Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Wonders of Technology Upgrades

Dear Readers:

The Democracy Center is in the middle of moving our entire Web site, and the Blog, over to a new Web server. As a result many of you may have noticed problems over the past few days in accessing our site or posting comments. To the side is a photo of our technical team hard at work on this.

I appreciate the e-mails from those of you who have suggested that we check out if sinister forces have been monkeying with our Web site. Tempted as I was to announce that we have discovered a CIA mole in our midst, alas, we are allowed only one April Fools post a year.

So please bear with us as we make the changes and upgrades. We hope to have everything back to normal in the next couple of days, the computer gods willing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bolivia and the U.S.: Where do Things Stand After the Summit?

When Barack Obama was elected President of the U.S. in November, he inherited a set of U.S. relationships with Latin America that were strained. The Bush administration had staunch allies among the handful of remaining conservative governments in the region, most notably in Colombia and Mexico. It had mixed relations with the left-leaning governments in the bigger countries of the region, such as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. And it had hostile relations with the administration’s Latin American “bad boys”, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

Relations with Bolivia were especially tense. In September Bolivia and the U.S. took turns kicking out each other’s ambassadors (Bolivia went first), the Bush administration axed Bolivia out of trade preferences that could potentially cost more than 20,000 jobs, and the Morales government accused Washington of a litany of conspiracies involving the DEA, USAID, and other U.S. programs.

So it was with some hope that boosters of the Bolivia/U.S. relationship looked to the election of Obama as a moment for change. The new president of the north pledged to remake the U.S.’s relations with the rest of the world. His incoming Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had said supportive things about the Morales government during the campaign (see the video here). Morales saw the linkage between he and the new, unusual leader in the north and seemed almost giddy, “What is happening in the world?" he asked. "An indigenous man is president in Bolivia and a black man is president in the United States."

Watchers of U.S./Latin America policy also knew that the symbolic opening of the new administration’s new approach to its neighbors to the south would be at the pre-scheduled Summit of the Americas, which took place last week in Trinidad. All the players in the Drama of the Americas were on the scene, from Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who the U.S. worked hard to overthrow in his last term, to Hugo Chavez, who famously called Obama’s predecessor “the devil” in a speech before the UN several years ago.

So, what do we know about the dance of U.S./Bolivia relations this week that we didn’t know last week?

Symbolically, the summit was a bit of a love fest between President Obama and the Latin American leaders most hostile to his predecessor.

Obama said warm and fuzzy things about improving relations with Cuba, and the Presidents on Latin America’s left congratulated him and urged him to be even warmer and fuzzier – to extend his pledge to allow more family visits and remittances to the island into a dropping of the five decades old embargo that has been so successful at toppling Cuban communism.

Chavez reached out to Obama with a gift, a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (an improvement in my view, to Chavez’s previous marketing of Noam Chomsky). Obama shook the Venezuelan President’s hand so many times and so smilingly that it made right wing pundits in the U.S. go apoplectic. They apparently had hoped that the U.S. President would have frowned and then cleaned up his hand with a handy wipe.

Ortega wanted to make sure that Obama had a long walk through of U.S. adventures in the region since his birth in 1961, which included a reminder of the Bay of Pigs invasion of the Cuba when Mr. Obama was still in his mother’s womb. Obama replied, good-humoredly, that he hoped Latin American leaders would not hold him responsible for events that took place when he was in diapers.

It is however, the state of Bolivia/U.S. relations at the summit that seem most curious.

Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, went to the summit against the backdrop of an alleged assassination conspiracy against him that concluded with a shoot-out in a Santa Cruz hotel and three suspects dead.

Chavez, who had been much more embattled with Washington, eagerly smiled for photo-ops with the new U.S. leader and pledged immediately to replace his own nation’s ambassador to Washington.

In contrast, Morales renewed claims that the U.S. may have had its hand in the alleged attempts to kill him. As the New York Times reported:

Yet some old tensions remained. President Evo Morales of Bolivia confronted Mr. Obama during a private session with a charge that the United States is meddling in his country and had plotted to assassinate him. Mr. Obama responded on Sunday, saying, “I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments.”

The Paraguayan President told reporters that Morales raised the charge directly to Obama in a closed-door meeting at the summit. Bolivia’s President said afterwards that if Obama didn't denounce the alleged assassination plot, "I might think it was organized through the embassy."

That statement led Obama to declare on Sunday:

"Specifically on the Bolivia issue, I just want to make absolutely clear that I am absolutely opposed and condemn any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments. The United States, obviously, has a history in this region that's not always appreciated from the perspective of some. I am responsible for how this administration acts and we will be respectful to those democratically elected governments, even when we disagree with them."

What evidence Morales had to suggest that the U.S. had any involvement with the Hungarian, Irishman, and Bolivian shot last week in Santa Cruz is unclear.

Bolivia’s Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca, met at the summit with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Afterwards he told reporters that he pressed Secretary Clinton to reverse the Bush administration’s policy removing Bolivia from the ATPDEA trade preferences. Clinton pledged to “study” the issue, which means no change in that policy anytime soon.

So, as a new exchange of ambassadors between Caracas and Washington does seem imminent, when will that happen between Washington and La Paz? Not anytime soon either, according to statements from Bolivia’s UN Ambassador, Pablo Solon, the Bolivian government’s current point man for U.S. relations.

The news agency AFB reports Solon saying that, “First we clearly want to lay down the rules on all the issues on our agenda." Those issues reportedly include 'cooperation, drug trafficking, commerce, political change and mutual respect.' Said Solon, "Once there's that framework, the time for exchanging ambassadors will have to be studied."

