New Perspectives on Protest and Possibility in Bolivia

By McNeish, John-Andrew | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

New Perspectives on Protest and Possibility in Bolivia


McNeish, John-Andrew, Ibero-americana


* John Crabtree, Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia. London: Latin America Bureau, 2005.

* Daniel Goldstein, The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004.

* Oscar Olivera, ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia. Cambridge: South End Press, 2004.

* Andrew Orta. Catechizing Culture: Missionaries, Aymara and the "New Evangelization." New York: Columbia University Press. 2004.

* Charlotla Widmark, To Make Do in the City: Social Identities and Cultural Transformations among Aymara Speakers in La Paz. Uppsala: Uppsala University, 2003.

It is hoped that the national elections of December 2005 will end what has been a long period of tension and violence in Bolivia. The country is in desperate need of democratic renewal after five years of protest in which two national presidents have been ousted because of their failure to listen to public will. These protests have raised the profile of Bolivia in regional and international political debates and in media coverage. Indeed, the U.S. and other American nations not only look on, but hope through financing and other interventions to influence the course of future events. In this climate of political interest, new importance has also been given to research on Bolivia that aims to characterise and explain the causes and background of recent crisis and wider social transformation in the country. In this review essay I seek to focus on five publications that from different foci and perspectives form part of this new research on Bolivia. In the course of the review it is my intention to highlight the value of each of these publications in terms of their intentions of research and documentation, but also as studies that either explicitly or implicitly contributes vital elements to an understanding of the recent political crisis in Bolivia. Rather than being characterised as opposing positions and interpretations, it is my intention to demonstrate that, albeit to different degrees, between the publications there are overlapping themes and angles that demonstrate their strength both as a collection and as individual works. As with any body of knowledge it is the whole rather the parts that provides the most comprehensive and convincing understanding of a particular topic or event.

Out of the five books, two are explicitly written to explain and describe the origins of political crisis and three are written as ethnographies on important aspects of recent Bolivian cultural change, i.e., migration, religious expression and the growth of urban violence. I start with Patterns of Protest, a book that through its clarity and scope far out measures its rather handy pocket size. John Crabtree's book sets out to give a clear and comprehensive account of the protests in Bolivia from 2000 to 2005 and outlines some of the key underlining factors in Bolivian culture, society and politics that led the country down the road to crisis. The book quickly and concisely outlines the origins and practice of U.S. and external intervention in the Bolivian economy and political life. It charts the introduction and social impacts of economic adjustment, privatisation and the formation of service concessions for distribution of natural resources. Crabtree also brings our attention to the fact that these economic changes were introduced at the same time as successive Bolivian governments attempted to introduce radical social reforms - goals that were revealed to be contradictory and that generated mistrust amongst the Bolivian population. The book highlights the unequal and very different patterns of land distribution in the highlands and lowlands after the agrarian reform of 1953. It further details the rise of conflicting ethnic and national identities. It also explains the rise of key social movements and demands in the country, and the particular importance of the sindicatos (unions), cocaleros (coca-growers association) and rentistas (pensioners' movement) in national debates. …

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