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Water Wars: How One City’s Fight Against Bechtel Ignited a Movement Battling Water Privatization
Ten years ago this month, the Bolivian city of Cochabamba was at the center of an epic fight over one of the city’s most vital natural resources: its own water. The Water Wars occurred just months after the Battle of Seattle. The uprising against Bechtel on the streets of Cochabamba was seen as the embodiment of the international struggle against corporate globalization. Over the past week, water activists from around the world gathered in Cochabamba to mark the tenth anniversary of the Water Wars.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Bolivian town of Tiquipaya, just outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Today marks the start of the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth. We will be covering the summit all week.
But right now, we return to our coverage of the tenth anniversary of the Water Wars in Cochabamba. Hundreds of people, through this week, have been marking this decade anniversary. On Sunday, I met up with Marcela Olivera. She served as the key international liaison for the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life. Her brother, Oscar Olivera, led the coalition.
- OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated] If the government doesn’t want the water company to leave the country, the people will throw them out.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re standing in the town square, where it all began ten years ago here in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I’m with Marcela Olivera. She was here when the battle against the privatization of water began. And Marcela, it all began with this banner?
MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah, that banner was hanged there when the conflicts start.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it say?
MARCELA OLIVERA: It says, “The water is ours, damn it!”
AMY GOODMAN: “The water is ours, damn it”?
MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah. And we tried to put the word “carajo,” because it was a strong way to say—because they didn’t understand. We were telling them all the time what water meant to us, and they didn’t understand. So that was the strong way to tell them we are not going to step back in our demands.
Well, it started with the campesinos. The campesinos were the first ones that realized that the government was trying to impose, was trying to pass a law that will affect their rights about water. So they were the first ones that came to the city, and they told us this is going to happen if we let this law to pass. They are going to privatize our water sources. They are going to privatize our—the wells that the communities own. They are going to privatize the water system in the city. So this law is going to affect to all of that, all of us.
They knocked the doors of the factory workers, the Federation of Factory Workers, because they were the ones that were giving sort of a political line in the city, you know, that now they were doing a job for several years denouncing what was happening in the factories. So they came here, and they found the workers that wanted to help in this. But also they found a very important group of what I would say academics, intellectuals, that could really read the law and understand how this will affect the people in the future. So these were the main groups that got together here.
AMY GOODMAN: Your brother, Oscar Olivera, who also became—if there was one face of this movement, it was certainly his. He was in the factory? He was among the factory workers?
MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah, he was, in that time, the leader of the Federation of Factory Workers. The movement, themselves, didn’t call them leaders of the movement. We called them “spokespersons.” And there were also several levels of organization. So we, for example, knew if they were going to put them in jail, to the first level, that were the spokespersons, there was another level that was going to take over the leadership of the movement. So there were several—the coordinator was organizing on several levels.
AMY GOODMAN: How did Bechtel come to Bolivia?
MARCELA OLIVERA: Well, the government did call for a concession for an open—they sent an open invitation to companies to come to the country. As far as I know, three companies presented their papers, but two backed out afterwards. Bechtel was the one that stayed. It was a consortium, actually. There were some local businessmen that participated in the consortium. And they decided to take over the water system. The signature of that agreement was actually in this building in front of us. And when they signed that agreement, there was a small group of protesters in these doors. And Banzer, who was the president in that time—
AMY GOODMAN: Had been the longtime dictator—
MARCELA OLIVERA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —before he was elected president.
MARCELA OLIVERA: Exactly. When he heard the people protesting outside, because people does that with fireworks, he said, “Oh, I am accustomed to hear that kind of music in the background.” And he didn’t think that the music will be really loud several months later.
The first mobilizations against the privatization of the water system and this law started to happen in November, December from 1999. They were very small and sporadic, but they were growing.
AMY GOODMAN: This was when the Battle of Seattle took place, actually.
MARCELA OLIVERA: I think we—in this time, we didn’t realize that this was happening at the other part of the world. So it’s good to see how later those struggles connected and both were successful. But that was in 1999.