What does all this mean, reading the complicated coca leaves of international diplomacy? While most of Morales' Latin American presidential colleagues seemed to be anxious to jump-start a new honeymoon with Obama, and he with them (at a symbolic level, at least), Morales seems to be the region’s most reluctant bride.

Maybe this is because the Bolivian President felt threatened by a plot he says was aimed at his head and didn’t feel in a friendly mood. Maybe the Bolivian government isn’t willing to engage in all the niceties of others until the details get worked out. Or maybe, in the scheme of things, the Bolivian government just doesn’t consider its relations with Washington all that important, and has decided that antagonism with the U.S., including with Obama, plays to some domestic political advantage.

But whichever reason is behind the chilly first encounter between Morales and Obama last week in the Latin American tropics, it means there is still a lot of diplomatic work to be done to make the U.S/ Bolivia relationship something different than the battleground it has been for three years. And there is a lot of room for that relationship to just stay testy.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Was there an Assassination Conspiracy Against Evo Morales?

On Thursday afternoon in Santa Cruz three men were killed in a shootout with Bolivian police. According to the Bolivian government the men were part of a broad conspiracy to kill President Evo Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera. The shootout took place in a hotel in Santa Cruz, the city that is at the center of anti-Morales political sentiment.

What really happened, who was behind it, and what it means is subject still at this point to as much speculation as it is fact. I have no information other than what has been reported widely in both the Bolivian and foreign media. Here are a few things we do know.

Raid Ordered by Morales Based on Bolivian Intelligence

The raid Thursday was ordered directly by Morales, based on Bolivian intelligence reports of a conspiracy against him.

"Yesterday I gave instructions to the vice president to move to arrest these mercenaries and this morning I was informed of a half-hour shootout at a hotel in the city of Santa Cruz," Morales said. Two additional people were also arrested. Vice President Garcia Linera also said that the men were carrying guns and grenades and attacked police the police.

Reuters reported the VP also saying that police found documents "about preparations for an assassination, an attempt on the lives of the president and the vice president" and confiscated a large cache of weapons with the men in Santa Cruz.

Bolivian government officials have also said that the “terrorist cell” had plans to blow-up a naval boat with Morales aboard recently on Lake Titicaca, had been behind the dynamite attack last week at the Santa Cruz home of Bolivia’s Catholic Cardinal, and also had plans to kill, among others, Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas, a fierce Morales critic.

The Dead Accused “Terrorists” Included Foreign Citizens

The nationalities of the three men killed remain unsettled in most news reports. Los Tiempos and others have identified them as Michael Martin Dwyer of Ireland, Magyarosi Arpad of Hungary, and a Bolivian, Eduardo Rozsa Flores. Rozsa Flores, a self-identified Muslim had a Blog here that included links to a variety of sites, ranging from pro-Palestinian groups, to Santa Cruz opponents of Morales, the IMDB movie database.

A number of press reports have identified the three men as “foreign mercenaries” who also were involved in the war in the Balkans. But it is unclear what those reports are based on at this point.

Morales Opponents Dismiss Possible Conspiracy

Morales opponents were quick to dismiss charges of any conspiracy against the President. Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas, who had been named by Bolivian officials as one of the potential targets of the conspiracy, quickly denied the government’s claims. He called the raid where the three men were killed, a “cheaply staged” show.

The President of the Santa Cruz delegation to the national Congress, Oscar Urenda, suggested that the episode was deliberately timed to coincide with Morales’ attendance at the summit of American Presidents in Trinidad, at which U.S. President Barack Obama was also in attendance.

None of the opposition leaders who questioned the conspiracy offered any specific evidence to back-up their suspicions.

What seems certain at this point is that a group of men with a large supply of weapons was operating with a clear violent intent, and there are certainly pockets of hatred against Morales deep enough to wish him dead. There is however no clear evidence, at this point and to my knowledge, that the established political organizations opposed to Morales, in Santa Cruz in particular, have any direct connection to these events.

The fact is at this point, that we don’t yet know what all the facts are. In the days that come there will be a myriad of rumors and charges from all sides. Some will be true and some will be false. We will do out best here to wade through all of them and report what we think is solid enough to report. In the meantime we would encourage our readers to rely on the reporting of solid news organizations and analysts, including those with better access that we have to original sources such as the police and others making the official investigations.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bolivia Under Waters

Dear Readers:

By the time you read this I will be off to somewhere in Bolivia where cyberspace does not reach, cut cold turkey from e-mail and from all things Blog. So I leave you with this thoughtful post from the Democracy Center's intrepid Yi-Ching Hwang, about the environmental dangers facing Bolivia from plans by neighboring Brazil to build two giant dams on the important river the two countries share, el Rio Madera.

This is, sadly, Yi-Ching's last post. Regular readers will remember her popular offering last August on dancing in Urkupina, with one of our most memorable Blog leads ever: "We all had to wear black underwear, not thongs, not tights, but black underwear. And one by one they checked us."

Our loss and yours will soon be some graduate school's gain.

I'll be back in this space again, eventually.

Jim Shultz

Bolivia Under Waters

In about 5 years, Bolivia’s northeastern department of Beni could be under waters.

Last August, while most attention in Bolivia was on the nationwide voter referendum, Brazil’s environmental licensing authority, IBAMA, silently granted permission for the construction of San Antonio dam, and opened the bid for Jirao dam, both to be located in the Brazilian city of Porto Velho, 112 miles from the Bolivian border.

