The Damn Water Is Ours!
Resistance / BOLIVIA
In a defining struggle against globalization, the people of Cochabamba,
Through the chaos of tear gas, smoke and flying police truncheons, Marcelo Rojas saw the Bolivian flag carried at the front of the march waver and fall.
‘I saw how [the carrier] was beaten down by the police and couldn’t bear to see the flag fall, so I dived in there. I had to wrest it away from the police, and they hit me. I managed to escape even though I couldn’t breathe from the tear gas, and I suddenly realized all my friends were gone. But I had the flag, and from that moment on I wouldn’t let go of it.’ He was to hang on to that flag for the days of street battles to come, acquiring the nickname Banderas (‘Flags’) as he became the standard-bearer of Bolivia’s water wars.
In April 2000 Rojas, a young man of 22, had gone with some friends to join a rally to protest against water privatization in his city, Cochabamba.The year before, the World Bank had pressurized the Bolivian Government into privatizing water companies. It refused credit to the public company which ran the water services, recommended ‘no public subsidies’ to cushion against price hikes, and insisted on giving a monopoly to Aguas del Tunari, part of the British company International Water Ltd, in turn owned by the US engineering giant Bechtel.
The new owners, who had been granted a 40-year concession, announced price hikes before they even began operations; in a region where the minimum wage is under $100 per month, people faced increases of $20 per month and more.
Peasants now had to buy permits to collect rainwater from their own wells and roof tanks. Many people could only get water for two hours a day. All autonomous water systems had to be handed over without compensation.
In response thousands joined the moblizations; old and young, seasoned activists and those usually too busy surviving to get politically involved.
‘I had never taken any interest in politics before,’ Marcelo says. ‘My father is a politician, and I thought it was all about cutting deals. But to see people fighting for their water, their rights, made me realize there was a common good to defend, that the country can’t be left in the hands of the politicians.
‘Carrying the flag, I became a symbol, someone to follow, even though I was not a leader; there were 200 young people who fought alongside me who wouldn’t let me go home. I couldn’t let them down.’ Instead, he had to choose between his loyalty to his new comrades and his family: ‘I rang my mother to tell her I was OK and she said if I didn’t come home there and then, I shouldn’t bother to go back at all. She was so upset, but I had to stay.’
There was a price to pay for his visibility: he was arrested and tortured by the police after the end of the protests. ‘Now I realize that we have to struggle to make our country better.’
He was one of hundreds of young people who became known as the ‘water warriors’. At the front of every subsequent march they built barricades to ensure protest was not extinguished. They chased the police back into their barracks and at one point actually re-took the main city square after the armed forces occupied it.
Many of them come from comfortable backgrounds, attend university, have jobs, however precarious. At the barricades, they met people from all walks of life. As Juan Gómez, a 17-year-old, told me: ‘We shared the barricades with street children, with poor kids and old people who have nowhere to go; all these things make you think.’ These experiences changed and radicalized a new generation in Cochabamba.
Herbert Letelier, another ‘water warrior’, explained: ‘We’ve been fighting against the system, not just against Aguas del Tunari; the poverty, the lack of work, the rising cost of living, then the water-tariff hikes… I have been made aware of the social differences between people in Bolivia, the gap between rich and poor.’
Their confrontation with the system has taught them to be wary of power and of blandishments. They resisted offers from political parties which arrived bearing gifts of money; they won the respect of their elders; they faced a military ready to wound and kill; they listened to the political activists who tried to incorporate them in their struggles, the church, the revolutionary parties; they dealt with the undercover intelligence officers who tried to deflect their aim. They listened to all and learnt from them, going along with none. As Marcelo Rojas put it: ‘You have to act with the heart, but you always have to think first.’
Many of them look back on their experience in the thick of battle at the barricades as the moment they’re most inspired by, where they learnt to share, to protect the weak and to stand up and be counted.
Oscar Olivera, a factory labourer and the main spokesperson for the protests, gave thanks publicly to these young women and men, ‘without whom the people of Cochabamba could not have stood up for their rights’.
‘We contacted campesinos, people from the barrios, everyone...
‘The people look at water as something sacred, a right, not something to be sold,’ he says.
The Coodinadora organized the first protest in December 1999, when 20,000 people occupied the central plaza. The Government used teargas against them for the first time in 18 years.
For two months no-one paid their water bills.
Then in February, when negotiations broke down, the Coordinadara called for a symbolic seizure of the central square, the plaza. This time, 30,000 turned up. Police fired on the crowd: 175 people were injured and two youths were blinded.
Olivera says: ‘On 26 March we conducted a consultation in the Cochabamba area served by the water company. Did they want a contract, the law privatizing water, increases in the water bills? Ninety-six per cent said no to all these. Fifty thousand people voted. On 4 April an indefinite roadblock began.’
The protests had come together so quickly that some in Cochabamba thought that ‘the Coordinadora’ was one woman; an old man came every morning to the barricades in the main square, wanting to congratulate her.
On Saturday 8 April 30,000 were in the plaza when martial law was declared.
President Banzer imposed a state of siege and sent in crack military units.
The TV cameras focused on a man on bent knee, rifle pointed, eye in the sights, in civilian clothes. He was army captain Iriarte La Fuente, shooting into the Cochabamba demonstrators. Banderas said: ‘I became aware of sharpshooters pointing at my face, and then I felt the shots near me; there are three bullet holes in the flag I was carrying. More than one person fell. I saw that, I was there.’ Jorge Crespo, a 17-year-old boy, was killed; many more were injured.
‘After the kid died and the others got shot,’ says Olivera, ‘people were incensed. There were more than 80,000 in the streets.’ The official line was that the protesters were drug traffickers. Indignant old ladies blockading the streets said: ‘What, us, drug dealers?’
The company cleared out its desks, its computers, its files, and made a rapid exit from the country. La Coordinadora talked with a government delegation and they agreed that the water contract should be broken. Now that the water is controlled by the people, Olivera says: ‘The water is sweet.’
As Jim Schulz of Cochabamba’s Democracy Center points out: ‘Water users in the wealthy suburbs surrounding Washington, home to many World Bank economists, pay approximately $17 per month for water – less than what many families were asked to pay after water was privatized in this part of South America’s poorest country.’
Jim walked through the teargas-filled streets of Washington that morning with Oscar Olivera. ‘I asked the 45-year-old machinist what he thought of the nation’s capital. “It looks just like Cochabamba,” he told me. “Young people and police everywhere.”’
Marcela López Levy is an Argentinian researcher and editor