Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, is the center of a three-year-old indigenous insurrection that has twice routed multinational corporations and nearly achieved the rarest of political successes, election of an openly Indian president in the Americas.

The cause of native people today is widely considered “lost” to genocide or assimilation, except perhaps as a spiritual legacy, an exotic consumer market and isolated moments of resistance. This common understanding not only ignores the phenomenon of tribal people from Iraq to South Asia who are still resisting but is blind to the “mountain chain of indigenous uprisings in reaction to US neoliberalism in Latin America, the most radical thing that has appeared in thirty years,” as described to me by the respected Bolivian intellectual Alvaro Garcia Linera.

What began with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 has surfaced in Ecuador, Guatemala and especially Bolivia, where, Garcia says, almost one-fifth of the population, or 1.5 million Indians, live in autonomous communities where official government structures have virtually faded away. “There is no other country where leaders of the left and the anticorporate movements are Indian,” Garcia, a former guerrilla and political prisoner, notes. “The Indians here have always been carriers of water but never in charge of social movements.” They are not attempting to turn back the historical clock but are becoming “postmodern” and “postnational” bearers of an alternative narrative of the country. Bolivia is now the focal point, he believes, because of its large indigenous majority and the prospect that “the option for exercising power has become real.”

The first of these postmodern revolutionaries I interviewed during a May visit to Bolivia’s highlands was wearing a bright-yellow sweatshirt with a GUESS USA logo. Thirty-year-old Néstor Guillén Daza Mayta described how Bolivian soldiers stormed into his tiny barrio last October 12, the same date as Columbus’s arrival in the indigenous world 511 years before. Néstor’s barrio, Villa Ingenio, is the coldest and poorest neighborhood in El Alto, a ramshackle city of more than 1 million Aymara and Quechua people who migrated during the past two decades from Bolivia’s altiplano, making El Alto the largest, most Indian city in Latin America.

Last year El Alto residents rose against a government plan that allowed foreign investors to exploit Bolivia’s natural gas for Mexican and Southern California energy markets. While energy-hungry California consumers were being “gamed” by one of the pipeline sponsors, Sempra Energy (which made $518 million during the state’s 2001 energy crisis), Néstor’s people in Villa Ingenio were freezing at 13,000 feet without gas hookups. They joined a nationwide protest of Indians, workers and campesinos against the gas giveaway, against neoliberalism and against President “Goni” (Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada), the white mining executive and University of Chicago-trained free-market economist who had been privatizing the Bolivian economy since the mid-1980s. “Our economy was dead, there was no formal work and we were sick of it,” Néstor remembers.

In his GUESS shirt, Néstor hardly appeared to be a militant subversive, but more like the young researcher that he is, meticulously saving clippings on the country’s oil and gas reserves (“second to Venezuela in Latin America,” he says proudly). But in October 2003, he was in the streets resisting the soldiers when they came through the small, sun-filled churchyard where our interview took place, killing twenty-six people in a three-hour spree. In that September-October uprising, sixty-five people were killed and hundreds wounded, bringing last year’s cumulative death toll of indigenous protesters to 110; over a fourteen-month period, the total killed was more than during seven years of Hugo Banzer’s military dictatorship of the 1970s.

As last year’s Indian uprising and military repression intensified, La Paz’s frightened white middle class finally opted for reform, forming a human chain of “hands for peace” that spanned the length of the Avenida Ballivian, which traverses La Paz. So broad was the outrage that an American-born social-science researcher, Tom Kruse, found himself arm in arm with a World Bank economist. While some Bolivian radicals felt that the middle-class intervention forced a moderation of their struggle, it also convinced the Goni government to give up.

On October 17, five days after the massacre in Villa Ingenio, Goni fled to Miami, where, through intermediaries, he sought a safe haven at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, where I happened to be teaching a study group on globalization and social movements. Harvard rejected Goni’s application, at least temporarily, after one insider noted that “the guy just killed a hundred people.”

The American Embassy in La Paz was stunned by Goni’s overthrow. Officials there had no Plan B. Not only was the architect of Bolivia’s privatization gone, but so too was the $7 billion World Bank-backed natural gas project. “Let’s just say, because of nationalist fervor,” a Sempra consultant told me, “that the project is, well, not dead, but on hold.” With breezy confidence, he added that Sempra was still “inking deals” in Australia and Indonesia.

Bolivia has suffered from resource plunder since colonial times, starting with silver and tin. The 2003 “gas war” was preceded by a 2002 “water war” against the Bechtel Corporation’s privatization of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city and home of Quechua-speaking campesinos. When Bechtel’s subsidiary announced rate increases beyond what people could afford, continuous street demonstrations forced the company’s retreat.