Estimated to cost around 9 billion dollars, the project would construct two gigantic dams on the Madera River, with the aim of generating electricity for Brazil’s southern agribusinesses.

As a fast growing regional power, the construction of the dams would mean more production, further growth, and for sure an increased GDP for Brazil.

For Bolivia, however, the dams could signify the annihilation of diverse plants, animals and indigenous cultures, cities and towns under water, mass migration, destruction of plantations, an increase in flood-related diseases such as malaria and dengue, and finally, damage to the region’s ecosystem.

Proponents of the dams cite the possibility of river navigation and the advantage for both Brazilian and Bolivian soy growers to transport their grains more cheaply to Pacific ports.

In an interview conducted with La Razón, Marco Octavio Ribera, coordinator of the National League of Environmental Defense, explained, “The Madera River is the only confluence in Bolivia; it is the only exit, there is no other to eliminate the water of the Bolivian, Peruvian, and Brazilian Amazon.”

With 90% of all Bolivia’s water eventually flowing towards the Madera River, halting its flow would lead to disastrous consequences.

Another expert in the topic noted that the Madera River watershed originates in the Andes. Thus the immense amount of water is not just water, but carries with it “Andean sediments that in a few years would cover the reservoirs.”

Bolivia’s Foreign Secretary, David Choquehuanca, have repeatedly engaged with and insisted to Brazil its fears of the immense environmental damage likely to occur on Bolivian territory following the dams’ construction. Specifically, Choquehuanca beseeched Brazil to undertake environmental studies in Bolivia prior to initiating the environmental permit process.

Juan Pablo Ramos, Bolivia’s Vice Minister of Biodiversity and Natural Resources, remarked that Bolivia has requested that Brazil “stop the processing of the dams construction as long as the impacts [of the dams] are not known objectively and with veracity.”

Under Principle 12 as concluded in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development conducted in Río de Janeiro in 1992, “Environmental measures addressing transboundary or global environmental problems should, as far as possible, be based on an international consensus.”

Brazil, however, have not shown much interest in establishing such an ‘international consensus.’ In a report filed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Brazil’s response to Bolivia’s continual request was “under no point of view” will the construction be discontinued.

Last October, in a follow-up bilateral meeting held in La Paz, Bolivian technical specialists presented scientific findings supporting the theory that the two Brazilian dams would indeed cause a serious rise in water level, thus flooding Bolivian territory. To the surprise and dismay of the Bolivian participants, the Brazilian delegation not only did not arrive prepared with scientific data, were unable to answer questions posed to them, but also showed up an hour late and made rude comments.

In the face of a potential annihilation of a precious Amazonian area, not only are the local inhabitants and wildlife in danger, the world also risks losing yet another opportunity to reverse a decision where the damaging effects will go far beyond two countries and lasting well into future generations. International collaboration and strategic pressure from individuals, government officials, social movements, civil society, and organizations may still reverse Brazil’s decision to build the dams.

Written by Yi-Ching Hwang


Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Here and There

Today is Good Friday, when Christians mark the death of Jesus by crucifixion. Given the quite bloody nature of the act, I have never been quite clear how the term “good” got put in there by his believers. I would have guessed that “Bad Friday” might have been a more appropriate name.

This counts as just one among the list of minor confusions that inflict a non-Christian surrounded by Catholics (including in my own family) during this, one of the most holy weekends of the year.

So in that detachment, here are some observations about the difference between Easter here in Bolivia and how I remember it (it’s been a decade) in the U.S.

Cochabamba sits at the feet of the largest statue of Jesus on Earth – just a teeny bit bigger than Rio’s and multi-colored at night. On this rainy Friday the city is closed up as tight as a drum, and not because of the rain. Schools, stores and businesses are closed across this valley, as they are across Bolivia and across Latin America. Transportation is at a minimum. Not even Christmas Day here is as shuttered.

From what I recall from Easters back in the U.S., on Good Friday the schools are still open and the buses all run on normal schedule. Though I think the banks may close at noon. I can’t recall exactly, so maybe someone can clarify that. Banks have a lot to pray about this year. To be sure there are some separation of church and state issues in this up there. As Easter always falls on Sunday, this avoids a constitutional conflict. Christmas as a holiday is just a given.

Crosses Here and There

And this comes to my first point about Easter here and Easter there. In the U.S. it is all about Easter and Sunday. Here it is all about Good Friday. Or in other words, up there it is all about “the resurrection.” Here it is all about “the death.”

Consider for a moment the crosses that adorn the altars of Christian churches here and there. In the U.S. (again, from what I recall) a lot of the crosses over the altars don’t even have Jesus on them at all. They are sort of stylized pieces of abstract art. It is as if Jesus may have left altogether, just pulled out the nails when no one was looking and sort of walked away. And if Jesus is on the cross he usually looks more like he is asleep than a torture victim. He looks, well, almost serene.

Not in Latin America. The Jesus nailed to the cross here leaves no doubt as to what the Romans had in mind that day. The savior is a bloody mess. Blood streams from his wounds, from his face. The look on that face is tortured, like a man who genuinely is in the midst of being physically tortured. This is Mel Gibson’s Jesus.

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest from Holland and the U.S., who traveled extensively in Bolivia and Peru in the early 1980s (including a long stint here in Cochabamba) and who later wrote about his reflections in a wonderful and humble journal titled, Gracias. It was from his writings that I first got the distinction between what those different images of Jesus meant. He explained, wisely I think, that the impoverished majority of Latin America identifies with the “suffering” of Jesus. People have a sense of connection between the hardships and indignities they endure daily with the suffering they see before them on the cross.

