Cochabamba’s Water War: The Start of Other Struggles


In 1985 the Bolivian state, headed by the MNR (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement) proudly pronounced the end of the economic crisis with the Supreme Decree 21060, putting the country on the same neoliberal path that had taken hold in the rest of the world. 

More than 20 years later, the rate of poverty has increased, along with unemployment and other social ills, all of which in the long term created a new backdrop for struggle and the rebuilding of social movements. In general, it can be said that neoliberalism did not achieve any of its goals or promises of "development with equity".  Rather, what it had achieved was to make work flexible, that is to say, to undo labor gains, break down workers’ unions, fragment the proletarian class and apply open contracting (under- employment).  By not resolving the main problems of the country, the neoliberal politicians, guided by the transnational monopolies have faced great resistance on the part of popular organizations and the general population since 2000, the year of the water war, a popular turning point which marked the start of a great process of change and constituted the rise of social movements and a succession of repeated rebellions which continue to the present time.  
The Water War of Cochabamba (April 2000) 
The emergence of conflict. 
For decades Cochabamba has had a growing problem relating to the shortage and poor management of water.  The expansion of the population due to the migration of peasants and unemployed miners, among other things, has resulted in a huge increase in inhabitants and demand for water for domestic use.  Add to this such environmental factors as seasonal droughts, and the result has been a situation of real water shortages.  This brings into play a chain of conflicts, which reached a high point in September of 1999 when the Bolivian government, with the complicity of the municipality of Cochabamba, handed over the concession for water service and distribution to Aguas del Tunari, a subsidiary of the North American transnational Bechtel. 
At the same time they passed law 2029, which turned water into merchandise, conflicting with the uses and customs of the irrigating peasantry.  The immediate consequence of Bechtel’s installation in the city was rate increases as large as 200% in some cases. 
In rural areas, the new business affected the irrigating peasantry whose traditional and self managed water systems and uses were at risk.  By installing water meters to charge for water use, the transnational tried to take over the wells and irrigation systems that the agrarian communities had built with their own hands. 
In a word:  It was all about the privatization of water in the city and in the countryside.  This situation  crystallized towards the end of December, 1999, when almost spontaneously, a heterogeneous social tapestry made up of many social sectors (unionized workers, neighborhood groups, professional associations, transportation workers, teachers, irrigating peasants, coca leaf growers, students, etc.)  rejected the plan. 
This diverse gathering from different sectors found its voice and unity around a new organizing entity called the Coalition for Defense of Water and Life.  The Coalition is a sort of citizens’ union which pulls together different sectors, both from the city and the countryside, but is radically different from the traditional unions because it bring together a large variety of sectors who gather without intermediaries in large assemblies to discuss, decide and carry out 
The Coalition is a space where the relationships are between equals, a space for words and action.  A space in which the people give a mandate to their spokespeople to be the eyes, the ears, the voice and the heart of their will. A space in which we started to take steps to recuperate a common good such as water, without expecting anything from the government or the owners of wealth.  The backbone of the Coalition is made up of irrigating peasants and factory workers, who together with other sectors, began the mobilizations that opened the great popular revolt of April 2000, an insurrection that kicked Bechtel out of Bolivia. 
It can be said with certainty that the Water War is one of the most important collective experiences of popular struggle in recent times, above all because it lead to the triumph of social movements after decades of defeats and numbness, and also because it became a reference point which opened a new epoch in Bolivia:  a stage of victorious and repeated rebellions against neoliberalism. 
Factory Workers 
The inclusion of factory workers to the conflict was important to achieve its growth, since  their inclusion established a connection between the irrigating peasantry and  urban industrial workers.  Organically, the workers’ movement as such is totally weakened, as in many other places in the world and Latin America . In Cochabamba, for example, the working sector is made up of 40 or 50 thousand workers, of which only 6 thousand are organized in unions.  This does not mean that workers don’t exist but rather that they are trapped in new conditions of under-employment that make them almost invisible and as a direct consequence they have lost and/or have lost understanding of their labor rights.  In addition the old organizational forms for workers such as the COB have fallen into a downward spiral of disrepute, low participation and verticalism.  Faced with the crisis of representation of the COB, the factory workers of Cochabamba, through great effort, were able to achieve high levels of credibility with the population, due mainly to its informational work against worker flexibility, and their contribution to the formation of new unions.  Another important aspect that turned the factory workers into important players in the Coalition was the fact that their building was in the center of the city, and people, during mobilizations, generally gathered there.  From then on, the factory workers’ site became a sort of general quarters for the Coalition. 
