From across North Africa to Wisconsin, activists are navigating a new terrain of global protest and relationships with their governments. Whether in ousting old tyrants or dealing with new allies in office, the example of Bolivia holds many lessons for social movements. An illustrative dynamic is now unfolding in this Andean country where the movements hold sway over the government palace, and the leftist President Evo Morales says he “governs by obeying the people”. But sometimes, the people don’t give him any other choice.
The day after Christmas last year, while Morales was away in Venezuela, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera announced that, as a way to cut government spending, subsidies on gas would be slashed, resulting in a roughly 73% price increase for Bolivians. In cash-strapped Bolivia, where much of the population lives below the poverty line, this austerity measure was to be borne largely on the backs of the poor.
The reactionary aspect of the policy shocked and outraged much of the country. Bolivian political commentator Rafael Bautista wrote that the gas price hikes followed the same neoliberal logic as Morales’ rightwing predecessors, embracing the concept that “to have more money we must sacrifice those who never have anything,” in Bautista’s words. He went on, “but who establishes these prices? It’s not the poor, it’s the market.” In this case, the government was listening to the market over the people, and the price was to be paid with the “hunger of the poor”.
The move also betrayed principles established by the decades-old social struggle to use natural resources for the benefit of the country as a whole. Bolivia has the largest natural gas reserves in South America, and Morales himself was ushered into office on a wave of protests demanding nationalisation of gas and popular control of other natural resources. He followed through with partial nationalisation in 2006, and has met other campaign promises, such as rewriting the constitution, expanding land reform and social services and empowering indigenous communities.
Bolivia’s social movements responded to the gas price hike announcement immediately, organising protests, strikes and blockades across the country to demand that the government back down. Even coca growers, Morales’ staunch allies, set up road blocks on a major highway. Bus drivers went on strike, and community organisations in El Alto marched, attacking government buildings. On a historic scale, it was a broad rejection of the policy, with more than just the groups heading into the streets.
In an effort to offset the increase in gas and food prices, the Morales government raised the wages of public employees by 20%. Yet, this salary increase would not help workers in the private and massive informal sector. The government also offered assistance to farmers of rice, wheat and corn. Still, the gas prices and subsequent cost of food, basic goods and transportation continued to rise.
Finally, on 31 December, as the protests showed no sign of abating, Morales relented, saying he would reverse the price increase. In a televised speech, he pledged to “continue to govern by obeying the people”. (He was drawing from the phrase “Mandar obedeciendo”, Lead by obeying, a slogan used by the Zapatistas.)
Was he obeying the people, or was he simply forced to respond to their pressure? Either way, his move was significant: while politicians around the world have recently been responding to protests against austerity measures with tanks and bullets, Morales responded, eventually, by conceding to protesters and backing down. It was an o bject lesson in the autonomy of the Bolivian social movements and the power they have over government.
For the last decade, social movements in Bolivia have been the key protagonists of the country’s history. This is because many of them understood that the fight for a better world didn’t end with the ousting of former rightwing President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003, or even with the election of Evo Morales in 2006. Their struggle required constant mobilisation and a push for social transformation that wouldn’t fit into a government decree or necessarily come by the ballot box.
“I think we are reconsidering not just a new way of doing politics, but above all a new way of managing our economy,” Bolivian activist leader Oscar Olivera said, in a Latin American Solidarity Centre interview, about the recent gas conflict. “In this, it is the people who are making it possible.”
By Benjamin Dangl, the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia.