Bolivia’s War Over Water

Dispatches from the Scene: February-April 2000

In early April of 2000 the often-forgot country of Bolivia, tucked away in the Andes, grabbed the world’s attention when the city of Cochabamba erupted in a public uprising over water prices. In 1999, under coercion from the World Bank,  Bolivia granted a 40 year privatization lease to a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation, giving it control over the water on which more than half a million people survive. Immediately the company raised rates by an average of 50% and in many cases much more.

Writing directly from the scene, the Democracy Center’s executive director, Jim Shultz, captured the developments of this story as it broke, in a series of dispatches and articles that circulated to thousands around the world.  The reports shared top honors that year from Project Censored. These dispatches have been excerpted below, and they can be found in their entirety here.

February 4, 2000

A WAR OVER WATER

I’ve decided that the term “tear gas” doesn’t quite capture the real experience involved. Even from close to a block away the white smoke pouring from the canister causes severe burning to your eyes and throat and immediately empties your nose of whatever snot you’ve accumulated for months. At ground zero the gas makes you vomit and nearly lose consciousness. Sometimes the canister projectiles hit people and split their heads open. Fortunately, this morning I found myself suffering from just the burning eyes and running nose class of symptoms. This morning tear gas was the Bolivian government’s official response to a huge popular revolt here, over something very basic: water. At this writing, local news stations report one person dead (from a tear gas canister to the head) and at least thirty-five hospitalized.

When Water Becomes A Vehicle For Profit

In recent years “privatization” has become an economic theology in Latin America, driven by a set of commandments written by the U.S., and the U.S.-dominated lenders, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The commandments are simple. Thou shalt sell your public enterprises to private corporations and investors, almost always from abroad. Thou shalt allow those new owners to do what they will with prices, wages and products. In exchange, supposedly, those businesses will receive a fresh transfusion of foreign capital (and the IMF and World Bank won’t cut off your international loans). Bolivia’s most recent governments have been very obedient to these foreign commandments, selling off everything from the national airline to the electricity system.

But then there was water. Last year the Bolivian government sold off Cochabamba’s public water system to a pool of British-led investors who promised to pour millions of new dollars into expansion and improvement. Last month the owners raised up their new signs (“Aguas de Tunari”) on all their facilities and also raised up something else: water prices, in many cases by more than double. Our own water bill, for example, leapt from $12 per month in December to nearly $30 in January. Similar increases hit almost everyone we know.

By U.S. standards that may not be much, but for the many Bolivian families who often earn as little as $100 per month, these increases were catastrophic. Cochabambinos, who had paid scant attention to the deal when it was being worked out behind closed doors, were sent into shock and into action.

In mid-January a four-day “paro civico” (general strike) over the water price hikes left the city at a total standstill – no cars, no buses, no air flights or bus transport in or out of the city. It was the kind of action that can only happen with broad popular support and it culminated in a mass march to the city’s central plaza as thousands of angry water users, urban and rural, gathered and chanted just outside the windows of the government offices where protest leaders and officials were negotiating. Some of those in the talks were reportedly worried that the crowd might break down the door if they didn’t emerge with some acceptable agreement. In the end what they agreed to was time, to talk more.

A Peaceful March Met By Riot Police

Today was the deadline for those talks, to be marked by a peaceful mass march once again to the city’s center. Last night the Bolivian government issued its response, sending more than 1,000 army and police in from outside Cochabamba and declaring the march banned and illegal, an especially loaded act from a President, Hugo Banzer, who in the 1970s had ruled for 7 years as an unelected dictator, Bolivia’s companion to Augusto Pinochet. One of the protest’s organizers, labor leader Oscar Olivera, publicly declared that the government’s response was, “an expression of fascism that reflects a total incapacity of the government to have a dialogue.” The government officially retorted that the marchers were just fringe troublemakers, not representative of the people of Cochabamba, and that the water increases had really been minor. Officials also asserted that the show of force was aimed at protecting “the public”, an odd claim since it is the public that is marching.

 

March 23, 2000

BOLIVIAN TROOPS AND U.S. TEAR GAS

For two days, while popular leaders and government officials held tense negotiations, police showered tear gas and rubber bullets on rock-wielding protesters, men and women, young and old, poor and middle class. More than 175 protesters were injured and two youths blinded. Almost all the tear gas used was manufactured in the U.S. and Embassy officials here acknowledge that the U.S. has donated gas here before to use against protesters.

Water Or Food?

