Bolivian Social Movements in the First Lustrum of the 21st Century


October 7, 2005

Guillermo Delgado-P., Latin American & Latino Studies Department, UCSC.



•April 2000. Water wars, social movement to annul water privatization.

•September 2000. Peasant road blockades throughout the country.

•July 2001. Partial Andean road blockades.

‘Communal March’ (teachers, retirees).

•September 2003. Warisata, Sorata and Ilabaya uprising (6 people killed by army).

•February 2003. Police corps uprising protesting tax hikes. Sanchez de Lozada rescinds tax to quell protests.

•February/October 2003. Emergence of spontaneous and massive mobilizations against President Sanchez de Lozada.

Authorities fail to satisfy demands of social movements. Conflicts spreads.

Massacres in the City of El Alto. National work stoppage.

Emergence of the Coordinating Committee to Defend Gas.

Emergence of United Neighborhood Federations, FEJUVE.

• June 2005. National protest demanding the resignation of President Mesa.


In Memory of Daniel Goodwin, 1948-2005


“The idea that you can spread democracy by either military intervention or through the World Bank is folly, pure folly.”

William Easterly, former Director of Research at the World Bank.

(Andrews 2005: B6).



Within the multiple expressions of Latin American forms of democracy and neo-liberalism, Bolivian social movements have clearly emerged to illustrate the pitfalls of globalization, a sample of a partial, often cosmetic and incomplete response to the problems of such country. By taking their struggles to the streets, social movements have stated the question of how to democratize democracy in Bolivia. The purpose of this short analysis is to offer an interpretation of Bolivian contemporary social movements of these first years of the 21st century. These social movements are by no means exclusively indigenous. Their emergence as national movements demonstrates that discontent working and middle class people participate overwhelmingly.


The international media covered with certainty and pertinent accuracy recent political developments in Bolivia that, presumably, could be interpreted as new citizens’ answers to socio-economic exclusion brought about by uneven globalization.  Bolivia constitutes an important example within the Americas because of its natural resources, its persistent social inequality, poverty, and its historically politicized social movements. This Andean country is, regardless of the wishful thinking of a very, very small percentage self-identified ‘white’ people, one of the most densely populated areas of descendants of pre-Columbian societies, about 70% of the total population. It has the largest number of speakers of Indigenous languages on the continent, about 4 million Quechua and one and half million Aymara. On the other hand it is geographically complex, for a portion of the territory lies on intermountain valleys and the Amazon area. Bolivia’s surface is comparable to the extension of California and Texas together, a feature that gringo journalists like to highlight. In the 1940’s, Bolivia welcomed European Jewish immigrants escaping from Nazism. A military regime in the 1970’s offered the country as possible refuge to white South Africans. This latter proposal never materialized. Today, the Eastern area that brings up the discourse of autonomy (Santa Cruz, Bolivia), ironically banks on the construction of ‘white’ racial prerogatives to justify secession.


An informed perception of these aspects of the current situation has heads shaking, as they are reminiscent of cases related or comparable to sociological truths that toppled the apartheid system of South Africa. They also bare a striking resemblance to the myth of “racial democracy” in Brazil, the one-directional homogenizing nation-state ideology of Mestizaje that considered Indigenous identity something of the past (but not the present). Notwithstanding, the stage of impunity regarding blatant racial discrimination in the United States before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s is nearly akin to the current Bolivian situation. Remnants of attitudes related to these forms of exclusion (to say the least) are still visible in Bolivia, and constitute the background to understanding the resolve of social protest.


The idea is that with the implementation of new democracies, neo-liberalism, and globalization, there exists the exercise of new forms of citizens’ active and conscious participation in political life. As the world entered this new century, Bolivia’s traditional political class gained handsomely from the selling of its natural resources to international bidders. More recently, however, they have been unable to administer the payment of the national and foreign debt. Bolivia continues to be a poor country. The celebrated economist Jeffrey Sachs, after recommending an economic shock to curtail its hyperinflation in 1989, said: “You could say that Bolivia used to be a miserably poor country suffering from hyperinflation, and is now a poor country without inflation.” Globalization has not really transformed that image, and the urban pockets considered part of ‘globalization’ are mere mirrors of previous spaces that resemble ‘development’ —cosmetic development.


