Cochabamba!: Water War in Bolivia
There are certain human needs that are so basic, that in a civilized society, to be deprived of such is nothing less than criminal. One of these needs is water. In a democracy, if citizens are deprived of water, then that democracy must be taken back. Control must be returned to those whom the democracy is intended to serve: the people. This exact scenario occurred during April 2000 in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. It is a success story, which led to victory for the masses in Cochabamba. This triumph is now referred to as “The Water War” and has inspired activists in social movements around the world.
The Water War was a groundbreaking victory against the life-sapping effect of globalization in Latin America. A recent publication by South End Press entitled Cochabamba!: Water War in Bolivia is a first-hand account of that victory. Featuring perspectives from water activist and prominent labor leader Oscar Olivera, “Cochabamba” is a four-part work covering various aspects of The Water War, and its resulting social and political outcomes.
Bolivia is a nation that is land locked and isolated, located in the heart of South America. Known as the poorest country in South America, it’s also a nation that I had the privilege to visit for the first time in January 2005. With a population of 8.5 million, about 60% of Bolivians are of indigenous descent, living within cultural traditions stretching back to the Inca. Bolivians are intensely proud of their deep historical roots. Their history, however, also includes an unfortunate pattern of being repressed and exploited by foreign invaders. This pattern continues today as a result of economic policy changes implemented back in 1985.
In that year, President Victor Paz Estenssoro issued a proclamation known as DS21060. This proclamation destroyed the unions in Bolivia, and privatized the nation’s state-owned industries -- including water providers, mining companies, petroleum, telecommunications, railroads, and airlines. Without conferring with the desires of Bolivian citizens, political elites sold off the best of Bolivia to profiteering transnational corporations. As Olivera explains in Part One of Water War: “As a result of corporate globalization, we Bolivians have been stripped of our material inheritance and natural resources.”
The new privatization under the proclamation caused many damaging changes. Salaries were pushed down. Layoffs, and temporary employment status became the norm. Health insurance and pension benefits were steadily reduced and/or eliminated. For years, the working classes remained powerless and inactive in the face of such declining standards of living. But in 2000, the tide changed.
One year earlier, the government had signed an exclusive water contract with transnational corporation “Aguas del Tunari.” With a majority interest owned by foreign nationals, Aguas del Tunari was essentially run by non-Bolivians. This fact was not problematic. What did become an issue, however, was that the government’s contract with Aguas del Tunari guaranteed a 16% rate of return per year on the corporation’s investment (regardless of how it would be achieved).
What resulted was an increase in water prices at rates as high as 300%. Moreover, control of other water sources in Cochabamba was seized under a law stipulating that only the contracted company could distribute water. As Olivera writes, “Water is a right for us, not something to be sold. The right to water is also tied to traditional beliefs for rural people, as it has been since the time of the Inca.”
The burdens placed upon Cochabambinos was evidence of the level of indifference that the Bolivian government and Aguas del Tunari had toward the general populous. Without any reform in sight, in April 2000 the masses took to the streets. The protest brought the city to a standstill, uniting peasants, environmental groups, teachers, and blue-collar workers under a single demand: the return of water to the people. The Water War officially ended months later, with the expulsion of Aguas Del Tunari from Cochabamba. Olivera writes, “This new alliance, which blocked the highway, took and occupied the main plaza, and recovered our water, points the way forward.”
Aguas del Tunari was replaced by a new model for managing water resources. Instead of a handful of out-of-touch political elites dictating policy, new representatives were put in place. These representatives derived from local neighborhood committees, urban and rural organizations, and unions. Doing so essentially returned decision making power back to the citizens of Cochabamba. What emerged -- in the case of water management -- was an authentic, participatory, and direct democracy. This victory brought to the surface of Bolivian conscious an alternative to privatization.
Because of The Water War victory, the working class and rural inhabitants of Bolivia are no longer willing to sit on the sidelines while profit-engrossed transnationals and compromised politicians exploit national resources. As most Bolivians now realize, those resources are the last opportunities that the impoverished masses have for securing a better life.
Since April 2000 there have been hundreds of protests on many social issues. But most significant is the new struggle for hydrocarbon rights, or what is described in the second half of Olivera’s work as “The Gas War.”
