There was a time in history when travel diaries were the way people in London, Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam found out about the countries they had yoked to their imperial ambitions. India, Sumatra, and rural Donegal—the places that funneled raw materials and gold into the great imperial centers—came alive in journals and long letters to leading newspapers. Most of the diarists focused on the exotic, but not a few accurately predicted that no matter how many dragoons were sent to terrorize the Irish countryside, insurrectionary groups like the “Whiteboys” would appear in their wake to burn down a landlord’s house. Or divined that all the “khaki boys” in the British Army would never quell the fierce Pushtin tribesmen of the Northern Frontier.
Benjamin Dangl, the author of The Price of Fire, is a sort of 21st century version of these 18th and 19th century commentators who disdained the colonial comforts of Dublin or Delhi to head off into the outback. He rides buses into Bolivia’s altiplano, chews coca leaves in a Potosi park, and gulps his coffee as a cloud of tear gas descends on him in Buenos Aires. His five-year odyssey took him though Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, and Argentina, all the while recording what might be called the death of the Monroe Doctrine.
While the book is subtitled “resource wars and social movements in Bolivia,” Dangl covers most the countries that make up the Andes crescent. His thesis is that Bolivia’s “water war” of 2000 sparked similar uprisings in neighboring countries over the control of resources and resistance to the neo-liberal “Washington Consensus,” whose model of open markets and punishing austerity has plunged the southern hemisphere into economic chaos and bone-grinding poverty.
Dangl sees “common threads” between land struggles in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil, the seizure of Argentine factories by unemployed workers, and Venezuelan barrio members turning a prison into a community center. While these specific movements are of our time, the spirit that drives them is hardly new. A good part of the book chronicles the long history of resistance, first to the Spanish, than to the avaricious elites and rapacious corporations that followed in their wake. The current struggles, he points out, have deep roots on the continent, and are built on the memories—sometimes the bones—of previous generations.
But each great struggle has a transforming moment: a Puebla, an Easter Rebellion, a Soweto. For Bolivia it was a war over water.
The Cochabamba water war was sparked off when the World Bank pressured the Bolivian government into selling local water rights to the huge, California-based Bechtel Corporation. The sale was textbook neo-liberalism: private enterprise and the free market would come in, upgrade the water system and provide for all. Instead, Bechtel raised rates by as much as 200 percent, seized control of irrigation systems and rural wells and, in the words of author William Finnegan, “stole the rain.”
This privatization mania—led by the two horsemen of global capital, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—swept through South America during the 1990s, turning the continent’s resources over to multinational corporations for pennies on the dollar. In one particularly egregious example, Argentina sold off its fleet of state-owned Boeing 707s to a French company for $1.40 apiece. The planes are still being flown.
But in Cochabamba the people took a stand against both the largest construction company in the world and their own government. And they won.
“There is no organizer like victory,” Ho Chi Minh once remarked. The water war triumph led to a similar campaign in Alto, Bolivia, and then spread to Argentina and Uruguay. It also brought the issue of water privatization to the attention of the international movement against globalization. In Bolivia it paved the way for the great Gas War of 2003, which in turn laid the groundwork for the election of the Movement Toward Socialism’s Evo Morales as president.
Dangl argues that the Bolivian resistance resonated throughout the rest of Latin America. There is certainly truth in this, although in its battle against the IMF, Argentina also drew on its own history of a powerful trade union movement and strong left. In places like Paraguay and Uruguay there is little doubt that Bolivia set an example for others to follow.
But the book is not about who should get credit for what, it’s about the fact that resistance produces concrete benefits, whether they be for landless campesinos in Paraguay, unemployed factory workers in Argentina, or illiterate barrio dwellers in Caracas.
And all of these people come alive in the Price of Fire. Dangl’s reporting—which brings to mind John Reed’s “Insurgent Mexico”—is filled with images of what Daniel O’Connor once called “the great common people.” There is coca farmer Leonilda Zurita, dressed in traditional garb, chatting up a reporter from the BBC on her cell phone. There is a former soldier turned rapper earnestly explaining why he took up the fight against the IMF. And a chilling interview with a pair of right-wing students in Bolivia’s conservative and restive Santa Cruz Department.
One of the book’s strong points is that, while the author celebrates the growing tide of resistance, he has no illusions about how difficult the future will be. The people of Cochabamba won the water war, but, as Dangl notes, “creating a successful public-run water system proved to be harder than many citizens imagined.”
Dangl eschews rose-colored glasses, keeping a certain political independence about the current situation in Latin America. For instance, while he cheers on the growing power of the Left, he is also critical of Brazilian President Lula de Silva for reversing his support for land occupations by landless campesinos. He even has sharp words for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for seizing the land of indigenous people.
Nor does he think the colossus of the north has been vanquished. Dangl warns that the U.S. is using the war on drugs as “a convenient way to continue post Cold War intervention in Latin American countries.” U.S. military spending in the region has more than doubled during the Bush Administration.
His ability to balance embracing those involved in the struggle, with maintaining a certain analytical distance keeps the book from being just a well-written and engaging piece of anti-globalism cheerleading.
While the book’s main focus is the current situation, Dangl packs a lot of history into its modest size, history about which most Americans haven’t the foggiest idea. Who knew that the bloody Chaco War (1832-35) between Bolivia and Paraguay was initiated by Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell? That may seem like esoteric history, but the bitterness left by the Chaco War played no little role in fueling the Great Gas War of 2003.
The Price of Fire is about everyone from grassroots organizers to presidential candidates, and they all get a chance to have their say. It’s a book about big things, like the IMF, world trade, and international finance. But it is also about small moments that transform. Cochabamba grassroots organizer Oscar Olivera distills the formula that led to the water war victory: “we lost our sense of fear.” The Price of Fire is about how people lose their fear, and when the poor and the disposed of the world lose their fear, the pillars of empire tremble.
Conn Hallinan is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a winner of a Project Censored Award, and did his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of insurrectionary organizations in Ireland.