Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Bolivia Water Revolt, Ten Years Later

Dear Readers:

I am just back from a week away to a place without Internet (my novel-writing escape), which answers the questions some have had about why I haven't written about the elections. The results don't take either a rocket scientist or political scientist to understand. It is certainly, on the one hand, a substantial victory for MAS. In 2005 MAS won three of the nine governorships. This year it won six, including big pick-ups in two of the most populous regions of the country, La Paz and Cochabamba, (which had elected opposition governors in 2005 but recalled them in 2008). MAS also took over in Chuquisaca and Pando.

MAS did less well in the cities, in particular by losing every major mayorship except for El Alto and Cochabamba. Notably, it also lost mayorship votes in La Paz and Oruro to the Movimiento Sin Miedo party (MSM), founded by La Paz Mayor Juan del Granado. The loss of the mayorships says two important things about the state of Bolivian politics. One is that there is still a significant rural/urban split over MAS, which benefits Evo Morales' party in departmental elections where the rural vote is strong and weakens it in city elections. The second is the clear rise of MSM as the only genuine national opposition party. That's worth watching because MSM beat MAS in areas like La Paz where the MAS base would normally be considered strong and MSM is not anything close to a right-wing party. Other than in the shrinking opposition east, the old right-wing Bolivia parties are effectively dead, or at least in a very deep sleep.

That's all I have to say about the vote. For those wanting a more conservative analysis you can see what the Inter-American Dialogue published here (I usually add a commentary there but was away). Now on to the topic at hand, the Cochabamba Water Revolt, Ten Years After.

Jim Shultz
The Democracy Center

The Bolivia Water Revolt, Ten Years Later

A decade ago this week the city of Cochabamba exploded into the streets in what became known as the "final battle" of the Cochabamba Water Revolt. A decade ago this week my days consisted of leaving my house early on bicycle, riding as far into the city center as I could get before getting threatened by protesters intent on cutting my tires, and then proceed the rest of the way on foot to bear witness to the events from their core and make my way back up the hill home to send off dispatches over the Internet. In the midst of all that I dodged a large rubber bullet that a motorcycle policeman thought would be fun to fire at a gringo, learned the wonders of tear gas inhalation, and blatantly lied to my mother that I had never left the house.

Not everyone's story of that week ended so well. So we pause to remember especially the 17-year-old boy, Victor Hugo Daza, taken that week from his family by a bullet fired by an Army sharpshooter, an officer acquitted and promoted for his efforts.

This coming week people from various parts of the world will come here to Cochabamba for a set of events marking the tenth anniversary of the Water Revolt. Most will join in on the Third International Water Fair, which includes many different activities, and which you can read about and join in on here.

The Democracy Center – because of the role we played in reporting on the Water Revolt from the streets while it was happening and our leadership in the campaign afterwards to block Bechtel's $50 million legal case against Cochabamba – is offering a variety of materials to readers and visitors who want to learn more. The story of the Water Revolt is not a simple one. It is certainly in large part the story of a modern day David and Goliath, which is why a decade later it still commands such global attention. But it is more complex than that as well. So we hope you will take time to have a look through some of the following:

1. Video Interview with Jim Shultz (click on the screen above or visit here)

Ten years later, what are the lessons we can learn from the Cochabamba Water Revolt, about both the global powers that sparked it and the ongoing problems involved in actually building an alternative?

2. The Cochabamba Water Revolt and Its Aftermath

The complete chapter, written by Jim Shultz, from the Democracy Center's recent book, Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization (University of California Press, 2009)

3. How Bechtel Lost its $50 Million Case Against Bolivia

After the Water Revolt the Bechtel Corporation sued Bolivia for $50 million before a World Bank trade court. The story of how people all over the world joined with Bolivia to beat back Bechtel.

4. Photographs

Our friend Tom Kruse's extraordinary photographs from the streets.

5. Cochabamba’s Poorest Neighborhoods Take on the Challenge of Water

A video and written report from the Democracy Center about a little-known piece of the post-Water Revolt story – How the neighborhoods of Cochabamba’s impoverished south side have taken into their own hands the challenge of getting water.

