Rebellion in Bolivia
by Washington Estellano
Brecha, Montevideo, Uruguay, April 14, 2000
The recent days that have shaken Bolivia are not bolts from
the blue. On Feb. 4, the people of Cochabamba rehearsed the coming
rebellion. They began to set up new social movements to replace
the remnants of the old society: the Central Labor Council, the
old unions, and even the malfunctioning parliament. In their place
arose more democratic bodies that worked at a higher level. This
time, the crux was the water supply. Tomorrow, it could be any
one of multiple problems facing Bolivians.
Cochabamba, in the mountains 8,400 feet above sea level, is
the home of 500,000 people, half of whom have no access to potable
water. The current sources are totally insufficient for the size
of the population.
Following a free-market policy, the Bolivian government gave
away its control of drinking water supplies, among other natural
resources, to international cartels. The plans to build a large
dam demanded a major investment estimated at US$200 million, plus
the cost of the construction of a tunnel. But the project did
not attract international investment and, finally, the government
signed a deal with the water company, Aguas del Tunari. Since
the company offered no capital, the government increased taxes
300 percent to pay for the project.
The neighboring villages and communities that had already
built artesian wells were pressured to join the Aguas del Tunari
network and pay the new tariffs starting in February. But popular
protests against the tax froze the project. A recently approved
water law, passed over the objections of most of the population,
established that future tariffs would be indexed to the value
of the U.S. dollar. While the government maneuvered behind the
scenes, grassroots groups mobilized against the tax, and within
days, a revolution was born.
Popular organizations rallied and took control of the city.
They called a meeting with the water commission, representatives
from the Catholic Church, the mayor, coca producers' unions, and
the neighborhood committees formed in the past six years. Police
agents raided the meeting and arrested the movement's leaders
as well as the head of the Farmers' Confederation. The prisoners
were sent to a jail in a remote rural area. Even before martial
law was declared, armed forces were trampling human rights.
The situation worsened with the police riot in La Paz, triggered
by a hunger strike by union members, including many policemen,
their wives, and a police chief. The strikers wanted a 50-percent
pay hike to their monthly salary of less than US$80, new uniforms,
social benefits, and a human-rights representative at their meetings.
They were supported by a majority of the population, including
students, the Human Rights Assembly, and other rights organizations.
Finally, during the state of siege, the government gave in
to the police demands that left the city temporarily unprotected.
Officials wanted to keep the police strike from spreading to other
cities. They also hoped for a quick fix to stop the social movement
During all this, farmers blocked major roads throughout the
country. The states of Cochabamba and La Paz were completely blockaded
and without transport. The farmers pleaded for reform of the water
law, better water services, and recognition of water as a basic
need, not a taxable commodity.
The mobilization of troops to break the roadblocks near Lake
Titicaca, where farmers work alongside Quechua Indians from the
Cochabamba Valley, incited a confrontation. Several people were
killed, including two farmers and an army officer. In Cochabamba,
army snipers killed three other protesters. A local TV channel
identified one of the sharpshooters, an officer in civilian clothing,
who shot into the crowd.
Finally, under pressure from every political party and many
celebrities, the government gave in. It promised to meet all of
the protesters' demands, including the annulment of the water
contract, tax reform, and the release of those arrested during
Forced to move from confrontation to dialogue, the government
blamed the drug trade for the rebellion. Meanwhile, many organizations
are demanding President Hugo Banzer Suarez's resignation. [Soon
afterward, Banzer's entire cabinet resigned in protest of his
policies.- WPR] People still remember the massacre of Cochabamba
farmers in 1975, during Banzer's dictatorship.
The recent mobilizations have resulted in six dead, 42 wounded,
21 arrested, and 22 imprisoned. This is a high price for an agreement
that could have been reached without staining the rivers with
The spread of the protest throughout the country shows the
strength of the Cochabamba protesters and places Banzer's government
under severe strain. The population ignored the martial law imposed
first in Potosf, then in Tarija, Oruro, and La Paz. The massive
support for the strike and the agreement that followed, including
the formation of a coalition against neoliberal policies, promise
Banzer some difficult times ahead.
South America watch