The indigenous fire in Latin America

June 14, 2007

The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia

By Benjamin Dangl

A K Press, 2007


For Bolivia's indigenous majority, the year 1781 is engrained in popular memory as one of open rebellion against Spanish colonialism. Led by Tupak Katari, the indigenous Aymaras of the highlands lay siege to the city of La Paz for several months. While Katari was finally overpowered, captured and quartered, he became an historic reference point for indigenous struggle, promising just before he was murdered that "I will come back, and I will be millions".

So it is that once again, after more than 500 years of colonialism, millions of indigenous Bolivians are once again rising up to take control of their destiny, propelling for the first time an indigenous person, Evo Morales, into the presidency of the country.

This new wave of rebellion is the focus of radical journalist Ben Dangl's first book The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. Dangl is no stranger to this topic, having reported on events unfolding in Bolivia for a number of years, including as an eyewitness of the 2003 uprising, for among others Z Magazine, The Nation and Green Left Weekly, as well as editing the online magazine Upside Down World, an invaluable source of information on political change in Latin America.

In his book, Dangl returns to Bolivia to provide readers with a vivid insight into why it has become such an important battleground between combative social movements and foreign transnationals over what he calls the "price of fire" - access to basic necessities for survival such as gas, water, land, coca, employment and other resources.

While providing much valuable information on the origins and impacts of neoliberalism in Bolivia, the book's most important contribution is Dangl's tracing of the origins and distinct features of the new actors in Bolivian society - coca growers of the Chapare region, neighbourhood committees of El Alto, a movement of landless peasants, and feminist and cultural organisations among others - providing important insights into their nature. Crucially, Dangl allows those at the centre of this struggle to tell their story, introducing readers to numerous well-known and not-so-well-known protagonists.

It is through interviews with street vendors, members of neighbourhood committees, Aymara journalists and sociologists that Dangl provides a window into the world of the people of El Alto, central actors in the writing of Bolivia's new history. He provides readers with a deep understanding of the politics of this radical city, sketching out how the history of El Alto, ignored for decades by the government, has been vital to the creation of strong bonds of solidarity and struggle among alteos.

Dangl articulates how the fusing of the habits and skills of the miners, left unemployed by privatisation, and the organisational structures and traditions of the rural Aymaran ayllus, have created a collective identity of community cohesion and organisation. Dangl elucidates how, for the majority informal work force of El Alto, their involvement in unions provides a "sense of collective identity … important to vendors who operate in an often isolated and economically competitive atmosphere".

A similar outline is made of the coca grower, or cocalero, movement in the Chapare region, which, faced with the US-imposed "war on drugs", was forged into one of the most combative social movements of the country.

While the influences of the miners' unionism impacted more strongly due to historic factors, Dangl explains that the "syndicatos, community organisations similar to unions", are much more than simply instruments of struggle, acting to "organise work cycles and distribution of land, and mediate disputes".

Recounting her story, Leonilda Zurita, who helped establish the first women's federation of cocaleros in 1995, explains the role of these syndicatos. Zurita says to Dangl: "[Many] women in the Chapare don't know how to read or write. So the best school for the women is the union. There we have empowered people. We learn about which laws are in favor of us and which are not. This has all shown us that the union organization is important to defend mother earth, defend the coca, and defend our natural resources."

Today, Zurita is a senator with the Movement Towards Socialism - Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP), which emerged as a political response, primarily of the cocaleros of the Chapare, to "policies that were destroying their livelihoods".

It is also from the ranks of these cocaleros that Morales emerged, who, as Dangl points out, helped develop MAS into "an 'anti-imperialist' and 'anti-neoliberal' party that, amongst other platforms, advocated the decriminalisation of coca production and putting natural resources, such as gas and oil, under state control".

Dangl also sketches out the development of important social organisations such as the Movement of Landless Peasants, the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life, and feminist organisation Mujeres Creando. Throughout all the close observations of the different dynamics at play within these and other movements, not only in Bolivia but in the rest of South America, Dangl continues to return to what binds them together: their struggle to regain control over their natural resources.

Dangl summarises this view at the end of the chapter "Occupy, Resist, Produce" - a slogan made famous by the occupied factories movement of Argentina: "At the heart of each of these occupations", in this case the occupation of factories in Argentina, land in Bolivia and Paraguay, and a jail in Venezuela, "is the question of property and ownership, and whether or not a privileged elite or poor majority should use these resources".

In focusing on these questions, Dangl goes beyond just introducing readers to the social movements of Bolivia towards making an important contribution to the debate on the dynamics of social change, the role of the new left governments, and the question of state power, which makes the book an invaluable resource for those interested in the unfolding discussion.

Dangl's position departs from the viewpoint that the "regional integration building between progressive Latin American governments" has helped shift the balance of power "away from Washington and multinational corporations and into the hands of Latin American social movements and left of centre governments". Rather, he argues, the real possibility for transformation comes from those social movements that "wield a power to organise and create an alternative social fabric that is in many cases stronger than the state".

This leads to two shortcomings in his analysis. First, it simply lumps together all the left-of-centre governments, without drawing a distinction between, for instance, the governments of Morales and Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) on one hand and those of Lula (Brazil), Tabare Vasquez (Uruguay) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile) on the other hand.

Secondly, it also downplays the importance of state power. Dangl refers to well-known Uruguayan leftist commentator Raul Zibechi's analysis of the October 2003 uprising. Zibechi wrote, "it could be argued that if unified, organised structures had existed, not as much social energy would have been unleashed. The key to this overwhelming grassroots mobilisation is, without a doubt, the basic self-organisation that fills every pore of the society and has made superfluous many forms of representation."

Yet, as Dangl himself notes, the key factor in the rise of Morales was that "while other leaders of leftist unions or parties at the time focused their energy solely on campesino [peasant], or indigenous, issues, Morales - an indigenous coca farmer originally from the altiplano - spoke to campesinos, indigenous, and cocalero voters".

It is precisely because Morales and the social movements that make up the base of MAS focused on creating a "unified, organised structure" - MAS-IPSP - and using this instrument not only to win elections, but to take power, that the two central demands of the social movements - nationalisation of gas and the establishment of a constituent assembly - have become reality, notwithstanding some of the valid criticisms Dangl makes of the shortcomings in their implementation.

Morales has been able to unite Bolivia's diverse regional movements into a powerful movement for a project of national liberation aimed at not just regaining control of national resources, but also "nationalising" the state.

By occupying the existing state, Morales, working together with Bolivia's social movements, hopes to weaken the opposition of the capitalists and use it to lay the groundwork for a new state based on the inclusion of Bolivia's indigenous majority. However, this is a battle that the movements, along with the government, will have to wage both in the Constituent Assembly and on the streets. To do otherwise would lead to the dispersion, demoralisation and ultimate defeat of the social movements.

[Federico Fuentes maintains the Bolivia Rising blog at]

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