From Seattle to Bolivia: My Journey from Protest Participant to Ethnographer of Revolution

Twenty years ago today, I joined a massive direct action protest to stop the World Trade Organization from making neoliberal economic policy into a virtual treaty for most of humanity. In time, my involvement there drew me to the movements in Bolivia that challenged the same policies, and to a decade of work documenting their capacity to overthrow governments in South America. Here’s a bit of how I followed that path… The following is excerpted (with some small revisions) from my forthcoming book The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia. Available in spring 2020 from University of Arizona Press.

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I first encountered Bolivia’s remarkable political upheaval as part of the movement against corporate globalization. The nongovernmental organization that had just hired me, Project Underground, was one of dozens of international solidarity groups weaving bonds among community leaders from the global South, American union workers, environmental activists, and direct-action protesters, in preparation for the Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. My first day on the job, I boarded a bus in Oakland, California, to bring about eighty environmental rights activists directly to the protest against the WTO.

Just before 7:00 a.m. on November 30, 1999, the N30 Global Day of Action, about two dozen of us formed three circles where Pike Street and Boren Avenue cross. In each circle, we linked arms through long tubular “lockboxes.” Sliding our arms into the tubes, and clipping our wrists to a concealed pin, we made circle a unit, breakable only at the risk of serious harm to the limbs concealed within. I got to know my coworkers while helping to occupy this intersection and thereby block the delegates from reaching the meeting. We shared the crossing with dozens of other protesters ready to link arms at a moment’s notice. Any delegates looking for a way into the Ministerial Meeting would have to push their way through us or another group of protesters ringing the Seattle Convention Center. By nightfall the first day of talks had been canceled, and Seattle’s mayor had declared a state of emergency. Surrounded by this display of North American resistance, long-skeptical delegates from the global South saw that U.S. and European negotiators lacked the support of their own people. Many African, Latin American, and Asian delegations then emerged as critics of the WTO’s plans for the seamless flow of capital and commodities, and the talks collapsed. The Direct Action Network, the coordinating body that orchestrated the blockades, mushroomed into a movement of tens of thousands of activists eager to converge upon summits of the powerful, including the World Petroleum Congress, Democratic and Republican political conventions, and the World Economic Forum. Seemingly overnight, challenges to the power and global reach of corporate capitalism became front-page news.

The collapse of the Ministerial Meeting led to cancellation of the Millennium Round of free-trade negotiations just as Bolivians were facing the real effects of corporate-designed trade and investment policies. The government had been aggressively seeking foreign buyers for public enterprises and utilities since 1993 and had found one for the municipal water company of Cochabamba in September 1999. The privatized company’s first water bills—some of them double or triple the previous rate—came out on December 1, 1999. Protests in downtown Cochabamba on that day coincided with the arrest of more than five hundred protesters—including me—in Seattle. By April three waves of mass protests had rocked Cochabamba and thrown out the foreign owners of Aguas del Tunari, restoring public ownership of the city’s water utility.

News of Cochabamba’s Water War rippled into the San Francisco Bay Area because one of the main foreign owners of Aguas del Tunari was the San Francisco–based private construction firm Bechtel. Inside its headquarters in downtown San Francisco, accounts were adjusted and lawyers were called. Meanwhile, the privatization of an Andean city’s water by a distant corporation was a perfect symbol of the corporate globalization that was the target of the emerging global justice movement. The story of Cochabamba’s victory was shared by guests at the glittering awards ceremony for the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, held in San Francisco’s imposing War Memorial Opera House, and by protesters assembled on Market Street for the rally against the World Bank on April 23, 2001. I attended both, slipping out of the opulent Goldman reception to join the drumming and marching three blocks away beneath hand-crafted cardboard puppets.

In 2001 the Goldman Prize committee made Oscar Olivera, the Water War spokesperson,  the first trade unionist to receive the $150,000 award. In his prepared remarks Olivera proclaimed, “During the last fifteen years, we have been told that the market will resolve everything. But we can see that isn’t true.” In Bolivia, like much of Latin America, what American protesters called corporate globalization was known as neoliberalism, the ideology that guided what Olivera termed “the impositions of the international financial institutions.” Together with their U.S.-trained advisers, a generation of Bolivian politicians had embraced an experiment in undiluted neoliberal economic policies. While none of their candidates ever won an absolute majority at the polls, each president built a coalition to lead the country rightward, prioritizing foreign investment over labor rights and social spending. They had sold off the electrical grid, urban water systems, the airports, even the toll roads.

