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 born largely on the backs of the poor.
The neoliberal aspects 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..." Bautista continued, "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 the decades-old social struggle to use natural resources for the benefit of the country. Bolivia has the largest natural gas reserves in South America, and Morales himself was ushered into office on a wave of protests demanding nationalization of gas and popular access to natural resources. He followed through with partial nationalization 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, organizing protests, strikes and road blockades across the country to demand that the government back down. Even coca growers, Morales' staunch allies, set up road blockades on a major highway. Bus drivers went on strike, and community organizations in El Alto marched, attacking government buildings. It was a historically-broad rejection of the policy, with more than just the usual organizations and sectors 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 the 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. Yet the gas prices and subsequent cost of food, basic goods and transportation continued to rise.
Finally, on December 31st, as the protests showed no sign of stopping, Morales relented, saying he would reverse the price increase. In a televised speech, he said he would "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? In either case, his move was significant; while politicians around the world have recently been responding to protests against austerity measures with tanks and bullets, Morales responded by (eventually) agreeing with protesters and backing down. This illustrates the autonomy of the Bolivian social movements and the power they have over the government.
For the last decade, social movements in Bolivia have been the 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 right wing President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003, or even with the election of Evo Morales in 2006. Their struggle required constant mobilization and social transformation that didn't fit into a government decree or a 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 Center interview on the recent gas conflict. "In this, it is the people who are making it possible."