I am no theologian but there is something about that explanation that makes sense to me.

And About that Big Bunny

Okay, let’s get to the big difference, the one that for my investment in chocolate really matters. Brace yourselves children. In Bolivia there is no Easter Bunny. Really, he doesn’t come here at all. Some will say that Evo just won’t give him a visa. But he didn’t come when Goni was in charge either.

On a handful of street corners here there are women selling piles of small chocolate eggs wrapped in colored foil. There are even some foil-wrapped bunnies on the pile as well, though not many. I am leery of these, because I am betting that a lot are leftover from the unsold piles of last year, or from 2003. My coworker Leny tells me that no one here really knows what the eggs are about, pero son lindos y los niños les gusta. So it begins.

Nope, in Bolivia it just isn’t about the bunny. More so it looks like this.

Last night people filled the streets of Cochabamba to visit the twelve churches. The streets are jammed with people walking and almost as many others selling them carmel apples, api, and other treats. Not even a light rain hampered the tradition. Today many families will gather for the traditional meal of the “doce platos,” the twelve plates. Not a single one of those plates will include meat, for reasons good Catholics will understand. Yesterday’s occasional piles of tiny chocolate eggs seemed out done by much larger piles of some sort of dried shrimp that is part of the menu.

Okay, I lied before. The Easter Bunny does come to Bolivia. He or she (the gender of the Easter Bunny has never been clearly established) comes in illegally, sin visa, to keep a handful of children in foreign families happy. The Easter Bunny vs. La Migra.

To entice her or his undocumented arrival today we will color hard-boiled eggs. Then we will hide them around the yard along with a very large quantity of tiny chocolate eggs. Then a group of very eager children of various nationalities will run as fast as they can to fund them. In keeping with tradition I will follow the littlest ones around and make tiny chocolate eggs wrapped in foil miraculously appear in front of their tiny feet.

To be sure there is some cultural confusion in this. Last year when my wife invited the parents of one of my daughter’s friends at school to join us, a Bolivian family, she explained that we were going to color hardboiled eggs. That translates “tenir juevos duros.” He thought she said, “tener juegos duros,” which translates differently to, “We are going to play hard games.” He came prepared for a battle of U.S. style football but found himself dipping eggs in a coffee cup with blue dye.

I was particularly proud of my egg entry last year, which had a crayon drawn face that looked just like Bolivia’s President. I called it, “Evo el Huevo.” No one else was particularly impressed.

And as in the U.S., on Saturday night we will leave carrots out on a plate for the Easter Bunny’s certain appetite after so far a journey. And in the morning small footprints that resemble chalk marks (but they are real, they aren’t made of chalk) will wander about the floors and walls of our house tracing where the Mr. or Ms. Bunny may have hid a basket. I have noticed that as my children have grown older the Bunny finds harder and harder places to hide these baskets. By the time you hit my age they are impossible to find altogether, but I still look.

Okay, there you have it – a cold and academic comparative analysis of Easter traditions in the U.S. and Latin America. It is important that we take these things seriously.

Hey, “Evo the Huevo.” Get it?

Happy Easter to all Our Readers!


Evo on Hunger Strike Over Election Rules

The new Bolivian constitution approved by more than 60% of voters in January mandates new Presidential and Congressional elections this coming December. But the precise rules that will govern that election are still in dispute, with all sides jockeying for rules that will play to their political advantage.

Yesterday, following a heated debate in the Congress, President Morales announced that he will go on a hunger strike to pressure the opposition-controlled Senate to approve the legislation required for the elections to proceed. Here are the dispatches, all solid, from AP, Reuters and Bloomberg.

At issue are such debates as whether Bolivians living abroad will be eligible to vote – a huge population and one likely sympathetic to Morales – and how Congress will implement the new constitution’s requirement that a dozen congressional seats be set aside for indigenous representatives, another key Morales base.

Morales opponents charge that he is using the hunger strike, and a threatened mobilization of his base to surround the Congress, as coercion against them. Morales backers say that his opponents are blocking implementation of popular will as expressed over and over again at the ballot box.

In reality, this is just the latest round of heated debate over the political rules of the game in country where the forces of politics are in the midst of historic changes.

In 2006 and 2007 the opposition tried to shut down the country over the rules governing the Constituent Assembly, with crowds in the street used to shut down the Assembly altogether. Before that it was Morales and his allies who used those tactics against Presidents Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa on issues such as gas and oil exportation, making the country ungovernable under their watch.

Both sides use the powers at their disposal to gain an upper hand. In the end a compromise of some sort will be reached and the elections will be held. If current polls hold true, Morales will likely win that vote by the same landslide with which he won in December 2005.

But the real issue facing the country – how to create economic opportunity with dignity for all Bolivians – will remain the same.


Monday, April 06, 2009

The Cochabamba Water War and its Aftermath

This week marks nine years since Cochabamba's now-famous Water Revolt. It was during this week, in April 2000, that thousands of people – rural, urban, poor, middle class, young and not so young – took to the streets to reclaim their public water system from a foreign corporation, Bechtel.

The story of the Cochabamba Water Revolt has been retold many times in many ways these past nine years, in articles, films, book chapters, and in enough graduate theses to fill a room. The Democracy Center had the honor of writing the story first, from the middle of that violent yet inspiring April almost a decade ago.

Last year when I put the finishing touches on my chapter on the Water Revolt for our new book, Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization (UC Press), I knew that whatever I had to say or write about the Water Revolt I had said or written. That rule still abides.