In January, there were still protests. We shut down the city for several days. The officials from the government came here to negotiate. Nothing, no result, happened from the negotiations, until February. On the 4th of February, we called to the people to a mobilization here. We call it “la toma de la plaza.” That was the takeover of the plaza. For us, that was like a party. It was going to be a party, because it was going to be the meeting of the people from the fields, the countryside, coming here and meeting the people from the city, because it was the demand of the people from the countryside and our demand from the city. So we planned to do this with music. Several groups were hired. And it was going to be really a party.
And we decided the things—the way that we are going to come together here from the four points of the city. One was in that direction. The other, the cocaleros, came from the one bridge.
AMY GOODMAN: The coca growers.
MARCELA OLIVERA: The neighbors from the south came from the south. There were the Federation of Factory Workers, all the workers, came from a plaza near here. So it was all getting together here at one time.
The government said that that wasn’t going to be allowed to happen. Several days before this was going to happen, they sent policemen in cars and in motorcycles that were surrounding the city, trying to scare the people. And the actual day of the mobilization, they didn’t let the people walk even ten meters, and they started to shoot them with gases.
Many of us, I’m sure, went back to our houses, and we saw on the TV what was happening in the morning and what was still going on. We said, this cannot happen. They were beating women. They were beating children. They were throwing gases to people. So we stood up, and we went to the streets that afternoon. And many people from the city that wasn’t being part of the mobilization suddenly joined. And we were hundreds and hundreds of people trying to take the plaza, because we would say, “The plaza is ours. Why we are not going to take it?” And it was more than a battle to get something; it was a battle to occupy physically a space that we considered was ours, and we had the right to have this space.
That didn’t happen. For one day, they—it was awful, because they threw rubber bullets to people. There were many bonded. And something that we didn’t expect is that the next day people will mobilize again for the same thing. We thought, “Oh, it’s over. It’s night. Everybody went home. Nothing is going to happen.” But no, next day, the cocaleros that were staying here, they came from the field, they came from Chapare, they were—
AMY GOODMAN: Led by Evo Morales.
MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah, exactly. They were the ones that took over again the streets and tried to take over the plaza again. And that inspired to other people, the students and neighborhoods, and we all came here that Saturday, and we took the plaza, finally. And it was a huge victory, I think, because we could agree with the government—we signed an agreement with the government, and they froze the water bills and created a commission to negotiate with a coordinator of the terms of the contract with Bechtel.
At some point in March, when we get to March, we realized the government wasn’t going to do anything, and they were just trying to gain some time. So what happened in March is we called to a popular referendum. This is not something that was contemplated on the Constitution. It wasn’t legal. But we believe it was legitimate. So, many volunteers put tables in many parts of the city, but also in the countryside, and we had two, three clear questions. One was, do you want to make changes in the law, in the legislation about water, that reflects the demands of the people? The other question was, do you want Bechtel to leave our country? And there was—the third question was, do you want the water company to return to public hands? And 98 percent of the population answered, we want this company out, we want changes in the law, and we want the company to come back to public hands. The government didn’t take that in account, either; they completely dismissed the results of what we have done.
And we, on that time, we realized that we had to do something else. So in April we called to the final battle. That’s the way that we portrayed that. It was like we were going to win, or we were going to lose. There wasn’t any alternative, any other alternative. So we called again for mobilizations. And they were a month later, after February. For four or five days, people mobilized here.
At the beginning, there were many people, 25,000 probably, here in the plaza. But as the days were passing, less people started to come to the mobilizations. And the police didn’t come to repress. And we knew that they have changed completely the strategy. They knew that if they took the police outside, that was going to be—make angry to the people. So that’s why they didn’t do it, and they were playing for us to get tired.
They were—negotiations were still happening anyway. The government never considered the coordinator a legal entity, so they didn’t want to negotiate with the coordinator or spokespersons. But people still were pushing them to be inside of negotiations. There is something that Oscar always tell us, that, you know, when the negotiations were happening here and people were all around the plaza, the government said, “I’m not going to talk to you guys, because you are not legal. You can leave.” So they were leaving, but the people here didn’t let them get out of the building. They said, “No, you have to be inside, because you have to negotiate for us.” So Oscar said that the spokespersons of the coordinator suddenly stayed in a hole, not be able to go outside, but not also be able to be in the middle of negotiations.
During the conflict, there wasn’t any birds here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Marcela, we’ve done three corners of this park, where the factory workers still have their offices, the government offices, and now across the park, the church.
