Ben Kohl: The Loss of a Scholar-Activist who Taught About Bolivia

By Eric Hershberg

This AULA blog post does not follow our standard format, but it is one that I hope will motivate readers to seek out some singularly insightful analyses of contemporary Bolivia.

Los marchistas del TIPNIS llegan a La Paz (19/10/2011) Photo credit: Szymon Kochanski / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Los marchistas del TIPNIS llegan a La Paz (19/10/2011) Photo credit: Szymon Kochanski / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

I was terribly distressed to learn that Temple University Professor Ben Kohl, a noted expert on Bolivia, passed away suddenly in late July, at the age of 59. I had the privilege of meeting Ben briefly on two occasions, on both of which he struck me as charming and intellectually lively. But I already knew of Kohl through his writings, which had taught me, and many of my students, a great deal about how and why Bolivian politics and society have evolved in such remarkable ways in recent years.  Faculty, students and non-academic audiences in Washington and beyond would be well served by surveying his writings, in part because of how effectively they make sense of a country with which the U.S. government has often related unproductively.

Most of Kohl’s work was co-authored with his journalist wife, Linda Farthing (he also collaborated with my CLALS colleague Rob Albro on a fine collection of articles on Bolivia that was published by Latin American Perspectives). Among their prolific writings on Bolivia, two books stand out as especially significant. Impasse in Bolivia and From the Mines to the Streets: an Activist’s Life in Bolivia established Kohl and Farthing as pivotal voices in shaping understanding of that Andean country’s politics and society.  Their work is unusual in the effectiveness with which it speaks simultaneously to advanced scholarly readers and to students and people in advocacy and policy circles who are engaged sympathetically with that country’s remarkable social movements and transformations.

What stands out for me about Impasse, aside from its deep and nuanced understanding of the fault lines dividing Bolivian society, is that it successfully blends attention to social dynamics and political mobilization at the micro-level with an appreciation for how those phenomena interact and reflect larger scale, deeply embedded social structures.  Written on the eve of Evo Morales’ rise to the Presidency, in the wake of several years of social and political “impasse,” the study combines ethnographic insight with sophisticated interpretation of macro-level historical and sociological processes.  Impasse in particular highlights how and why Bolivia took a decisively “indigenous turn” in its national politics beginning around 2000, and ably portrays the resistance that this elicited from long dominant elites. The book was an especially novel and eloquent contribution to the literature on Bolivia at a crucial juncture in the country’s history, a juncture that ushered in fundamental changes in the political system.

Mines, like Impasse, was written for more than a strictly scholarly audience, but it is a very different sort of monograph.  The autobiographical story told to Kohl and Farthing by labor activist Félix Muruchi Poma, and very intelligently framed for a foreign audience, brings to life aspects of contemporary Bolivia (and other parts of Latin America) that are rarely presented in such a compelling and readable form.  As noted in the brief bibliographic note at the conclusion of the book, several previous books provide historical accounts of issues and events covered in Muruchi’s story, but none of the English language literature does so in this “testimonial” genre.  That genre is difficult to pull off well, as Kohl acknowledged in an insightful article for the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, but this work is up to the task, and points to the activist side of Kohl and Farthing’s scholarship.  One is reminded, inevitably, of the classic I, Rigoberta Menchu, which focused on the life and politicization of an indigenous Guatemalan woman during a period that overlaps in part with that covered by Muruchi’s chronicle.  The many university faculty who assign the Menchu book for introductory Latin American Studies courses would do well to consider assigning this one alongside of it.

A number of Kohl’s recent articles and book chapters were aimed more strictly at scholarly audiences than were either Impasse or Mines. A 2012 essay published in Political Geography is the most insightful analysis I have encountered of the contradictions between what Kohl and Farthing label “resource nationalist imaginaries,” articulated in practice by strong social movements in Bolivia and more disparate actors in neighboring countries, and the circumstances of economies that remain as dependent as ever on revenues derived from natural resources. The study’s use of the theoretical concepts of “imaginaries” and “framing” strikes me as an especially valuable lens through which to understand the roots of social movement resistance to an economic model that has persisted despite the rise to power of Bolivia’s first indigenous President. Re-reading that piece as I was drafting this blog post, I am reminded of how Kohl’s passing is a great loss to those of us for whom innovative scholarship motivated by concerns about fairness and justice in Latin America is to be treasured, not unlike tin or gas or water for many Bolivians, as a precious commodity.

High Time for a U.S.-Bolivia Reset

By Rob Albro, CLALS Faculty Affiliate

President Evo Morales in a climate meeting at the University of Oslo | by Utenriksdept | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Evo Morales in a climate meeting at the University of Oslo | by Utenriksdept | Flickr | Creative Commons

Little has changed in the U.S-Bolivia relationship since each expelled the other’s ambassador and suspended full diplomatic ties in 2008.  Last month a Bolivian official accused the United States of trying to sabotage the administration of President Evo Morales, and Morales has not dropped his pugnacious anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Washington, for its part, has persistently criticized Bolivian anti-drug policies, while not acknowledging the failures of its own decades-long “war on drugs.”  As discussions surrounding Secretary of State Kerry’s January 24 confirmation hearing suggested, U.S. policy toward several Latin American countries – including Bolivia – is still on Cold War autopilot, continuing to use code-words like “socialism,” implicitly and incorrectly viewing the recent and historic changes in that country largely through the prisms of Venezuela and Cuba.

Along with many observers outside of Washington, the Bolivian government understands itself to be addressing long-standing demands to correct a historical lack of social inclusion, to institute a more participatory (and “plurinational”) democratic process, and to pursue economic sovereignty.  In notable contrast to Venezuela, with which Bolivia is often lumped together, the country’s long-marginalized indigenous majority is in the national political driver’s seat for the first time.  Despite Morales’s rhetoric to the contrary, Bolivia is far from rejecting the free market. It recently applied for full participation in MERCOSUR, and has welcomed foreign investment in its sizable petroleum and lithium deposits. Along with Peru and Ecuador, Bolivia has also sought ways to maintain economic growth while protecting the environment and avoiding unsustainable extractivist policies.  Bolivia’s is a hybrid approach: mixing an alternative democratic tradition domestically with the promotion of Bolivia Inc. globally.

It is past time for Washington to move on from its one-size-fits-all approach toward Andean countries, and to take more seriously the perspectives and priorities of their peoples and governments.  And Bolivia’s recent history provides ample opportunity for the U.S. to identify common – if not identical – ground.  Morales’s frequent statement that Bolivia is looking for “partners, not bosses” echoes President Obama’s own 2009 speech about “partnership” in our hemispheric “neighborhood.” Obama’s recent inaugural call for more effective “collective action” resonates with the spirit of Bolivia’s ongoing plurinational democratic experiment.  And if climate change is back on the U.S. political agenda, Bolivia continues to be a global catalyst for this important multilateral discussion. Emphasizing these shared problems, experiences, and aspirations, can provide a foundation for closer relations.