6. Leasing the Rain (Video and New Yorker article)

Following the Water Revolt New Yorker writer William Finnegan produced both this powerful article on the Revolt and, with David Murdoc, this well-done documentary that aired nationally on PBS in the U.S.

You can also find many additional resources about the Water Revolt here, including copies of before and after water bills, exchanges of correspondence between the Democracy Center and the World Bank and the Democracy Center and Bechtel, and more.

An Additional Note:

I do hope that this post will facilitate a good debate among commenters over the impact that the Water War has had, both in Cochabamba and globally. It is an important debate to have. For those of you actually interested in a real analysis, the following should be of interest (to those not interested in real analysis, just skip it).

The Aftermath of the Water Revolt

First, to be clear, my writings (as in the interview posted above) have never varnished over the fact that the public water company reconstituted after the Water Revolt (SEMAPA) has never matched what the people of Cochabamba hoped for it or have a right to expect. In fact, one of my adversaries during the water revolt, the then-head of water at the World Bank, John Briscoe, wrote to journalists afterwards:

"And now there is a new report from Jim Schultz [sic], who played such an important role in glorifying the Cochabamba Water War and bringing it to your and the world's attention. To Mr. Schultz's credit he has not just "moved on", but has stayed in Cochabamba. And to his credit, too, he has given an objective description of what has come from the Cochabamba revolt."

If people want a serious analysis of why that is, that is included in great detail in my book chapter here. In short, however, I will say this:

While the Water Revolt reclaimed the company from Bechtel, it never succeeded in reclaiming it from the two powers that have long used SEMAPA as a source of patronage and graft – the Mayor of Cochabamba and the leaders of the SEMAPA workers union. Much of the inefficiency and mismanagement over the past decade can be attributed directly to that, something that has been the subject of many solid studies.

That said, there is no reason to believe that the people of Cochabamba would have been better off under Bechtel and there is every reason to believe they would have been much worse off.

It is a certainty, for one thing, that SEMAPA rate payers would have paid many additional millions in water tariffs to Bechtel for the past ten years – based just on the increases forced by Bechtel at the start (see here). It is also likely that there would be even fewer new hookups in Cochabamba's impoverished southern neighborhoods. In the book chapter I did a comparison between expansion of water service by SEMAPA in Cochabamba and by Suez (a private company) in La Paz El Alto. It is important to remember that the key challenge with water service in both places is building the infrastructure and developing the supply to provide water to areas that are newly urbanized. That is the truly expensive part, not servicing arras where the tubes are already in the ground.

The main reason that Suez was kicked out by the people of El Alto and La Paz in 2004 is that is consistently refused to provide service to those areas where new infrastructure was needed. In Cochabamba, SEMAPA agreed to expand its service area and responsibility. This is a fundamental difference between a private vs. public approach. Suez had as its first priority the maximization of its profit (that is what corporations are designed to do) and the way a water company maximizes profit is to minimize its responsibilities to the customers who are most expensive to serve. It is exactly akin to a health insurance company denying coverage to people who are sick. In this case the "preexisting condition" is to not have water pipes already installed in your street and all the way to your house. One can make a very reasonable argument that Bechtel would have operated much the same in Cochabamba.

My Role in the Water Revolt and its Aftermath

I always find it entertaining, to be honest, how people (always anonymous) like to inflate my role in all things Bolivia. At various times I have been given direct credit for the election of Evo Morales, the turning out of thousands of angry people into the streets of La Paz and El Alto, and of course my well-known secret leadership of the Cochabamba Water Revolt. I was also, by the way, the person behind the successful NASA moon landing in 1969, when I was eleven years old. I just wanted to mention that.

Because there always seems to be allusions to what I did or did not do in the Water Revolt, let me be precise (for those very few who actually care about such things). I had nothing to do with the fact that an entire city took to the streets and kicked out Bechtel's company here. I think the credit for that can be divided three ways. Bechtel comes in first, because if it had not been so stupid to raise water rates by so much so fast, it probably would have gotten away with it. The government of Bolivia at the time gets credit as well, because if it had not been so stupid as to send out soldiers to squash the peaceful protests in February, most likely the Water Revolt would never have gained the kind of broad intensity of support that it did. And of course there are the actual Bolivians who risked so much to lead the protests.

