The Legibility of Fausto Reinaga


Literary Cities

Fausto Reinaga spreading his ideas and his books in Plaza Murillo, in the 90s. File by Hilda Reinaga Fuente

In 1957, in a strange twist of political and historical fate, in front of Auerbachs Keller in Leipzig, Fausto Reinaga, the future modern prophet of Indian revolution, reaffirmed his destiny. Reinaga officially had traveled to the old German Democratic Republic from Bolivia in order to participate in an international meeting of trade union confederations. Unofficially, however, Reinaga had left Bolivia at a time in which his books and essays had made him a target of the leaders of the 1952 National Revolution. Unluckily for Reinaga, his second book, published in 1949, had been a scathing and deeply personal attack on Víctor Paz Estenssoro, just on the cusp of a celebrated political career, who soon after would be swept into power at the head of the new revolutionary government. Before leaving for Leipzig, Reinaga had been arrested by state security forces and forced to sign a declaration renouncing his 1949 book as an error-filled distortion.

Born to Quechua-speaking peasants in 1906, Reinaga did not learn to read or write in Spanish until he was sixteen. Nevertheless, Reinaga had been marked from the beginning for a world-historical life. According to legend, Reinaga’s mother was a direct descendent of the eighteenth century Indian rebel Tomás Katari, who had been executed by the Spanish in 1781 for organizing Indian resistance to Spanish colonial tributary demands. As Reinaga later explained, when he had finally been sent to public schools by local leaders, it was on the understanding that he would have to learn the intellectual traditions of the West in order to eventually lead Bolivia’s Indians in a final revolution against the oppressive neocolonial order.

Reinaga spent his early adulthood as a political activist and writer. His first book, Mitayos y Yanaconas (1941), was a Marxist reinterpretation of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire. During the early 1940s, he had supported the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR)—co-founded by Víctor Paz Estenssoro —and had participated in the MNR’s alliance with the military reformist government of Gualberto Villarroel, until Villarroel was deposed in 1946 by a peculiar coalition of mining oligarchs and urban trade unionists, who stormed the presidential palace in La Paz, killed Villarroel, threw his corpse off the balcony into Plaza Murillo, and then hung it from a lamppost, where it was desecrated, Mussolini-style, by the surging throng.

Throughout the early 1950s, Reinaga had become increasingly isolated from his old comrades in the MNR. After his 1949 book on Paz Estenssoro, in which he blamed the soon-to-be president of Bolivia for the political failures and treachery that led to the fall of the Villarroel regime, Reinaga took the first literary steps along the path that would lead him to his later renown. In 1953, he published Land and Liberty, the National Revolution, and the Indian, a visionary manifesto for agrarian revolution that argued for a program of radical national restructuring based on traditional Indian land tenure, Indian social values, and Indian ethnic liberation. With bitterness over Reinaga’s 1949 book still fresh, Paz Estenssoro and the other MNR luminaries roundly dismissed Reinaga’s proposals, pushing him further away from the center of political power in the coming years.

Yet for the first two weeks of October 1957, in between the endless speeches and political posturing, Reinaga could escape these troubles at home as he wandered through the streets of Leipzig’s old city, peregrinations that usually began and ended at the same place: the statue of Faust and Mephistopheles in front of the iconic wine bar in the Mädlerpassage. Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s—Reinaga himself was always vague on this point—he had fallen under the spell of Goethe while a student at Bolivia’s prestigious Universidad San Francisco Xavier, founded in 1624 in the historic city of Sucre. As Reinaga explained, during those heady university years he read everything he could find in Spanish translation by and about Goethe. He was mesmerized, in particular, by Goethe’s masterpiece and memorized many of its verses by heart.

Believing that he was, like Faust, a “man who didn’t accept his fate such as it was and almost paid with his life for his aspirations,” Reinaga had changed his name while in Sucre from “José Felix” to “Fausto.” When he found himself decades later standing in front of the bronze embodiment of the literary figure whose destiny he shared, Reinaga was transfixed: “On many occasions I contemplated the face of this man, which was furrowed with deep wrinkles, he who with a book and feathered quill in his hand had been devoured by the fire of knowledge, he who had sold his soul to the Devil.”

After the Leipzig congress was over, Reinaga spent several years in the Soviet Union, returning to Bolivia in 1960 with a stop in Montevideo to attend a provocative meeting of the Uruguayan Communist Party. Along with others, Reinaga was arrested by the Uruguayan police, who confiscated his passport and all of his belongings, including all of the copies of a book he had just published on the “messianic sentiment of the Russian people.” Again unluckily for Reinaga, the Bolivian ambassador to Uruguay in 1960 was Hernán Siles Zuazo, another leader of the 1952 National Revolution who had just finished a term as president of Bolivia. The last time Reinaga had seen Siles Zuazo, someone he had also savagely criticized in print, Siles Zuazo had told Reinaga to “go fuck yourself, asshole.” After having to plead humiliatingly with Siles Zuazo for assistance, Reinaga finally managed to secure a one-way ticket to La Paz, where he arrived in 1960 broke, ideologically marginalized, rejected by political leaders who Reinaga believed had betrayed their ideals, and in the midst of a spiritual and intellectual crisis.

Although Reinaga had spent his first fifty years searching for meaning within the great literary and political canons of the West, he had become disenchanted. Although Reinaga had earlier drifted toward Marxism as the most likely source of ideas for the great revolutionary undoing, he came to believe that its philosophy would always remain foreign to Bolivia’s Indians, whose worldview was shaped by profoundly different understandings of time, space, and social belonging. As Reinaga would later come to argue, instead of viewing the movement of history through dialectical conflict, Bolivia’s Indians understood time as cycles, turning and returning in endless succession. Instead of thinking of land as a form of property, whether private or held in common, Bolivia’s Indians conceived of their fields of potatoes and quinoa as forming part of a vast ontological continuity in which agriculture took its place next to the spirits of the mountains, rocks, and caves. And instead of living in a world in which nature was starkly contrasted with culture, the individual with society, Bolivia’s Indians organized their social lives within the nonlinear boundaries of ayllus, complex assemblages that interwove production with ritual duties, communal celebration, and veneration of the ancestors.

It was during this period, in 1961, that Reinaga left La Paz for a pilgrimage to the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. When he returned, the intellectual break with the literary and philosophical West was complete. In its place, Reinaga developed a school of thought that he called indianismo, or Indianism. Throughout the 1960s, Reinaga produced a vast corpus of writings that announced a radically non-Western literary tradition anchored in a vision of Indian communal politics, historical suffering, and spiritual ennoblement.

At the same time, Reinaga’s house in La Paz had become a kind of pilgrimage site in its own right. As word of Reinaga’s literary and political movement spread throughout Latin America and eventually to Europe, people started to travel to La Paz to sit at the feet of the guru whom one admirer later described as the “American Gandhi.” The doctrine of Indianism resonated with a wide range of intellectuals, political radicals, and seekers at a moment in history in which counter-cultural movements suffused the global ideoscape.

Reinaga had purchased property during the late 1940s on the hill of K’illi K’illi high above the city. He had chosen the location carefully, since it was from K’illi K’illi that the most famous Indian rebel, Tupaj Katari (the nom de guerre that Julián Apasa had chosen to honor both Tomás Katari and the anti-colonial Inca leader in Cuzco Tupaj Amaru), had laid siege to Spanish colonial forces in 1781, before being captured, interrogated, and then drawn and quartered. The four parts of Tupaj Katari’s corpse had been displayed as a grisly warning against rebellion in different regions of what was then Upper Peru, while his head was put on a spike on the same hill of K’illi K’illi from which Katari had directed the ill-fated insurrection. Accordingly, Reinaga’s house, which like Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana would come to welcome a steady flow of acolytes, hangers-on, and literary fellow-travelers, was built on the exact spot where Katari’s severed head had stared down on La Paz with lifeless eyes before being burned to ashes, which then disappeared into the swirling mountain winds.

In 1970, Indianism found its greatest and most enduring expression with the publication of The Indian Revolution, Reinaga’s masterwork. In this sprawling, wild, and often dizzyingly poetic text, the 64-year-old Reinaga attempts a dismantling of 500 years of Western philosophy, literature, and religious doctrine by way of auguring the coming transformation, in which the very structure of the universe would pass through a cyclic rotation that would reveal Bolivia’s Indians to be in the vanguard of a new epoch in global history.

As Reinaga proclaims in one of the book’s memorable concluding passages, “The liberation of the Indian will be his own work; it will be from the Indian that a party of granite will be made, a party organized dialectically from the cells and the millenarian force of the Andean race. It will be a party that heralds to the entire world from the summit of Illimani, with the thunder of the pututu and the waving of the wiphala, the coming of the Indian Revolution in America.”

