The Price of Fire in Latin America

Ben Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press 2007) and the editor of Upside Down World, an online magazine that covers Latin American politics, and Toward Freedom, a progressive perspective on world events. Recently Dangl, who won a 2007 Project Censored Award for his coverage of US military operations in Paraguay, spoke with JOSHUA FRANK about the emerging social movements in South America and how they are threatening Washington’s power in the region.

JOSHUA FRANK: Ben, before we talk about the situation in Bolivia, I think it is important to discuss the history leading up to the current state of affairs in the country. Could you explain to us how and why Bolivia has been fighting the neoliberal agenda, and when this resistance began to gain strength?

Ben Dangl: Resistance to neoliberalism isn’t anything new for Bolivia. Most Bolivians live under the poverty line, earning less than $2 dollars a day. Over the course of history, from Spanish colonization to today, this poor majority has risen up against such exploitation. In 1936, Bolivia was one of the first countries in the world to kick out a foreign corporation and expropriate its assets. That corporation was New Jersey-based Standard Oil. They were kicked out of Bolivia for corruption, illegally exporting the country’s gas to Argentina and playing a heavy hand in initiating a war against Paraguay. In 1952, a revolution took place in Bolivia which put much of the mining industry under state control, redistributed land and expanded the right to vote to most citizens.

More recently, movements have developed against corporate privatization of water and gas. In 2000, citizens of Cochabamba, Bolivia united in protest against the Bechtel Corporation, which worked with the Bolivian government to increase water fees, privatize the city’s water system, communally built wells and irrigation systems. In 2003 a large movement emerged against a plan to export Bolivian gas to the US for a low price. Many protestors demanded that the gas be put under state control, and used in Bolivia for national development, instead of enriching foreign corporations. Bolivia’s landless movement has fought against the concentration of unused land in the hands of a few. In the same way unemployed workers in Argentina occupied bankrupt factories in the 2001-2002 economic crisis, these Bolivian farmers occupy unused land and work it with their families.

JF: Do you think that the growing trend in Bolivia against neoliberalism led to the victory of Evo Morales for president?

BD: This is definitely the case. Neoliberal policies have wrecked Bolivia’s economy. The election of Evo Morales is in many ways a response to this economic failure. People see in Evo Morales an alternative to neoliberal business as usual. There are two specific conflicts which paved the way to his election.

One was the drug war in Bolivia, which has been a kind of military arm of neoliberalism. The coca leaf is a popular crop in Bolivia. Many farmers grow the leaf to survive. There is a vast, legal market for this leaf. It has been used for centuries by Andean people, and is an important part of indigenous cultures. It is used for medicine, is chewed or used in tea. Even the US embassy recommends using coca leaves as a cure for altitude sickness. Coca is also an ingredient in cocaine, and thus a target in the US funded drug war. Many poor coca growers have been repressed or killed in this war on coca, meanwhile the amount of cocaine available in the US and Europe remains the same or increases. Coca farmers organized unions to defend their right to grow coca, and resist military and police violence. Evo Morales came into politics through these coca unions. He was a coca farmer himself, and helped create the Movement Toward Socialism political party, which is an extension of these coca unions. The coca leaf came to be a key symbol in this party’s campaigns. The leaf represents anti-imperialism, indigenous coca, mining history (miners chew the leaf) and campesino struggles. The leaf united these diverse sectors. To a certain extent, this explains some of the popularity of Evo Morales, who has been able to unite different groups through this common symbol, this common struggle.

The 2003 Gas War also helped paved the way to the election of Evo Morales. In this protest movement, in which citizens rejected a plan to privatize and export Bolivian gas to the US, the president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was ousted from office. This created a space for the 2005 elections, as did the departure of president Carlos Mesa amidst similar protests. When Morales ran in 2005 he was in many ways riding the momentum of the 2003 and 2005 protest movement for gas nationalization. In his campaign he promised to put the country’s gas reserves under state control ­ a clear alternative to neoliberalism. This promise significantly contributed to his electoral victory.

JF: How has the U.S. government responded to this new emerging pattern in Bolivia? And how is the country’s fight against the neoliberal agenda reflective of a larger struggle in the region? I’m thinking of President Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. In what ways has this movement impacted or influenced Morales and Bolivia’s politics?

BD: The US government has always been concerned with coca production in Bolivia, and that remains a controversial issue with Evo Morales, a former coca-grower, in office. Most of Bolivia’s gas goes to Brazil, Argentina and Chile, so partial gas nationalization in Bolivia doesn’t impact US markets as much as the state-run oil industry in Venezuela. Washington doesn’t like to see Bolivia as a leftist example to other governments in the region, and it is doesn’t like to see the very strong relationship between Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. What’s going on Bolivia politically and economically is happening with the help of funds, expertise and solidarity with Venezuela, and that worries Washington.