More frightening for US officials and the tiny Bolivian upper class in 2002 was the presidential campaign of Senator Evo Morales, a Quechua-speaking socialist leader of the Union de Cocoleros, the major target of the US drug-eradication program in the Andes. Morales, a handsome 44-year-old based in the Chaparé region, where the drug wars still rage, finished just one point behind Goni, riding a nationalist wave that rose every time a US Embassy official lectured Bolivians on the “consequences” of voting for Morales. His party, a loose coalition called the Movement Toward Socialism, surprised even itself by earning eight senate and twenty-seven congressional seats, up from only four a few years before. If the presidential runoff hadn’t been decided by the conservative legislature, rather than by popular vote, Morales would most likely be president today. With the exception of Mexico’s Benito Juárez in the mid-nineteenth century, it is difficult to recall an elected indigenous-identified president in the Americas over the past two centuries.

The US military is sounding the alarm. In Congressional testimony this March, Gen. James Hill, head of the US Southern Command, warned that “if radicals continue to hijack the indigenous movement, we could find ourselves faced with a narco-state that supports the uncontrolled cultivation of coca.” While media and political attention is being focused on Iraq, the Southern Command is rapidly establishing a major military base of operations in Colombia that extends across the region. In the hyper-rhetoric of Bolivian conservatives, Morales is “the bin Laden of the Andes.”

But the October 2003 uprising in El Alto was launched by people like Néstor, not elected leaders like Morales. In fact, Morales has been playing a pragmatic role by thus far supporting President Carlos Mesa (the former vice president, who took over after Goni fled) on the oil and gas legislation. When I interviewed Morales in his bustling La Paz office, he spoke of the need for a “new bilateral relationship” with the United States, and he offered to travel to Washington for discussions if provided with a visa. While he must defend his cocolero base, there is no doubt that he seeks to reach some accommodation with the United States, not promote a suicidal “narco-state.”

The US policies of economic globalization and militarization are both failing and deepening in Bolivia. Since 1996 military assistance as a percentage of total US aid to Bolivia has risen from 17 percent to 40.4 percent. Al Gore once proclaimed, referring to Bolivia’s privatization plans, that “the entire world is marching on the Bolivian road,” but Goni is now in Miami and ten years of forced-interdiction policies against coca have failed to produce a viable alternative. Regardless, US trade officials are still pushing a NAFTA-like Andean Free Trade Agreement, which would impose sanctions against any Bolivian regulatory, tax or natural-resource actions that conflict with multinational investment interests.

When Goni flew off to Miami last October, Mesa, a former journalist, stepped gingerly into the power vacuum, pleading for Indian consent. Mesa stood on a platform in El Alto with Felipe Quispe, considered the most militant of Aymaran nationalists, while thousands of Indians came to look him over, including Néstor’s delegation. Mesa has made three extraordinary promises in exchange for an interlude of peace: first, to revise Bolivia’s current oil and gas law to at least triple Bolivia’s revenues, if not nationalize the industry; second, to assure a national referendum on new oil and gas proposals; and third, to permit a constituent assembly within one year to rewrite Bolivia’s Constitution. The promises brought breathing space for staggered government functionaries and the panicked upper class, while at the same time raising Indian expectations higher than anyone could remember.

Today, however, eight months have passed and the gas still isn’t hooked up in Néstor’s barrio. Reform of the oil and gas law has been mired under threats of litigation. The July 18 referendum is only a few weeks away, and the constituent assembly has become problematic to the political establishment, the US Embassy and investors worried about greater democratization. But popular expectations remain high; for example, indigenous and women’s groups are holding grassroots meetings on the Constitution, hoping to write themselves into history for the first time.

A frustrated US official warned: “There could be a complete meltdown here. It could get worse, you know. The poor can be even poorer,” implying that chaos and disinvestment might lie ahead. If so, the Bush Administration isn’t helping. The United States spends over thirty times more a month in Iraq than it plans to channel to Bolivia this entire year. The US budget for 2004 cuts food aid by nearly half and “child survival and health” funds by 15 percent. Bolivia’s current foreign debt is $5 billion, and its internal debt is more than $2 billion. “You just can’t develop your way out from under such a debt,” says researcher Kruse.

“It’s all hanging by a thread,” says Néstor. “People are still mobilizing, talking about strikes, and if the government still makes fun of us there will be another October.” It’s not up to radical politicians like Morales or revolutionary nationalists like Quispe, he says. While they may be important symbols in the media, their leadership capacity is shaped by Indian assemblies with a strong emphasis on communal participation.

If the government presence in El Alto is shaky, an hour’s drive into the countryside beyond El Alto envelops one in “kind of an Indian liberated zone,” says Los Angeles Times correspondent Hector Tobar. Remote Indian communities like Achacachi, Warisata, Sorata and Huarina, which ring the vast rim of Lake Titicaca, are at the center of creation for both Aymara and Inca cultures, and a source of deep foreboding in white psyches. When we considered a visit to Achacachi, our guide, a good-hearted, blue-eyed blond American who has lived in Bolivia for a decade, joked nervously about “being eaten” there. She was not alone; the Rough Guide to Bolivia advises that “though the lurid tales you may hear of anthropophagous Aymaras should be ignored, this is not a place to linger long if you’re an outsider.” We drove to Achacachi anyway. Together with several tiny outlying hamlets, the town has several thousand inhabitants, who tend sheep and grow potatoes, quinoa and other grains. We entered the small central square with an Aymaran driver, parked and introduced ourselves to the mayor, Francisco Quispe Ramirez, who seemed friendly and eager to tell the town’s story. While everyone in town seemed quietly aware of our presence, I felt not the slightest tension. It seemed clear who was in control, and it was not the gringos.

