Oppressed But Not Defeated: Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui

Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui’s Oppressed but Not Defeated, on the struggles of Aymara and Quechua peasants in the highlands and western valleys of the Bolivian Andes, focuses on the creation of peasant unions after the 1952 revolution by the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario.

Her book is a concise collection of essays written in collaboration with Bolivian peasant unions, which speak to the historical process of social organization and political struggle around land reform and indigenous rights in the Bolivian highlands. Chapters focus on political consciousness, historical memory, and the ability to create new forms of resistance that, in many ways, support an emphasis on both the role of outside organizations as catalysts for peasant mobilization as well as the argument for viewing indigenous peasants as politically conscious actors in their own right.

Rivera presents a narrative of intensifying indigenous resistance to the encroachment of liberal oligarchs in the critical late nineteenth-century period of liberal reforms, covering the end of Indian tribute in the nineteenth century to the peasant resistance to the government of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR).

Through Rivera’s narrative arc, the reader sees peasant engagement with the political process at every turn, especially in the rejection of MNR policy over what it saw as liberal reforms that were antagonistic to indigenous institutions. Her comparison of the peasant union movement that grew out of the highland Aymara regions with the lowland Quechua movement also provides insightful detail about the differences between ethnic groups (97-98). Like Zamosc, Rivera illustrates the complexities of peasant and indigenous communities, showing that they cannot be treated as a monolithic class (101-02).

One of Rivera’s most intriguing contributions to the historiography of this movement is her development of a memory framework to explain how later social movements combined collective long-term memories of indigenous resistance to Spanish and liberal rule with short-term memories of more recent peasant unionization struggles (150). Although the MNR created the new unions in 1952 to benefit indigenous groups, they also tried to co-opt an essentially ethnic-based indigenous struggle into a class-based peasant one (155). Ultimately, the leaderships’ goal was to assimilate indigenous people into a ‘modern’ national culture, she says.

As Rivera’s work argues, the Kataristas and other groups who formed the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia were aware of their own history and actively used collective memories of the past to shape their vision for the future they were fighting for. In this respect, the highland Bolivian groups discussed by Rivera are similar to the traditional indigenous communities discussed by Zamosc in Colombia. Their vision of land reform had much to do with their historic vision of their rights under Spanish colonial rule. In contrast, the landless peasant and migrant minifundistas in Colombia without historic ties to the land seem to have shared more interests with liberal progressive policies similar to those promoted by the MNR in Bolivia. However, Colombia seemed to have a more dynamic agro-export economy than Bolivia during the mid twentieth century, which created intense competition for arable land and most likely contributed to the violent turn of events there.

Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Oppressed But Not Defeated: Peasant Struggles Among the Aymara and Qhechwa in Bolivia, 1900-1980 (Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1987).

By N. H. Gill
Chapel Hill, 2017

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