Bolivia Water War

From Anarchy In Action

From Anarchy Works:

At the end of the ‘90s, the World Bank threatened not to renew a major loan on which the Bolivian government depended if they did not agree to privatize all water services in the city of Cochabamba. The government conceded and signed a contract with a consortium headed up by corporations from England, Italy, Spain, the US, and Bolivia. The water consortium, lacking knowledge of local conditions, immediately raised the rates, to the point where many families had to pay a fifth of their monthly earnings just for water. On top of this they enforced a policy of shutting off the water of any household that did not pay. In January 2000, major protests erupted against the water privatization. Primarily indigenous peasants converged on the city, joined by retired workers, sweatshop employees, street vendors, homeless youth, students, and anarchists. Protestors seized the central plaza and barricaded major roads. They organized a general strike which paralyzed the city for four days. On February 4 a major protest march was attacked by police and soldiers. Two hundred demonstrators were arrested, while seventy people and fifty-one cops were injured.

In April people again seized the central plaza of Cochabamba, and when the government began arresting organizers, protests spread to the cities of La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí, as well as many rural villages. Most major highways throughout the country were blockaded. On April 8, the Bolivian president declared a 90 day state of siege, banning meetings of more than 4 people, restricting political activity, allowing arbitrary arrests, establishing curfews, and putting the radio stations under military control. Police occasionally joined the demonstrators to demand higher pay, even participating in some riots. Once the government raised their salaries, they returned to work and continued beating and arresting their erstwhile comrades. Across the country people fought against the police and military with stones and molotov cocktails, suffering many injuries and multiple deaths. On April 9, soldiers trying to remove a roadblock encountered resistance and shot two protestors to death, injuring several others. Neighbors attacked the soldiers, seized their weapons, and opened fire. Later they stormed a hospital and seized an army captain they had wounded, and lynched him.

As violent protests only showed signs of growing despite, and often because of, repeated killings and violent repression by the police and military, the state cancelled its contract with the water consortium and on April 11 annulled the law that had authorized the privatization of water in Cochabamba. Management of the water infrastructure was turned over to a community coordinating group that had arisen from the protest movement. Some participants in the struggle subsequently travelled to Washington, D.C. to join antiglobalization protestors in the demonstration intended to shut down the annual World Bank meeting.[1]

The complaints of the protestors moved far beyond water privatization in one city. The resistance had generalized to a social rebellion that included socialist rejections of neoliberalism, anarchist rejections of capitalism, farmers’ rejections of their debts, poor people’s demands for lower fuel prices and the end of multinational ownership of Bolivia’s gas, and indigenous demands for sovereignty. Similarly fierce resistance in subsequent years defeated Bolivia’s political elite on a number of occasions. Farmers and anarchists armed with dynamite took over banks to win the forgiveness of their debts. Under intense popular pressure, the government nationalized the extraction of gas, and a powerful union of indigenous farmers defeated the US-backed program of coca eradication. The coca farmers even got their leader, Evo Morales, elected president, giving Bolivia its first indigenous head of state. Because of this, Bolivia is currently facing a political crisis the government may be incapable of resolving, as the traditional elite, located in the white, eastern areas of the country, refuse to submit to the progressive policies of the Morales government. In the rural areas, indigenous communities used more direct means to preserve their autonomy. They continued blockading highways, and sabotaged attempts of government control of their villages through daily acts of resistance. On no fewer than a dozen occasions when a particular mayor or other government official proved especially intrusive or abusive, he would be lynched by the villagers.

  1. Jump up ↑ Oscar Olivera, Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia, Cambridge: South End Press, 2004.