Cochabamba’s victory was the harbinger of a dramatic, and continent-wide, turnaround. As the new century began, turbulent protests and new political actors arose across Latin America to question a generation of globalization-oriented economic policies. Peasant, labor, Indigenous, Black, and environmental movements—many of whose members had been networking across borders for years—joined together through the annual World Social Forum gatherings. In Bolivia large but regional mobilizations challenged the government over coca, taxes, water, gas, land, and rural policy. Civil unrest brought down governments in Ecuador and Argentina, two countries gripped by financial crises. Ecuador’s January 2000 protests began with Indigenous protesters occupying the National Congress, leading to an improbable and fleeting military-Indigenous alliance that governed the country for a day. In Argentina overwhelming protests forced two presidents from power on December 19 and 20, 2001, while crowds chanted that “All of them must go”—presidents, members of Congress, and the whole political class.

In late 2003 tens of thousands of global justice activists from across the United States converged on Miami outside a summit to discuss the proposed hemipsheric Free Trade Area of the Americas. Some of us had followed the dramatic news of Bolivia’s Gas War as we prepared for Miami, largely through the Independent Media Center (an electronic network that was itself a product of the global justice movement). We knew that Bolivia’s exiled president Sánchez de Lozada had arrived Miami before us. Presumably he had found a comfortable temporary residence by the time police unleashed tear gas, smoke grenades, and rubber bullets on the summit protesters downtown. The Miami mobilization was the last of a series of summit protests against corporate globalization to achieve critical mass in the United States (even as protests continued against the Iraq War). Many attributed the failure of mass protests to  the “Miami model” of aggressive policing.

Just as U.S.-based protests against corporate globalization were losing momentum, our South American allies were moving from protests to political power. Between 2002 and 2010, eleven presidents in ten Latin American countries were voted into office on the promise of rolling back neoliberal economic policies. This so-called pink tide portended a regional revival of the Left and renewed hopes for an organized anticapitalist politics. In 2005 fifty thousand protesters surrounded the next Summit of the Americas in Mar de la Plata, Argentina, as President Néstor Kirchner, who had been swept into office by the pink tide, delivered the fatal blow to the proposed FTAA. Those who followed events on both continents wondered: How could a small and poor country like Bolivia strike such a frontal blow to neoliberalism? How might we understand and learn from the alliances, strategic choices, and tactics that had upended a political consensus among all major political parties? What allowed their protests to cohere, endure, and reshape the political landscape in the face of much greater repression? Asking and answering these questions drove many participants in the global justice movement into graduate studies and intercontinental travel or, as in my case, both.

My travels brought me face to face with scores of Bolivian activists with their own memories and strategic reflections. Many were propelled into activism by the mobilizations of the early 2000s, from the Water War to the fall of Carlos Mesa in June 2005. “The Water War was like a political school for many young people of my time,” recalled Cochabamban activist María Eugenia Flores Castro, “It opened my eyes to see another reality that was all around me.”  Others were longtime organizers who had impatiently endured fifteen years of neoliberal rule. They found reason for hope and new possibilities in the mass protests. Christian Mamani recalled, “I personally had said: This, this is how we have to all fight together.” With an enthusiasm that would become familiar to me, he began to speak of the effort as an example for the future: “This is the way we must forge links, must defend our interests as a society.” The conversations that this book draws upon are thus the words of Bolivians immersed in struggle and addressed to North Americans seeking to learn from their experience.

My political background, identity, and experience made these conversations possible. From my very first conversation, I often found myself being questioned about my intentions and political orientation by the Bolivians with whom I spoke. While there were many elements of my past to draw on, I repeatedly saw a click of recognition (one I didn’t expect) when I mentioned Seattle and the fight against the FTAA. And another click when I shared knowledge of occupying intersections and facing down riot police. At those moments I watched my interviewees’ skepticism dissolve and curiosity arise in its place, or I listened as their narratives shifted from putting forward a political claim (why we deserve what we struggle for) to remembering the process of struggle itself (how we work to get it). When Cochabamba Water War participant Marcelo Rojas and I started talking about how to handle being teargassed, that very conversation made us comrades in struggle. Both political and tactical affinities opened the door to deeper conversations that considered the lessons of the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The Sovereign Street will be released on March 31, 2020.

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