It’s important to point out that the political and social changes in Bolivia are very homegrown and grassroots, and not happening because of Venezuela’s example or lead. Bolivian land re-distribution, gas nationalization, the re-writing of the country’s constitution, redirecting government spending into more social programs and public services, these are all policies that have been demanded from below in Bolivia for decades. They are taking place now in part because of the victories forged in street mobilizations in recent years, and because of the administration of Evo Morales. However, Venezuelan advisors and money are helping with these projects.

Whereas US officials used to be all over Bolivia advising Bolivian politicians, now Venezuelans have filled their place. Venezuela is also lending money to Bolivia, replacing the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in certain ways. This new lending and advising lacks a neoliberal agenda and is directed at more of a socialistic method of political and economic changes. For example, the IMF or US embassy would give money and advice, but with neoliberal or imperialistic strings attached such as privatization of public water systems or increased militarization of coca growing areas. That isn’t happening with Venezuelan advice. This is all part of a growing integration and solidarity between left-leaning leaders in South America that isn’t based on bowing down to US government or US corporate interests. This is a historic shift that is powered by the failure of neoliberalism in South America, Venezuelan oil wealth and a need among the majority of Latin Americans for a viable economic and social alternative.

JF: What other nations in the region do you think are shifting against the US in terms of our economic and military policies in the region? Do you think this is more of a grassroots or a state led movement?

BD: Each country’s dynamics are different. I’ll speak of a few examples and projects. Trade and economic alliances outside the sphere of the US such as the Banco del Sur are limiting the possibility of a US dominated economic bloc in the region. Bolivia recently became a part of a People’s Trade Agreement (PTA), a progressive alternative to standard free trade agreements. It is based on collaborations between countries, increased public ownership of the economy, and sustainable trade relationships, rather than exploitative practices standard in other agreements-such as NAFTA and the FTAA. In April, 2006, Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia signed a PTA in a move toward creating a “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas,” a sustainable trade project to eliminate poverty throughout the region. In the PTA, Venezuela eliminated tariffs and opened its state buyers to Bolivian producers, policies which are not usually applied to Bolivia’s smaller economy. Through the PTA, both Venezuela and Cuba will send doctors and technicians to Bolivia, as well as provide health care and college scholarships for Bolivians. The PTA gives states more power over economic decisions and regulates the economy to help the poorest sectors of society instead of corporations.

As far as military and political shifts away from the US, some of the biggest advances in Argentina and Chile with their new leaders are in the area of human rights and investigations and justice regarding disappearances and torture under dictatorships. Ecuador’s new president Rafael Correa has also led the charge to rewrite the constitution, following in the recent footsteps of Venezuela and Bolivia. Other important shifts are happening in the area of military alliances. Venezuela has stopped sending its military to the School of the Americas (SOA) in the US. In Bolivia, however, the number of military officials sent to the SOA has risen under the Morales presidency. This could possibly be a strategy on the part of the Morales administration to keep the military on his side, rather than with the right wing civic groups and political parties based in Santa Cruz. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa has pushed the US military out of its base in Manta, Ecuador. In December, 2006 the Paraguayan Senate voted against the immunity previously granted to US troops operating in the country.

Where the political and social power is concentrated varies widely in each country. In Argentina, for example, the middle class plays a very key role in the way politics are done in the country. One of the reasons why the 2001-2002 economic crisis was so tumultuous for Argentina was because the middle class was directly impacted and hit the streets in solidarity with other economic classes. Now the middle class is content for the most part with administration of Nestor Kirchner, so he (or his wife) may very well win the next elections.

In Venezuela, many of the political and social changes that have happened since Chavez came into office in 1998 are based on more of a “top-down” organization of power. What’s happening in Venezuela is very much centralized around Chavez as a key and charismatic figure. In some cases the diversity of social programs and social spending are being applied to the country from above, from this centralized political environment. This is not the case in Bolivia, where the political power is still very much outside the realm of the state, of the government of Evo Morales. The grassroots power of social movements in Bolivia is perhaps stronger than anywhere else in the region. Much of the success under the Morales administration depends on the social movements to either radicalize his policies, or to create change outside the political sphere or reforms.

JF: So what do you think the future holds for Bolivia and how can they be successful at implementing these changes?

BD: Much depends on the success of Bolivia’s constitutional assembly. If the infighting and gridlock continues in the assembly, there is risk that conflicts over these divisive issues – such as land distribution, gas nationalization, coca, autonomy – could spill out into bloody conflicts in the streets rather than be solved at the negotiating table.

The Morales administration is up against a lot of challenges, both institutionally and economically. It’s no small task to reverse 500 years of looting and injustice. In order to navigate through the rough waters ahead, Morales and his government need to stay true to the radical course set for them by social movements in recent grassroots victories.

Bolivian social movements – unions, neighborhood councils, students, coca farmers, miners and landless movements – need to hold the administration’s feet to the flames, while remaining independent and avoiding political cooptation.

JOSHUA FRANK is the co-editor of DissidentVoice.org, and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush. He can be reached through his website, BrickBurner.org.



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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, co-edited with Jeffrey St. Clair and published by AK Press. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank

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