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  • Energy, extractivism and hydrocarbon geographies in contemporary Latin America
  • Tom Perreault


As he stepped onto the Miami-bound plane, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada had no way of knowing the full scope of what he had unleashed. It was October 2003 and his country had endured a month of protests and violence. Civil unrest brought together an array of social movements and was the culmination of years of struggle over water privatization, pension reform and other grievances against Sánchez de Lozada’s neoliberal regime. The most immediate trigger of the protests, however, was a scheme to export natural gas to the United States. The plan, which was to be funded by a motley consortium of international investors, was to transport natural gas from wells in the country’s Chaco lowlands, across the Altiplano and down to the Chilean coast, where it would be liquefied and loaded onto liquid natural gas (LNG) carriers—ships outfitted with cryogenic freezer tanks designed to maintain natural gas in liquid form (Bridge, 2004). The gas was to be delivered to the Mexican state of Baja California Norte, where it would be re-gasified, fed into a network of pipelines and ultimately delivered to lucrative markets in the U.S. state of California.

Unfortunately for its naïve architects, this plan proved to be too much for a Bolivian population both weary and wary of the everyday effects of neoliberalism. Just as they had done three years earlier in the Cochabamba “water war,” activists, union members, campesino federations and regular citizens rose up to put a stop to the government’s latest efforts to privatize the country’s natural resources (Perreault, 2006). In particular, protestors objected to the privatization and export of a resource that was widely viewed as national patrimony, when so many Bolivians lacked basic infrastructure necessary to access the gas themselves. In the view of many, the fact that the gas was to be exported to the great imperial power via their regional rival (whose victory in the War of the Pacific rendered them landlocked) only added salt to the open wound. Spurred on by nationalist sentiment, protestors demanded “El gas para los bolivianos” (“gas for Bolivians”), and decried the neocolonial sacking of the country’s resources (Koch & Perreault, forthcoming). More than a week of marches, road blockades, rallies and demonstrations culminated in running street battles between protestors and the military and police in which nearly 70 protestors were shot dead in the cities of El Alto and La Paz. With much of the country virtually paralyzed by the “gas war,” and activists further outraged and [End Page 235] motivated by the growing violence, Sánchez de Lozada resigned the presidency on October 17, boarded a commercial flight, and fled the country.

Protests would continue for two more years, until the election of Evo Morales, the leader of the country’s largest coca growers’ union, who had narrowly lost the presidential election to Sánchez de Lozada in 2002. However one interprets the events of October 2003—as a popular rejection of neoliberal imperialism (Hindery, 2013), as an assertion of indigenous citizenship and political power (Postero, 2007), as a contest over resource governance (Perreault, 2006), or as national suicide (Vargas Llosa, 2005)— they involve the interplay of competing and ultimately incommensurable geographical imaginaries. On the one hand, those who sought to export gas envisioned a world in which a vast supply of natural gas, stranded by the lack of a local market, would be delivered to distant consumers through the magic of LNG technology (Bridge, 2004). This imaginary posits the borderless, almost frictionless, trans-hemispheric integration of energy supply and demand. On the other hand, protestors envisioned a world in which Bolivians would gain control of their own natural resources and would benefit from their extraction and use. This is an imaginary of clearly defined national borders, shaped by long histories of exploitation at the hands of powerful outsiders (Lazar, 2008). This view was perhaps best exemplified by a mural painted in the wake of the violence by the radical artists’ collective known as Grupo Willka, named for the indigenous leader Pablo Zárate Willka, who led an uprising...


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pp. 235-252
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