Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia

By Webber, Jeffery R. | Capital & Class, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia


Webber, Jeffery R., Capital & Class


John Crabtree Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia Latin America Bureau, 2005, x + 118 pp. ISBN 1-899-36571-0 (pbk) £9

The Cochabamba 'water war' of 2000 projected Bolivia-South America's poorest country-into the international spotlight, if only for a moment. The popular mobilisation that defeated the privatisation of water and threw out a multinational corporation became an inspiration within the poorly labelled 'anti-globalisation' movement. Then in September-October 2003, the 'gas war', with its epicentre in the shantytown city of El Alto, saw more than 500,000 people in the streets, scores of unarmed protesters killed, and finally the forced resignation of the hated neoliberal president Gonzalo (Goni) Sánchez de Lozada. Bolivia briefly re-entered the spotlight. The year 2005 witnessed a steady increase in mobilisation against Goni's replacement, Carlos Mesa, with various popular-indigenous sectors demanding the nationalisation of hydrocarbons (oil and gas). This most recent wave of protests reached its zenith in May-June 2005 with the 'second gas war', which forced the resignation of Mesa, the second president to be thrown out in two years.

Some important studies of the Cochabamba water war have appeared, but the whole spectrum of contentious popular politics in Bolivia from 2000 to 2005 has mainly been subjected only to conjunctural, journalistic analysis. This is especially true of the literature available in English. John Crabtree's Patterns of Protest: Politics and Social Movements in Bolivia is one of the first preliminary efforts to paint a broader picture, to uncover patterns and to reveal the deeper, underlying economic and political structures that help to explain the causes and dynamics of the various waves of contemporary Bolivian social movements and the actors involved. This short book is clear and well written and, surprisingly, conveys a good deal of the complexity of the situation in a small space. Patterns of Protest is free of academic jargon, focusing instead on serious description, empirical detail and textured, multi-layered analysis. Crabtree utilises his quite extensive knowledge of Bolivia to highlight the local particularities of each movement investigated, while always placing those particularities in the wider socio-political context of the country as a whole and, still more broadly, within the international setting that determines no small part of Bolivia's internal politics.

The purpose of the book is to understand the dynamics and causes of social movement protests in Bolivia, starting with the Cochabamba water war and ending with the El Alto gas war. As Crabtree argues, 'these bouts of confrontation have rational explanations which need to be understood. They are rooted in a sense of inequality, exclusion and discrimination, and in a political system that-despite some of the reforms passed-still had strong barriers (formal and informal) to genuine participation and negotiation' (p. 109). The deceptively simple idea that resistance to the neoliberal political and economic system could be rational is an important corrective to the celebration of the Bolivian model over the last twenty years by international financial institutions and mainstream academics.

Crabtree highlights the important Bolivian tradition of radical protest, which had been led, to a large extent, by the miners of the Bolivian Workers' Confederation following the 1952 revolution. This came apart with the imposition of neoliberalism in 1985, the privatisation of the mines, and the firing of tens of thousands of miners. After that, effective protest faded away for roughly fifteen years, and civil society became more heterogeneous. Nonetheless, ex-miners migrated to various parts of the country and became key actors in what would become new forms of popular protest. Patterns of Protest is largely an attempt to understand popular resistance in the neoliberal period, after the miners lost their vanguard role. …

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