FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Street Politics in Bolivia

From across North Africa to Wisconsin, activists are navigating a new terrain of global protest and relationships with their governments. Whether in ousting old tyrants or dealing with new allies in office, the example of Bolivia holds many lessons for social movements. An illustrative dynamic is now unfolding in this Andean country where the movements hold sway over the government palace, and the leftist President Evo Morales says he “governs by obeying the people.” But sometimes the people don’t give him any other choice.

The day after Christmas last year, while Morales was away in Venezuela, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera announced that, as a way to cut government spending, subsidies on gas would be slashed, resulting in a roughly 73% price increase for Bolivians. In cash-strapped Bolivia, where much of the population lives below the poverty line, this austerity measure was to be born largely on the backs of the poor.

The neoliberal aspects of the policy shocked and outraged much of the country. Bolivian political commentator Rafael Bautista wrote that the gas price hikes followed the same neoliberal logic as Morales’ rightwing predecessors, embracing the concept that “to have more money we must sacrifice those who never have anything…” Bautista continued, “but who establishes these prices? It’s not the poor, it’s the market.” In this case the government was listening to the market over the people, and the price was to be paid with the “hunger of the poor.”

The move also betrayed the decades-old social struggle to use natural resources for the benefit of the country. Bolivia has the largest natural gas reserves in South America, and Morales himself was ushered into office on a wave of protests demanding nationalization of gas and popular access to natural resources. He followed through with partial nationalization in 2006, and has met other campaign promises such as rewriting the constitution, expanding land reform and social services, and empowering indigenous communities.

Bolivia’s social movements responded to the gas price hike announcement immediately, organizing protests, strikes and road blockades across the country to demand that the government back down. Even coca growers, Morales’ staunch allies, set up road blockades on a major highway. Bus drivers went on strike, and community organizations in El Alto marched, attacking government buildings. It was a historically-broad rejection of the policy, with more than just the usual organizations and sectors heading into the streets.

In an effort to offset the increase in gas and food prices, the Morales government raised the wages of public employees by 20%. Yet the salary increase would not help workers in the private and massive informal sector. The government also offered assistance to farmers of rice, wheat and corn. Yet the gas prices and subsequent cost of food, basic goods and transportation continued to rise.

Finally, on December 31st, as the protests showed no sign of stopping, Morales relented, saying he would reverse the price increase. In a televised speech, he said he would “continue to govern by obeying the people.” (He was drawing from the phrase Mandar Obedeciendo, Lead by Obeying, a slogan used by the Zapatistas.)

Was he obeying the people, or was he simply forced to respond to their pressure? In either case, his move was significant; while politicians around the world have recently been responding to protests against austerity measures with tanks and bullets, Morales responded by (eventually) agreeing with protesters and backing down. This illustrates the autonomy of the Bolivian social movements and the power they have over the government.

For the last decade, social movements in Bolivia have been the protagonists of the country’s history. This is because many of them understood that the fight for a better world didn’t end with the ousting of former right wing President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003, or even with the election of Evo Morales in 2006. Their struggle required constant mobilization and social transformation that didn’t fit into a government decree or a ballot box.

“I think we are reconsidering not just a new way of doing politics, but above all a new way of managing our economy,” Bolivian activist leader Oscar Olivera said in a Latin American Solidarity Center interview on the recent gas conflict. “In this, it is the people who are making it possible.”

BENJAMIN DANGL is currently based in Paraguay and is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia” (AK Press) and Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press). Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.

 

More articles by:

Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America, covering social movements and politics in the region for over a decade. He is the author of the books Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. Dangl is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at McGill University, and edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Twitter: https://twitter.com/bendangl Email: BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com

Weekend Edition
May 25, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
A Major Win for Trump’s War Cabinet
Andrew Levine
Could Anything Cause the GOP to Dump Trump?
Pete Tucker
Is the Washington Post Soft on Amazon?
Conn Hallinan
Iran: Sanctions & War
Jeffrey St. Clair
Out of Space: John McCain, Telescopes and the Desecration of Mount Graham
John Laforge
Senate Puts CIA Back on Torture Track
David Rosen
Santa Fe High School Shooting: an Incel Killing?
Gary Leupp
Pompeo’s Iran Speech and the 21 Demands
Jonathan Power
Bang, Bang to Trump
Robert Fisk
You Can’t Commit Genocide Without the Help of Local People
Brian Cloughley
Washington’s Provocations in the South China Sea
Louis Proyect
Requiem for a Mountain Lion
Robert Fantina
The U.S. and Israel: a Match Made in Hell
Kevin Martin
The Libya Model: It’s Not Always All About Trump
Susie Day
Trump, the NYPD and the People We Call “Animals”
Pepe Escobar
How Iran Will Respond to Trump
Sarah Anderson
When CEO’s Earn 5,000 Times as Much as a Company’s Workers
Ralph Nader
Audit the Outlaw Military Budget Draining America’s Necessities
Chris Wright
The Significance of Karl Marx
David Schultz
Indict or Not: the Choice Mueller May Have to Make and Which is Worse for Trump
George Payne
The NFL Moves to Silence Voices of Dissent
Razan Azzarkani
America’s Treatment of Palestinians Has Grown Horrendously Cruel
Katalina Khoury
The Need to Evaluate the Human Constructs Enabling Palestinian Genocide
George Ochenski
Tillerson, the Truth and Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department
Jill Richardson
Our Immigration Debate Needs a Lot More Humanity
Martha Rosenberg
Once Again a Slaughterhouse Raid Turns Up Abuses
Judith Deutsch
Pension Systems and the Deadly Hand of the Market
Shamus Cooke
Oregon’s Poor People’s Campaign and DSA Partner Against State Democrats
Thomas Barker
Only a Mass Struggle From Below Can End the Bloodshed in Palestine
Binoy Kampmark
Australia’s China Syndrome
Missy Comley Beattie
Say “I Love You”
Ron Jacobs
A Photographic Revenge
Saurav Sarkar
War and Moral Injury
Clark T. Scott
The Shell Game and “The Bank Dick”
Seth Sandronsky
The State of Worker Safety in America
Thomas Knapp
Making Gridlock Great Again
Manuel E. Yepe
The US Will Have to Ask for Forgiveness
Laura Finley
Stop Blaming Women and Girls for Men’s Violence Against Them
Rob Okun
Raising Boys to Love and Care, Not to Kill
Christopher Brauchli
What Conflicts of Interest?
Winslow Myers
Real Security
George Wuerthner
Happy Talk About Weeds
Abel Cohen
Give the People What They Want: Shame
David Yearsley
King Arthur in Berlin
Douglas Valentine
Memorial Day
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail