An Activist from the North Looks at Bolivia's Social Movements


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.

Happy reading.


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.

Read the full article here.

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10 Responses to An Activist from the North Looks at Bolivia's Social Movements

  1. Anonymous says:

    Once I read the ultra-exaggerated “The rebellion opened up new political space in Bolivia, catalyzing the most powerful, radical, visionary mass movements and mobilizations on the planet,” I stopped reading. Such “power” and “vision” couldn’t even improve the water distribution in Cochabamba, so spare the lying hyperbole. It only made the thug leaders of the so-called “social movements” rich.

    No wonder this “activist’s” only talent is making puppets. Open a business or something. Hire people, create jobs. Do something productive.

    • David says:

      Dear Anonymous,

      You wrote that my opinion of the power and vision of Bolivia’s social movements is “lying hyperbole,” and stopped reading after the first paragraph.

      Had you kept reading I explained:
      POWER = Kicking out multinational corporations like Bechtel and driving out President Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada, after he opened fire on demonstrators is no small feat.

      VISION: The popular idea after the Water War to replace political parties and politicians making decisions with a directly democratic Constituent Assembly was quite visionary.

      • Anonymous says:

        Dear David:

        “Hyperbole: A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect.”

        It’s okay to claim to have “power” and vision.” Anybody can do that. But after reading your adjectives “most powerful” and “radical” and “visionary,” I yawned and quit reading.

        I would normally accept those words in the same sentence with true radicals who changed world events such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Lech Walesa. But a mob whose actions resulted in even less water affordability and accessability and where its leaders got rich?


    • Snootz says:

      Had you kept up reading the article, despite that direly challenged attention span of yours, (which we salute), your “keeps repeats” tragedy may well enlighten, yes, and even illuminate your hemp-clad paisanos into a third path of consensus-sharing quest, on the way back home. A truly meetimateous jest of sorts, much alike the once unique Inkan enterprise, where protagonism meant collective vision quest, and adoption of alien experience, the very source of success.

  2. Anonymous says:

    David you should stick to making puppets…

    I was going to write a long explanation of what happened in 2003 but I give up you are too ignorant…

  3. Noam Chomsky says:

    Oh, come on you right wing fanatics, show us the love!

  4. Some people just want to see the world burn says:

    Some just don’t care for corporations. They just want to see them burn. They could care less about the facts of the case, what actually drove the people to riot, or why these very same people who, now that they are in power, have told “grass roots” groups to bug off.

    These people just want to see chaos, they could care less that people might actually die from lack of water, just as long as water is “free” a “human right.”

    The author, just stick to making puppets, wearing hemp, and not try to opine about subjects like the water war or Bolivia. He has absolutely no idea what actually transpired, who the players were, who actually “won” or “lost.” He is just happy to see the world burn and another corporation being taken for a ride.

    At the end of the day, long time observers of Bolivia, know that everything is simply business as usual, nothing has changed only the actors….everything is simply the same tragically comic farce that keeps repeats itself and the reason why Bolivia is poor and backward.

  5. Snootz says:

    Warever there is to “care” about corps, overrides the need to burn them, or the image of their “torching”, for that matter, which once tackled in the well, as in the corp’s public storefront, lead to the actual victory of a grass-roots revolt fought by the campesino have-no-water croppers, in apparent sole benefit of the Cochabambian middle & upper indoor plumbing casts extorted by Gony. Only now, that the true colours of the WHIPHALA (all whip & phallus puns accepted), are flying overground, freely throughout the planet, to make that victory universal, you have the nerve to frown upon it! y’er sick’nin darlin’.

  6. Anonymous says:

    All you need to do is reference the archives of this blog to witness Jim and everybody else jumping on the Evo Bandwagon, it was incredibly lucrative and fashionable at the time.

    Only now are some of you idiots starting to realize that things are not so black and white and Evo is no indigenous savior. Finally, many of you continue to demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge regarding Bolivian social processes, culture, and history. I have always found the majority of Evo’s supporters from the USA, university professors, students, and NGO’ers to fall into the above categories. It is incredible how the masses, while spouting off about globalization, are the very worst contributers to this process overall, if not the complete destruction of another’s culture.

  7. death to the fakes! says:

    I think that u both are idiots and need to get a life :D sincerly a person :D