Another fact that stands out about the participation of the factory workers in the revolt was the daring action of 500 shoe factory workers from "Manaco", who, in support of 60 unfairly fired workers, moved into the center of the city to demand the incorporation of the urban population into the conflict:  an army of bicycles covered the 15 km. between the factory and the city center, calling on the city residents to continue the struggle against the high cost of water and blocking the main urban roads.  These workers, in their travels through the urban zones, showed that they were fighting against the privatization of water and also against the firings in the factory, inspiring many sectors of the population to join the mobilizations. 
Lessons Learned 
This whole process was marked by solidarity between all citizens and sectors that mutually supported one another to sustain the long and difficult struggle against the privatization of water. 
The lessons from this experience are about new forms of organization and struggle, about more flexible coalitions of youth, women, children and old people, which spontaneously created other forms of democracy, of participation, of opinion and decision making,  We can say with certainty that in this revolt the people exercised an authentic power, on the margins of the state, which by the way, simply dissolved, being replaced by  a big de-centralized network of mutual aid which took charge of the management of community matters during the time of the uprising.  Self-defense, safety, food distribution in the city, were all in the hands of the people who organized themselves without any help from the state or its representatives.  As of this gigantic, daring and worthy effort by simple, hard working people, the country changed.  The slum dwellers, the social sectors, the communities, the unions and associations proved that it was possible to loose our fear, to win, to re-gain our dignity, our common goods, and our natural resources, that there is no fatal destiny.  In April 2000, the people of Cochabamba burst onto the political scene with a concrete demand:  "The Water is Ours, and the Decisions Too!".  As of those days in April, new social movements have emerged, in an autonomous way, without the intervention of any political party, with collective leadership and decision making practices carried out in assemblies.  The political and economic model of neo-liberalism has been broken.  The revolt of Cochabamba, which started 6 years ago, ended in January of this year when Bechtel formally abandoned its legal case which asked the Bolivian people to pay 50 million dollars in damages. Bechtel made the demand in a secret court of the World Bank.  After a long campaign of protests, and local and international social pressure, Bechtel withdrew its demand and people won what marks an historic reference world wide. 
The new scene following the elections 
December 18, 2005, Evo Morales won the elections with  54% of the vote, the highest absolute and proportional vote received by any candidate since the democratic opening of 1982.  This overwhelming victory opened a new, unforeseen and unscripted stage in Bolivia.  On December 18, 2005, Bolivia certainly celebrated, after the long cycle of rebellions, uprisings, mobilizations and indigenous and popular insurgencies begun in 2000.  The triumph of Evo Morales is cause for celebration, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the happiness that Bolivia is experiencing and that has surprised the world through the press is nothing less than the result of a tense struggle of resistance first, followed by the offensive of that gigantic conglomeration of men and women, young and old, who embodied the Water War of 2000.  This process, begun in 2000 has put a human fence of struggle around the plunder of our common goods such as water, hydrocarbons, expelling transnationals, rejecting the overwhelming advance of transnational capital, and also rejecting the impositions of financial organizations such  the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO.  We have shut out and defeated the claims to perpetual power of those interests throughout these heroic past 6 years by means of:  road blockages, closing off the city, uprisings and insurrections and marches, land occupations, closing the valves of the gas pipelines, occupation of oil wells.  It has been 6 years filled with struggles, bravery, and indignation turned into public protest, of discussions and deliberations about the path to take.  This is the reason for the electoral victory of December 18.  The victory cannot be seen as a victory of individuals, of personalities.  This victory is above all a message expressed in votes of the obligation of those who govern, whoever they are, to carry out the agenda established by the indigenous, the peasants and other sectors in 2000.

