Introduction to "Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia"

New social movements have emerged in Bolivia over the "price of fire"—access to basic elements of survival like water, gas, land, coca, employment, and other resources. From the first moments of Spanish colonization to today's headlines, The Price of Fire, a new book by award-winning Upside Down World editor Benjamin Dangl, offers a gripping account of clashes in Bolivia between corporate and people's power, contextualizing them regionally, culturally, and historically. Read the introduction...

Benjamin Dangl

It was supposed to be a day of celebration for the Virgin of Rosario, the patron saint of miners. Yet events in Huanuni, Bolivia delayed the festival interminably. In place of the celebration, the archbishop presided over a mass for 16 people killed in a two-day conflict between miners over access to tin deposits. As an uneasy peace returned to the town, a nearby soccer field turned battlefield was still carved up by craters from dynamite explosions and stained red with the blood of miners.1 The desperation that led the miners of Huanuni to turn their sticks of dynamite into weapons is the product of economic policies that have pitted the poor against the poor, leading Bolivian Vice President Alvaro García Linera to describe Huanuni’s tin as "something that should have been a blessing for the country [and] has been turned into a curse."2

The clash in Huanuni in October 2006 was but one of many resource conflicts, which continue to ravage Latin America. In the last six years, new struggles and protest movements have emerged in Bolivia over what I have called the "price of fire," access to basic elements of survival—gas, water, land, coca, employment, and other resources. While national and international business and political elites have worked to open Bolivian markets and sell public services to the lowest bidder, the majority of citizens have found that the price of fire has risen beyond their means. In the face of unresponsive government ministers and corporate executives, excluded sectors have often decided to take matters into their own hands. This book looks at these struggles, in which everyday people have risen up against the privatization of survival.

The trajectory of the book uncovers the larger story of a region in revolt, beginning with indigenous uprisings against Spanish rule, focusing in on social movements in the last six years and ending with reports from the first year of the administration of indigenous president Evo Morales. The following chapters view Latin America through the lens of Bolivian protest movements, traveling beyond the landlocked country’s borders to make comparisons between similar resource struggles. These narratives also document the recent transition of Latin American leftist movements from the streets into the political office.

Bolivia has been a longtime lab rat for neoliberalism, an economic system that promised increased freedoms, better standards of living and economic prosperity, but in many cases resulted in increased poverty and weakened public services. When the system failed and people resisted, governments applied these policies through the barrel of a gun. Popular social movements emerged in response to this economic and military violence, leading neoliberalism to dig its own grave in Latin America. The Price of Fire tells the story of the successful movements that developed in the wake of these failed military and economic models.

The first chapter is designed to create a political, social and economic context through which the reader can see Bolivian and Latin American resource conflicts as a continuation of past clashes. This includes not only an introduction to the history of Bolivian indigenous, mining, and farmer movements, but also a primer on neoliberal economic policies and imperial strategies in Washington’s "backyard."

Bolivian cocaleros (coca farmers) organized unions to defend their right to grow coca leaves and resist the military repression of the U.S. War on Drugs. In the second chapter, I address the failures of US-funded anti-coca policies and military activities in Bolivia, and present a history of how one of the country’s most powerful social movements grew in the face of repression, transformed itself into a political party and put cocalero Evo Morales into the presidential palace.
Though Bolivian social movements have always been strong in the face of corporate robbery, the Cochabamba Water War in 2000 brought international attention to Bolivia from the "anti-globalization" activist community. The residents of Cochabamba rose up when the multinational Bechtel Corporation bought their public and communal water systems. In a classic example of the failure of the privatization of a basic resource, the company’s rate hikes and exclusive water rights sparked a revolt that continues to rock the country’s social and political landscape. In chapter three I discuss the disastrous effects of corporate control of water, as well as the lasting impacts the 2000 uprising had on Bolivia and the limited success of the subsequently public-controlled water system.

Much of Latin American economics in the last 50 years has been dictated by the forceful advice of financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In 2003, Bolivian police took up arms against a government that wanted to slash their pay in an IMF-backed income tax increase. In chapter four, I look at this conflict through the eyes of a soldier turned hip-hop artist and a policeman involved in the street battles, while linking the crisis to Argentina’s IMF-inspired crash just two years earlier. Both conflicts exhibit the disparity between what IMF officials advocate and how these policies play out on the ground.

Governments and economies that favor corporations and wealthy elites have created such an unequal distribution of wealth in Latin America that many people are left without the means to survive.3 In many cases, the much-needed jobs, land or public space are unoccupied, but off limits. This situation has given rise to social movements that have occupied, defended, and put to use these spaces in order to support themselves, their families, and their communities. In chapter five, I describe common threads between struggles over land in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil and the occupation of factories and businesses by unemployed Argentine workers. I also tell the story of former detainees taking over a jail in Venezuela and transforming it into a community radio station. Each of these occupations was based on the slogan "occupy, resist, produce," a strategy which typifies the larger people’s struggle against corporate exploitation and neoliberal displacement.