Two Basic Facts

But because the story of the Water Revolt and its aftermath is so much more complicated than the myth of the Water Revolt, I want to use this anniversary to put the reality of that story back before our readers. And in my view that reality basically comes down to two things:

1. The Cochabamba Water Revolt was and remains a powerful David and Goliath struggle in which some of the most humble people in the world took on the forces of the World Bank, Bechtel, and a former dictator, Hugo Banzer, and took back a resource essential to life – their water.

2. Nine years later the public company reborn from that revolt, SEMAPA, is marked by an ongoing history of mismanagement and corruption which, combined with Cochabamba's rapid population growth, has left much if the city without the basic water they need and deserve.

In other words, Cochabambinos won the war in the streets but lost the battle to have honest and competent water service. In my chapter on the Water Revolt I was frank about this paradox, and have continued to be in my recent talks in the U.S.

Thanks to our publisher, University of California Press, the entirety of that chapter is posted on the Internet and can be read here. Below I am going to publish a few excerpts from that chapter to stimulate debate. But as I said, the story is complicated and if you want to know my complete analysis, you really have to read the whole chapter instead of taking bits and pieces out of context, as many might be tempted to do.

For those interested in more on the Water Revolt, here are some useful links:

The Democracy Center's full links to our work on the Water Revolt

The Democracy Center's Reports from the Street in 2000

A lengthy report in last Sunday's edition of the Cochabamba daily, Los Tiempos

The Bechtel Corporations Comments on the Water Revolt

William Finnegan's excellent 2002 New Yorker article on the Water Revolt

Excerpts from: The Cochabamba Water Revolt and Its Aftermath in Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization (UC Press)

The Revolt Begins – January and February 2000

If there remained any question whether residents of the city would rise up as people in the countryside had done, those doubts were swept away quickly in January 2000, thanks to Bechtel’s Cochabamba subsidiary. Just weeks after taking over the city’s water, Bechtel’s company handed users their monthly bills, complete with a spiffy new Aguas del Tunari logo and rate increases that averaged more than 50%, and in some cases much higher. For years afterwards, Bechtel officials would continue to lie about the extent of their rate increases, claiming that the price hikes on the poorest were at most 10%.[i] An analysis using Bechtel’s own data shows that the increases for the poorest averaged 43%.”[ii]

For two days Cochabamba’s graceful colonial center turned into a war zone. Every block leading to the plaza was converted into a battlefield. At one end police outfitted in full riot gear blocked the streets with tear gas cannons. At the other end, protestors – young people, old people, poor and middle class – held their ground with rocks and slingshots. Many wore an impromptu uniform of vinegar-soaked bandanas over the mouth and nose, and baking soda under the eyes to protect them from the gas. The doors of middle class homes would suddenly open up and water and bowls of food would appear, an offering of support to those standing up to the government in the streets.

Then on the afternoon of Monday, April 10, the government made an announcement. Officials of Bechtel’s company, who sat out days of violence watching it on television in a five star hotel and insisting they wouldn’t leave, had fled to the airport and left the country. The Bolivian government declared the contract canceled, saying in a letter to Bechtel’s people, “Given that the directors of your enterprise have left the city of Cochabamba and were not to be found…said contract is rescinded.”


Impacts on Bolivian Politics

In Bolivia, the Water Revolt ignited a chain of events that provoked historic political and social change. For almost two decades Bolivian economics had been dominated by the Washington Consensus, market-driven policies pushed by the World Bank and the IMF and carried out by national leadership that was fiercely obedient to those policies. The Water Revolt shook those arrangements to their core.

“We have always repeated those slogans ‘Death to the World Bank,’ ‘Death to the IMF,’ ‘Down with Yankee imperialism,’” said Olivera. “But I believe that it is the first time that the people understood in a direct way how the policies of the World Bank, free trade, free markets, is putting us at such a disadvantage among the most powerful countries.”[iii]


Bechtel Strikes Back

In November 2002, a year and a half after they were forced out of Bolivia, Bechtel and its co-investors struck back. In Washington, in a secretive international trade court run by the World Bank, Bechtel’s water subsidiary filed a legal demand for $50 million – a prize equal to what it costs to run the Cochabamba water company for seven years.[iv]

For Bechtel, the World Bank trade court was an ideal forum, for both its secrecy and the long distance between it and the rebellious Bolivians who had caused them so much trouble. Hearings by ICSID tribunals are strictly closed-door. Neither members of the media nor the citizens who would ultimately pay a settlement are allowed to know when the tribunal meets, where it meets, who testifies, or what they say. The process assumes that the only representation that Bolivians needed was from the Washington law firm hired by the Bolivian government.

The campaign also took its demands directly to ICSID. In September 2002, with the legal support of Earth Justice, Water Revolt leaders formally requested legal status to join the case. That demand was backed by an International Citizens Petition endorsed by more than 300 organizations from 43 countries, calling on the World Bank trade court to open the case to public scrutiny and participation. The case that Bechtel hoped would be quietly settled in its favor behind closed doors had become a major public story.

On January 19, 2006 representatives for Bechtel and its co-investors arrived in Bolivia. Sitting next to officials of the government, they signed a formal agreement in which they abandoned their $50 million demand for a token payment of two Bolivianos (30 cents). Bolivia’s lead negotiator, Eduardo Valdivia, explained why Bechtel had finally decided to drop their case. “The CEO [Riley Bechtel] personally intervened,” he said. “He told his lawyers that the case wasn’t worth the damage to the company’s reputation.”[v] It was the first time that a major corporation had ever dropped an international investment case as a direct result of global public pressure.

The People Take Over – But Not Really

In its first few months, SEMAPA enjoyed a wave of public goodwill. It rolled back rates to their pre-Bechtel levels and water customers quickly began paying their overdue water bills, refilling the company coffers that Bechtel’s representatives had drained during their brief tenure. Bechtel’s company left behind, among other things, an unpaid $90,000 electric bill. Coordinadora leaders also rode a wave of public popularity and received a stream of offers of technical assistance from public sector water managers across the U.S. and Canada. Public companies under privatization pressures there knew that SEMAPA’s success or failure would have a significant impact on the global water privatization debate and they wanted Cochabamba’s public company to succeed.

The one major reform that the Coordinadora did take up and did win, partially at least, was having a portion of the company’s board of directors elected directly from the community. But when the first elections were held in April 2002 to select those community members, less than 4% of eligible voters went to the polls. In a city where, just two years earlier, people had taken to the streets by the thousands and risked their lives to take back their water, there was virtually no public interest in the nuts and bolts of running the water company.

Soon afterwards, the Coordinadora technical team disbanded, and Coordinadora leaders shifted their sights beyond SEMAPA. Some focused on working directly with neighborhoods on water development projects. Some ran and won election to Congress. Others took up new national battles such as the demand for taking back control of the nation’s oil and gas. Over time, the water company’s management and performance began to draw all the same complaints as it did before privatization – inefficiency, corruption, and the padding of the payroll by the union representing SEMAPA workers.


Unsolved Problems

Water experts who know SEMAPA well say that the company has failed to address its two biggest problems. In a valley still deeply thirsty for water, SEMAPA loses about 55% of the water it has to leaks in the pipes and to clandestine hook-ups. And despite a steady flow of financial support from international donors and lenders, including the Japanese government and the IDB, the company still doesn’t have a sustainable financing plan in place.

One water expert familiar with SEMAPA’s internal workings blames the problems on mismanagement. “It is an organization that is completely dysfunctional. They don’t generate enough income to cover their costs and they are letting the system deteriorate.”



Water privatization should not be held out as a matter of economic theology, something unchallengeable, by either its proponents or its critics. Privatization in general is not inherently good or evil. The debate is in the details. In Bolivia, there is a spiritual objection, among many, to ever putting water, the blood of the earth, into corporate hands. But in the case of water, that spiritual opposition to privatization also happens to be backed by experience and analysis. As a practical policy, water privatization suffers four huge problems.

The first is the natural way in which it prices water beyond what low-income people can afford. The World Bank is an advocate of “market pricing” of water and in the Cochabamba case it directly argued against subsidies that might have made water affordable for the city’s poorest families.[vi] In nations both impoverished and wealthy, people with low incomes cannot afford the actual market cost for basic services. In the U.S., states commonly provide “lifeline rates,” subsidizing everything from electricity to basic phone service. In Cochabamba, privatization and Bechtel’s profit demands priced water out of reach for many families.

The second problem is the distance that privatization puts between water users and those who make the real decisions. How is a teacher, or seamstress, or a farmer in Cochabamba supposed to have any measure of influence on a major foreign corporation a hemisphere away? For all of the public company’s faults, at least in Cochabamba today, when people want to complain they know where to go and they get attention. Bechtel proved immune even to bloodshed.

Third, privatization opponents are justified in worrying about the protection of workers rights. While there is certainly, in Cochabamba, a clear record of the water company union taking too much control, labor rights still matter and private companies are by nature, far less interested in those rights than public companies.

Lastly, it is important to note that while World Bank officials evidently deemed the Bolivian government insufficiently competent to run its public water systems, it acted as if that same government was sufficiently competent to negotiate a handover of its water to a huge foreign corporation and to capably regulate that corporation’s work. This too proved false theory.

Photo by Thomas Kruse.

[i] “Cochabamba and the Aguas del Tunari Consortium,” Bechtel Corp., San Francisco, CA, March 2005, p. 3,
[ii] See, “Bechtel Vs. Bolivia the Water Rate Hikes By Bechtel’s Bolivian Company,” at:
[iii] “Leasing the Rain.”
[iv] The $50 million figure comes from a January 10, 2007 interview by the author with Eduardo Valdivia, the Bolivian government’s chief negotiator on the case.
[v] Interview with the author, Cochabamba, January 2006.
[vi] “Bolivia Public Expenditure Review, executive summary,” World Bank, Washington, DC, June 14, 1999, p. 1.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Thank You Huffington Post

Well, ironies abound.

Let's begin with a pop quiz. Here are two news stories that came out of Bolivia yesterday. Which one is the April Fools Day joke?

A) In a World Cup qualifying match Bolivia's national soccer team beat Argentina (the most recent winner of the Olympic gold medal in soccer) 6 to 1.

B) President Evo Morales accused the U.S. embassy of a conspiracy to force his country to adopt Daylight Savings Time.

Correct answer: b

Yes, it's true, our farcical annual April Fools offering (see below), featuring cooked up e-mails between U.S. Embassy staff and a Photo Shopped image of Morales with a large clock was taken by some as actual news. That includes the usually credible Huffington Post, which ran it as a news story. That in turn tripled visits to the Democracy Center Web site, to more than 8,500 people yesterday. The HP has since been alerted and altered the post to note that it is an April Fools joke, not in time however to prevent the spread of it as real news across about 100 Web sites.

Thank you Huffington Post. Now could you please review our new book?

Note to the Media: For 364 days a year the Democracy Center is, in fact, a reliable source of analysis and information. But on April 1, beware; we are out to get you. We just never thought we actually would. Really, anyone who knows Lindsey Phillips at the Embassy knows she sounds smarter than that. [Good luck to you and Ronnie if you read this. Sorry for getting you kicked out and have a safe trip home.]