New citizens, affected by the previously mentioned facts and perceptions, have nurtured a very strong grassroots social movement with the capacity to paralyze the country in order for their demands to be heard. Author and political analyst Raúl Prada Alcoreza considers these social movements ‘molecular’ because as nuclei of sorts they give life to a multiplicity of social movements (‘coalitions’ that intermix class, gender and ethnicity), each one with its own sense of how the country should regard integration in a global world. Such social movements have a very clear sense of its decentralized coordination and non-hierarchical consensus and are also pressing for total state and private sector transparency. In a sense, one could say that they keep a sharp eye on corruption, an ethic that, so far, has provided such social movements with the strength needed to reinvent their country. The foci of protests led by social movements are related to natural resources, transnational bidders and a perception of depredation by the powers that be. The real issue has been the increasing awareness of the citizenry about the way natural resources, and specifically gas and oil, are administered. Most would quickly assert that recent administrations have been pilfering, leading them to accept nothing short of direct democracy.


In 2000, street mobilizations that became known as the ‘Water Wars’ galvanized the city of Cochabamba in opposition to a transnational (Aguas del Tunari/Bechtel) bid for the privatization and regulation of the city’s water system. In this case, the affected, largely but not exclusively middle-class, was to pay a 400% increase for services—an unacceptable measure that infuriated consumers. The citizens of Cochabamba focused their rage on authorities and their inability to make negotiations and commitments transparent. The result was the annulment of water privatization agreement with Bechtel. But drinking water is not the only natural resources up for privatization.


By 2002 the government had signed approximately seventy-seven contracts with transnational corporations interested in oil and gas. These contracts were for forty years. The only benefit that Bolivia would have received was a 50% return on gas and oil revenues, possibly 30% on well-head values, and only 18% on recently explored gas and oil sources. According to José Honorio Martínez, who has written a thesis for the UNAM: “until 1993 Bolivia received 50% of gas and oil revenues, but in 1999, due to re-classification of the nature of gas and oil possessions, revenues dropped to about 25%.” These inconsistencies reached the general public, eventually undermining the credibility of two administrations. Let’s refresh some facts.


In October of 2003, similar social movements throughout the country forced the resignation of President Sanchez de Lozada, after the massacre of 63 protesters. A year and half later, street protests ignited in opposition to the privatization of gas reserves and pressing for the resignation of President Carlos Mesa. Protesters forced Mesa’s constitutional successors, the president of the Senate and the president of the Chamber of Deputies, to demit, allowing the president of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodriguez, to take the helm. Current protests by social movements are calling for a rejection of gas privatization plans (advocating for nationalizing instead), a new presidential election, election of a new parliament and convocation of a Constituent Assembly. Simultaneously, social movements by agreeing to set this agenda, pressing to reject the candidacy of the current president (former Supreme Court chief) as non-viable, propose the calling for a new Constituent Assembly that—it is hoped—would acknowledge the truest representation of citizens throughout the country. However, these are ‘items’ in need of serious debate. In other words, interim President Rodriguez has, so far, only set a date for new elections—December 2005.


It is important to emphasize that the leaderships of Bolivian social movements has been nurtured by bitter experiences of survival. What we are witnessing is the emergence of a new political class, one that criticizes a political class that has grown lenient and uncritically acquiescent towards foreign investments and advising (e.g. by the IMF, IDB, WB) in exchange for meager and intangible returns. The analyst, Felicia Torrecilla, pointed out that between 1999 and March 2005, gas exports had not improved social conditions in the country. While this assessment has largely been illustrated by the defeat of Sanchez de Lozada (2003) and Carlos Mesa Gisbert (2005), social movements seem to be asking for clearer protocol relevant to transparency in the process of negotiations over natural resources exploitation, especially with transnational corporations. Social movements distrust high-level commissions because systematic corruption has been apparent. Secrecy in the signing of agreements never submitted to open citizenry consultation, speak to the dearth of channels allowing for sharper democratic debates as evidenced in the gas referendum of July of 2004. The referendum, while considered fair, was ultimately confusing in the way it was worded and conducted by the now defunct Mesa administration. Of course, it is standard practice for lawmakers to disregard the democratic and direct participation of organized social movements. However in the Bolivian case, the stakes are too high for the citizenry to be kept uninformed or marginalized. The history of foreign despoil embedded in the theater of social memory resonates (silver mining in the 16th century, guano and rubber in the late 1800s, tin in the 20th century, and even coca-related exports, although illegal, bring less than 2% of total earnings to the peasant producer).


