A Window Into Revolution: Book Review of The Price of Fire

The Price of Fire is "an excellent window into Bolivia’s social movements and political developments in the Morales era. In fact, I know of no other English-language book on Bolivia so fresh, so up to date."

Source: Dollars and Sense

Benjamin Dangl, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007), 226 pp., $15.95.

The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia In June 2007, I visited Bolivia’s windswept altiplano, where altitude competes with views of Andean peaks to take your breath away. It was my fourth time visiting the country and I thought I knew what to expect. I keep going back because I’m fascinated by Bolivia’s tragic history (more changes of government than years of independence and no access to the ocean, for starters), its breathtaking landscapes (the Salar de Uyuni and Lake Titicaca come to mind), and its cultural diversity (more than half of its 10 million inhabitants identify as indigenous, and there are well over a dozen different indigenous groups). Of course, as a traveler, I appreciate the country as a cheap place to hang out for a couple of weeks even as I recognize that it is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, with an estimated two thirds of the population living below the poverty line.

But this visit was going to be different—I had come back to see what the country looked like under Evo Morales, widely hailed as the country’s first ever indigenous president since the Spanish conquest some 470 years ago. Would he be able to make good on the country’s social debt to its impoverished millions, to govern the nation so many have called ungovernable? And what social forces had brought to national power this leader of the coca farmers’ union who embraced his indigenous roots?

Before I left for Bolivia I picked up a copy of Benjamin Dangl’s new book The Price of Fire. I had met Dangl briefly in 2005 over a beer when he came through Caracas, Venezuela, where I was based at the time. Like me, he was a gringo with progressive politics, living and traveling in South America, trying to make sense of the region’s myriad social movements and political transformations that would bring shocking electoral results by the end of 2006: Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Nicaragua now all have presidents elected on anti-neoliberal platforms. I had chosen to settle in Venezuela while Dangl focused his time in Bolivia.

A couple years later when I picked up his book en route to Bolivia, I found that it provided an excellent window into Bolivia’s social movements and political developments in the Morales era. In fact, I know of no other English-language book on Bolivia so fresh, so up to date. Both Dangl and I can be criticized, fairly perhaps, for traveling through the region, spending a few months, or years, and then trying, ambitiously, to write about it for a broad outside audience. That criticism notwithstanding, readers interested in Latin America but without the ability to read in Spanish will do well to start with The Price of Fire.

The book provides a brief history of Bolivia and a detailed analysis of the years just before Morales’ 2005 election. Dangl approaches his topic from an articulate, if predictable, anti-imperialist bent, complete with quotes from Noam Chomsky (dazzling as usual) and Eduardo Galleano (eloquent as always). For example, among the left it has become almost a cliché to argue, as Dangl does, that "[t]hroughout the Cold War, the U.S. government used the threat of communism as an excuse for its military adventures in Latin America. Now, the United States is using another ‘ism’ as an alibi for its military presence: terrorism." Cliché or not, the argument is clearly rooted in fact, and Dangl provides statistics and footnotes to back up his assertions—here we learn that U.S. military aid to the region has soared from $400 million before 9/11 to over $1 billion today. The Price of Fire also draws on a wide range of interviews Dangl carried out on the ground in Bolivia, including one with Morales himself—no small accomplishment for a young, freelance gringo journalist.

Dangl contextualizes Bolivia’s anti-neoliberal "water war," "gas war," and coca growers’ struggles with glances around the region including Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Although he is at his best when writing about Bolivia, his willingness to branch out and briefly explain the Argentine economic crisis or the Brazilian Landless Movement illustrates that what is happening in Bolivia is not an isolated occurrence but rather part of a region-wide historical trend.

To be sure, in Bolivia, as in the region as a whole, many questions about this so-called "rise of the left" will remain unanswered for years. My time in Bolivia left me with the impression that, while Morales remains widely popular, there is frustration with the pace and sometimes the direction of progress in a range of sectors. There is widespread debate, even among Morales’ supporters, over the ongoing constitutional assembly, the state’s efforts to exert increased control over the mining sector, Morales’ policy on natural gas—widely viewed as falling short of a real nationalization—and everything else worth discussing. More than one person expressed their frustration, telling me Morales had been elected "to do away with this crap, not to govern it." Many of the social movements that carried Morales to the presidency have at least this much in common with other radical groups across Latin America: they coalesced, at least in part, in opposition to the state and to state power, but if their chosen representative actually gets elected, they must now ensure that he or she exercises state power without ending up like all the other powerful politicians in their history. It is no easy task.

While neither my trip to Bolivia nor Dangl’s book could have possibly provided concrete answers to all of my questions, they did give me a sense of what Bolivia’s revolution looks like from the bottom up. Rather than limiting himself to reviewing Bolivia’s political history, Dangl chooses to dedicate much of his book to today’s grassroots organizations and social movements. The Price of Fire introduces the reader to activists, journalists, and community leaders from El Alto, the sprawling city of the poor and indigenous that lies above La Paz and has been one of Morales’ strongholds. Dangl takes us inside groups like Mujeres Creando (Women Creating), a feminist group that creates an anti-sexist space for women to come together and organize; Wayna Tambo, a community radio station that broadcasts music, news, and community information; and Teatro Trono, a theatre where homeless kids are the actors in scripts that examine Bolivia’s harsh realities. He argues that "these organizations have developed their own communities, which are worlds unto themselves and offer examples of how society can change on a larger level."

On my most recent trip to Bolivia I sought out several of the activists, artists, and organizers whom I had learned about from The Price of Fire. They, in turn, introduced me to more people, who introduced me to still more—all of them opened my little window a bit further onto Bolivia’s ongoing political experiment. Dangl had hundreds of progressive groups and social movements to choose from, but the ones he got to know and chose to profile provide an excellent place to start, as does The Price of Fire.

Chesa Boudin is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate of the degree program in Public Policy in Latin America at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He is author of The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions—100 Answers, and co-editor of Letters from Young Activists.

Resources: Dangl maintains a news website covering activism and politics in Latin America called "Upside Down World" (UpsideDownWorld.org). For news on Bolivia, see also Ukhampacha Bolivia (www.ubnoticias.org/en), the Andean Information Network (www.ain-bolivia.org), and Bolivia Rising (boliviarising.blogspot.com).