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I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.

Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.

Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.

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Eighteen months ago, when I was applying for funds to conduct research in Bolivia, one of the criticisms I had to respond to was this: How do you know that mass protest events will be going on while you’re there? In the end, I resorted to putting a table of recent events of large-scale space-claiming protests in my two focus cities in my proposal to make this point: there has not been a 12-month period without such protests since last century.

And here we are again.

On the day after Christmas, the Vice President (then acting president since Bolivian law requires that the office must always be filled by someone physically in the country) announced that the Bolivian government would remove all subsidies on fuel: primarily gasoline and diesel, and let the prices float to international levels. Fuel prices went up 70-80% overnight. This was not the first time that such a drastic move has happened in Bolivia, but it was the first time that the popular movement-linked MAS government had taken the step. In fact, the MAS had led major protests against exactly the same move less than a decade ago.

The politics of subsidies in general and the gasolinazo in particular are fascinating, and fully getting the arguments requires putting aside everything that Westerners are taught about prices, markets, and subsidies, but that’s a whole other post (several pages of which are in my notebook waiting to be typed into an article).

In any case, the social movements that brought the MAS to power, including Evo Morales’ coca grower base, did not hesitate to mobilize against the gasolinazo. (And the transport sector quickly moved to double fares.) Despite some pressure on their leadership, the Neighborhood Councils, Factor Workers, labor confederation, and others mobilized mass protests. The scene in El Alto in particular, especially on December 29 and 30, brought back collective memories of the mobilizations that toppled presidents in 2003 and 2005, even though the numbers were not yet as great. Evo and Álvaro reversed course, and returned fuel prices to their former levels.

However, the price hike genie was out of the bottle. While some in the government promised the gasolinazo was over, others have made it clear that the prices will be raised in smaller doses over the coming year. Several weekends in January and February, there has been panic buying in La Paz over rumors of an imminent price hike.

More pressingly, this year’s extremely late rainy season (normally beginning around November 1, it didn’t really kick in until the New Year) and other factors have led to a national sugar shortage, grain price hikes, and a squeeze on the milk producing industry. The national government’s response was first to use its agricultural production support company, Emapa, to supply sugar directly at low prices to the cities, in an attempt to push the price down. However, Emapa itself abruptly raised prices in late January, and the government has been embarrassed by former ministers and senators illegally wholesaling government sugar out of their homes. Finally this month, the transport sector has moved to increase urban transit fares in a half dozen cities, and began charging the new fares without official approval.

The economic situation has brought multiple sectors into the streets, although without unified demands. Buyers and sellers of the same product are both mobilizing. Ideologies conflict as well: some are demanding the enforcement of the free-market principals of Supreme Decree 21060, while more are calling for it to be revoked. Shopkeepers demand that Emapa be abolished, while neighborhood councils in Oruro demand that it distribute basic goods directly to neighborhood suppliers. And in Cochabamba, drivers demanding higher fares and factory workers and neighborhood council marchers who oppose them have each attacked the property of the other side.

On February 18, the national worker confederation known as the COB (Bolivian Worker’s Central) carried out a 24-hour strike. And when Bolivians strike, they march. That included a 10,000+ worker march down the main highway from El Alto to La Paz. The COB is demanding either wages or wage increases in line with a study it performed on the cost of basic goods in the country. However, this analysis showed that the baseline cost of living is 8,300 Bolivianos per month for a family, about $1200. This is above and beyond the typical Bolivian’s earnings, leading the government to disqualify the study as anything more than a pipe dream for workers.

A second march on the 18th, led by the more radical teachers’ unions of La Paz department brought an harsher indictment of the Evo Morales-led government. Placards, chants and speakers labelled the government “incapable” and committed to neoliberal policies like the gasolinazo. Once again the slogans of seven years ago rang in streets, and a working-class crowd was calling for the indigenous peasant union leader who is president to resign and make way for “a government born of struggle in the streets.” Such a government, radical unionists claim, could guarantee larger wage increases for workers by expropriating transnational corporations in extractive industries and redistributing their wealth to enlarge workers’ salaries.

Health care workers and teachers rally in La Paz, February 18: Signs read "Death to the incapable government" and "The people ask for bread; the people are hungry"

It is not so much that this rhetoric is new as that it has migrated from the pamphlets of the radicals at sides of the march to the main stage. Like a stopped clock that is right twice a day, those who are always skeptical that the government has sold out the public, and turned against the grassroots are now in sync with at least a large portion of the popular mood. And they can speak to broadly shared concerns about the cost of living, the subcontracting of work, and the lack of sufficient investment in the industries that provide employment and public revenues to Bolivia.

Five years of MAS rule, and two years since its decisive victory over right-wing resistance to the project of a new, plurinational constitution have allowed a lot of tensions, mistrusts, and frustrations to accumulate within the party’s diverse grassroots base.  Movements that always knew how to mobilize on their own have frequently been in the streets in the past years. Unfortunately, the first response of the MAS government has often been to accuse those who mobilize of being aligned with, misled by, or even “infiltrated” by the right-wing opposition. If anything, it now seems that independent protest and even independent opposition has been made more likely by these accusations.