Furthermore, there is no implementation of a law in Bolivia that forbids the selling of the strategic knowledge former presidents or officials hold. It is thought that a former president, currently living in the U.S., might be invited to join the board of directors of several energy-hungry companies. He would act as a consultant, advising them for a fee. Social movements question: What stops Mr. Sanchez de Lozada from ‘selling’ the strategic information he certainly possesses as a former president of a country that contains coveted gas reserves? The former president is not alone, Carlos Alberto Lopez, a former vice-minister of energy also became a ‘consultant’ for foreign energy companies, while others have joined oil and gas companies after having retired from the national industry. From a distance, it seems that everyone passing through the Ministry of Energy has acquired ‘social capital’ placing them on a direct path to the desks of CEOs operating in the country. Apparently, a little known law forbids former Bolivian civil servants from working for five years in any closely related businesses, the oil industry constituting an obvious example of conflict of interest.


At the same time, ‘current’ officials are struggling to offer a reasonable bidding process, trying to gain something tangible for the country in return. To Mesa’s credit, an agreement now exists to increase royalties on gas concessions by 50%. However, social movements disputed this raise, demanding a higher figure. Nevertheless, capitalism is based upon the assumption that surplus value will be generated, and was clearly not devised to solve the problems of chronic poverty and injustice. The latter is fundamental, begging the question of how to participate in globalization while assuring that the high gains from natural resource exports endow the country to be a better player.


The strong sense of history embedded in Bolivian social movements, make them very different from other movements across the continent. The politics of memory are extremely sharp, crisscrossing ethnicity, class and gender. In this case, repeated instances of similar stories of natural resource exploitation have given rise to strong popular demand for accountability, and clearer commitment and responsibility from democratically elected representatives. Such representatives are supposed to serve the interests of the country, rather than those of corporations. When they are seen leaning in a different direction, being negligent, the validation of instant recall—social movements think—should be invoked. The closeness of the fading traditional political class to foreign interests is a learned lesson that triggers distrust, and the newly emergent public frequently repeats this analysis. To counter such closeness this new and active public sees its participation as a way of ‘retrieving a sense of the national’—a new sense of the nation, a new sense of identity. State power in Bolivia has been wielded to dominate, but not to listen. Social movements are struggling to obtain a sense of power, demanding from the powers that be, the capacity to listen and to be sincerely accountable. In this sense, social movements are not against the State. They want it to respond, to fulfill its historical mission in a responsible way.


The perspectives for the future are in the hands of the new citizenry, of this new public. Their social movements face diverse challenges. They struggle to galvanize these movements into coordinated but decentralized assemblies, rather than uncoordinated dispersal or factionalism. The challenge lies in the ability of such social movements to propose concrete and viable policy through their representatives. However, given the intense debate of dissimilar projects and proposals, there is no consensus as yet. The proposals imply the creation of a Constituent Assembly capable of reorganizing the legislature, transforming it into an accurate representational corpus of Bolivia’s demographic composition. In this scenario, traditional power brokers are to be challenged and displaced by the vote. Furthermore, it is expected that the elected new government establish the transparent exercise of power, seeking to accomplish goals and sustain the welfare of the citizenry. In this case, this could mean the deepening of local control with national projection rather than just local control for the sake of it. In either situation, the process for allocating resources gained from the exports of gas could be debated by representatives and the national community interested in Bolivia’s welfare. In this sense, a trickle down effect could be clearly perceived. No doubt, the money hoarding corporations would lose a bit, but such money could also promote development and gains in the long run from future sustainable forms of production, or even to play an important role in diversifying Bolivia’s economy. Beyond being always a dependant mono-producer, the country could enter regional economies on better footing, strengthening both the national and regional market in turn.


