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  • Oil and Nation: A History of Bolivia’s Petroleum Sector by Stephen C. Cote
  • Bret Gustafson
Stephen C. Cote
Oil and Nation: A History of Bolivia’s Petroleum Sector
Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2016. 224 pp. Maps, notes, bibliography, index. $26.99 paper (ISBN: 978–1–943665–47–1), $79.99 cloth (ISBN: 978–1–943665–46–4), $26.99 electronic (ISBN: 978–1–943665–48–8).

Stephen cote’s Oil and Nation provides an exquisitely detailed account of Bolivia’s troubled history with oil, and of late, natural gas. While much of Bolivia’s historiography of the twentieth century has focused on tin, Cote’s treatment focuses our attention on the centrality of oil. From the struggles with Standard Oil in the 1920s and 1930s, to the Gas War of 2003, Cote traces the details of internal Bolivian politics, US imperialism, and the often under-studied role of regional powers Brazil and Argentina on Bolivia. For students of Bolivia, its energy politics, and of Latin America’s oil history, this text is an indispensable resource.

Cote begins by returning to the earliest oil pioneers, explorers, and intellectuals who braved the hazards of southeastern Bolivia in pursuit of coveted oil, then used primarily for kerosene. Much of this history has been [End Page 275] dealt with—and celebrated—in Bolivian intellectual circles. However, Cote offers new insights on the role of indigenous labor, specifically that of the Guaraní, whose ancestral territories are largely congruent with the oil and gas region. The Guaraní acted as local guides as well as manual labor, for opening roads and moving material. Already subjected to feudalistic conditions, the Guaraní also directly and indirectly experienced the violence of the oil industry. Many of these violent acts were social and ecological, but women, in particular, were subjected to the risk of rape and sexual exploitation in contexts of oil exploration and in places where oil workers eventually congregated. Dealt with rather forensically by Cote, these episodes of sexual exploitation merit more consideration, especially given that they are largely invisible in the Bolivian literature and nationalist narrative, much of which celebrates the heroics of oil labor as modernization, masculinist sacrifice, and nation-building.

Cote takes on this latter point throughout the text. Bolivian leaders consistently struggled over whether foreign capital or the state would best lead oil exploration and extraction. However, the shared mythos of oil as modernity united left and right visions of progress. While coups, assassinations, suicides, and even war characterized the conflicts over oil, both left and right did not question the notion that extracting as much oil as possible was a key to progress. In many ways this remains characteristic of Bolivian politics today.

For students of history and contemporary politics in Bolivia, the book offers a primer—unadorned and meticulously footnoted—on Bolivian political history as seen through the lens of oil. A number of Cote’s arguments, some of which may appear counterintuitive, bear mention. The rise of political and economic power in eastern Bolivia, as well as the emergence of separatist movements fueled by racist and fascist elements, has characterized contemporary Bolivian politics. Cote offers insights into the ways that this regional divide was intensified by the impact of oil development, as early as the 1920s. With infrastructure, ideas, and personnel largely tied to the United States, as well as with the promise of riches that would accrue to regional elites rather than the central government, oil has long been one of the central levers of regionalist sentiment against La Paz. Cote details the way that Standard Oil, and later Gulf Oil, worked to shape this political history in the Bolivian Oriente.

Cote also offers a key shift in our understanding of the 1952 Revolution. While most historical works focus on the role of tin miners and peasants, Cote suggests that oil, particularly as collateral for debt and as a negotiating tool for relations with the United States, was central in post-revolutionary politics. The United States hoped to maintain Bolivia as both a site for U.S. capital accumulation as well as debt-linked dependence. The prospect of oil offered a motivation for U.S. loans...


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