The conflagration of “The Gas War” stems from the recent discovery of the second largest gas reserves in South America, located under Bolivian soil. The process of extracting this valuable asset has begun. But in an act against the will of the people, the political elite has given the green light for rich transnationals to stake out rights to this source of wealth. What is at stake is an estimated 52.3 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves valued at the conservative figure of $120 billion.
But with the reserves under foreign control, the revenue returned to Bolivia is, and will continue to be, far below market value. In addition, this revenue is being channeled into the coffers of corrupt politicians, and the gas itself to rich first world nations. As Olivera describes: “What could be a source of re-birth for the productive capacity of the nation is, for now, only a source of profits and private fortunes for a handful of capitalists. The private ownership of petroleum and natural gas by these businessmen constitutes, without any doubt, the strangulation of one of the greatest opportunities the nation has ever had to finance and to sustain the type of productive growth that can benefit the population, satisfy our needs, and fulfill our right to a dignified life.”
This new Gas War is a very significant event in Bolivia, and in South America in general. The privatization of key industries has happened throughout the continent to the disadvantage of those who are already on the losing end. On March 7, 2005 (one week before this essay was written) Bolivian president Carlos Mesa, resigned from his position in recognition of being unable to fulfill the central demand for a new hydrocarbon law. This recent event is one of many developments in a state of upheaval that has erupted in Bolivia since January of this year. In short, there is a nationwide push underway to reclaim hydrocarbon reserve rights (among other very legitimate demands).
The political and social future in Bolivia is uncertain at this point in time. Needless to say this upheaval is a very important event, which could potentially catalyze change throughout all of South America. Cochabamba!: Water War in Bolivia is of particular significance in understanding these rapidly unfolding events.
On a personal note, I found Cochabamba! and the insights and vision of Oscar Olivera uplifting and inspiring. The book was written with the assistance of ghostwriter and translator Tom Lewis. Lewis did an excellent job in compiling this work. The book is teeming with background context that shines light on all of the important social issues in Bolivia today.
My only regret, however, is that Olivera’s work came into my possession after my own rollercoaster experience in Bolivia. To reiterate, in January of 2005, I spent a little over two weeks in this amazing nation. This is a short time. Yet, within this cluster of days, I witnessed the current state of instability directly, and came into very close contact with the discontent of the populous.
Arriving in Santa Cruz on January 3rd 2005, my wife and I intended to span the width of Bolivia. Utilizing their extensive bus system, we intended to travel from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba, then onto La Paz, Copacabana, and finally across the Peruvian border.
But after our second day in La Paz, progress was halted. Transport throughout the nation became obstructed due to a nationwide strike over petrol prices. The petrol issue arose when the government removed a price subsidy. This subsidy removal caused prices at the pump to spike, and bus fare costs to increase. With Bolivia’s rural inhabitants existing on very little as it is, any small price increase can be crippling. As a result, road barricades were set up around many cities, immobilizing traffic, and bringing much of the nation to a standstill. During the weeklong protest, La Paz was placed under siege, with supplies and transport unable to enter or leave the city.
At the time I found the protests unsettling and daunting. At one point, my wife and I literally climbed aboard a bus at 3:30am, intent on breaking out of the city. Tension was high among all in the bus that morning, and we did manage to successfully bypass the protest lines. Had it been a normal hour, however, our progress would have surely been halted, with the bus being pelted with stones, the tires slashed. That morning, after alternate route detours on unpaved roads, we eventually made it out. In retrospect, violence on some level could have happened, but it didn’t. Contemplating the situation at that early hour, while the bus bobbed and weaved through unmanned barricades, it seemed completely illogical as to why Bolivians would place a siege on fellow Bolivians. But as a travel companion and resident of Bolivia stated to me at one point, “the people are powerless and this is the only means that they have for getting their point across.”
After reading Cochabamba! I must say that I can understand the discontent among the people (as well as their protest tactics) far better than that first bewildering exposure. Again, if I had read this book prior to arriving in-country, I would have had the specific context needed in order to interpret what seemed to be total chaos.
The bits and scraps of images that at first seemed independent of one another (i.e. substandard agricultural products on sale in the markets with the best of each crop being exported) can now be categorized and connected into a meaningful statement. In the words of Olivera, “They can privatize our natural resources and our workplaces. But they can never privatize our ability to dream of a world with justice.”