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Across Bolivia, fireworks and blockade fires illuminate a resistance that has been sustained for years, and which is gaining momentum across the South American continent.
Benjamin Dangl’s The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, recently published by AK Press, is a compilation of anecdotes and political analyses that spans Bolivia’s history of resource-based mobilizations. Written over five years, often from the fray of mass mobilizations or boisterous fiestas, this book offers a glimpse into the rich fabric of Bolivian social movements.
Dangl’s writing also frames his analysis of Bolivia in the broader context of Latin American politics. By drawing on creative and functional examples of community-based, socialist-minded initiatives from across the continent, such as factory takeover co-operatives in Argentina and comedor libres (community-operated soup kitchens) in Caracas, he shows that alternatives to neoliberalism are indeed possible.
In The Price of Fire, Dangl asserts that colonialism of the past has been replaced with economic policies of the present. Since colonization, “the wealth in the rest of the world [has] depended on poverty in Latin America,” he writes.
Despite being a country rich in natural resources, Bolivia is, economically, the poorest country in South America. The dearth of social services and basic infrastructure is crystalline in Dangl’s depictions -- especially of the hyper-urbanized city El Alto on the fringe of La Paz -- but Bolivia’s potent social movements and community organizations are filling these chasms with pro-active articulations for change.
Throughout successive dictatorships and a long stretch of Cold War interventionism in Bolivia, people were not able to express their needs through the political system, and were driven to the streets. In a phone interview, Dangl explains that the impetus for the Bolivian people to mobilize so effectively stems from absolute necessity. “Economic and political policies affect their living rooms, their stomachs.”
Bolivian social movements have become extremely cohesive. In El Alto, “the city that contains a nation,” even the street vendors are unionized -- they attend community meetings and shut down during strikes.
Perhaps The Price of Fire’s most endearing attribute is the conversations Dangl shares with people he meets on his travels, from elderly coca growers and government officials, to street-youth theatre performers and graffiti artists. Abraham Bojorquez, a political hip- hop artist based in El Alto, tells of being in the military during a 2003 uprising in response to IMF-imposed income tax hikes. Thirty-one people -- protestors as well as bystanders -- were killed during the violent repression carried out by the Bolivian military. Bojorquez quickly left the military and joined the other side. He now rhymes in Spanish, English, Portuguese, Quechua and Aymara (two of the principle indigenous languages in Bolivia) and sees this politically charged music as an “instrument of struggle, an instrument of the people.”
The election of Evo Morales to presidency in December 2005 was a victory for Bolivian social movements and marks a stark shift in Bolivian politics. Morales, the former leader of the Six Federations Coca Growers’ Union, made the transition to the Movement Towards Socialism Party (MAS) and was elected on an explicit anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal platform. He is the first indigenous president Bolivia has had, despite the fact that the country’s population is 60 per cent indigenous.
“Morales and Lula [the working class president of Brazil] are two amazing examples of really important social advances that can push Latin America, Bolivia and Brazil out of the intense divisions between rich and poor, indigenous and mestizo [part Spanish descent],” says Dangl on the phone from Minnesota, a stop on his recent book tour. In The Price of Fire, however, Dangl does not idealize Bolivia’s precarious position, situated in a “continent on a tightrope.”
When elected, Morales promised nationalization of gas, improvement of coca policies and a new constitution. However, his promises have not been entirely fulfilled. Morales swiftly introduced a legal quota arrangement for coca growers, but previous contentious laws are still in place; he has improved gas policies immensely, but a full expropriation of the resource has yet to be seen. Finally, the new constitution is still in the works.
Since Morales’ election, Bolivian social movements have shifted from antagonism to collaboration with the new government, explains Dangl, but the cohesive relationship is a delicate one. “I think the danger or the challenge among many of these movements now is to work with their new allies in the government without jeopardizing their own independence or autonomy -- the same independence that empowered them from the beginning, outside of the political sphere…There’s a danger that all the momentum that has built up, particularly over the past six years, could be dispersed and weakened because of this centralization of power with Evo in the government.”
In addition to a healthy criticism of the Morales administration, Dangl does not allow the positive attributes of the MAS to eclipse the salient racism, classism and sexism in Bolivia. He interviews Julieta Ojeda and Maria Galindo of the La Paz-based collective Mujeres Creando, a “small influential group of anarcho-feminists not very well-liked in Bolivian society.” This aversion to progressive feminist groups, Dangl says, is indicative of prevalent sexism throughout the country.
In a corner of the Mujeres Creando’s multi-purpose centre, crowded with pamphlets and books, Galindo tells Dangl that the sexism and repression in Bolivia is not much different from anywhere else in the world. In fact, neither is the colonial history, the impact of structural adjustment policies, or the foreign ownership of resources. What is unique is the Bolivian people’s response and their ability to instigate and implement fundamental paradigm shifts, whether in the streets, the coca fields, or the congress. And, as Mujeres Creando demonstrates, repressive structures within these movements will also be held to the flames.
The Price of Fire is available through AK Press
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.