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Global | Author describes “price of fire” in Latin America

By Ben Dangl | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted March 22, 2007

Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from the introduction to Ben Dangl’s recently-issued book The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, published by AK Press. Dangl will read from his book Saturday, 7 p.m. at the Flynn Center’s Amy E. Tarrant Gallery, 153 Main St. For more information, call 862-4929 or visit www.BoliviaBook.com.

It was supposed to be a day of celebration for the Virgin of Rosario, the patron saint of miners. Yet events in Huanuni, Bolivia delayed the festival interminably. In place of the celebration, the archbishop presided over a mass for 16 people killed in a two-day conflict between miners over access to tin deposits.

As an uneasy peace returned to the town, a nearby soccer field turned battlefield was still carved up by craters from dynamite explosions and stained red with the blood of miners.

The desperation that led the miners of Huanuni to turn their sticks of dynamite into weapons is the product of economic policies that have pitted the poor against the poor, leading Bolivian Vice Pres. Alvaro García Linera to describe Huanuni’s tin as “something that should have been a blessing for the country [and] has been turned into a curse.”

The clash in Huanuni in October 2006 was but one of many resource conflicts, which continue to ravage Latin America. In the last six years, new struggles and protest movements have emerged in Bolivia over the “price of fire,” or access to basic elements of survival — gas, water, land, coca, employment, and other resources.

While national and international business and political elites have worked to open Bolivian markets and sell public services to the lowest bidder, the majority of citizens have found that the price of fire has risen beyond their means. In the face of unresponsive government ministers and corporate executives, excluded sectors have often decided to take matters into their own hands.

The region has a long history of revolt, beginning with indigenous uprisings against Spanish rule to the social movements in the last six years and the first year of the administration of indigenous Pres. Evo Morales of Bolivia.

Bolivia has been a longtime lab rat for neoliberalism, an economic system that promised increased freedoms, better standards of living and economic prosperity, but in many cases resulted in increased poverty and weakened public services. When the system failed and people resisted, governments applied these policies through the barrel of a gun. Popular social movements emerged in response to this economic and military violence, leading neoliberalism to dig its own grave in Latin America. The Price of Fire tells the story of the successful movements that developed in the wake of these failed military and economic models.

Viewing Bolivian and Latin American resource conflicts as a continuation of past clashes is important, as well as understanding the neoliberal economic policies and imperial strategies in Washington’s “backyard.”

Bolivian cocaleros (coca farmers) organized unions to defend their right to grow coca leaves and resist the military repression of the United States’ “war on drugs.”

The failures of U.S.-funded anti-coca policies and military activities in Bolivia, along with one of the country’s most powerful social movement transforming itself into a political party, helped to put cocalero Morales into the presidential palace.

Though Bolivian social movements have always been strong in the face of corporate robbery, the Cochabamba Water War in 2000 brought international attention to Bolivia from the “anti-globalization” activist community. The residents of Cochabamba rose up when the multinational Bechtel Corporation bought their public and communal water systems. In a classic example of the failure of the privatization of a basic resource, the company’s rate hikes and exclusive water rights sparked a revolt that continues to rock the country’s social and political landscape.

Much of Latin American economics in the last 50 years has been dictated by the forceful advice of financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In 2003, Bolivian police took up arms against a government that wanted to slash their pay in an IMF-backed income tax increase. In chapter four, I look at this conflict through the eyes of a soldier turned hip-hop artist and a policeman involved in the street battles, while linking the crisis to Argentina’s IMF-inspired crash just two years earlier. Both conflicts exhibit the disparity between what IMF officials advocate and how these policies play out on the ground.

Governments and economies that favor corporations and wealthy elites have created such an unequal distribution of wealth in Latin America that many people are left without the means to survive.

In many cases, the much-needed jobs, land or public space are unoccupied, but off limits. This situation has given rise to social movements which have occupied, defended, and put to use these spaces in order to support themselves, their families, and their communities.

The history of Latin America has been one of expropriation. Governments and companies first in Europe, and then in the United States, saw these countries as a source of free raw material and open markets for manufactured goods. Resources, and with them workers’ rights and public services, have been squashed in a post-colonial free for all.

The history of Bolivian gas industrialization and nationalization offers insights into ongoing conflicts over the resource. Though the current nationalization process in Venezuela could be applied to Bolivia, policies in both countries have their faults.

Better worlds—some that have lasted, some no more than euphoric glimpses—have been forged by Bolivian community organizations and mobilizations where people created their own infrastructure and banded together to demand necessary changes. In Bolivia, where state rule exerts a historically weak hegemony over the country, power is decidedly in the hands of the people.

In the city of El Alto, the indigenous and union roots of rural and mining migrants have created a country within a country. These neighborhood organizations have filled the void of the state to build and maintain public infrastructure, make political and economic decisions, and represent residents.

Next to the social organizations and unions, political artistic movements have flowered in Bolivia, creating change in their own way.

Teatro Trono, in El Alto, is a theater troupe of homeless and at-risk children that uses the stage to grapple with difficult social issues and to transform the lives of young actors. The feminist-anarchist group, Mujeres Creando, seeks to change the world without taking power, and fights against gender inequality and machismo in Bolivia. A growing hip-hop movement in Bolivia is using lyrics in Spanish as well as Quechua and Aymara, the languages of the two largest indigenous groups in Bolivia, as “instruments of struggle.” These three groups have collectively built their paradises outside the realm of state and corporate power, widening the capacity for broader social change in Bolivia.

While social movements can oust governments and corporations, they also take their toll on stability and transitions between political leaders.

During his tenure in office, Bolivian Pres. Carlos Mesa oversaw conflicts regarding water and gas nationalization re-emerged during his time in office, leading the country once again into a national uprising and his ouster.

At Morales’ traditional inauguration in the ancient Aymaran ruins of Tiwanaku in January 2006, hope was enough to carry the day.

Morales, a self-described anti-imperialist, promised radical changes for his impoverished nation, pledging to nationalize gas reserves, expand legal coca markets, redistribute land to poor farmers and organize an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. While social movements dance with Morales to the music of globalization, the chains of previous neoliberal policies and right-wing governments still hold the country down.