Week after week a parade of foreigners comes through Cochabamba seeking some sort of wisdom about Bolivian “social movements.” Academics, journalists and others come drawn to the sense that in some way Bolivians have taken democratic matters into their own hands from the ground up. They come to seek it out the way Ponce de León once sought the Fountain of Youth, and they each take away some image of it all they can call their own. If I had a dollar for every researcher who has contacted me on this quest I would have enough to buy…well, a cow or two.
I do not profess to be an expert on the subject, but since it is a topic of such high interest I thought I would draw attention to a worthwhile and thoughtful analysis recently published by our friend, the U.S. activist David Solnit of Oakland. David, renown for both his concerted organizing work in the U.S. and his amazing protest puppets, spent six weeks in Cochabamba recently (that’s one of his puppets above) and wrote this piece about the conflicts between social movements that went “on the inside” with Evo Morales and those that stayed outside.
Reflections From Bolivia: Water Wars, Climate Wars and Change From Below
By David Solnit
In spring 2000, the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia rose up against the privatization of their water, forcing out the US based corporation, Bechtel, and Bolivia’s neo-liberal government to back down. The rebellion opened up new political space in Bolivia, catalyzing the most powerful, radical, visionary mass movements and mobilizations on the planet.
My friend and collaborator, Mona Caron, a public muralist from San Francisco, and I spent six weeks in Cochabamba, a city in central Bolivia, during March and April co-creating art and visuals with local communities and organizations. We came at the invitation of the organizing committee for the International Feria del Agua (Water Fair) commemorating the ten year anniversary of what has come to be known as the Water War. We also participated with 30,000 others in the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, organized by the Bolivian government of President Evo Morales.
At a Bay Area “Peoples Movement Assembly” of local grassroots organizations leading up to the June 2010 US Social Forum in Detroit, a well-respected, longtime community organizer spoke of his desire for a “socialism for the 21stcentury, like Evo Morales in Bolivia.”
For many, Bolivia serves as a model and an inspiration to those fighting for change in the US and around the world. Bolivian social movements are among the world’s most sophisticated and powerful and although Bolivia is very different, those of us seeking change in our own communities can learn much from what is occurring there.
Bolivian social movements have practiced two different paths of social change: by taking government power as Evo Morales and his political party MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) have done, or change from below proposed in the past visionary movement-wide proposal for a Constituent Assembly, and in the well-organized, directly democratic and strategic practices of the movement organizations and mobilizations. Neither model fit’s into simplistic old ideological boxes—anarchist, socialist or progressive.