In the real world, my involvement included the following:

1. Writing dispatches from the scene: These were primarily for a U.S. and Canadian audience and can be read here.

2. Outing Bechtel: As documented in the PBS film on the Water Revolt, I was the one who managed to identify that it was actually Bechtel lurking behind the scenes of the privatized company. Here's how William Finnegan of the New Yorker and PBS reported it:

"But who exactly was Aguas del Tunari? Jim Shultz, an American journalist and activist living in Cochabamba, undertook to find out.

Shultz: Nobody understood really who Aguas del Tunari was. Mostly we knew that Aguas del Tunari had a parent company, that owned it and managed it which was International Water Ltd. So I went to their home page to see if there was anything on their Web site that actually mentioned Bolivia by name. And it was from this page that we figured out that International Water Ltd. was founded in 1996 by Bechtel.

Finnegan: Bechtel was a name people knew. Based in San Francisco, it's a huge, privately owned engineering, and construction company with vast political connections."

3. The Campaign Against Bechtel's Legal Case: Many people and many organizations in countries all over the world played important roles in forcing Bechtel to drop its $50 million legal case. The Democracy Center also played an important role. We developed much of the overall strategy, helped coordinate actions worldwide, and most importantly made sure that journalists and activists alike had the real information on Bechtel as opposed to the corporation's blatantly inaccurate spin.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bottom line: After 10 years, the poorest of the poor citizens of Cochabamba are paying the highest prices for water. What went wrong???

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know what went wrong... the movement was lead by demagogues, never interested in water for the poor, fully dedicated to power for themselves. In that sens, they succeeded. All made careers, including Jim Shultz (who still profits from the "war") and Tom Kruse, who reached an adviksory post in Evo Morales governent and is currently serving Rockefeller in NY. Olivera remains in control of the workers union (very democratic indeed... more than 10 years there), Alvarado is Ambassador in Venezuela (enjoying Chavez favors), Omar Fernandez was a senator and controls the irrigation program in Bolivia... and so on. They lied and mislead the poor. THat is what happened. Nothing went wrong, just started wrong... and follow through

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Es válido el comentario... a 10 años deberían revisar lo que hicieron en vez de seguir disfrazando el fracaso con memorias de una victoria pírrica. Y si hay honestidad intelectual, los primeros en hacer esa revisión crítica deberían ser los que la promovieron, racionalizaron, difundieron y adornaron. De otro modo, seguirán acompañando el fracaso como cómplices.

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All politics is nuance, and your summary analysis of the last election results is disappointingly shallow. This may provide a broader understanding of what happened. Worth reading:

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim at least you are not a gringo imperialist...

3:49 PM  
Blogger The Veins of Latin America said...

Unlike the contributions from the many "anonymous" folk who revel in vandalising this quality blog with their predictable drivel, your reporting and analysis of the Water Revolt is probably the most detailed and reliable anywhere on the internet. I'm very much looking forward to going through it in more depth.

Thanks Jim

10:55 AM  
Blogger The Veins of Latin America said...

For a slightly more detailed look at the elections in La Paz and El Alto

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is hard to say if people would have been better off had Bechtel been allowed to stay. The way things have actually turned out, the cochalas are certainly worse off. Since then, the people who pushed for this type of "change" are certainly better off and most of them are up to no good. Few years from now, once people are better educated on the issues, they will undoubtedly ask for the help of private corporations.

Looks like most of the people attending the conference in cochabamba will have to be mochilleros. The whole affair will not be utterly useless, at the very least limousine liberals will be aware how much of Evo's hate is racial, irrational to the point of being a cartonish cliche and that under no reason will Chavez will stop being the US' primary source of oil.

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"That said, there is no reason to believe that the people of Cochabamba would have been better off under Bechtel and there is every reason to believe they would have been much worse off."

We'll never know, right, Jim? We only know that the average Cochabambense got screwed and there's less water available than ever. Who are the stupid ones onew?

8:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting video in spanish; Carlos Sanchez Berzain, La Crisis Boliviana

8:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't Jim said that the Jindal deal showed that Foreign Investment was possible under Evo? We now know just what type of "capable" people are in charge. The cherry on top is the Mining Minister saying with a straight face that the BCB reserves could be used for this project. The horrror, the horror...the only thing this people are accomplishing is making Bolivia the world's biggest joke and condemning future generations to absolute poverty.

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...the only thing this people are accomplishing is making Bolivia the world's biggest joke and condemning future generations to absolute poverty."

Hmm, well you could also add: a country that has a budget surplus, showed economic growth over 3% in 2009 while most other countries saw their economies shrink, huge foreign reserves, praise from the IMF, and a President with a popular mandate hovering at 2/3.

What do you want to bet Obama would trade places with any of that?

Maybe you should read more than La Razon.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If that's the case, I wonder why the downtrodden around the world aren't hijacking airplanes, crossing oceans and rivers and the Titicaca Lake in flimsy seacraft, and venturing into the jungle and altiplano to flock into the promised land.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why don't you read the la razon article more carefully yourself? the "economy" is not growing, this is simply the price of hydrocarbons going up. Please do take a econ 101 before making more stupid comments like the level of reserves, IMF "praise," as sources for proof that things are getting better. Populism is characterized exactly by these half-truths, and being popular is not the same thing as being recognized for doing the right thing, as a matter of fact, doing the right things is most often unpopular.

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh 11:12, always enjoyable to see that Goni is still writing for the Blog and still as silly and stupid as usual.

Yes, if we had followed your smart econ 101 we wouldn't have raised taxes on all that growing oil revenue. That is why you are in Maryland and not here.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Raising taxes was actually one of the Goni proposals that Evo adopted as a senator into the hydrocarbon law that the MAS pushed right before Evo was elected. The law was the immediately repudiated by MAS and Evo as an imposition of the "Empire/WB/IMF/etc." While the fact was that it was written by Evo and the MAS. Regardless, raising taxes was suggested by Goni, it was accepted by the oil companies, it is common practice in a lot of countries, it was adopted into MAS' hidrocarbon law...yet it was pushed aside in favor of this "bastard nationalization" that we have under the pretext of somehow needing to be in control of the spice was better. Please, go back and not only review econ 101, but also the history of the issue.

The bigger point still stands: Evo and the MAS have made of Bolivia pariah state in terms of foreign investment. The only modicum of economic growth Bolivia shows is due to fluctuations in the price of commodities, not in the volume of these that we are exporting. And the picture is really dire if you do an analysis of the rest of the economy. The fact is that there are no jobs being created, no productivity growth, no capital investment, absolutely zero human capital development (soccer fields aside.)

Their flagship project of el Mutun is proving to be a fiasco of gargantuan proportions, with so much corruption involved that it really begs the question (in light of the water war anniversary): Who are these guys fighting for? Evidence shows that they are only seeking more power in order to enrich themselves. Thus one has to conclude that Bolivians are not better off.

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is Locoto? too busy chasing ambulances???

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's no more Mutun. it was a massive Evo fraud. Jindal accuses Evo of breach of contract. Surprise!
"Water War" instigators got rich. The people they were supposed to fight for got poorer and filthier for lack of H2O.

7:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How accurate a picture do you believe local elections to paint with regards to national political trends and feelings? It can vary from place to place.

MSM was part of the MAS alliance but have chosen to go their own way in these elections- does this suggest that the Evo's political vehicle will fracture further as time goes on? Or is it equally significant in building new opposition forces? It could be that MSM represents an opening for opposition parties who are not rabidly opposing change or promoting hatred. Maybe that's why people like Samuel and Rene found their appeal was limited, because they weren't rabidly anti-Evo enough for most opposition supporters. Maybe the success of MSM in these elections can break this ice. That sort of opposition movement can only be good for Evo and MAS, because they might be able to provide a more effective means of keeping them in check.

An analysis of the 2005 and 2009 national elections reveals that while Evo increased his share of the vote (by about 10%), Manfred got only slightly less in '09 than Tuto got in '05, and from much the same areas. But the movements supporting them have never been fully unified, and the parties on which they were elected all but collapsed. But with those two out of the political picture, who will be able to provide effective opposition and what direction will it take?

10:40 AM  

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