And yet, in the event, the Indian revolution—which for Reinaga and thousands of his followers was on the verge of shaking the world, its epicenter a modest house in what had become just another ramshackle neighborhood in urbanizing La Paz—did not unleash its purifying furies. Instead, Reinaga spent the 1970s living within the high walls of General Hugo Banzer Suárez’s dictatorship. By the end of the repressive period known in Bolivia as the Banzerato, the dreaded Time of Banzer, Reinaga had aged considerably and his messianic status had faded.

Then, in 1981, without any warning, and in apparent fulfillment of his destiny as a man who, like his namesake, with “feathered quill in his hand had been devoured by the fire of knowledge, . . . had sold his soul to the Devil,” Reinaga’s literary career took a bizarre and tragic turn. At the very height of the surreal reign of terror that marked the short dictatorship of Luis García Meza, who had come to power in the Cocaine Coup of 1980 with the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” as his dark advisor and unsavory fixer, Reinaga published Bolivia and the Revolution of the Armed Forces. Although the meaning and intent of the book have been the subject of much debate over the years, it was received at the time with howls of protest by Reinaga’s literary enemies and stunned silence by his supporters. The text appeared to be a defense of the García Meza regime in the form of an argument for the institutional importance to Bolivia’s Indians of the country’s armed forces.

The catastrophic reception of Bolivia and the Revolution of the Armed Forces led to what one scholar has described as the “political, social, and public death of Fausto Reinaga.” He passed the rest of his life in hermit-like isolation; the regular pilgrimages to his house in La Paz on the heights of K’illi K’illi ended; and the sales of his largely self-published books dried up, leaving him destitute. When he died at the extraordinary age of 88 in 1994, he left this world at a time in which Bolivia had been reborn under the sign of neoliberalism, the apotheosis of a Western modernity that he had described in his 1970 The Indian Revolution as the “despoiler of the world’s physical, artistic, and spiritual richness.” In other words, although the flame of his legacy had been kept alive through the years by a small group of marginalized writers and activists like Felipe Quispe, Reinaga died at the exact moment when Bolivia appeared to be as far from Indian revolution as it had ever been.

But as it turned out, the cosmic rotation of space-time that is called in Quechua Pachakuti continued in its course. In just over ten years, the neoliberal period of Bolivian history had imploded through a series of popular uprisings that were directed against the economic dislocations of globalization. The streets of La Paz reverberated with the sounds of mass mobilizations, exploding dynamite, and calls for political change. At the center of these upheavals was an ideology of indigenous empowerment that was inspired by none other than Fausto Reinaga, whose writings had been rediscovered in the early 2000s by a younger generation of Indian activists and intellectuals. As one Los Angeles Times journalist put it in 2005, The Indian Revolution “has become to this generation of activists what ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ was to a generation of African Americans.”

The signs of the Pachakuti appeared faster and spread across the land. In 2006, Bolivia’s first Indian president, Evo Morales, was inaugurated in the presence of Aymara shamans, who burned llama fetuses in his honor during a ceremony amongst the pre-Columbian ruins of Tiwanaku. The Morales government oversaw the writing of a new constitution to mark the country’s “democratic and cultural revolution,” a new social contract that bore the traces of the Indianist worldview of Fausto Reinaga, at least in the document’s Preamble, which invokes sacred Mother Earth, or Pachamama, as the inspiration for liberation and revolutionary change.

And what about Reinaga’s masterpiece, The Indian Revolution, the 1970 text that has recently been called the “Indian Bible”? It went on to become a key object of talismanic propaganda for the Morales government, printed at state expense by the tens of thousands to be distributed to schoolchildren, government functionaries, and the public at large as what one official described as the “fulcrum of our paradigm as a plurinational state.” Reinaga, who had died in penury with his dream of Indian resurgence long-since crushed, had become arguably the most widely published and read writer in Bolivian history.

During the years of this world-reversal, Reinaga’s house and former literary salon in La Paz was transformed into a foundation dedicated to the promotion of his publications and the wider Indianist movement. And the pilgrims have returned, those willing to make the steep climb from the city center to the vertiginous and winding streets of K’illi K’illi. They arrive as deeply affected as ever by the radical millenarian vision of Reinaga. They pause before entering, perhaps sensing more than understanding the symbolic residues left behind after the physical remains of Tupaj Katari were obliterated on that very spot. Just before he died, Katari’s supposed last words, which could also have been Reinaga’s, were, “I shall return and I will be millions.”


Mark Goodale is an anthropologist and writer based in Switzerland. Among his many books are the forthcoming A Revolution in Fragments and the recently published The Bolivia Reader: History, Culture, Politics, coedited with Sinclair Thomson, Rossana Barragán, Xavier Albó, and Seemin Qayum.