Planes, Trains, Automobiles (and a Canal): Dreaming of Mobility in the Borderlands of Amazonia and the Gran Chaco

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 2:30 PM
Madison Room A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Benjamin Nobbs-Thiessen, Arizona State University
From 1931-1934, the engineer Miguel Rodríguez wrote a series of letters to Bolivian President Daniel Salamanca requesting manpower and funding for a plan he believed could secure the nation’s future sovereignty along its contested frontier with Paraguay. Rodríguez hoped to build a massive canal to divert the Rio Grande - which passed near the frontier city of Santa Cruz - from its natural outlet in the Amazon. He would send the river hundreds of kilometers across the Gran Chaco and into the Rio de la Plata basin. With this act of patriotic engineering landlocked Bolivia would finally have access to sea and neglected Santa Cruz would emerge as the center of a re-configured spatial and economic order.

In the midst of the Chaco War, the Rio Grande canal project never moved beyond the planning stage. Yet Rodríguez’s failed project is one a plethora of hopeful infrastructure initiatives that sought to transform Bolivia’s lowlands. From highway networks connecting tropical frontier to Andes to railway links with neighboring Brazil and Argentina, the history of lowland development in Bolivia is intimately connected to dreams of mobility and frustrations regarding its absence. In this paper I explore that “infrastructural imperative” by bringing a diverse group of sources into dialogue. These include films documenting migration along a new highway; editorials denouncing the shortcomings of a new railway; to missionary accounts of evangelizing “uncontacted” frontier indigenous communities by Cessna. Some spoke of Bolivia’s transport network as a series of “death trails” while settlers invoked family metaphors, claiming that in the absence of roads they had been “abandoned” or “left as orphans” by the state. As I argue these travelers, boosters and critics helped construct a powerful imaginary around infrastructure that reveals the broader contours of frontier development and state formation in twentieth-century Latin America.

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