The indigenous social movements of Bolivia have ejected another president, the second in less than two years. What they are asking for is a constitutional assembly and the renationalisation of the country’s massive natural gas reserves, the second largest in South America. Bolivian petroleum and gas were state-owned until 1996.

Bolivian gas is more than a source of money in the eyes of many people: it is the country’s last and best chance of escaping underdevelopment. Sixty-four per cent of a population of nine million live in poverty; many have no electricity or running water, or access to schooling or healthcare. For hundreds of years, Bolivian silver from the town of Potosí funded the Spanish Empire; when the silver ran out the local people were left with nothing. The gas will also disappear: 53 trillion cubic feet is a lot, but it is not infinite. If the wealth from the reserves is not equitably distributed and used to further development, the indigenous majority fear that they will be stuck in poverty for ever. One woman I spoke to summed it up: ‘If there is no gas there is no future in Bolivia.’ So the people have taken to the streets again and in huge numbers; many claim they are ready to die before losing this fight.

The rebellion built up slowly with a few road blockades, a march through the highlands towards La Paz, and rumours of a mass mobilisation to come. Then day after day, tens of thousands of protesters marched through La Paz; as the marches grew, activists blockaded the airport, shut down the major highways in and out of the capital, and surrounded the Parliament. The politicians and the middle classes waited for the spasm of rage to subside, but it didn’t. After three weeks several gas fields were seized and a major canal was put out of action. Soon the rebellion held six other major cities in its grip: cut off, blockaded, and surrounded by an angry, well-organised army of protesters.

In early June, La Paz started to run low on food and fuel; buses and taxis were idle; garbage collection stopped; banks, hotels, offices, restaurants and middle-class neighbourhoods felt the pinch. Congress was unable to convene. Outnumbered and often undersupplied, the poorly paid paramilitary police fought highly theatrical but nonetheless violent street battles against tens of thousands of Aymara and Quechua peasants, miners, teachers, bakers, street merchants and students. The weaponry was limited to tear gas and rubber bullets on one side, rocks and dynamite on the other; each day’s combat ended in a handful of wounded and a few arrests.

After three weeks of stalemate the centrist president, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, resigned. He had kept the forces of order on a relatively tight leash: up to his departure no one was killed. One protester, a union leader, was later gunned down by soldiers. Mesa himself had inherited his job during a similar crisis in October 2003, when the issue of natural gas first erupted, and when his neo-liberal, US-educated predecessor, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, unleashed the military to kill scores of protesters.

For a few days after Mesa’s resignation, it appeared that the head of the Senate, a right-wing cattle rancher called Hormando Vaca Díez, would become the next president. Vaca Díez represents the gas-rich lowland province of Santa Cruz, which has lately been agitating for a greater share of petroleum revenues and more political autonomy. Vaca Díez warned the protesters in the streets not to push ‘towards confrontation and a blood bath’, unless they wanted it all to ‘end in authoritarian government’. The social movements swore that Vaca Díez would not govern for more than two hours. Bolivia was on the brink of civil war.

In the end, cooler heads prevailed: Vaca Díez gave up his constitutional right to succession, clearing the way for the moderate chief justice of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodríguez, to assume power. Rodríguez, acting as a caretaker executive, has said he will hold presidential elections within six months but he cannot legally force Congress to submit to a new vote at the same time. Thus, Evo Morales, the indigenous head of the movement towards Socialism (MAS), and the other leaders of the social movements, such as Abel Mamani of Fejuves, are demanding that the entire Congress resign to make way for new balloting. How this will play out is as yet unclear.

Mesa’s removal was a victory, another measure of Indian power in Bolivia, but it did not bring the crisis much nearer a conclusion. His departure did not lead to nationalisation or a constitutional assembly. For that matter, the removal of Sánchez de Lozada did not much change Bolivia’s political or economic situation.

Despite the crisis, Bolivian elites and their allies in the US embassy have conceded nothing. At a recent meeting at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, US Foreign Service officers, representatives of the World Bank, and the Bolivian ambassador to the US agreed that nationalisation of Bolivian gas was an ‘extremist non-proposal’. It is almost as if the street battles and the nationwide shutdown had not happened.

In other words, despite having had half a dozen major political rebellions since the late 1990s, and despite possessing the strongest and most radical social movements in the hemisphere, Bolivia has as yet no clear way out of its impasse. The new social movements are powerful enough to close down the nation, seemingly at will, but are too weakened by ideological division, ethnic factionalism (Aymara v. Quechua) and rivalry among their leaders to parlay their power into a definitive, transformative victory. In this Bolivia exemplifies both the strengths and the weaknesses of these new movements that are the object of so much attention on the part of scholars and activists in North America and Europe.