We sat in the mayor’s office overlooking a square where about 200 young people, faces painted, were boisterously enjoying a school celebration. Quispe Ramirez, a campesino in a blue and green striped shirt, proudly acknowledged that “we are known as a fierce people, warriors. Because we face extreme poverty, we still use oxen in the fields and hand hoes.” A main demand of the town, he said, is for direct marketing access in La Paz, so that revenues can be invested in Achacachi’s schools.

Quispe Ramirez was elected in 1999 as a leader in the campesino union and “a revolutionary man,” as he put it. One year later the Indian rebellion started across the altiplano. In Achacachi, the activists blocked the road to La Paz and skirmished with the military, which killed one campesino in April. “That did it,” Quispe Ramirez said, waving his arms to dramatize the local rage. Townspeople grabbed an army captain, whom they blamed for the shooting and “didn’t kill him but beat him up” before he was rescued and hospitalized. Still furious, the Indians burned government offices in the town and dumped official files all over the square, then marched to the local jail to free the inmates. Next they burned the beds and television in the police station. Still raging, they marched to the hospital. As the mayor explained, “It was unfortunate that the military didn’t take [the captain] back to the base. So the people killed him.”

Despite the death and destruction, Quispe Ramirez feels the uprising has accomplished something positive. “Look at the 2002 elections–white people began to respect people with [common Aymaran] names like Quispe, Mamani and Huanca,” he said. “We have senators who are Aymara. Felipe [Quispe] became a leader because of the movement here. And we are teaching our children to occupy the space that is ours, to create our own government inspired by the vision of Tupac Katari”–the warrior chief who led a siege of La Paz in the eighteenth century.

During the same week we were in Achacachi, the Aymara killed another public official, in Ilave, on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, in response to the murder of an indigenous leader there. Nervous Peruvian newspapers reported “sightings” of Quispe in Ilave, which was claimed by villagers as “the capital of the Aymara Republic.”

I interviewed Quispe (known as “El Malku,” the condor) in his La Paz office, sitting under a poster of Tupac Katari. The dark corridors were filled with hunger-striking students, while at the front entrance a woman hung in a crucified position protesting educational cuts. Quispe is a lifelong radical organizer, a former guerrilla and an outspoken advocate of an Aymaran Republic. While Quispe is the devil himself to middle-class pacenos, he seems more like Malcolm X in his deliberate choice of inflammatory words. For example, he casually told us that the “whites are here as renters on our land, and we need to put a giant fence around them, a reservation, a safe place for white people to be.” Quispe is the Aymaran ghost that haunts the present. “We lost in the colonial era, but it was not a complete loss, because we still exist thanks to our warrior ancestors,” he said. In the subsequent era of the Bolivian republic, “we also lost because we didn’t create our own nation.” But since 2000, there has emerged a third war, he says, “against gringo neoliberalism and racism, and to change our government to an Indian one.”

In the perspective of Alvaro Garcia, the Bolivian intellectual, there are both moderate and radical tendencies, sometimes converging, sometimes not, in the current insurrection. The radicals like Felipe Quispe, he said, have a strong argument for communitarian Indian nationalism, but their rural experience leaves them without a concrete urban economic policy. The more moderate Evo Morales represents both a broader social base, in Garcia’s view, and a program that would retain the Bolivian state and the neoliberal model but with “an Indian face” and progressive economic reforms.

Garcia, who once shared a guerrilla experience with Quispe, believes Bolivia is closer today to a political revolution than a social and economic one. At the two extremes are possibilities of a full Indian insurrection or a US-backed coup, he says, but there could also be “radical reform” of the system, through electoral means such as the Mesa transition plan, the July 18 referendum on gas and oil, and reconfiguration of the state through the constituent assembly. Or, he added, there could be a sudden “rupture of el modelo” if the gas crisis goes unresolved, bringing all the social movements together to replace the failed government with one led by indigenous people.

I asked a US Embassy contact just before I left for a “threat assessment” of Bolivia, and whether he believed it was possible to hook up Néstor’s gas. Back in October, gas was certainly the unifying theme, along with all the deaths, said the spokesman. But the Indians have lost a unifying theme at the moment, he claimed, and the new president is popular. Meanwhile, he admitted, US officials are working urgently to peel away parts of Evo Morales’s base, and keeping the insurgents from “bubbling up” in El Alto is a top priority. “If El Alto joins in again, there is the potential to overthrow the government,” he said.

As for Néstor’s gas being hooked up, the official seemed surprised at the failure, then threw up his hands. “These Bolivians just don’t do the basics, just don’t pay attention.” When I asked how the gas might be made available to Villa Ingenio, he launched into the need for a study committee, the cost of distribution networks, the problems for rate of return, etc. As I closed my notepad, I remembered that natural gas is an invisible substance that, if improperly handled, explodes with a sudden fury.