· The expropriation of our common patrimony, fundamentally the nationalization of our hydrocarbons.

· A Constituent Assembly of popular origin without party control.

· Agrarian Reform to eliminate the latifundios of landlords connected to the elites.

· Trials of the assassins of the people.

Bringing the situation up to date: Working and communitarian Bolivian society has spent a lot of energy over these past years and has achieved this transformation of the order of things.  The social energy has been enough to expel the elites from the government using their own resources.. Elections.   Nevertheless,  the entire  institutional platform and the legal framework inherited from colonialism is still standing, and the heterogeneous mix that is in the parliament now, with ponchos and suits and ties are living amidst foreign bureaucratic rules.  What’s behind the scene is worrying.  The right is dug in, resentful and active in starting to weave new threats.  It is coming up with all kinds of blackmail and is betting on frightening the government into becoming an able administrator of its liberal economic and political heritage, or else it is preparing to sweep it out if it radicalizes, and prepare its objective in the next round of the Constituent Assembly.   
There are those assert that the rise of Evo Morales is the culmination of the wave of struggles opened in 2000 and that now is the time to institutionalize the gains, and there are those of us who believe the process is not closed, that such  social energy has managed to open  many windows and doors in order to continue modifying relationships between people, so that thinking and decision making continue about common matters and the forms of emancipation needed in order the change the social world. As such, social organizations are at a crossroad.   
Without a doubt the struggle for water, gas, electricity, basic services,. That is to say, survival, has created spaces for deliberation, for proposals, for organization between simple hardworking people from the countryside and the city.  These spaces should be strengthened and the communitarian practices should be maintained, because the people of Bolivia are still facing the dictatorship of capital under difficult conditions, but with a great sense of dignity, are building collective, horizontal and transparent leaderships. 
The process opened with the Water War of 2000  helped make people who once worked without knowing what became of their labor ask themselves where the product of their work ends up, and to reclaim the control of it for the benefit of all.  People who before quietly withstood their sad destiny now have found their tongues and demand to be heard.  People who before put up with discrimination against their last name, language, or the color of their skin, now show pride and reclaim a new way of life.  Thousands and thousands of indigenous Aymaras and Quechuas, thousands and thousands of workers, of wage earners, of youth, of irrigators, of housewives, have decided to break the abusive monopoly of power, wealth and money concentrated in the hands of a caste of businessmen and racist politicians, and to reclaim our right to enjoy the wealth, our right to participate in public management, our right to deliberate over the administration of the common good.  And our wish continues to be the rebuilding of public space through a new society. A new future is what working men and women from the city and countryside have begun to wish for, to dream of, and to build. 
Finally:  On a day like today, May Day, we struggle for the reaffirmation of the historic interests of the working class. That struggle lasted several decades. That history should not be forgotten, hidden or purged of social content. Only with the recuperation of our historic memory will we be able to take on new collective and communitarian processes. 
Long live the fighters and martyrs of Chicago!  
Long live the struggle of immigrant workers!  
Long live solidarity between peoples! 
Troy NY-Cochabamba   May 1, 2006

This article is from Claudia Lopez’s talk at the "Lessons From Latin American Workers" Conference in Troy, NY on May 1, 2006

Claudia Lopez is an organizer of the Cochabamba chapter of the Federation of Factory Workers of Bolivia. She is active in the development of political education programs and strategies for Federation members and conducts research on labor issues.

Claudia and the Federation played a key role in the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life, the organization credited with uniting peasants, environmentalists, teachers, blue and white collar workers, housewives, students, elderly and a variety of social sectors in the fight against global giant Bechtel Corporation. This successful campaign, known as the Water War of 2000, reversed Bechtel’s privatization of water in Cochabamba, and created a community based operation of the water supply. The Federation continues to be a part of the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life. Claudia is currently working to organize sexual workers, and is an activist in Indymedia.

Nancy Wallace, the translator of this piece, is an electrical work and union shop steward in Local, IBEW 97.