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Bolivian workers fight privatization
The Water War

Review by Bridget Broderick | April 1, 2005 | Page 9

Oscar Olivera, in collaboration with Tom Lewis, ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia. South End Press, 2004, 208 pages, $16.

IN APRIL 2000, more than 100,000 Bolivians in the city of Cochabamba--factory workers, the unemployed, businessmen, irrigation farmers and coca growers--mobilized to kick out the private water company Aguas del Tunari, part of a consortium held by the U.S.-based corporation Bechtel. They demanded control of the city's water system to benefit the people, not a profit-based transnational company.

It was one of Latin America's first victories against neoliberalism. Oscar Olivera, a leader of the Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (Coalition in Defense of Water and Life), explains how this "Water War" occurred in ¡Cochabamba! The book is a collection of essays by Olivera and other activists who detail the exciting weeks of struggle, as well as analyze the aftermath of the Coordinadora's victory and its effects on subsequent important struggles in Bolivia.

"The Water War revealed the fatigue and weariness of all Bolivians in the face of more than 15 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the government and the organs of international finance," notes Olivera. "In a time of privatization, ordinary working people were able to 'unprivatize' the very fabric of society."

As the Coordinadora organized among Cochabamba citizens to fight water privatization, people broke down the isolation and fear they felt as they entered the streets to speak and fight for control of their resources. This solidarity was built in popular assemblies. People from various groups came together to discuss their concerns and come to decisions about actions.

Everyone was allowed to speak, but "for you to be heard required action," meaning that speakers needed to be part of actively building a blockade or defense unit. Meetings of 50,000 to 70,000 people took place in large public plazas.

The state government responded to this democratic movement with repression. Police used tear-gas, the army wounded more than 100 people and killed a 17-year-old onlooker. Yet Cochabambinos prepared their defense. Young people used gloves to throw back gas canisters, women readied water buckets to douse the gas, and others held barbed wire to cordon off streets. At great risk, they took on the repressive powers of the army and a transnational corporation--and won.

¡Cochabamba! describes the difficult process of building an alternative movement for real, popular democracy to demand collective decision-making and control of national resources. Various activists explain the challenge of maintaining involvement in organizations after the April 2000 victory. Luis Sánchez-Gómez outlines the challenge of administering the municipal water system in the interest of Cochabambinos instead of for private profit.

The lessons from the Coordinadora's experiences were invaluable for public workers' strikes and coca growers' protests against eradication in the following years. In 2002 and 2003, Cochabamba's Water Coordinadora was transformed into the Gas Coordinadora to dispute the privatization of Bolivia's natural gas--a giveaway to transnational consortium Pacific LNG--by the government of then-president Gonzalo Sánchez Lozada.

In the national uprising to control the nation's natural gas resources in 2003, more than 80 people were killed and hundreds wounded. Sánchez Lozada was forced to flee the country, and the privatization question was temporarily postponed for a later referendum.

Olivera points out that the Gas War--which was more spontaneous and less united around concrete goals--was less successful but no less important. In the process of Bolivians' fight for democratic control of resources, Olivera notes that "the Coordinadora was born out of the water struggle, but this is not its reason for existing. Rather, it exists to break the political and economic order that caused the water problem and other abuses."

¡Cochabamba! lays out how the Coordinadora's lessons are crucial to understanding the process of exposing and challenging this order--capitalism.

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