Tanya Paredes is a mother of five who supports her family as a clothes knitter. Her water bill went up in January from $5 per month to nearly $20, an increase equal to what it costs her to feed her family for a week and a half. “What we pay for water comes out of what we have to pay for food, clothes and the other things we need to buy for our children,” she explains. It is worth noting that well-paid World Bank economists in Washington will now pay less for water than Paredes, about $17 per month, what they might spend on one dinner in a Georgetown bistro.

Price hikes like these made support for the protests wide spread. “Everyone took a role,” says Oscar Olivera, the Cochabamba labor leader who has become the protests most visible leader. “Youth were on the front lines, the elderly made roadblocks.” When protest leaders called on the radio for a citywide transportation stoppage in response to the police takeover downtown crackdown, little old women with bent spines were out in the streets within minutes, building blockades with branches and rocks.

The February uprisings forced government officials to promises a full rate rollback and a review of the water company contract, a pact that movement leaders want annulled entirely. “We’re questioning that others, the World Bank, international business, should be deciding these basic issues for us,” says Olivera. “For us, that is democracy.”

 

April 7, 2000

BOLIVIAN PROTESTERS WIN WAR OVER WATER

In a stunning concession to four days of massive public uprisings, the Bolivian government announced late Friday afternoon that it was breaking the contract it signed last year that sold the region’s water system to a consortium of British-led investors.

La Coordinadora, a civil alliance created to organize during the protests, has begun to scrutinize the water contract and the finances behind the water company’s new owners. While the actual financial arrangements remain mostly hidden, the city’s leading daily newspaper reported that investors paid the government less than $20,000 of up front capital for a water system worth millions.

Amid charges of corruption and collusion in the contract by some of the officials who approved it last year, La Coordinadora announced what it called la última batalla (the final battle), demanding that the government break the contract and return the water system to public hands. The group had set Tuesday as the deadline for action.

Government water officials warned that private investors were needed to secure the millions of dollars needed to expand this growing region’s water system. They argued that breaking the contract would entitle the owners to a $12 million compensation fee, and pleaded for public patience to give the new owners time to show the benefits of their experience.

Among the vast majority of Cochabamba water users, however, that patience had run out. Two weeks ago, an inquiry surveyed more than 60,000 local residents about the water issue and more than 90 percent voted that the government should break the contract. During one of the marches this week protesters stopped at the water company’s offices, tearing down the new “Aguas del Tunari” sign erected just three months ago.

Protesters Arrested

A crowd of nearly 500 surrounded the government building where negotiations, convened by the Roman Catholic archbishop, were taking place between protest leaders and government officials. In the middle of negotiations, the government ordered the arrest of 15 La Coordinadora leaders and others present in the meeting.

“We were talking with the mayor, the governor, and other civil leaders when the police came in and arrested us,” said Olivera, La Coordinadora’s most visible leader. “It was a trap by the government to have us all together, negotiating, so that we could be arrested.”

In response, thousands of city and rural residents filled the city’s central plaza opposite the government building, carrying sticks, rocks and handkerchiefs to help block the anticipated tear gas. Television and radio reports speculated all day that the president would declare martial law, and there were reports of army units arriving at the city’s airport.

Freed from jail early Friday morning, the leaders of water protests agreed to a 4 p.m. meeting with the government, called by the archbishop. At 5 p.m., government officials still had not arrived and the plaza crowd waited tensely for the expected arrival of the army.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the archbishop walked into the meeting and announced that the government had just told him that it had agreed to break the water contract. Jubilant La Coordinadora leaders crossed the street to a third-floor balcony, announcing the victory to the thousands waiting below, many waving the red-green-and-yellow Bolivian flag, as the bells of the city’s cathedral echoed through the city center. “We have arrived at the moment of an important economic victory,” Olivera told the ecstatic crowd.

 

April 8, 2000

BOLIVIA UNDER MARTIAL LAW

As of 10 am Saturday morning Bolivia was declared to be under martial law by President Hugo Banzer. The drastic move follows, by just hours, the surprise announcement by state officials yesterday afternoon that the government would concede to the protests’ main demands.  The concession was quickly reversed by the national government, and the local governor resigned, explaining that he didn’t want to take responsibility for bloodshed that might result.

Banzer has taken an action that suspends almost all civil rights, disallows gatherings of more than four people and puts severe limits on freedom of the press. One after another, local radio stations have been taken over by military forces or forced off the air. The neighborhood where most of the city’s broadcast antennas are located had its power shut off at approximately noon local time.

