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

Anyone who has had the privilege to travel or live in Bolivia has likely
observed that there are at least two things that remarkable country does
not lack: territory and imagination. Ben Dangl captures both of these in
his recent book on the resource wars in Bolivia. As an independent journalist,
he has travelled and lived in Latin America for the past six years including
long stretches in Bolivia writing for various progressive magazines. He
is the coordinating editor of “upsidedownworld,” which is one of the best
alternative sources of information on the social struggles taking place
in Latin America. 

Presented as a people’s history, Dangl describes the panorama of social
struggles both past and present, starting from the indigenous uprisings
against Spanish rule and ending with an account of the first year in office
of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). The book is the story of struggle
around what Dangl calls the price of fire: “access to basic elements of
survival— gas, water, land, coca, employment, and other resources.” He
argues that the struggles over the “price of fire” in Bolivia must ultimately
be understood in the context of a long history of indigenous and worker
mobilization and revolt. 

The first chapter provides a brief history of anti-imperialist and anti-
colonial struggle in Bolivia, which began when miners discovered a vein
of almost pure silver in Cerro Rico (literally, “Rich Hill”) in the altiplano
region of Potosí. Since then, the richness of the Bolivians subsoil has
never translated into wealth for the majority of its people. Dangl reminds
the reader of the “open veins” of Latin America where the flow of resources
to the north that started in colonial times intensified during the neo-
liberal period. As one woman once put it to me during a solidarity tour
on the water issue in El Alto, “neoliberalism is simply the most recent
in a series of political projects sponsored by elites that have plundered
Bolivia’s natural wealth. Three hundred years ago, the Spanish sent us
down the silver mines of Potosí. Now the multinational corporations in
El Alto and Cocha- bamba try to steal our water and sell it back to us.”

Such collective memories have informed contemporary calls for nationalization
of natural resources, such as oil, gas, and water. Dangl provides the historical
roots of this demand. After the popular revolution of 1952, the reformist
ruling party, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), paid millions
of dollars in compensation to the “tin barons” who were ousted by the revolution
in order to secure the favor of capitalist imperialism, notably Bolivia’s
largest donor, the United States. 

Dangl describes the fierce popular resistance as a welcome sign that the
left has re-organized after 15 years of neoliberalism. He writes that the
first priority of the neoliberal government that assumed office in 1985
was to smash the militant miners’ unions, which leads the popular class
struggle for the post-Second World War period. This was achieved by closing
the state-owned mines and laying off over three-quarters of the work- force.
Other privatization programs and austerity policies were also imposed with
force. Debilitated by neoliberal restructuring, the left was weak and divided.
In the absence of an organized opposition, neoliberal governments deepened
reforms over the next two decades, slowly stripping the state of its administrative
capacity and productive infrastructure. Foreign-funded NGOs flooded in
to fill the gap. Despite the government’s promises that neoliberal reforms
would increase freedoms, raise the standard of living, and create economic
prosperity, however, they left average Bolivians worse off than before.

In chapter two, Dangl describes how the embers of the militant miners’
unions were scattered all over the country as miners and their families
migrated to places like the coca-growing areas of the Chapare and shantytowns
like El Alto in search of new ways to make a living. In the Chapare, for
example, former miners applied their organizational skills to build sindicatos,
which “organized work cycles, and distribution of land, and mediated disputes,”
as well as communal work brigades and participation in political protests.
The growth and maturation of these organizational structures eventually
culminated in the foundation of the Six Federations of Coca Growers of
the Tropics of Cochabamba, the political precursor of MAS. Dangl describes
how, in its early days, MAS articulated an “anti-imperialist,” “anti- neoliberal”
platform that “advocated the decriminalization of coca production and putting
natural resources, such as gas and oil, under state control.” 

The Cochabamba water war of 1999-2000, the subject of chapter three, is
widely acknowledged as the turning point that ruptured years of neoliberal
hegemony and helped Bolivians make connections among a myriad of issues,
including the anti-imperialist struggles against coca-eradication, peasant
struggles for agrarian reform, and universal concerns about the government’s
economic policies. The water issue served as a catalyst for a broader set
of popular grievances relating to the toll exacted by neoliberal reforms
on Bolivia’s working classes, uniting rural and urban residents around
a common regional concern. 

After the water war, social movements focused on two basic issues—the demand
for radical social change through a politics of “basic needs” and the nationalization
of natural resources—which culminated in the gas wars of October 2003 and
May-June 2005. 

While Dangl is keen to demonstrate the creativity and vitality of the Bolivian
social movements that helped to elect MAS in December 2005, he also provides
a cautious assessment of the possibilities and limitations of MAS’s electoral

At the heart of the dilemma are strategic questions about the relationship
between the social movements and the political party and whether it is
possible to execute radical change through parliamentary channels. Dangl
clearly sides with the “movimientistas,” such as Oscar Olivera of Cocha-
bamba’s Coordinadora, who fears that if social movements identify too closely
with Morales’s party, “It will be more difficult for people to mobilize….
If Evo fails, it will be a failure for the social movements. The gains
of six years of struggle will be lost.” Dangl, similar to Olivera, is skeptical
about participating in the traditional political system while also expressing
his sympathy for MAS’s victory. 