The history of Latin America has been one of expropriation. Governments and companies first in Europe, and then in the United States, saw these countries as a source of free raw material and open markets for manufactured goods. Resources, and with them workers’ rights and public services, have been squashed in a post-colonial free for all. In chapter six, I discuss how Bolivians want their gas reserves used for national development, and how Venezuela has used oil profits for social change. The history of Bolivian gas industrialization and nationalization offers insights into ongoing conflicts over the resource. Though the current nationalization process in Venezuela could be applied to Bolivia, policies in both countries have their faults. Here, I explain how one of the countries with the most wealth in its subsoil can be one of the poorest above ground, and how Bolivians tried to change this resource curse through the Gas War, a popular uprising in 2003 that reversed corporate policies and ousted a president.

Better worlds—some that have lasted, some no more than euphoric glimpses—have been forged by Bolivian community organizations and mobilizations where people created their own infrastructure and banded together to demand necessary changes. In Bolivia, where state rule exerts a historically weak hegemony over the country, power is decidedly in the hands of the people. In the city of El Alto, the indigenous and union roots of rural and mining migrants have created a country within a country. These neighborhood organizations have filled the void of the state to build and maintain public infrastructure, make political and economic decisions, and represent residents. In chapter seven, I discuss the history of this self-made city, its capacity for mobilization and how these grassroots strengths were put to use in the 2003 Gas War.

Next to the social organizations and unions, political artistic movements have flowered in Bolivia, creating change in their own way. Chapter eight looks at three social organizations that do more than protest and lobby government officials. Teatro Trono, in El Alto, is a theater troupe of homeless and at-risk children that uses the stage to grapple with difficult social issues and to transform the lives of young actors. The feminist-anarchist group, Mujeres Creando, seeks to change the world without taking power, and fights against gender inequality and machismo in Bolivia. A growing hip-hop movement in Bolivia is using lyrics in Spanish as well as Quechua and Aymara, the languages of the two largest indigenous groups in Bolivia, as "instruments of struggle." These three groups have collectively built their paradises outside the realm of state and corporate power, widening the capacity for broader social change in Bolivia.

While social movements can oust governments and corporations, they also take their toll on stability and transitions between political leaders. Chapter nine deals with the tightrope walk of Bolivian President Carlos Mesa over a country in turmoil. Conflicts regarding water and gas nationalization re-emerged during his time in office, leading the country once again into a national uprising. In this chapter, I also look at other worker and political gains and challenges in Argentina and Uruguay, where along with Bolivia, people-powered movements gained momentum both in the street and the government palace.

At Evo Morales’ traditional inauguration in the ancient Aymaran ruins of Tiwanaku in January 2006, hope was enough to carry the day. Morales, a self-described anti-imperialist, promised radical changes for his impoverished nation, pledging to nationalize gas reserves, expand legal coca markets, redistribute land to poor farmers and organize an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. While social movements dance with Morales to the music of globalization, the chains of previous neoliberal policies and right-wing governments still hold the country down.

At the time of this writing, Morales’ campaign promises are in jeopardy and many wonder if his administration has done all it can to formalize and protect the victories forged in street mobilizations. My analysis of the dynamic Bolivian social movements that have emerged in the past few decades illustrates how organized citizens paved the way to the Morales victory. In the last chapter, the lens widens to include Morales’ first several months in office and his place in the current leftist shift sweeping the continent.

This book is a people’s account of re-colonization and resistance, with dispatches from the streets, coca farms, mines, and government palaces. It is based on interviews with activists, factory workers, hip-hop artists, Evo Morales, street vendors, policemen, right-wing business owners, and community radio producers. The similarities and differences between the people, movements, and conflicts discussed here have much to teach. They present a range of creative strategies for resisting global neoliberalism in urban and rural settings. They also manifest an affirmation that these struggles are not isolated events, but part of the battle for vital resources in an ever more populated and corporate world.

At best, this book is but one representation of a vast and complex region. My aim is to make complicated issues more accessible and give a human face to the looting and struggles of a continent. Within that goal and scope, there are many important issues and inspiring Latin American movements that time and narrative do not permit me to discuss in the depth they deserve, or at all. I hope, however, that the accounts presented here will be of use to students and workers, activists and academics, travelers and homebodies, and any combination. In that light, this book provides a colorful introduction to Latin American social movements and resource conflicts, with a focus on Bolivia, as well as new perspectives and insights for experts and longtime observers of a region where corporate globalization has met its match.

Benjamin Dangl
Cochabamba, Bolivia
November 7, 2006


Price of Fire is is now available for ordering from AK Press and Amazon. Check out BoliviaBook.com for information on the upcoming book tour.

Benjamin Dangl is the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America, where this article was first published.


End Notes:
1. "Los sectores mineros de Huanuni declaran una tregua," Especiales/Guerra del estaño. La Razón (October 7, 2006). Also "Bolivia deploys 700 police to quell deadly miners' conflict," The Associated Press (October 5, 2006).
2. For more information on this conflict, see April Howard and Benjamin Dangl, "Tin War in Bolivia: Conflict Between Miners Leaves 17 Dead," Upside Down World, (October 11, 2006), http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/455/1/.
3. Nearly half of the people living in Latin America and the Caribbean are poor, and nearly 20 percent live in extreme poverty. For more information, see Latin America & the Caribbean, United Nations Population Fund, http://www.unfpa.org/latinamerica/.

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