cambodian American community of Amherst. “Through the years, I hope to expand the outreach to other communities such as the Korean and Indian American communities, which have a significant presence in the Pioneer Valley,” adds Chu.
This semester you are leading a group of students in Springfield to document local history. They conduct oral history interviews to document Asian American community history in Springfield. Why did you decide to take this approach with your students?
This is the third semester that I have been conducting this oral history project with the Asian American communities in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. The reason for this approach is two-fold. First, this is a project that the communities identified as benefitting them. For many of these communities—unheard of and unknown by the majority—documenting the lives of their members is one way of getting their voices heard. Community leaders also see the widening gap between the first generation (many of whom went through war, genocide, and other traumatic events back in their home countries) and the next generation, and are concerned that, without preserving the voices of the older generation (many of whom do not speak English), succeeding generations will forget their own past which could result in the loss of their own sense of identity as “Asians” (or as “Bhutanese,” “Vietnamese,” etc.). Second, this project is something that my students can do in a semester.
What is the importance of teaching this course for the local history? In what ways does this course contribute to the people of Springfield?
In the Pioneer Valley, there are a growing number of Asian Americans in the last two decades. U.S. census records from 2010 have shown the Asian American community as having registered the highest percentage of population increase in the state of Massachusetts (47% from 2000-2010). Amherst and Springfield rank among the top 20 cities and towns in Massachusetts with the largest Asian American population. For instance, Springfield has 2,000 Vietnamese living in the city, although this figure is quite conservative. The actual number may be more like 4,000. Go to Springfield and you see neighborhoods with Vietnamese nail salons, restaurants, and grocery stores. There is a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, a Catholic parish, and a community center. Leaders of the Bhutanese (refugee) community estimate that there are currently 3,000 Bhutanese living in the cities of Springfield, West Springfield, and Westfield. In addition to these communities, there are Chinese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laos, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, and other ethnic Asians living in the Springfield and Pioneer Valley area. Thus, in order to enrich and complete our local histories, we need to document and recognize the lives and contributions, as well as the hardships and struggles, of these Asian Americans.
This sounds fascinating. How can other researchers, or people just generally interested in this history in the Valley, learn more about the history you are preserving?
At the end of the project, the videos are uploaded on to the website of the Special Collections and Archives Division of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library and hence made available to the public for research and other purposes, but most importantly, for us to learn about the life stories of Asian Americans living in our midst.
“Meet-and-Greet” event at UMass Center in Springfield with Asian American community leaders, November 2, 2019. Hist253H students have a preliminary activity before conducting their oral histories which brings them to listen to Asian American community leaders give the history and the challenges of their communities. Speaking before the class this Fall semester was Linda Hill, an officer of the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts and who holds a doctoral degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from UMass.
Your students conduct oral histories with residents of Springfield. Who are the interviewees? What are the challenges of documenting local history in Springfield?
The interviewees are members of the different Asian American communities in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. The leaders of these communities identify a member willing to share his/her life-story for the project. The interviewees so far are those who can speak English, as my students are not equipped to act as translators or interpreters for this type of project. This limits in a way whom community leaders can tap for the project.
One of the challenges therefore is the language barrier between my students and some members of these communities. In coming up with the idea of an oral history project, the community leaders also had in mind preserving the voices of the immigrant/first generation, such as members of the Bhutanese community whose families lived for generations in Bhutan before being driven out by an ethnic cleansing policy of the fourth King of Bhutan, then lived for 20 years in refugee camps in Nepal before coming as refugees to the U.S. starting in 2008. Many of these refugees (from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, to name a few) do not speak English, or very minimum English; and they are slowly dying out. But it is also their lives that community members want to preserve. So another challenge is finding appropriate translators/interpreters for such interviewees.
My Hampshire College colleague Professor Kimberly Chang and I, in collaboration with the Bhutanese Society of Massachusetts, have applied to the Mass Humanities Foundation for a grant to fund a Digital History Project that would train bi-lingual local Bhutanese youth on how to conduct oral histories with older members of their community. Through this project, we hope to not only empower members of the Bhutanese community with certain skills (video-recording, interviewing, etc.) but also help preserve the voices of their non-English speaking members.
Another challenge is getting the students from UMass to Springfield, due in terms of the distance between the two places and the lack of affordable transportation facilities to bring them there.
Lastly, some people who are immigrants or refugees are reticent to talk about their experiences, either out of fear of the authorities or trauma, or both. Hence, conducting these oral history projects can be a very sensitive issue, both for the students and the interviewees, but specially the latter. And I have to make sure that the students are equipped to handle uncomfortable or sensitive moments during the interviews because some questions may bring up traumatic or unpleasant memories.
What have been some of the powerful “moments” for you in this project?