However, despite the fact that Bolivian social movements are recognized as strong and historically important, the real challenge is still to be seen and confronted. Obviously, Bolivia’s scholars are grappling with the national situation, and questions are asked. How can the myriad of ‘molecular’ social movements (to use the view of political analyst Prada Alcoreza), coordinate their own mobilization and pass from the reactive experience to the practice of governing and proposing? Maybe, this will become evident. Is a new Constituent Assembly the best political arena to debate the interests of the nation? Does this mean a clear rejection of a detached and comfortable traditional political class that is seriously challenged by ‘molecular’ young, ethnic, and engendered social movements? Are we witnessing the defeat of anachronistic traditional party politicking, unable to communicate and lead the nation, or are we observing the manipulation of newly formed coalitions of social movements by hidden and reconverted políticos? An analyst of these recent issues, trying to understand the ousting of two democratically elected governments, bluntly observed in a column in the London Review of Books: “Bolivian elites and their allies at 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.’ (Parenti 2005: 35).


If Parenti is correct in his appreciation, a thesis that signals no truce in a world divided by ‘have mores and have-nothings,’ is at work in Bolivia, with the difference that the ‘have nothings’ are a visible entity. His analysis insinuates an owner’s global alliance versus the awareness Bolivia’s citizenry has of its patrimony. As manifested on the streets, such new and active public wants to believe in clear democratic positions, in dialogue and debate conducted by true, transparent and uncorrupt representatives. However, the depth of the question in Parenti’s analysis seems to imply that democracy and globalization are mediated by a conflictive, unilateral, working relationship. Social movements, on the other hand, are searching for the democratization of democracy, the nitty-gritty aspect of the impasse. So far a majority has stated the need to search for alternatives against predatory practices. Nationalization of the oil and gas industry is seen as one option. Behind this affirmation, which seems to this author to be a rhetorical stance, is the ardent desire to return tangible earnings to benefit the country, shaping the nation to fulfill the expectation of joining ‘modern’ nations in a global world, without losing a sense of justice and fairness. In this manner, Bolivia’s hovering dependency, which is indeed high, could increasingly be eliminated to favor democratic viability and governmentality. Bolivian democracy can no longer be based on the ignorance and apathy of its people. END.


ISLA gratefully acknowledges the research assistance of Norma Klahn, Ana Rebeca Prada and Eduardo Robles.


Selected references


Andrews, Edmond L

2005    “Wolfowitz as a Banker: A Champion for the Poor.” TNYT, Sept 24, B1,B6,


Finnegan, William

2002    “Leasing the Rain. Letter from Bolivia.” The New Yorker. April 8, 43-47; 50-53.


García Linera, Álvaro

2004    “La Sublevación Indígena Popular en Bolivia.” Chiapas, Vol 16, 125-142.


Herbas, Gabriel y Ana Esther Ceceña

2002    "La guerra del agua en Cochabamba. Entrevista de Ana Esther Ceceña con Gabriel Herbas. Chiapas Vol 14 (México), 97-114.


Nickson, Andrew and Claudia Vargas

2002    “The Limitations of Water Regulation. The Failure of the Cochabamba Concession in Bolivia.” Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol 21 (1), January, 99-120.


Martínez, José Honorio

2005    “La Demanda por la Recuperación y Defensa del Gas en Bolivia en Octubre de 2003.” Ms. (forthcoming).


2005    La Movilización Social Alteña en la Guerra del Gas (Bolivia Octubre de 2003). Tesis de Maestría en Estudios Latinoamericanos Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.. Dirección: Mtra. M. Aguiluz Ibarguen


Orgáz García, Mirko

2003        La Guerra del Gas. Nación vs. Estado Transnacional en Bolivia. La Paz; OFAVIN, see pages 181-200; 221-239.


Parenti, Christian

2005    “Diary. The Impasse in Bolivia.” London Review of Books, July 7, 35.


Prada Alcoreza, Raúl

2004        Largo Octubre. La Paz; Plural.

2005        “Los Movimientos Moleculares de la Multitud.” Ms.


Rotker, Susana and K. Goldman.

2002    “Cities Written by Violence.” IN: Citizens of Fear. Urban Violence in Latin America, NJ, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 7-22.


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