Bolivia's Long Revolution

— Susan Spronk

The Price of Fire:
Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia
Benjamin Dangl
AK Press, 2007, 226 pages
$15.95 paper. (www.AKPress.org)

ANY ACTIVIST OR researcher looking for an up-to-date, accessible read on contemporary Bolivia should buy this book. Presenting a people’s history of Bolivia, Ben Dangl describes the amazing panorama of social struggles of both past and present. As Dangl rightfully argues, the contemporary struggles over the “price of fire” — “access to basic elements of survival — gas, water, land, coca, employment, and other resources” (7) — must ultimately be understood in the context of a long history of indigenous and worker mobilization and revolt.

The first chapter provides a brief history of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle in Bolivia, which began when miners discovered a vein of almost pure silver in “Cerro Rico” (literally, “Rich Hill”) in Potosí in the 16th century. Since then, the richness of the subsoil has never translated into wealth for the majority of its peoples. Echoing Uruguayan poet and writer Eduardo Galeano, Dangl writes of the “open veins” of Latin America, where the flow of resources to the north that started in colonial times intensified in the neoliberal period.

It is no subtle irony that today Potosí is one of the poorest provinces of Bolivia. The historical memory of centuries of plunder injects a radical current in the popular demand to return natural resources such as water and gas to public control.

As one woman once put it to me during a solidarity tour on the water struggles in El Alto in 2005, “neoliberalism [privatization and market domination —ed.] is simply the most recent in a series of political projects sponsored by elites that have plundered Bolivia’s natural wealth. Three hundred years ago, the Spanish sent us down the silver mines of Potosí. Now the multinational corporations in El Alto and Cochabamba try to steal our water and sell it back to us.”

The book is peppered with useful allegories that capture the radicalism and fighting spirit of Bolivian social movements. While the demand to expropriate multinational corporations who control Bolivia’s natural resources may seem impossible to many North American or European observers, Dangl illustrates the historical roots of this demand.

After the national-popular revolution of 1952 the reformist ruling party, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), paid millions of dollars in compensation to the “tin barons” ousted by the Revolution. The payment was made to secure the favor of capitalist imperialism, notably Bolivia’s largest donor, the United States.

Dangl recounts the lesson from a revolutionary miner recounted by his daughter: “‘Suppose I bought you a beautiful doll…. Then the doll is stolen by a man who makes it work a lot. But one day after so much fighting, you grab [the man] and hit him hard and take it away from him.’ After so long the doll is dirty, broken and weak.‘ [S]hould you pay him for the way the doll has aged? Don’t you see you shouldn’t? It is the same with the ‘tin barons’ who’ve gotten rich with our mine’” (21). And so it is with the multinational corporations who were allowed to ransack Bolivia’s gas paying ridiculously low rent during the height of neoliberalism in the late 1990s.

While at one point in the late 1980s, a resurgence of the left seemed hopeless to many observers of Bolivia, Dangl documents how oppositional forces have slowly rebuilt their collective organizations through the battle for land in the eastern lowlands, for social control over local water supplies in Cochabamba, and for an end to the United States’ bloody coca eradication program in the Chapare, to name but a few of these struggles.

Unlike the revolutionary miners’ unions that led the popular resistance efforts during the middle decades of the twentieth century, these new organizations are not organized explicitly around class lines, although many of them draw on traditions of trade union organizing and pre-Columbian forms of indigenous leadership and organization.

“Social Movement Party”

In chapter two, Dangl describes how the members of the militant miners’ unions were scattered all over the country after the closing of the state-owned mines.

In the late 1980s, miners and their families migrated to the coca-growing areas of the Chapare and shantytowns like El Alto in search of new ways to eke out a living. In the Chapare, these former miners applied their organizational skills to build sindicatos (unions), which “organized work cycles, and distribution of land, and mediated disputes” (39), as well as enforced communal work brigades and organized political protests.

The growth and maturation of these organizational structures eventually culminated in the foundation of the Six Federations of Coca Growers of the Tropics of Cochabamba, the political precursor of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), the left-wing political party that swept the national elections in December 2005.

As Dangl describes, in its early days the MAS was conceived as a “social movement party,” or more accurately, a “political instrument” which articulated an anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal platform that “advocated the decriminalization of coca production and putting natural resources, such as gas and oil, under state control.” (49)

Although I do not necessarily agree with all of Dangl’s interpretations, one of his most valuable contributions is the cautious assessment he makes of the strengths and the limitations of the MAS now that the party has been elected to office.

Dangl tends towards what Daniel Bensaid would call the “utopian left.”(1) He clearly sides with the “movimientistas,” who eschew participation in the “traditional political system.” He quotes an interview with Oscar Olivera, a social movement leader from the Cochabamba-based Coordinadora, before the elections of December 2005:

“Now it will be more difficult for people to mobilize… If ‘Tuto’ [Quiroga] was in power he would clearly be ‘the enemy. ’ If Evo fails, it will be a failure for the social movements. The gains of six years of struggle will be lost.” (200)(2)

After the Water War

Similar to Olivera, Dangl is extremely skeptical of the co-optive potential of political parties, instead embracing those who aim to “change the world without taking state power.” Dangl’s treatment of the aftermath of the water war, however, highlights the potential weaknesses of such a view.