There are many powerful moments, but here are three:
Toward the end of the semester the students present an edited 20-minute version of their interviews at the UMass Center in Springfield. This event brings together all the interviewees and their families, along with their respective community members and leaders; the students in the class; local officials such as Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman; and the Board members of the Asian American Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Members of the communities always express their gratitude and joy in being able to see one of them telling their life-story, and that these stories will be preserved for others to learn from. Witnessing the culmination of the collaborative efforts between the community members and my students in producing these videos always brings to me a sense of fulfillment in my vocation as a teacher.
When students tell me either during or after the semester how much they have learned from the course, or how they were transformed or inspired by it, that is a powerful moment for me.
Being nominated and then selected for the 2018 Community Hero Award conferred by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Asian American Commission was another powerful moment. It reaffirmed the significance and importance of my work.\
How has this kind of public history work changed your approach to other research and courses that you are teaching?
It has certainly expanded my area of research. My main research areas as a historian are U.S. empire, colonialism in the Philippines, and the Chinese diaspora. But one of my sub-fields is Asian American Studies. I have done some research on Asian American communities in the U.S. For instance, I have published with the Institute on Asian American Studies of UMass-Boston a demographic study on Filipinos in Boston/Massachusetts.
I have yet to write for publication about my work with the Asian American communities here in Western Massachusetts. I already have an outline of what to write and the editor of an Asian American journal has encouraged me to submit an article on the topic. But until I finish my next major monograph, which is on the Chinese in the Philippines during the first decade of American colonization (1898-1908), this project has been placed in the backburner, even as my collaborative work with these Asian American communities continues during the fall semesters when I teach this course. As a Five-College faculty sharing 50 percent of my time with the four colleges, I only get to teach this course at UMass once a year. I hope that I could teach this course every semester at UMass so as to continue my work with the communities, and to help build the department’s public history and oral history programs of the Department. In Spring semester 2020, I will be teaching this course at Smith College for the first time. In doing so, I hope to sustain the collaborations and continue the relationships that I have built with the different Asian American communities.
Are there other important or interesting aspects of this project that you could share with us?
As a public research and land-grant university, our university has a commitment and responsibility to use our resources and skills to reach out to people living around us, especially from the marginalized sectors, and for us to learn from and be enriched by them. My dream is to be able to institutionalize this course so that it can be taught every semester in order to not break this relationship with Asian American communities in the area, and that this becomes a core subject of our department with adequate funding for anyone to teach the course, especially if I am not around anymore to teach it. People whom I collaborate with in the various communities have told me how much they respect UMass, and that they wish that a stronger relationship could be built between UMass and local Asian American communities. I hope that this public history project is but a step toward developing that synergistic relationship that benefits these communities, our students, our University, the Pioneer Valley, and the whole state of Massachusetts.
Past@Present: In September, in connection with an upcoming exhibition at the National Building Museum, Professor Marla Miller undertook a trip to the borderlands separating the U.S. and Mexico. Upon her return, she gave a presentation to the department about this work, and now two of our graduate students are completing internships with the NBM to contribute to this research. Watch for more on this project from UMass Public History in 2020.
Marla Miller, on Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road (Dey Street Books, 2018)
In September, I had the privilege of accompanying National Building Museum curator Sarah Leavitt to El Paso, Texas, to contribute to the planning of their 2020 exhibition “The Wall/El Muro: What is a Border Wall?” Together we visited the National Border Patrol Museum, Chamizal National Memorial, and (easier said than done, but that’s a story for another time) International Boundary Marker #1, placed in 1855, in the aftermath of the US/Mexican War. We explored the Texas and New Mexico borderlands, crossing into Juarez and passing through several check-points across the region. We accompanied hardworking attorneys from Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center to the El Paso Processing Center, and observed asylum interviews at the Centro de Atención Integral a Migrantes in Juarez.
It is difficult to describe the emotional terrain these physical travels covered. The border is visible everywhere, a scar of steel and concrete across the Rio Grande Valley. A constant tension, even fearfulness, permeated our movements: particularly memorable was a moment when, lost and high over Juarez on an I-10 off-ramp, we were afraid that we were somehow accidentally crossing the border, even though that wasn’t really possible, and we as white history professionals with solid citizenship were never in any real danger. And yet our hearts raced, our relief palpable as we returned to surface streets. We felt keenly the weight of our privilege as we moved freely across these lands in ways that so many of the people around us could not.
As we traveled, I thought about books I have read or want to read to better understand this fraught subject. On the flight to Texas, I listened to the riveting podcast Border Trilogy, which explores the fascinating and difficult work Jason De Leon describes in The Land of Open Graves (University of California Press, 2015). I recalled the powerful study we brought out in our UMass Press Series “Public History in Historical Perspective,” Remembering the Forgotten War: The Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War, by Michael Scott Van Wagenen (UMass Press, 2012), which contemplates how that conflict appears in expressions of collective memory on both sides of the border. I planned to read other books Sarah recommended, including Carrie Gibson’s El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America (Grove Atlantic, 2019), and Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, by Porter Fox (Norton, 2018).
But my border reading began sooner than expected. As Sarah and I parted ways, I wanted to pick something up for the flight home. And Serendipity was kind, because there it was, in the airport bookshop: Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris (for a traditional review of the book, click here). Just then anything with “borders” in the title would have appealed, but Harris also promised insight into the Silk Road—a longstanding interest for this historian of material culture. This stunning memoir of Harris’ travels, on bicycle, with a childhood best friend, across Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet, Nepal, and India, and the extended contemplation about crossing borders of all kinds, was exactly what I wanted.
Harris’s lifelong fascination with exploration is rooted in her Ontario childhood, as she explored the land in, around, and beyond her family’s home. She eventually pursued graduate work in science, intending—as part of her lifetime affinity for difficult, unfamiliar horizons—to be part of the team that one day heads to Mars. But Mars, she realized, would only ever be encountered via the mediated environments necessary to sustain human life, and she wanted to be in and of the landscapes she traversed. Eventually, this meant travel — inspired by Marco Polo’s “The Description of the World” – along the Silk Road. By bike.
Harristakes readers along several journeys all at once, from her evolution from aspiring lab scientist, to historian, to traveler and writer. She narrates other trips made, by bicycle, across the US and abroad, as she traces this journey along the Silk Road and shares what she learned about herself, and what happens when the abstracts of international power relations play out on natural and cultural landscapes. Harris’ prose is downright lyrical, with long, thoughtful passages that range widely and comfortably across science, history, and philosophy. Lands of Lost Borders is many things: a travelogue, an adventure tale, a scholar’s contemplation of histories of exploration, and a meditation on science, global environments, and the impacts of political contestation on lands and communities.
A historian of science (which she studied formally at Oxford), Harris is inspired by, and critical of, other explorers and scientists (the career of Charles Darwin, in particular, gains scrutiny). For a reader focused on borders, Harris’ musings are powerful and provocative. She and her traveling companion were constantly traversing, navigating and evading borders and their accompanying tangible and bureaucratic infrastructures. The effect of these unseen lines across the very material landscape that she covered pedal by pedal offered constant opportunity for reflection. “We’re so used to thinking of nations as self-evident,” she writes (33), “maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure.” But in truth, borders are “ghost-like”—“a kind of haunting presence on horizons otherwise fenceless and patrolled only by the wind.” (33) In a passage that flows seamlessly from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 to 1882) to Hsu Yu (or Xu You, c. 2356–2255 BC), Harris—quoting the latter’s assertion that “Names are only the guests of reality”— proposes that “boundaries are little more than collective myths—fictions that a certain number of people, for a certain period of time, believe are fact” (115).
Harris’s ruminations resonated with our visit to Chamizal National Memorial, which honors the peaceful resolution of a border dispute. In the years following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, as the Rio Grande channel naturally shifted, so too did national land claims. A century of contention ended in 1962-63 when Presidents John F. Kennedy’s and Adolfo López Mateos resolved the dispute: the U.S. returned land to Mexico, and both nations together relocated four miles of the Rio Grande to a more stable, concrete channel. Land that Mexico transferred to the U.S. was set aside as Chamizal National Memorial, to celebrate the diplomatic success. When Harris asks, on the Aksai Chin, “What if borders at their most basic are just desires written onto lands and lives, trying to foist permanence on the fact of flux?” (33) she could just as easily be commenting on this effort to pin down the Rio Grande.
When asked, in an interview, about the overriding goal driving her work, Harris responded: “Dissolving the borders that divide people. . . waking people up to the fact that this is one small planet and nothing, truly nothing on it, exists in isolation.” “What happens in a factory in Bangladesh,” she continues, “matters in Canada, what happens to glaciers in Nepal matters in Fiji. We’re all complicit, we’re all connected. . . . I’d use unlimited resources to educate and inspire people – through art, literature, science – to recognize the complex interdependency of life on Earth, this pale blue dot we all call home.”
Lands of Lost Borders explores the consequences of such artificial propositions. “The problem with borders,” Harris proposes, “isn’t that they are monstrous, offensive, and unnatural constructions.” Rather, their menace is grounded in the same “evil that Hannah Arendt identified—their banality” (245). “We subconsciously accept them,” she continues, “as part of the landscape—at least those of us privileged by them, granted meaningful passports—because they articulate our deepest, lease exalted desired, for prestige and permanence, order and security, always at the cost of someone or something else. Borders reinforce the idea of the alien, the Other, stories separate and distinct from ourselves. But would such fictions continue to stand if most of us didn’t agree with them, or at least quietly benefit from the inequalities they bolster?”
In the end, it’s hard not to follow Harris to the end of her through-line. “The barbed wire begins here, inside us,” she concludes, “cutting through our very core” (245).