Indeed, the new social movements – with ideologies that go beyond traditional class politics and methods that have nothing to do with either old-fashioned revolutionary armed struggle or social democratic electioneering – have won surprising victories against great odds. Based as much on identity as on economic class, and deeply rooted in indigenous Bolivia’s communitarian culture, the new movements arose as neo-liberalism undermined the social and economic base of the mining and manufacturing unions, and traditional left-wing parties became mired in corruption or dissolved in dead-end elections. In contrast to the caudillo-style of traditional parties and unions, the new movements are ‘networked’, culturally based, highly democratic; their rank and file are poor but politically sophisticated. And for all these reasons they are easily romanticised.

But the Bolivian left also has weaknesses that may ultimately impede its progress. Primary among these is its tendency towards an ultra-left anti-statism, unfortunately encouraged by the NGOs as they almost invariably push for small-scale ‘local’, ‘democratic’, ‘self-sufficient’ initiatives and ‘public-private partnerships’. Now, however, the collective agenda has become so grand, so sweeping that it cannot be presented as merely a set of demands on the traditional political class.

Consider the scale and duration of the crisis. Beginning with the ‘new economic policy’ launched in 1985 by President Paz Estenssoro, a populist leader of the 1952 revolution who eventually turned sharply to the right, Bolivia’s politics and economy have been undergoing radical restructuring. In order to break the back of hyper-inflation, Estenssoro and the rest of the political class unleashed a wave of privatisations, particularly in mining, smelting and manufacturing. They also liberalised protected national markets. The result was mass unemployment. No longer connected to state industries and the unions dependent on them, thousands of workers were cast adrift.

From the ashes of the traditional economy came myriad new forms of organisation, including urban community organisations, reinvigorated peasant unions and, thanks to booming coca production, the rise of a cocaleros union called the Six Federations. The new movements were more horizontal, survival-oriented and pragmatic, and less bureaucratic and ideological, than the traditional left.

Their first big confrontation with the state came in the Chapare, where displaced miners and peasants from the highlands took up coca farming. Before long these cocaleros, formed into a class by US-backed economic policies, confronted US-backed military policies in the shape of a drug war. Millions of dollars poured in from the north to fund coca eradication: this was also an attempt to destroy the Six Federations. The cocaleros fought back with the same tactics that recently brought La Paz to a halt: blockades, marches and sabotage. From these struggles emerged Evo Morales and his party.

It was the Cochabamba water war of 2000, when the San Francisco-based construction giant Bechtel tried to privatise the city’s entire water system, including the rain that feeds it, that brought the movements to the world’s attention. Massive protests and long-term blockades, hand-to-hand combat and international outrage drove Bechtel away. In its wake a restructured Cochabamba water company has been created in which community activists have important managerial functions. Cochabamba was followed by rebellions over the issue of water privatisation in El Alto, and over control of natural gas and debt servicing elsewhere. In the meantime conflict over coca growing has continued in the Chapare.

Now Morales and MAS want to win state power through elections. Most other groups on the left see elections as a trap, where money always wins. As for Morales himself, he is seen by some as ill-prepared, too centrist and high-handed, but even his critics grant that he is not corrupt. Oscar Olivera, hero of the Cochabamba water war, and one of the country’s most respected grassroots leaders, is calling for self-management and self-government. One hears versions of this throughout the left. In a communiqué on the recent crisis Olivera noted the movement’s power to ‘paralyse the entire country’ and at the same time ‘avoid the manoeuvres of the businessmen and bad politicians’. But he also pointed out its inability to impose its ‘own decisions and objectives on these same politicians, who today are in the worst crisis they could possibly confront’. In light of this contradiction he calls on the left to build its capacity for ‘self-government’.

How do self-governing communities control transnational oil companies? When I interviewed Olivera in May the example he gave was the management of water in Cochabamba, an evolving pragmatic transformation of a protest movement into an accountable organ of local governance and resource control. ‘To take power is not so important,’ he explained. ‘But the constitutional assembly, to allow for more local power, that is very important.’ So far the two main currents of the left – basically, local control v. national elections – meet on the question of the constitutional assembly and the demand for a fixed number of congressional seats to be guaranteed to Indian communities who would choose their representatives by traditional means outside of, and independently from, political parties. Another proposal from the indigenous movements is the abolition of the upper house and the creation of a more democratic unicameral body of 130 seats.

For now all is quiet: the movement has called a truce and is using the pause to hash out basic questions. But it seems clear that Bolivia’s new left faces old problems: how to unite, how much to compromise with intransigent enemies, how to use elections and not be used by them, and ultimately how to take state power.

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