Massive coca leaf made out of coca leaves

On the plaza, a giant coca leaf made out of coca leaves

Coca growers from the Chapare (Cochabamba Department) and the Yungas (La Paz Department)—Bolivia’s two coca-growing regions—have travelled to Bolivia’s nine departmental capitals today to publicly chew the traditional leaf and to support the Bolivian government campaign to end the UN prohibition on coca chewing. Coca leaves are a traditional crop in the Andes and are both chewed in the mouth and boiled into a tea called mate de coca. Both forms are valued for their medicinal properties and cultural role in Andean culture, particularly the protection they offer against altitude sickness, fatigue, and upset stomachs. Bolivia’s demand that a 1961 UN drugs convention be amended has attracted broad support, including from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Africa, and several countries that had expressed doubts about the move have been won over. However, the United States—a major cocaine-consuming country and the main international sponsor of Bolivia’s once-heavily-militarized war on drugs—and Sweden continue to block the move. The deadline for changing their position is January 31.

Events in Cochabamba are still underway, but here is an early preview of the gathering in the city’s main square, the Plaza 14 de Septiembre.

 

bagging and sorting coca leaves

Vendors from the May 27 Association bag coca leaves to give away

Marchers with coca plants

Two women from the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba march with young coca plants and bags of coca leaves

TV journalist interviews Leonilda Zurita, president of Coca Growers' Women's Federation

A more complete set of photos from today’s protest is online at flickr.

Cochabamba’s Water War in 2000 was the beginning of a long and upward climbing story of the country’s resistance to neoliberal policies. That story joins the defense of the right to grow coca leaves by farmers nearby in the Chapare and near La Paz in the Yungas, resistance to the privatization and export of Bolivia’s gas resources, demands for greater indigenous self-governance, and calls to rewrite the constitution. The forms of pressure pioneered or revived in the Water War played a key role in all of them.

But what became of the water? Bechtel’s demands for international arbitration after it was kicked out of Cochabamba dragged on from 2002 to 2006, when it was the first such international case to be withdrawn under popular pressure. Cochabambinos got a public water system, managed by a municipal company called SEMAPA. And Bolivia’s new constitution proclaims water as a human right.

Yet, on the ground, things are more complicated. The first, critical thing to understand is the massive role of neighborhood water associations play in supplying water here. The municipal water service only provides water to about half the city’s burgeoning population, mostly in the central area and the wealthy northern zone. In  the massive Zona Sur, few people have direct water connections. Instead, neighbors have organized themselves into associations to build their own tanks, pumps, wells, and cisterns that supply water locally. Nearly all these systems have some kind of holding tanks and distribution pipes, but not all have their own water sources. Those that don’t rely on outside water to be trucked in, and then distributed.

Much of this week’s Water Fair was an opportunity for these groups to network and also to showcase their operations. Three sides of a soccer field were surrounded by tents that hosted each of these associations, most with their own scale models of their neighborhood and the self-financed apparatuses that supplies its water. A great deal of ingenuity is going into repurposing automotive motors to run pumps, to finding water sources and maintaining wells, to keeping the neighborhood organized.

And it was these organizations members that blockaded the southern entrances to Cochabamba in 1999 and 2000 when they were threatened with privatization. (The concession owned by the Franco-American corporation Aguas de Tunari included the infrastructure created by numerous water committees.) Their members went from building and maintaining pipes or paying into a local cooperative to fighting in the streets to maintain what they built. And, most surely thought, to reclaim an accountable, publicly-owned water utility that would provide for all.

SEMAPA has fulfilled its half of that dream. The company has been plagued by mismanagement, failure to invest in major expansion, and internal corruption. Thursday night, a panel on SEMAPA since the Water War was primarily an opportunity for former directors, a former community board member, engineers, and investigative journalists to describe what has gone wrong. It was, to be fair, also a remarkable opportunity of the kind of transparency that a utility that was won by the public is subject to: the managers offered a level of internal detail that would be shockingly frank in the United States. But coverage of the city remains around 50%, while the company only bills about half the water it supplies, with much of the remainder clandestinely siphoned by industrial users or received without payment by parts of the municipality.

Nowadays, when the water committee members dream of the future, they do so outside of SEMAPA. There is an association of the committees called ASICA-SUR, engaged in running trucks with water to supply the source-less committees, maintaining water quality standards, facilitating new committees, and planning for universal access. Cochabamba uses more water than flows in its own valley, and an Italian-backed project is under construction to supply water from the Misicuni River. When that water is coming, ASICA-SUR would like its own direct connection, outside SEMAPA.

The idea of a universal public service, accountable to all, is not necessarily just a dream. But it has proved elusive here in Cochabamba. Small-scale alternatives based on community involvement have been a real, viable alternative, and the way that much of the Zona Sur receives its water. The bottom-up organization of ASICA-SUR has found a secure foundation in local groups that require the direct involvement of neighbors. Without economies of scale and piped connections, however, they do so at a higher price that other Cochabambinos, and that is when they don’t rely on trucks to move their water or private middlemen to supply it. Large-scale decisions remain to be made, and large infrastructure is a major part of the city’s water future. Meanwhile, the pollution of underground water sources is putting some of the community-based water systems at serious risk, particularly around the unregulated municipal dump Kara Kara. In the end, the Water War has to be fought again and again, in local organizations, in planning discussion, and in pressure on the streets.

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