Also, all those who clicked on the "more information" link at the bottom of our post were treated to the icon above.

A Democracy Center Tradition

Our annual April Fool's Blog began four years ago, an innocent offering entitled, US and World Bank Push Bolivian Rock Export Program:

The US Embassy and the World Bank announced joint plans today to help Bolivia launch a program to export the nation’s rocks to other countries. Under the plan, “The Andean Rock Export Initiative”, the US and the Bank hope that Bolivia can begin exporting as many as 750,000 rocks by the end of this year, doubling that figure in 2006. “It has been noted in the research for a decade that each nation needs to integrate itself into the global economy based on its particular competitive advantages,” said a Bank spokesman, Richard Fuller. “In Bolivia’s case that is rocks. Bolivia has a lot of rocks.”

It brought the following rebuke from a reader: "You are a bitch. I read that entire blog for a paper i'm writing on Bolivia only to find out that you crafted some hoity-toity false-blog disgusts me. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. This paper is sorely lacking citations, and even though I'm sure your blog has many more well written, intensely informational information, I will not read them."

Some people have no sense of humor. But I hope his paper on rock export initiatives turned out okay.

The next year we went with, Evo Morales to Marry Woman from US:

The news that Morales – who during the elections referred to himself famously as, “The US’ worst nightmare” – would marry a US citizen provoked a variety of public reactions. “We knew that the new government was seeking cordial relations with the US,” joked US Ambassador David Greenlee. “We just didn’t know how cordial.”

That brought this comment: "Arrrrg! I was half-way through emailing friends at the Jackson school (at UW) too! You'd think with all the other 4/1 stuff going on I would have picked up on it sooner."

In 2007 we ran what was a very popular spoof, Bolivian Government Announces New Visa Rules for US Visitors, which featured a lovely cooked photo of then-U.S. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg wearing a red, white, and blue striped "Evo Sweater." The article reported that the new visa requirements for U.S. visitors would include purchase of the iconic sweater:

To be honest, when we heard about the sweater we were taken aback. To our knowledge no other government in the world requires visitors to purchase a specific garment on entry or to be photographed wearing it," Goldberg said at a US Embassy new conference. "But, if you think about it, it's actually a good deal. Bolivians seeking an entry visa to the US have to pay $114 just to be interviewed and most of them only get a DHL receipt, a cold wait in line in front of the Embassy and a rejection slip. And the sweaters really are attractive."

Some readers were taken in by that one: "Jim...damn good!! I read it late Sunday and then called my local Bolivian consulate this morning.. in a panic as I am coming in 48 hours. Once they informed I was insane, it dawned on me....."

One Embassy staffer told me later that it quickly made the e-mail rounds there as soon as it was posted.

Last year we dipped into the always-humorous territory of the U.S.' former Vice-President with, Morales and Cheney Announce Halliburton to Takeover Santa Cruz. It featured a very fine doctored shot of Cheney with Morales:

Santa Cruz governor Ruben Costas appeared side-by-side with the President to endorse the plan. “Santa Cruz is a hard working region and a prosperous one. We believe that by merging that eagerness to work with Halliburton’s well-established management expertise, we can bring new growth and efficiency across the department.” Under the agreement the position of Governor will be abolished in Santa Cruz and Costas will assume the title of “Regional Director” under the supervision of a Halliburton management committee based in Houston.

That one provoked mixed reactions, including these two:

Nice photoshop work! Texas will love Las Magnificas.

retarded waste of time. get a life, loser

Like I said, some people just don't have a sense of humor.

April Fools Day Lessons

It's a great holiday, really, April Fools. My oldest daughter, when she was little, used to call it, "Madeyoulook" Day. It was because the kids at school were always telling you that you had a spider or other bug on you and would then squeal, "made you look!"

Jokes within a family are more touchy. Here is a word to the wise: Make the joke about bad news that isn't true, not about good news that you will have to take back.

A few years ago I sent a note to my entire family announceing that we were moving back to California, making up some mumbo jumbo about getting a teaching job at UC Berkeley. I followed it up a few minutes later with notie that it was an April Fools joke. Not long after I got a rare long distance phone call from my older brother: "Smooth move bro'. I just got off the phone with our mother who was in tears."

So this year I sent my family and e-mail with the subject line: It was scary for all of us, but I am okay.

I just spent two hairy days in a Bolivian jail. It was mostly my fault. I was in town on my way back to my office Monday morning and sort of distracted. I jay walked, as I sometimes do, across the big street around the corner and managed to do it right in front of a Bolivian cop who must have been having a crappy day. Anyway, he stopped me and asked to see my identification. But it was in my backpack in my office. When he made a fuss about it I made a fuss about it back (wrong move). Next thing I knew he waved over a police car parked a half block away and another cop grabbed me on the arm and pushed me in.

No one fell for it this time. But my nephew in California has a sensible reaction: "You have way too much time on your hands!!"

Okay, that's all for this year. But next year (you too Huffington Post), be on guard. But Bolivia really did squash Argentina yesterday. That's no joke.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Morales Charges U.S. Conspiracy to Force Bolivia onto Daylight Savings Time

President Evo Morales, equipped with a wall clock as a prop, charged Tuesday that the U.S. Embassy in La Paz is engaged in clandestine effort to coerce Bolivia to adopt Daylight Savings Time, moving the nation's clocks forward and backward an hour in coordination with the U.S.

