The Bolivia Water Revolt, Ten Years Later
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.
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.
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.