One of the central problems confronting a “social movement party” like
MAS is that its legitimacy is now derived in part from its agreement to
play the “rules of the game.” It came to office through parliamentary channels
so it is not likely to eschew them. In its bid for office, however, the
party has used a radical rhetoric, but taken more moderate policy stances
than the social movements on the streets. In its first year in office,
the Administration has also been very cautious to build consensus so as
not to provoke a violent reaction from the right, as exemplified by the
Constituent Assembly. 

Indeed, MAS is not really as radical as it sometimes sounds. The re-nationalization
of the oil and gas sector in autumn 2006 basically amounted to a renegotiation
of the terms of public-private partnerships between the state and multinational
corporations. Dangl describes in the last chapter entitled “Bolivian Moment”
that the plan has also been highly criticized by the radical social movements
who took to the streets in 2003 and 2005 demanding expropriation without
indemni- fication. 

In the following chapter, Dangl writes, “Putting resources into government
hands is far from a foolproof alternative to corporate control. Though
YPFB offers hopeful examples for state control of gas, the government-run
industry has the potential to be just as exploitative, corrupt, and inefficient
as corporations. Much would depend on the YPFB management.”  Indeed, one
of the first tasks confronting MAS administration is to rebuild the state’s
administrative capacity and build a “different kind of state” after it
has been gutted and corrupted from years of neoliberal reforms. 

The more troubling question for further debate is whether the social organizations
in Bolivia have the power to implement their vision. In chapter seven on
El Alto, Dangl is rightfully impressed by the “self- organization” of the
masses in this “self-built” city, but he shares a troubling tendency to
romanticize the “spontaneous” forms of social organization that supposedly
exist there, which leads to some ambiguity in his analysis. After devoting
various pages to describing the way social movements have built up collective
grassroots organizations over the past decade, such as the neighborhood
councils of El Alto, he comes to the rather puzzling conclusion that the
mobilizations of October 2003 and May-June 2005 had no leaders and no structure.
He relies heavily on the interpretation of Uruguayan sociologist Raúl Zibechi
(a partisan of the “changing the world without taking state power” camp)
who writes that “It could be argued that if unified, organized structures
had existed, not as much social energy would have been unleashed. The key
to this overwhelming grassroots mobilization is, without a doubt, the basic
self-organization that fills every pore of the society and has made superfluous
many forms of representation.” An alternative interpretation suggests that
while the social movements in Bolivia are well-organized at the grassroots
level, they have systematically failed to present an alternative to state
power. In the absence of such an alternative, the more reformist MAS has
filled the political void. 

The aftermath of the water war raises similar questions about social movement
strategy and organization. Dangl observes, “Corporate control of water
horribly affected a majority of the population, and yet, after Bechtel
was kicked out, the subsequent public control has also left much to be
desired.” In part this is due to the fact that the much-celebrated ad hoc
coalition known as the Coordinadora, an unorganized structure par excellence,
could not sustain the high level of mobilization needed to follow through
with its vision of reform. The coalition eventually split into different
factions representing competing interests between, for example, organized
workers and poor water consumers. Social movement leaders were faced with
the task of managing a complex bureaucracy, but with the social movements
weak and divided at the local level, international funding agencies and
elites were able to set the conditions for reform, rather than the Coordinadora,
whose leaders envisioned a truly democratic management. If organization
is the weapon of the weak, a lack of organization and leadership can be
debilitating. In short, some structures of representation and democratic
accountability within any social organization are necessary to counter
any form of power and it is not clear that ad hoc coalitions such as the
Coordinadora offer an alternative to mass parties or other experiments
that have been tried, such as soviets, councils or democratic trade unions.

Dangl is correct to observe that much depends on the ability of autonomous
social movements to push MAS in the right direction. In the words of political
analyst, Helena Agirakis, “The [54 percent by which Morales won] isn’t
a blank check; it’s a loan.” Fortunately, what makes MAS so different from
previous governments is Morales’s invitation to the social movements to
keep him in check and to help his administration defend what some have
called the “third revolution” from being highjacked by the right, which
remains an imminent possibility. 

Dangl’s book reminds us that one of the most positive outcomes of the MAS’s
electoral victory is that it has raised peoples’ expectations, both in
Bolivia and abroad, fomenting the belief that creating another world is
not only possible, but necessary. Anyone interested in the inspiring social
movement struggles in Latin America should read this book. 


Susan Spronk is a post-doctoral fellow at Cornell University and has spent
the last few years doing research and living in Bolivia.