Bolivia's Second Water War
by Zane Grant & Kat Shuffler
Z magazine, March 2005
The city of La Paz, Bolivia appears to
be back to normal as representatives from neighborhood organizations
meet with the government over a number of demands that have arisen
during Bolivia's second water war in five years.
Many citizens' groups have intensified
a range of demands, from a halt on the war on drugs to state autonomy
for the western province of Santa Cruz. In previous weeks, however,
all eyes have been on the tumultuous success of El Alto, the sprawling
city 200 miles up from La Paz. The government has conceded to
the demands of the people in this case, but as always in Bolivia,
there is room for surprises.
With the political uprising of the Alteflos,
the people of Bolivia have once again made themselves heard in
the struggle against water privatization. In 2000 it was in Cochabamba,
Bolivia's third largest city, in which people organized against
privatization. The ousting of the last remaining private water
company in Bolivia, Aguas de Illimani, part of French transnational
Suez, has been a long process that finally erupted in the streets
of El Alto this January. Although the cities' situations are different,
these victories share the same voice.
A Mobilized Population
Aymaras, an indigenous city of 800,000,
was the principal battleground of the violent police repression
of the 2003 "gas wars" that led to the expulsion of
the last president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. For an intense
couple of days this January, masses of street vendors, housewives,
factory workers, militant ex-miners, and the unemployed in El
Alto initiated the ousting of Bolivia's last remaining private
water company with direct action, blocking the only highway connecting
the capital and the rest of the country.
The Federation of Neighborhood Committees
of El Alto (Fejuve) started the process in September with the
release of a list of demands called "Pliego Nacional"
resulting from extensive grassroots discussions in the impovershed
neighborhoods of this city.
On Thursday, January 13, 2005 President
Mesa issued a formal decree stating that the state would take
back control of water and sewage services in El Alto and La Paz.
The executives of Suez, however, have made contradictory statements,
and say they are not ready to leave.
The public water systems of El Alto and
La Paz were transferred to the administration of the Aguas de
Illimani Corporation in 1997 as a result of a World Bank loan
that was conditioned on the privatization of water systems. The
private consortium-ironically named after a beautiful snow-capped
mountain on the horizon-is jointly owned by Suez, the World Bank,
which holds 8 percent of shares, and other private investors.
Citizens of El Alto have seen the price
of water increase by 35 percent since the company took over. The
cost for new families to connect their homes to water and sewage
totals more than $445, an amount that exceeds more than six months
of income at the national minimum wage, states the San Francisco-based
Democracy Center's Jim Shultz. Since privatization, citizens'
groups report, the company has failed to expand the aging system,
leaving hundreds of thousands of people without access to safe
According to Suez, revenues for 2003 reached
$23 billion through its energy and "environmental" water
services. The company owns water facilities on six continents
and is responsible for water distribution to over 200 million
Cochabamba's Water War
The current uprising in El Alto against
private ownership of water and sewage services occurred exactly
five years after the so called "water wars" in Cochabamba
resulted in the ousting of the transnational company Aguas de
Tunari, a subsidiary of the San Francisco-based Bechtel corporation.
The water wars in Cochabamba, however, did not succeed without
a great cost. The city was in a state of martial law with the
military turning on people protesting in the streets because they
could not pay their water bills.
After the streets were cleared and the
people had successfully expelled Bechtel from Cochabamba, the
state-owned enterprise SEMAPA, Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable
y Alcantarillado, took over the city's water and sewage. Unfortunately,
while the prices have again become affordable, the difficult task
of providing water for a million people in the city and in outlying
areas has not been taken care of as many would have wished. The
sentiment seems to be, however, that at least it's a Bolivian
company doing the job.
A further consequence of the city-wide
demonstrations in Cochabamba in 2000 is that Bechtel initially
attempted to sue Bolivia for $25 million in lost revenue through
a secretive trade court operated by the World Bank. Later, however,
Bechtel reportedly settled for a symbolic 2 Bolivianos (roughly
30 cents). But this settlement is pending for the time being as
one of Bechtel's partners, the Abengoa Corporation of Spain, continues
to demand millions of dollars in compensation from Bolivia's poor.
Into The Streets
0n the ground in Bolivia, water has become
politicized from necessity. "This is not an ideological rebellion,
but a consumer revolt," says Shultz. "These revolts
[in Cochabamba and El Alto] are about Bolivians reversing a set
of policy decisions that they didn't make and that they don't
like the results from." Although everyday Bolivians made
the decision to expel the company out of necessity, the neighborhood
committees' capacity to organize a community is one example of
a newly politicized indigenous identity that has emerged in recent
years to make demands of the government.
Though former President Sanchez de Lozada
blamed "Cuba, anarchist-syndicalists, and Trotskyists"
for his removal at a speech on democracy at American University
in late 2003, most scholars agree that a significant portion of
this opposition arose from the indigenous Quechua and Aymara majority.
Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, a professor at the Universidad Mayor
de San Andrés in La Paz, argues, "Indigenous communities
and their unions expressed their own identity and demands to mold
hope for an "other" democracy."
"They don't listen to us, but we
don't use arms," says the secretary of Fejuve, Mercedes Condori
Quispe. When asked about the politics of her organization in relation
to the state, she expressed that it was not that they were radical,
but organized in their demands. "We instead use marches and
blockades to make the government listen," Condori said. The
participants in this movement against privatization maintain that
the means of political mobilization emerge from the intense inequality
that shapes life in El Alto.
Whether or not this larger struggle for
indigenous representation accomplishes its goals, the citizens
of El Alto have successfully pressured the government into severing
its contract with a private water company. Regarding how the government
will do this with the cooperation of Suez, without being sued
by investors, or completely discouraging badly needed foreign
investment in other sectors is unknown. The other task at hand
is to not repeat the mistakes made with the state takeover in
Cochabamba. The neighborhood organizations are now at the bargaining
table in La Paz attempting to create a transitory body to take
over the formidable task of providing much needed potable water
to tens of thousands of people.
Zane Grant and Kat Shiftier are graduate
students at American University in Washington, DC. They are currently
studying social movements in Bolivia and Argentina.
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