To back his claim Morales released a set of intercepted e-mail messages between the Embassy and State Department officials in Washington.

"We have seen the government of the U.S. try to undermine our democracy, block us from the lawful export of coca products, and smuggle in munitions. But now we see that these conspirators also have their sights set on changing our clocks. We denounce this before the world community."

Morales also declared an Embassy clerical worker, Lindsey Phillips, to be persona-non-grata, making her the fourth Embassy official to be sent home by the Bolivian government. Citing the intercepted e-mails, Morales charged that Phillips was leading the effort to change his nation's clocks, and that she had "clear and ongoing contact" with regional opposition groups to gain their support to promote the plan.

Morales also charged that USIAD was using its funding to engineer support for the change from domestic political organizations, and demanded a full accounting from Embassy officials.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Susan Richards denied the charge. "The United States has always maintained that the decision of what time to keep is a sovereign one that must be made by each nation according to its own values."

She added that the latest charge by Morales seemed to be an attempt by the Bolivian government to distract public attention from recent charges of corruption against his administration, as well as a potential loss Wednesday by the Bolivian national soccer team in a World Cup qualifying match against Argentina. "The Morales government's proclivity to link these charges to key sporting events, unfortunately, is well-known."

Intercepted Embassy E-mails

While Bolivian officials have yet to publicly release the intercepted e-mails cited, through an anonymous source the Democracy Center was able to secure excerpts from three of them.

One of the e-mails, dated last September, is from Ms. Phillips to a State Department colleague, Rachel Larson, in which Phillips blamed Bolivia's refusal to adopt Daylight Savings Time for a missed teleconference with Washington.

Subject: wednesadayssuck
Date: Wed, 24 Sep 2008 14:20:44 -0400

Ugggh, I am so utterly bummed. I was supposed to do a video Skype today with my boyfriend, Ronnie, you remember the one – so hot, that clerk in legal affairs with the biceps. We set it for noon when that %&*hole I work for is off for one of his looooong Bolivian lunches and can't see me using the computer for "personal business." And geeeeze, this dumb country isn’t even on the same time as Washington. It is like an entire hour ahead, so I missed him completely. $%it, forget all this War on Drugs stuff. Let's change that, no?


The second e-mail excerpt secured by the Democracy Center includes an exchange between Phillips and a State Department employee, Ronald Duncan, that according to Morales demonstrates the Embassy's collaboration with regional opposition groups:


Subject: Mr. Santa Cruz
Date: Fri, 13 Mar 2009 10:38:51 -0500

So, I hear from Rachel that you are still seeing that guy in Santa Cruz. What's with that? She says you were all over his arm at Epocruz, and got so trashed at his house on Carnival that you thought Alexanders was a disco! I saw his ugly mug on your Facebook page. So maybe I'll still come for spring break or maybe I won't. Not if I hear you're still seeing that guy."


The source of the USAID charge is a December 2008 e-mail from Lawrence Fordham, a USAID accountant in La Paz, to the accounting manager at a Bolivian non-governmental organization, RECIBIMOS:

Subject: Re: December receipts
Date: Thu, 18 Dec 2008 11:17:23 -0400

Thank you for the prompt reply to my request for receipts, and your kind wishes for my family. We are enjoying the warm summer days now, a welcome break from the freezing cold out first months here. But my children, especially little Eric, really miss the long summer days we used to have in Virginia. Especially with the clocks set forward, my kids could stay out until 9pm playing and it would still be light. Hey, you ought to try out Daylight Savings Time here, no?


When pressed by reporters at his La Paz news conference about how his government obtained the e-mails, Morales explained that his intelligence services had infiltrated the Embassy's computer system through the technicians brought in to address a series of problems created by the Embassy's switchover last month to Windows Vista.

"The North Americans, it turns out, aren't so smart after all. We sent in my cousin Luis with a flash drive and he got everything. That's why in our government we have used revenue from the new taxes on foreign oil companies to switch everyone over to Macs."

Reaction to Charges is Widespread

In Caracas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced his country's solidarity against "the conspiracy by the empire to manipulate the comings and goings of our Bolivian brothers and sisters." Chavez then issued an executive decree setting all of the nation's clocks forward by 37 minutes, "to demonstrate our refusal to be a party to the U.S. government's iron-handed attempt to force other nations to synchronize themselves to U.S. time and U.S. policies."

Following the Morales announcement, Democracy Center staff interviewed a handful of Cochabamba residents on Calle Heroinas, to sample local reaction the news.

"Que lio es esto!" replied nut seller Oscar Nunez. "Change our clocks, I don't understand."

Lidia Flores, a marketing student at the University of San Simon, seemed puzzled at first, but then added. "If the U.S. is going to buy me a watch then okay. I don't mind it so much. What kind of watch are they going to buy me? A good one, no?"

Labor leader Ronaldo Quispe declared that the move by the U.S. was an outrageous intrusion against Bolivian rights. "La hora Boliviana is very important in our culture. We talk about it all the time. 'Oh I am late, I am on la hora Boliviana." He announced an immediate blockade of the highway between Cochabamba and La Paz to protest the plan.

[Note from Jim Shultz: Hey folks, I just noticed that a handful of Blogs have cross-posted this item as genuine news. FYI, this is an April Fool's joke, though I can see how the authenticity of the Embassy e-mails may have fooled people (okay, that's a joke too). But many thanks to Lindsey Phillips at the Embassy for her cooperation. And by the way, space aliens are on their way to Earth tonight -- either to Cincinatti or Sucre. They haven't decided yet, or so my alien sources tell me. Happy April Fools!]