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(en) Ireland, Anarchist WSM journal, Red & Black Revolution #13 - A Review of Two Recent Books On Bolivian Social Movements by James R.

Date Sun, 16 Dec 2007 09:13:43 +0200

Social Movements On Fire ---- 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. ---- 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

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

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
(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
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