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Por Oscar Olivera, Marcela Olivera

Since the 1980s, Bolivia, like the rest of the Latin American continent, has been experiencing the implementation of the neo-liberal economic model. International financial institutions and large transnational corporations, concentrated in the most powerful countries of the world, seek to dominate the globe and exploit our natural resources to increase their profits.

As a result, the Bolivians, like the other poor countries of the world, have been stripped of our heritage, our natural resources and the products of our collective efforts.

They stole our means of transport, the roads, the communications systems, the hydrocarbons, the factories and our lands. Not content with this, transnational corporations and the World Bank, working with local government elites, want to take away the water and turn this vital resource into a business venture.

More than a million people live in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the centre of my country. In the urban centre there are 600, 000 inhabitants and we have suffered a scarcity of water for more than 50 years. Water management has therefore been used by politicians and business men to manipulate the population in their own economic interests and increase their own power.

Taking advantage of the current privatisation frenzy the politicians governing our country have joined up with the transnational corporation Bechtel. Water rates began to rise, with the backing of the of the World Bank, which expressly forbids the Bolivian government from making subsidies to solve the water problem in Cochabamba..

Alongside the privatisation contract the Bolivian government passed the Drinking Water and Sewage Law (« Ley de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado Sanitario »). Both these processes were shrouded in secrecy and corruption and, as a result, were rejected by the people.

The total lack of faith in politicians, businessmen and the 'traditional' social institutions, and the open commitment of the ruling elites to the privatisation of water services, led to peasants, environmental groups, professionals and urban workers such as manufacturing laborers and teachers coming together to form a coalition called the Committee for the Defence of Water and Life (« Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y la Vida »).

The coalition grows from a profound sense the importance of vital needs such as access to water. This common sense brings urban and rural populations together, who call on the people to unite and defend their water.

The Committee brings together the population under the premise that it is urgent to begin to unite our actions. No sector has sufficient force to resist alone. There can be no individual solution. Social well being will be won for all or for no body.

The Committee has representatives from the agriculturalists, the urban and rural water cooperatives that were not connected to the mains water supply and who have taken steps to be able to receive water services. The committee also represents people who are connected to the mains network and consider the rates to be unaffordable, over the top and abusive.

The coalition also includes members of the organised, unionised workforce, who bring their experiences and ways of organising in times of conflict.

The Committee speaks in the name of the people who feel themselves ignored, excluded and under-represented. The people who, until the so called « War for Water » began a year ago, could not find the space to discuss and express their opinions, and reveal their suffering, their realities and their hopes.

We have found that meetings, councils and barricades are the main instruments of struggle and liberation. These have been the spaces where we have realised that it is not enough to recover our dignity. We have not only made it possible to reclaim our own voices, but above all we have realised that the current conditions are, among other things, a product of this giant robbery called “privatisation”.

The Committee is the space where the simple working people have proved that only through organisation, solidarity and mutual trust can we lose fear and give real content to democracy, reclaim and take back what is ours and change our situation and our reality.

Democracy for us, in simple terms, is 'who decides?' A few politicians and businessmen or us, the simple working people? In the case of water we want to make our own decisions.

With these ideas the Cochabamban population began its actions against the privatisation of water. On the 11th January 2000 mobilisations began simultaneously in the countryside and the city, closing the roads for four days. The framework of the debate is no longer shaped by the trades unions and organised workers. The ways in which people came out into the streets was shaped by the new world of work. It was the informal workers and informality that took the spaces, took the time and above all have taken up the debate.

At the end of this first struggle an agreement was signed with the government in which they committed to revising both the law on drinking water and the contract with Aguas del Tunari.

In the days before these mobilisations water rates had gone up by at least 35% and in some cases up to 300%. For families this increase meant that each household had to pay on average one fifth (20%) of their income just in water rates.

A second mobilisation in February, which lasted two days, succeeded in having this rates increase repealed, after fierce fighting in the streets between the population and the police.

March 2000 saw the first independent « people's consultation » in the history of the country. More than 50,000 people came together voluntarily to participate and the message was clear: the consortium must go and the laws confiscating and privatising water must be changed.

A third mobilisation began on 4th April. It has been called « the last battle ». The roads were closed and the city and occupied for eight days. On the last day over 100,000 people took part in the Cochabamba city centre. As a result, the transnational corporation was expelled and the drinking water law substantially changed, based on the proposals of the Committee. This was the first popular victory against the neo-liberal model in 15 years of defeats.

However, to achieve this victory we did not only have to face the police, but also the army. Snipers killed a young boy, 17-year-old Victor Hugo Daza, and over 100 people suffered bullet wounds.

In Bolivia, without these battles and this victory, there would not be talk of setting up a self organised, socially controlled company to manage the water at the height of neo-liberalism.

Nevertheless, the war for the water has not ended. Today we are facing many difficulties. We have inherited a technologically underdeveloped business with huge debts. We are facing World Bank international tribunals asking for 25 million dollars in damages to the consortium, and the Bolivian government is made up of businessmen and intellectuals looking to take their « revenge ».

These are the main hurdles we must tackle and we need the solidarity and support of the world to show that another world is possible. To show that the people are capable of building, proposing alternatives, taking the solutions to their problems into their own hands and deciding for themselves.

The exit of Aguas of Tunari brought us two types of victory. The first is economic, as the rejection and freezing of water rates means that 3 million dollars will stay in Cochabamba. This means that each family saves on average 60 dollars per year. This figure is important when you consider that the government has raised salaries on average 5 dollars in the last ten years and the national minimum wage is barely 67 dollars per year.

The other victory is political because the people made justice. Individualism, isolation, and fear disappeared under the spirit of solidarity. We managed to rebuild the social fabric that neo-liberalism has been fragmenting and destroying since its implementation 15 years ago.

What do we want after April? We want a true democracy. We want a government that takes into account our opinions and decisions instead of the opinions and interests of international financial institutions and their neo-liberal policies.

We want the victory of the Cochabamban people, this collective effort of men and women, to be taken as a victory for everyone, not just the Bolivians, but all of us who have imagined and dreamed of a different world from that designed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation.

Our experiences speak in a world that becomes more globalised by the day. It is vital that our struggles do the same. | ALCA/FTAA | Plan Puebla-Panamá | Cochabamba Water Battle | water campaign |