MARCELA OLIVERA: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the role of the Archbishop.
MARCELA OLIVERA: The Archbishop was very important during the Water War, because he was the person that sort of mediated with the government and the people, but not just being impartial. You know, he took a side. He took the side of the people. And he completely agreed with the demands of the people, because it was obviously—you know, it was obvious we were right. He was very important. He was always on the side of the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he could be cardinal today, if he hadn’t done that ten years ago?
MARCELA OLIVERA: I think he could. He could, but he—because he took a side of the people, probably against what the normal role of the Church is, because the Church is always trying to be impartial in a conflict, but no, he took a side, and he was on the side of the people. He took the right side.
People who were organizing on every corner were the young people, what we call the water warriors. They call themselves the guerreros del agua. So they were in every corner, and they were in this church also. There was one kid from the street that will ring a bell every time that he’ll see the police or the army coming. He was on the very top of the tower.
AMY GOODMAN: They tied ropes around the bell?
MARCELA OLIVERA: Yes. So every time that they will see a police or army coming, they will, you know, ring the bell, and we will all know they were coming, and people will get ready to fight them. So it was—they organized—the young people organized themselves in a way that nobody told them how to do it. You know, they did it by themselves. Nobody told them you have to do this, you have—nobody.
I don’t think anybody expected what was going to happen. You know, in February, we thought, oh, this was amazing, and, you know, something that—like a peak, you know? Never something like that will happen again. But in April, it happened again. And I don’t think I will ever live something like that. My parents will say that they didn’t see something like that since the revolution in the ‘52. So, you know, all the people who were living that time, I’m pretty sure they feel like, you know, it was so historical.
There is a military base here. And at some point, during the conflict in April, when we hear this rumors that a police was coming, that the army was coming, that the government was sending the army to kill the people, some of the citizens felt like they need to be armed, too, in order to respond to the government, to the army. At that point, you know, the demands of the people were not just we want the company to leave; the demands of the people were, we want this government to leave, and we’re going to make our own government here. So that was kind of scary, because we didn’t know how this was going to end up. I don’t think—and that could reveal also how the movement was growing. You know, it was so spontaneous, and nobody was leading it.
AMY GOODMAN: Here, you have a woman holding a slingshot, with soldiers at the other end of the street, or police. Tell us about this.
MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah. What they were—the people were trying to do, and you don’t see it here, but there are people here also. We were trying to take over the plaza that was behind the police line. And we are like just two blocks away from the plaza. So the woman is throwing them stones with this traditional—gun?
AMY GOODMAN: Slingshot.
MARCELA OLIVERA: Yeah, we call that guaraca in Quechua, so it’s very—we use—the people use that in the fields to—for llamas, to put them—to keep them together.
What happened ten years ago, it opened the doors to what we have right now and what we’re going to have later. You know, if we have a president like Evo Morales, it’s because the social movements in April 2000 opened a door for that to happen. And the message, I think, is that we are not—the Water War is not over. The conflict ten years ago was not just about water; it was about something else, especially what we call democracy. It was about who decides about the things that matter to us, that are important to us. And ten years later, we are in a point where we want to say it was not over, it’s not over. We are still trying to not resist—you know, resist privatization, in this case, but to build something. And I think there’s still a long ways to go.
You know, we were—I feel like—personally, I feel like I was a very important part of the history, in that we changed a little bit the curse of what was going on. The lesson of the Water War is that nothing is definitive, that we always can change things. The system was privatized already here; we could put it back, we could break that, and we could get back the company into our hands, something that we never imagined that could happen. And this is something that Oscar all the time says, that slogan that we always repeat on the streets, that the people, united, will never be defeated, it’s something that we lived here in Cochabamba ten years ago, and it’s something that we believe it can happen again and again and again.
We never thought we were going to win. Never. Never thought we were going to win. What we were doing, it was struggling for that minute and that second. I don’t think in anybody’s head was the fact, we’re going to win this war.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about when you did win?
MARCELA OLIVERA: It was an incredible joy, but also it was very sad, because in the way to get something that we want, we lost people, and young people.
AMY GOODMAN: Marcela Olivera, she served as the key international liaison for the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life. For all the images of what happened ten years ago in the streets of Cochabamba, where we’re broadcasting from, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, we’ll be joined by Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solon. Stay with us.