As Dangl observes, the “corporate control of water horribly affected a majority of the population, and yet, after Bechtel [the American corporation that was granted control over Cochabamba’s water supply] was kicked out, the subsequent public control has also left much to be desired.” (123)

After the water war, two problems appeared. First, the utility failed to expand sufficiently into the poorest zone of the city. The lack of public investment is directly related to the fact that the water war failed to pressure the government to reverse neoliberal public policy, and so the government continued to restrict the utility’s access to much-needed investment.

Second, there have been increases in rates. Indeed, in 2002 the management turned to the Inter-American Development Bank, which imposed its agenda for reform on the management by insisting that the utility achieve “full cost recovery” before expanding its services to the poor areas of the southern part of the city.

While many of these troubles can be blamed on the desperate financial situation in which the reconstituted public utility found itself in after the water war, the failure of “social control” to achieve two of its stated goals was also related to the fact that the much-celebrated ad hoc coalition that initially coordinated the protests — the Coordinadora —  could not sustain the high level of social mobilization needed to realize its vision for radical reform.

In 2000, the Coordinadora was sustained by a powerful coalition of organized and informal workers and peasants, which managed to kick the multinational corporation Bechtel out of Bolivia. But since then, the anti-privatization coalition has split into two main fractions, the producers and the consumers of water services. The latter have embraced subcontracting as a “necessary” means by which to discipline the union in order to fire workers and meet the terms of the loan set by the Inter-American Development Bank.

While the Coordinadora was able to wage a successful defensive struggle that drew together a diverse coalition of actors united against privatization, it was not able to build an alternative hegemony or achieve the necessary changes to policy. It is only since the election of the MAS that things are looking up for the utility.

Problems of “Spontaneousness”

Similarly, Dangl is rightly impressed by the self-organization of the masses in the “self-built” city of El Alto, but here he tends to romanticize the “spontaneousness” of the “gas wars” of October 2003 and May-June 2005 in which thousands of people took to the streets against the government’s policies in the oil and gas sector. After devoting various pages to describing the way that social movements in El Alto have built up collective grassroots organizations over the past decade, he comes to the puzzling conclusion that the gas wars happened “without leaders or an organized structure.”

Dangl relies heavily on the interpretation of Uruguayan sociologist Raúl Zibechi, a fellow partisan of the changing-the-world-without-taking-state-power camp, who writes that “it could be argued that if unified, organized structures had existed, not as much social energy would have been unleashed. The key to this overwhelming grassroots mobilization is, without a doubt, the basic self-organization that fills every pore of the society and has made superfluous many forms of representation.” (151)(3)

Certainly there is little doubt that traditional formations — trade unions and socialist political parties in particular — are in need of democratic revitalization. Yet the failures of the Coordinadora to build an alternative hegemony based upon an articulation of common interests indicate that these “new” working-class organizations are not a fool-proof alternative to such “traditional” organizations.

Indeed, as other critical observers have pointed out, while the social movements in Bolivia are well-organized at the grassroots level and have made considerable gains in the project to decolonize the racist state, they have systematically failed to build counter-hegemonic coalitions that can propose an alternative to capitalism.(4) Absent such an alternative, the more reformist MAS fills the political void and popular demands continue to bump up against the limits of a system of social property relations that excludes the majority from the basic means of production and subsistence.

Nonetheless, thanks to the pressure exerted by organized social movements and the recent MAS ascent to office, the class struggle has not been the one-sided affair that it appeared to be during the heyday of neoliberalism. As a left social democratic party, the MAS has made some significant steps to molify the commodification of goods and services by increasing public investment in basic infrastructure and exerting more state control over private corporations.

I fundamentally agree with Dangl’s assessment that much depends on the ability of social movements to retain a critical distance from the MAS and take direct action when necessary to push the MAS in the right direction. Quoting Bolivian political analyst, Helena Agirakis, “The [54% by which Morales won] isn’t a blank check; it’s a loan.” (200)

Above all, Dangl’s inspiring book reminds us that the social movement victories of the past years have raised popular expectations for a fairer distribution of the social wealth. These victories have helped bring legitimacy to the idea that creating another world is not only possible but necessary.

If hope motivates people to fight collectively for social change, Bolivia is overflowing with it. As Dangl puts it, immediately after the MAS’s electoral victory, while people did not expect everything to change over night, “expectations seemed limitless.” (201) Even more important is that with the return of politics, debates about strategy are back on the table.

Notes

  • Daniel Bensaid, A new debate is opening: The Return of Strategy, International Viewpoint, IV386, February 2007. Available at: http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1199
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  • See Olivera’s statement on the destructive role of traditional political parties in Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia (in collaboration with Tom Lewis), South End Press, 2004, 57-58.
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  • Zibechi’s writings in English can be found on http://americas.irc-online.org/ and http://www.counterpunch.org/. His recent book, Dispersar el poder: Los movimientos como poderes antiestatales (2006) outlines the argument summarized above.
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  • This position has been articulated by Frederico Fuentes, Jorge Martin, James Petras, and Jeffery R. Webber in their work on the MAS.
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  • ATC 129, July-August 2007