Autonomy and Spectacle: Violence, Agrarian Reform, and the Negotiation of Rule in Revolutionary Bolivia, 1958

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Bridgette Werner, University of Wisconsin–Madison
In January 1958, the townspeople of San Pedro de Buena Vista in Potosí Department, Bolivia, hunted down peasant leader Narciso Torrico and killed him in a macabre fashion on the grounds of an abandoned hacienda. After breaking his leg and blowing away part of his head with a homemade grenade, the townspeople decapitated Torrico and forced his pregnant widow to carry his severed head into the center of San Pedro, in a spectacle of violent vengeance. Torrico’s death sparked peasant retribution and the townspeople and peasants of the surrounding region spent much of 1958 trading acts of spectacular violence. The revolutionary state sent commissions charged with pacifying the peasants and townspeople alike, but often placed the blame for violence on peasant barbarity.

Torrico’s violent death and dismemberment formed part of a pattern of violence employed against the peasants’ newly empowered position under the 1953 Agrarian Reform. His violent end and the violence that followed, I argue, represented elites’ frantic scramble to retain power and preeminence in the countryside. At the same time, nearby in the Valle Alto of Cochabamba, José Rojas—a powerful peasant caudillo and ally of the revolutionary party—faced a crucial crossroads. Repeatedly called up by state authorities to pacify San Pedro, Rojas’s loyalties became divided. While previous scholarship has seen the Valle Alto unions’ and Rojas’s relationship with the revolutionary state as clear evidence of the state’s cooptation of Bolivian peasants, the 1958 pacification of Northern Potosí provides a powerful counterpoint to the cooptationist narrative. The spectacular violence exercised against Torrico and his widow came to form a central part of how Valle Alto peasants like Rojas held the state accountable to its ostensible commitment to peasant communities. My paper thus examines how peasants ostensibly coopted by state power continued to elide state agents’ control.

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