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Bolivia: Social Movements On Fire.

category international | anti-capitalism | feature author Monday December 10, 2007 10:10author by James R - WSM Report this post to the editors

A Review of Two Recent Books On Bolivian Social Movements.

Photograph of the two books being reviewed

Over the weekend of November 24-25, protesters clashed with police in Sucre, Bolivia - they were demanding that the capital of the country be moved to Sucre. Three people died and over some 100 were wounded in the clashes. Yesterday Morales announced plans for a nationwide referendum to resolve a deepening political crisis in the country. A few months ago, two recent works on Bolivia were given a look over for the WSM's Red and Black Revolution 14. The review now appears on line for the first time.

A few years ago the Cochabamba water war coincided perfectly with the 2000 anti-globalisation peak to solidify many of that movement's arguments about neo-liberal rule in cold hard scenarios of struggle. An exciting new round of images depicting indigenous women confronting militarised police dotted left publications, while documentaries like 'The Corporation' used the revolt as a sharp anecdote in hacking off the avaricious tentacles of multinationals.

A review of "The Price of Fire" by Ben Dangl and "Impasse In Bolivia" by Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing.

With the success of the Movimiento al Socialismo (1), western attention moved from the social movements honed in such resource struggles to the left caudillo Morales and, despite previous excited flutters, there's now little comment on how the grassroots relate to this new moment. Al Giordano complained in a recent book on Oaxacca, that the radical press often shares problems with the mainstream - reeling in a journalism of instant replays, full of heroic and tragic moments from the barricades, instead of cogent analysis.

Thankfully in the past six months two very different books sought to pierce through the frailty of movement reportage on social movements in Bolivia, to explore why they emerged with such force since the 1990's and how they now relate to the MAS. The first of these is Kohl and Farthing's 'Impasse in Bolivia', a heavily wrought background to the face off between a globally prescribed neo-liberal hegemony and a local population repeatedly drawing on a five hundred year resistance narrative.

Taking the reader through a well-elucidated history from the Spanish Conquest to the early 21st Century, they track how economic restructurings affected the composition of Bolivian resistance movements prior to neo-liberalism. The exploitation of silver deposits at Potosi by the Spanish profoundly re-organised Andean society, leading to the emergence of indigenous resistance through nested kinship structures that fueled rebellions such as the mythic 1781 siege of La Paz from the alti-plano by tens of thousands of Aymara warriors.

The authors describe how the later drive for an independent Bolivia stemmed from liberal criollos keen for the benefits of their own state but bent on uprooting and modernising indigenous communal land-holding systems to fundamentally exclude them as citizens. The eventual replacement of these hacienda based elites with natural resource companies at state level set the ground for embryonic industrial agitation and ripples that reach the present.

In the thirties a rivalry between Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell over control of deposits in the Chaco region forced Bolivia into a proxy war with Paraguay for control of the disputed area. Defeat both drastically reduced the country's land mass and welded the social force for the 1952 Revolution among war weary drafted students, workers and campesinos. The resultant Movimineto Nacional Revolucionaro deposed the mining oligarchies with a regime subject to land and labour pressure from below in the form of the Confederacion Obera Bolivian. Forced to recognise land seizures and labour demands, it constructed a state in the modernist nationalist tradition with a strong central administration and control over natural resources.

This defiant union movement continued to push for a deepening of citizenship rights only to be marshaled with a military dictatorship in 1964 as Cold War realities hit home. The imposition of neo-liberal economics in the eighties under the NEP against this historic background becomes quite central to the authors' account, seen as a serious attack both on what became known as the "State of '52" and the labour movement.

Engineered for president Estenssoro by Jeffery Sachs of the IMF, it was the first programme of its kind, leading to some economic recovery in the face of hyper-inflation but an ensuing human misery. Over 20,000 miners lost their jobs, manufacturing collapsed and over two thirds of the urban population were dragged into the informal economy, dramatically paralysing the COB as the backbone to popular struggles. With the way paved for an affirmation of neo-liberal policies, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's Plan de Todos in the nineties unfolded with the familiar theme of privatised state owned enterprises, gutting the country's revenue.

Yet according to the authors, the couching of this new market democracy in electoral and social reforms inadvertently opened a space for indigenous resistance in rural areas. As failed neo-liberal promises bolstered anger, diverse movements around coca eradication in Chapare, land rights and basic urban services quickly transformed the political landscape to "forge a common sense of injured national identity (2)."

Unfortunately Kohl and Farthing's work is hamstrung with the distance of academia, it sketches the imposition of neo-liberalism brilliantly but fails to illustrate "the shape that popular challenges to it will take (3)" in any grounded way.

