Lithium lust

The Bolivian state’s addiction to extractive export commodities has coloured the red ecosocialist aspirations of Evo Morales a shade of neoliberal blue

Rebellion and Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales
Jeffery R. Webber
 2011, Haymarket Books
281 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IN EVO MORALES come together some of the most important movements of resistance in Latin American history: indigenous, working-class, anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal.

Such is the importance of this political figure that, alongside Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, he has become an icon of leftwing movements the world over.

Yet as Jeffery R. Webber points out, at the same time that Morales speaks about anti-capitalist ecological politics to the international media, his domestic policies reinforce a complex and reconstituted neoliberalism based on the export of raw materials.

The latest commodity to have spun the Morales state into swirling hysteria, for example, is lithium, which the plurinational country has more of than any other in the world. Talk that impoverished Bolivia could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” has encouraged Morales to keep the resource tightly under state control.

Webber highlights a series of contradictions laid bare by Morales’ moves to constantly extract and industrialize raw materials in this way in “partnership” with transnational mining and petroleum capital, leading inevitably to the exploitation of workers and the dispossession of indigenous people.

These contradictions, the author suggests, calls into question the nature of the relationship between the MAS leader and the ecosocialist struggle internationally.

The lithium deposits will bring the debates sparked by these to a head. As the author writes, “Taking a position of uncritical loyalty to the MAS government will likely put many well-intentioned progressives on the wrong side of the indigenous peasant and proletarian struggles for justice in many instances.” [p. 234]

Brave critique

Rebellion and Reform in Bolivia is a brave, and ultimately sympathetic, attempt to critique the romantic view of Evo Morales’ development project in Bolivia. It is sympathetic because, as Webber suggests, solidarity outside the country should first and foremost always be with the oppressed workers and against imperialist meddling aiming crudely to destabilize the complex leader.

The book examines class structure in Bolivia, assesses debates on revolution in the country and explores the leadership of MAS. It then goes on to examine the last three years of the Morales’ leadership (2007-10) and maps intellectual currents in contemporary Bolivia.

Finally it describes and weighs up the development model in this period, which Webber suggests can be accurately described as reconstituted neoliberalism, and compares this with past Latin American political economies of classical structuralism, orthodox neoliberalism and neostructuralism.

It makes a valuable contribution to discussion on the left about what is happening both in Bolivia and the Andean region, and will be a useful introductory text for students of political economy and the post-transition pink tide in Latin America.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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