Interview with Oscar Olivera: The Streets and the State in Bolivia

Interview with Oscar Olivera: The Streets and the State in Bolivia

Tuesday, 18 April 2006

By Benjamin Dangl

“Super dogs especial,” yelled the hot dog vendor. His stand was an island in a street packed with World Social Forum participants. Other people sold Che Guevara hats, artesian jewelry, Hugo Chavez dolls and radical buttons in six languages. Drum circles and generators roared as I sat down next to the hot dog stand with Oscar Olivera.

The recent electoral victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia was a big topic of discussion at the Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. As people lined up at the stand for dinner, Olivera talked about the relationship between Bolivia’s social movements and the Morales administration.

Morales, an indigenous coca farmer and congressman with the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, won the Bolivian presidential elections in a landslide victory on December 18, 2005. He has pledged to organize a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, change the rules of the US-led war on drugs in Bolivia, and protect the country’s gas reserves from corporate exploitation. Though various advances have been made since his inauguration in January, it is still unclear how far Morales will go with the radical changes he promised on the campaign trail.

Olivera was a key leader in the 2000 revolt in Cochabamba, Bolivia against the Bechtel Corporation’s privatization of the city’s water. He was involved in the 2003 uprisings against the Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada administration’s plan to privatize and export the nation’s gas reserves and continues to work closely with Bolivian labor groups. In this interview, he provides an inside look into the current geopolitical situation in Bolivia.

Benjamin Dangl: Please explain some of the differences between the social movements in Bolivia and what is happening here in Venezuela.

Oscar Olivera: There is a strong presence of the MAS party, fundamentally in the rural areas. But there are also people in urban and indigenous movements that are working autonomously, on the margin of the MAS, and without any possibility of becoming politicians. Regardless of whether you are with the MAS or working autonomously, these social movements have had a great capacity to unite in order to defend basic services and natural resources like water and gas. They have also united to say “enough” to the political parties of the right, which have established a monopoly on how political decisions are made. Within the social movements there is not one single leader, there is a collective leadership that has established an agenda which should be fulfilled with the new government. I am not able to say that much about Venezuela because I don’t know that much. I could speak with some people here, with some “leaders” [Olivera’s quotation marks], but what I would like to do is speak with the common people who I believe have the most valid opinion.

BD: There was a meeting among various Bolivian social movements held last December 5, 2005. What is this group of movements planning?

OO: This was a National Congress for the Defense of Water, Basic Services, Environment and Life. It was a gathering of social organizations, and we came together to fight for water and for life. The access to these basic services is vital for the people. For those living in rural areas, the contamination of rivers by mining and gas companies is a big issue. Since this meeting in December we have made an agenda that is ours and that should be met by the government of Evo Morales. For example, this agenda includes the creation of the Minister of Water, the elimination of excessive management positions [in the government], the preparation of a new law of potable water…we are bringing all of these proposals to the constituent assembly.

BD: What is being done autonomously among these social groups, outside of the state, in neighborhoods and cities, to distribute and defend these basic services?

OO: Since December we haven’t been able to do almost anything. It’s been an electoral time period. Everyone was concerned with what president would enter the government. With this government I believe we will demand that access to basic services is a right that all citizens should have. We will also work toward the strengthening of autonomous organizations, such as the cooperatives, the water committees…to obtain our own management of water.

BD: How does this dream of self-organizing relate to indigenous traditions and history in Bolivia?

OO: Now we are in front of a new government, a new political party and state scenario. I believe something will be constructed based on the values and customs of our ancestors. A fundamental part of this should be that the community be in charge, that the community makes decisions, not someone from above. I believe we are now in a process of ideological debate regarding the recuperation of our values. We should continue working with the people in an organized manner. It’s a process we’ve been in for some ten years, which has made this solidarity from the ground up possible.

BD: Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera has said that the social movements in Bolivia are currently very strong but aren’t united enough to collaborate with the state. What do think of this perspective?

OO: I don’t know what Alvaro Garcia Linera said, but collaboration is not what [we’re] looking for. We’re working to establish a common horizon between the government and the social movements, to make sure that this agenda which the people have proposed is met.

BD: Could something be done within the constituent assembly to facilitate the collaboration between the government and the social movements?

OO: It’s not about collaboration; it’s about working together for a new society. The constituent assembly is a scenario where we will all be able to discuss. Yet what we’re afraid of is that the MAS will try to control the constituent assembly and I don’t think this would be good.


Benjamin Dangl is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia,” (forthcoming from AK Press, 2007). He edits, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. Email Ben(at)