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 in Cochabamba.

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 the demonstrations.

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 blood.

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