Through the night police searched homes for members of the widely backed water protests, arresting as many as twenty. The local police chief has been instated by the President Banzer to sit as governor of the state. Blockades erected by farmers in rural areas continue across the country, cutting off some cities from food and transportation. Large crowds of angry residents, many armed with sticks and rocks are massing on the city’s center where confrontations with military and police are escalating.

 

April 9, 2000

BLOODSHED UNDER BOLIVIAN MARTIAL LAW

During the second day of martial law protests continued and hundreds gathered to bury the body of a 17-year-old boy killed by the Bolivian army. Reports from local press and from human rights monitors place the death toll here at least three and more than 30 others injured. Victor Hugo Daza, the 17 year old, was killed just blocks from the city center by a bullet wound to the head. Local press reports also identified 17 protest leaders arrested and flown to a remote jungle prison, under the government’s martial law actions. Soldiers continue to occupy the city’s center.

The main leader of the Cochabamba water protest, labor leader Oscar Olivera,, said Sunday that the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation shares the blame for the deaths and injuries here. According to the corporation’s Web site, Bechtel is one of the primary investors behind the privatized water company, Aguas Del Tunari and its corporate parent International Water Limited. “The blood spilled in Cochabamba carries the fingerprints of Bechtel,” said Olivera.

Late this afternoon it was reported that a high ranking Bolivian official responsible for water matters, has announced that the Bechtel affiliate had decided to leave Bolivia. The news, absent a written agreement, is being viewed with skepticism by water protest leaders.

A high level delegation representing the national government is expected to arrive in Cochabamba Monday for negotiations to resolve the water conflict, though it remains unclear if the leaders of the official “Coordinadora” that leads the water protests, since most are under arrest or in hiding.

 

April 10, 2000

PROTESTS AND VIOLENCE CONTINUES IN BOLIVIA AS SIDES SEEK AGREEMENT TO END CRISIS

The enormous uprising here has sparked parallel protests across the nation including a police strike in La Paz, the nation’s capital, and marches by farmers regarding water, roads and other local issues.

Those leaders of the Cochabamba water protest who were not arrested and jailed over the weekend came out of hiding today to begin a new round of negotiations with secondary level officials of the national government. Late this afternoon details of an accord were released to the media and public which includes, among others, the following components: a) an agreement that the Bechtel affiliate, Aguas del Tunari, will leave the country; b) that the dozens of civic leaders arrested over the weekend will be released; c) the government will approve reform of the national water law that is the object of rural protests over maintaining local water control; d) financial compensation for the families of at least six people killed in the past week and scores of others injured.

Women from various neighborhoods are going door-to-door gathering food and cooking for the thousands of protesters in the plaza.

 

April 11, 2000

WHILE BOLIVIA SAYS BECHTEL AGREEMENT IS BROKEN BECHTEL SAYS IT’S STAYING

The weeklong civil unrest sparked by water privatization that paralyzed much of Bolivia began to come to an end Tuesday morning following a signed agreement between protest leaders and the government. However, the agreement is now in dispute due to a communication just released by the Bechtel Corporation and it’s London partner, International Waters Limited.

Central to that agreement is a Monday letter from Bolivia’s Superintendent of Basic Sanitation to Geoffrey Thorpe, the head of Bechtel’s subsidiary, “Aguas del Tunari”. The letter states that, because Thorpe and other company officials have now left Bolivia the government is retaking control over Cochabamba’s water system and “I communicate to you that said contract [between the company and the government] is rescinded.”

However, early Tuesday Bechtel released a statement declaring, “We are having urgent discussions with local leaders to determine an appropriate resolution to the water shortage problems facing the Cochabamba region. We remain flexible in our approach and hopeful that the government and community can reach consensus on a solution that allows the water delivery system to be expanded and improved.”  The text placed the blame for civil unrest on “a government crackdown on coca-leaf production” and “unemployment and other economic difficulties facing Bolivian citizens.”

 

April 12, 2000

BLAME THE BECHTEL CORP. NOT NARCOTRAFFICKERS FOR BOLIVIA UPRISING

Bolivian government spokesman, Ronald MacLean, told the few international reporters here Monday, “I want to denounce the subversive attitude absolutely politically financed by narco-traffickers.”

For reporters and editors who have never been here it may be an easy line to swallow, but it would take about two minutes on the ground to figure out how big a lie the Bolivian government seeks to spin. The issue in the past week’s uprisings had nothing to do with drugs, it was about water. The culprits weren’t narcotraffickers hiding out in the jungle but the well-tailored executives of the Bechtel Corporation sitting smugly in their downtown San Francisco offices a hemisphere away.

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