Using a very different approach Benjamin Dangl's 'The Price Of Fire' is refreshingly intimate, he too starts with a "revolution in reverse," rolling through the tides of Bolivian revolt during a brief stay in old Potosi.

His writing style is steeped in hauntology and the psychic scars of centuries of exploitation; it's the fruit of bar room conversations, pickets and blockades and a brief encounter with Morales. He cushions this in minor analysis and travelogue, allowing voices from social movements to provide a "human face to the looting and struggles of a continent (4)." During a visit to the Chapare, this "bearded gringo with a notepad" rails against the use of coca eradication as a paltry excuse for US intervention in the post cold-war climate, arguing that the migration of unemployed miners to rural areas accelerated coca's growth as the only viable cash crop under neo-liberalism.

From this dynamic the MAS emerged, capable of unifying different strands of struggle with its origins in coca growers' unions formed by former miners. Visually this is seen in the use of the coca leaf as party insignia, once used for energy by silver miners but equally evocative of indigenous and anti-imperialist messages today.

The book continuously traces how modes of militancy spread through migration. Like Farthing and Kohl, he agrees that the water war was a momentous turning point with the practice of mass assemblies in rural areas becoming more ingrained in cities through the Coordinadora. Retaining a critical eye, he doesn't rush to romanticise the end result of the water war. Bechtel may have left but the public water company is still controlled by a local political elite, though one more subject to street based popular power.

The question of how to use Bolivian gas further unified traditionally diverse social movements in the 2003 gas war to reverse the privatisation carried out in the mid-nineties. Protesters used "the wealth underground" as a point of correction for past lost resources and to envision a future of possible development, education and health-care.

Casting his eye to Caracas, Dangl hints at the use of oil revenue in Venezuela to empower the nation's poor with literacy programmes, health clinics and community centres as a path for the Morales regime.

'The Price of Fire' takes a brief jaunt into urban geography in a chapter on the internal world of the El Alto, a city whose residents played a crucial role in the 2003 gas revolt. The same social forces that drove miners to become cocaleros in rural Chapare led to the informal settlements outside La Paz skyrocketing to a population of 800,000. Neighbourhood organisations sufficiently ingrained to strangle the capital below in periods of struggle, sprung up based on the experience of miner and rural agitation, as well as the absence of basic state services. One of the few academics Dangl speaks with describes their strength as lying in "the basic self-organisation that fills every pore of the society and has made superfluous many forms of representation (5)."

Within these El Alto urban movements we are given glimpses of a counter-cultural response to neo-liberal hegemony in Teatro Trono, a theatre group meshing struggles against the IMF with traditional myths in popular education programmes. There's also a growing hip-hop movement that fuses the Aymara language with sampled stateside beats into a poetics of urban resistance to poverty.

In his conclusion Dangl takes a critical look at the problem fraught Morales' regime. He claims that images of troops entering gas fields from afar look like the stuff of radical expropriation but nationalisation really meant a series of buy outs of majority stakes sold for a pittance in the 1990s, higher taxes and a re-negotiation of over generous contracts. Stepping aside from the flurry of rhetoric surrounding nationalisation, the YPFB in reality still remains at a capital disadvantage with international companies holding minority shares.

Rarely mentioned in discussions of Bolivian social movements is the traditional demand for a constituent assembly convoked by Morales this year. Many of the movement activists we meet through Dangl's travels complain that the electoral nature of the assembly excludes them, forcing them to abandon their autonomy and seek representation through the MAS party. Simultaneously it has reinvigorated right wing parties weakened by the popular rebellions, allowing them the space to develop a dangerous language of autonomy for oligarchical strong holds like Santa Cruz.

If you are looking for long streams of statistics on Bolivia's immiseration, then Farthing and Kohl have compiled a resource for your agitational pot-shots and filler articles - but if you want the human face of Bolivia's social movement push, then Dangl is your only man. Whichever you prefer, Bolivia remains a fertile soil for the rebellious imagination, full of "better worlds- some that have lasted and some no more than euphoric glimpses (6)."

