Price of Fire Book Review: A People’s History of Social Struggles in Bolivia

Source: Z Magazine

The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, By Benjamin Dangl, 226 Pages, Published by AK Press, March, 2007

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 Upside Down World, 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 strategy. 

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. 

The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, By Benjamin Dangl, 226 Pages, Published by AK Press, March, 2007.

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