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Of Power and Tactics in Bolivia
By Jean Friedsky,
Posted on Tue May 31st, 2005 at 08:27:23 AM EST

If power concedes nothing without a demand, then the objective of every social change campaign must be to articulate an unavoidable demand which your target (the person/governing body/corporation with power to give you what you want) has no choice but to yield. Only by developing and working through a strategy – a long-term plan that includes a series of actions or tactics and that is born from an understanding of the power you hold in relation to your target – can a demand be made unavoidable. Though straightforward, this rule is difficult to achieve because of the complicated relationships, disparate desires and physical limitations that characterize any campaign. Nevertheless, it is what has to be done.

From here in Bolivia, I have written some about the goals and strategies of this current phase of the Gas War. However, I have focused mainly on recounting tactics – the marches, strikes and blockades – because those are the aspects of the campaign to which I have direct access. (Much to my dismay, the leaders' planning meetings are still out of my reach). Given this, I wanted to offer a brief analysis of what I have spent my past updates describing. I hope that this perspective will help you better understand what is taking place during at this historic moment in time.

Mobilizaciones (Mobilizations)

Mass marches are beneficial tactics when the target is a "democratic" governing body theoretically bound to represent the will of their electorate and whose charge is to maintain a stable civil society. Demonstrations therefore often have two main objectives. First, based on the assumption that politicians are obligated to represent the interests of their constituents (or more accurately, on the hope that representatives are worried about losing their jobs), marches aim to demonstrate that a significant portion of the population is discontent with the government's actions. Organizers seek to create a protest that has both a large number of people and the involvement of a broad range of constituencies to give their elected officials the message that they must – for the sake of their careers – change course. Second, mass mobilizations, particularly in major cities, can aim to cause a disruption that destabilizes an important commercial or governmental area, forcing the government to yield in order to regain social stability.

In Bolivia, recent mass mobilizations in the Gas War have been extremely impressive in their depth and breath and their forceful relentlessness. The marches have also already caused considerable problems for the people and businesses of La Paz and today the politicians return. If the demonstrators make it impossible for Parliament to be in session – either through creating chaos or by physically blocking Parliamentarians from entering or leaving their building – they will have taken another important step towards forcing Mesa to make a move on their demands.

Mass mobilizations, however, have their weaknesses even when carried out well. As we all know, representative politicians often chose to disregard public outcry. President Mesa has already shown that he will not be swayed by demonstrations alone no matter how grand, nor does he seem to be moved by disruption in the capital. Similarly, he understands that repressive action can often strengthen movement solidarity and drive (and he does not want his nation to become a blood bath), so the police use force only in retaliation and only to disperse crowds. His message is quite clear: Let the protesters scream and shout – they will tire.

Bloqueos y Paros Civicos (Road blockades and General Work Stoppages)

Given the infrastructure of many Latin American countries, road blockades have become a central tactic of movements for change on the continent. With a relatively small number of passable roads throughout a country, blockades can quickly create a regional or nationwide crisis. This general destabilization will attract the government's attention but more importantly, roadblocks apply a very specific and powerful pressure: economic.

Bolivia is no exception and La Paz is especially vulnerable to roadblocks because its politicized neighbor El Alto is a primary commercial entryway into the capital. Last week, blockades began on some of the main Altiplano highways that lead into La Paz via El Alto. These blockades were complemented by a civil strike that shut down both business and vehicular operations within El Alto for most of last week. Though rumored to have weakened during the night, the roadblocks and strike thrived during the day and had noticeably impacted La Paz when Corpus Cristi, Mother's Day and the weekend allowed for a softening. This week, Alteno organizations have vowed to continue the strike and more blockades have been popping up, both in the Altiplano and on the roads that link El Alto and La Paz.

By cutting off the capital's main access to food supplies, commercial goods, gasoline and laborers, this forceful tactic can create an urgency to a campaign unlike mass mobilizations. Mesa could certainly wait out demonstrations on the Prado, but when the business owners and corporate executives whine about their sinking profits, he will have to listen. Indeed the Bolivian people's ability to coordinate this type of tactic in October 2003 – a complete blockage of all the La Paz entrances – played a crucial role in their victorious uprising.

On the downside, blockades do not inherently demonstrate that there is widespread public support of the demands they are articulating, giving the government or the opposition the opportunity to label and persecute those blockading as a fringe minority. They are tiring to maintain and require great sacrifice on the part of those blockading and the population at large: blockades can tangibly hurt the lives of allies quicker than it can affect decision makers. A family that lives on salaries earned day to day will feel the affects of strike before the corporation that supplies La Paz with its milk will be harmed.

What's it mean?

Based on my experience organizing in the states and from conversations I've had in Bolivia, I believe that this movement needs to continue implementing both types of tactics. Without the marches that demonstrate the discontent of a critical mass of the population, blockades could seem inane. But if Mesa continues with his strategy of virtually ignoring the protesters, blockades are the best option to force the government into action. The combination of the two makes an incredibly powerful social force. And from what I have seen, there is both the strength and the will to make this a reality.

Unfortunately, I believe that even this with combination, there are potential problems ahead in the Gas War. Strong tactics will not deliver a satisfying victory if they are not a part of a directed strategy with clear goals because the target always needs to know exactly what it is you desire. In this case, without some semblance of unity among the protesters – at best an agreed upon proposal of demands that includes formula for implementation and at worst a semantic alignment in what these mobilizations are aiming to achieve – they leave themselves open to self defeat. At this moment, it is much too likely that the government could strike a deal with MAS or offer a middle ground that would placate a portion of the protesters, thereby not only crushing the current wave of uprising, but also creating deep, long-lasting wounds among the Bolivian social movements.

The people of Bolivia who are fighting for control of their country's natural resources have the ability and experience to make their demands unavoidable. But without agreement among groups on those what those demands are, the Gas War is in danger of being prolonged again or worse: those with the drive to change their nation's course could end up feeling angry, disempowered and unwilling to wage this battle again.

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