(1) Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism) is the party of Evo Morales.
(2) Kohl, Benjamin and Linda C. Farthing. Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 2006) p175
(3) Ibid p23
(4) Dangl, Benjamin. The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Boliva (AK Press, 2007) p11
(5) Ibid p151
(6) Ibid p9

Check out http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1021/1/ for an analysis of the latest tensions.

author by alien fetishist iosafpublication date Fri Dec 07, 2007 16:40author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Is bringing new flavours to social reform in Bolivia, but along older geographical and social divisions lines as much as startlingly familiar language & subcultural references by younger citizens & activists.
Thus the feature write up on Bolivia today about the mass mobilisation yesterday http://bolivia.indymedia.org/node/3388 sits just on top of the pronouncements by the anti-fascist groupings. Increasingly the rightwing opposition is being identified as fascist. That makes perfect sense to us, who liked to put Michael mc Dowell through photoshop and into hitler youth lederhösen. But it does not make long term socially cohesive sense on either the continent of South America or in the state of Bolivia. It seems the empasse of the Peruvian scion of Bolivarianism Humala family's flirtation with "ethno identity", "mass organisation", "popular mobilisation" which introduced uniforms, rallies, songs & pseudo-militia organisation has yet to be properly dealt with by the ideologues (& subsequentially articulated by the elected leadership) of Bolivarianism. Yes Bolivia is divided, always was. That's why there are different ethnic groups with different languages. It was not the Spanish who lower Peruvians who divided them. For whatever reason in 21st century rights orientated political campaiging it seems easy, or "clear" to demark those divisions as a simple "european model" of red v. fascist - I would counsel given half a chance a big campaign against the real fascists of South America who are of course in Paraguay & the Colorado party & related law offices and corporations. "Fascist" is a very powerful word which if mis-applied or mis-used loses like all words its magical power. If, and its seems not to have ever come up for discussion, we are in favour of maintiaining the state of Bolivia in its current geographical area (& even for its pride allowing its recindist claims on a strip of land to the Pacific Ocean) then we can not encourage terroritorial divisions or pro-partitionist mentalities to plant their little seeds in earth labelled either "red boliviarian indiginous" or "fascist capitalist indiginous".

Great review James !
:-) revolutions take loads of turns & lots of work.

yesterday's mobilisation in support of Bolivian constitutional reform in Cochabamba
yesterday's mobilisation in support of Bolivian constitutional reform in Cochabamba

author by 4WWpublication date Sun Dec 09, 2007 23:59author email info at feilefm dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

The Fourth World War.
Monday 10th December. 6.30-7pm.
Féile FM 103.2 or on line at www.feilefm.com

Related Link: http://www.feilefm.com
author by M de Barra - LASCpublication date Thu Dec 13, 2007 16:56author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Thanks for the excellent review.

Echoing Dangl's observation that the Cochabamba water war tends to be romanticised, I have to agree that very little analysis exists on Semapa - the public successor to the Bechtel subsidiary, Aguas de Tunari, which was expelled from Bolivia as a result of the water war in 2000. On a visit there in 2005 and again in 2006, I observed tensions on the ground among Cochabamba’s urban poor and rural irrigator communities - many of whom continue to wait for a regular, affordable piped water service in their community. For many of Cochabamba’s poor, the re-habilitated water company has not delivered on its promise- yet. While services in general have improved in the city, the management of Semapa has not been without its controversies over the intervening 7 years. Some of the workers who played a central role in the water war- the water warriors who were symbolically employed by Semapa- have since left - frustrated by the internal corruption at management level and harassment for their union activities seeking greater accountability and transparency at management levels. Charges of nepotism and politically motivated appointments have been rife among Semapa management and the general manager, Eduardo Rojas has recently been charged with poor management following an audit carried out by the publicly elected citizen’s board.

There is no doubt that a publicly controlled and citizen based managed water company is more favourable to the private multinational concession which Bechtel imposed. The fact that the board of directors are being held to account by a citizens’ board should at least guarantee a more democratic, transparent and participatory management model.

Earlier this year the Cochabamba based ‘Democracy Centre’, which was responsible for exposing Bechtel to the public as the majority shareholder in the Cochabamba water privatisation deal in 2000, produced the following briefing report, offering an uncompromised look at how Semapa has fared in the intervening years since the water war in 2000. Having researched the story of the water war extensively myself over the last few years, this is the only comprehensive update I have come across.

Related Link: http://democracyctr.org/bolivia/documents/documents/semapa_brief.pdf
author by Mexicanopublication date Sat Dec 15, 2007 11:08author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The efforts by Morales to spend money on the poorer parts has now resulted in demands for the four richer provinces to spend most of their tax money on themselves. Also, they are voting on "autonomy charters" to control their own areas.

The arguments mentioned above about "indigenous people" and the water war are from the past. Morales should explain to the richer provinces why spending their money on the poor is ultimately good for them as well.

