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Faced with growing unrest in the countryside, the de facto military head of state Gualberto Villarroel convened the first Indigenous Congress in early 1945. The congress, which assembled some 1,500 indigenous peasant delegates, can be seen as a populist attempt by the state to coopt peasant social forces. But it led to important legal reforms, the most dramatic of which was the abolition of pongueaje, or servile labor by peasants on haciendas. This included the abolition of “personal services,” which they were obliged to carry out in addition to cultivating the landlord’s fields, such as domestic service, transporting the landlord’s produce to the city, and selling it there. The services abolished also included those that peasants in free communities were obliged to perform for local state authorities, such as transporting the mail on foot or on horseback, which were often illegally extended to cover working as domestic servants for those authorities.

In the aftermath of the congress, its president, Francisco Chipana Ramos, gave a colorful interview to the magazine Revista de Bolivia. While stressing his Indian identity, the interview also highlighted his nationalist outlook, shaped by his experience as a combatant in the Chaco War. Though in fact he had worked closely with the government during the congress, he skillfully presented the event as controlled by the delegates themselves. Notably, he makes no mention of the more radical demands for redistribution of the land which were sidelined by the organizers of the congress. After 1945, landlords refused to accept even Villarroel’s moderate changes to the labor regime, but ongoing indigenous peasant mobilization to enforce those changes and to push for redistribution eventually brought about the major agrarian reform of 1953.

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