Related Link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7144447.stm
author by iosafpublication date Sat Dec 15, 2007 15:12author address author phone Report this post to the editors

So said Evo Morales on Thursday, keeping with the project of last weekend's Bolivian assembly passing the draft constitution with 164 of the 255 deputies present. Even with the opposition absent the debate took 13 hours to approve 411 articles with significant changes on the way & no solution paved for the future location of the state's capital. Amongst the proposed measures which didn't get through were included indefinite presidential re-election which some of Evo Morales' supporters had hoped for {for him naturally not any indiginous tom, dick or harry.} As I tried to explain in a comment above, the divisions in Bolivia are obviously connected to traditional labour activity & the employment structures & wealth acquired through that activity as much as they are easily fomented by regional ethnic differences. Thus one must pay attention to this weekend's rallies by interests not present at the assembly vote who are raising the question of regional autonomies & as I commented up the page "pro-partitionist agenda" which they will hope not only to see develop in to a No! vote when the constitution is put referendum but to see counted more "anti-Evo" votes than at his election & calling in his promise to stand down at such an eventuality. The last commentator suggested, the Morales government {or regime} should explain to the richer regions why it is in their interest to help the poorer ones. I thought it might be helpful for people to consider one of the economic issues which split even those who passed the proposed referendum last weekend : should Bolivians be allowed to accumulate {or hold or acquire or speculate upon} land up to a limit of 5,000 hectares or 10,000 hectares? For those who have most of their lives subsisted without heating despite pipelines passing their front door 5,000 hectares is a lot of land which is just too big to imagine. I suppose it is for you too. Which is why being good @ explaining the abstract & representing the unimaginable I began comparing agricultural holdings on the continent of South America to the size of county Louth many years ago. For as we mostly know Louth has 82,631 hectares & takes up 3.3% of the hectarage of our multi-cultural multi-lingual land. So now that I've helped you realise we are talking about limiting a hectarage of Louth to either 4 & a half or 8 & a quarter people {& their dependent offspring, household staff or hanger-ons} you might see how very very few people muy pocos (as we say in Castilian) are sincerely interested in explaining to the poor why it is in their interest to keep with "the" (=our) project. Or perhaps you've never been to Louth, it was an arbitrary choice, but I fib - I've great regard for the heritage of the place. Meath - full of strong farmers & potential ancient culture route tourism sites boasts 234,490 hectares - 46 owners or 23 & almost a half. Oh yes, the half a man question - digging that half a hole in half a day.

This is all very serious. Our continued attention to detail is required & the handling of the "economic autonomy" rallies of the opposition this weekend is crucial - I suggest rather than been treated on the previously elucidated ( i wish ) "pro-partitionist" agenda be tackled as pure & simple economics - no man of Meath or Louth is swapping his farm for a rood of rock in Mayo without sorting the pipeline thing. I ask you to remember the first (& best) nationalisation decree fudged some of the most difficult applications of both socialism & law by codifying Bolivia's hydrocarbon wealth as subsoil resources ............I'm losing ye again..........another analogy.........if bolivia did oranges we'd be talking the man from DelMonte looking for his ground rent. I leave you with an extract from the constition :-

......Bolivia se declara un Estado unitario plurinacional comunitario, libre, independiente, soberano, democrático, social, descentralizado y con autonomías territoriales, que se funda en la pluralidad y el pluralismo político, económico, jurídico, cultural y lingüístico

= Bolivia declares herself a unitary, plurinational, common state, free, independent, sovreign, democratic, social, decentralised with autonomous territories, which is founded in plurality and linguistic & cultural, legal, economic and political pluralism.

author by Mexicanopublication date Sat Dec 15, 2007 16:05author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I understand all your good points, and when a large group of people want something we cannot always say that it is a "communist plot" or a "CIA plot".

I agree that more money should pass from the rich in Bolivia to the poor. It is for the politicians like Morales to explain why it is necessary, not to demand payment from the richer parts - that were not rich so long ago.

Everyone in Bolivia is "indigenous" - why is someone living on a mountain more indigenous than someone in a city? That argument is for his supporters, and to gain votes but it is not an intellectual argument. Emotion is alas a large part of politics, even here in Ireland.

I am glad that the argument against Bechtel has been publicised in Ireland, but there is the old method of digging a well and not waiting forever for the goverment to give you piped water.

The gas situation is made more difficult by the Northamerican influence. A man like Chavez can sell his oil by sea. Bolivia has to pipe its gas to other countries to make money, and that needs investment money and engineers, which must come from Northamerica if it is to be done quickly. It can be done more slowly, without a northamerican involvement, but then Morales might loose an election or two before the money is in his hand to help his "indigenous" supporters.

It is a difficult balance for him and his people.

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