While the April conflict ended with outraged Bolivians driving the water privateers out of the country, the victory came at the expense of at least six lives.
The government clampdown was an attempt to quell rising anger about a World Bank-sponsored privatization scheme in the countrys third-largest city, Cochabamba. The military fired on demonstrators opposing water rate hikes that priced this life source out of many citizens reach.
The Cochabamba protests began soon after a multinational consortium signed a 40-year concession to provide water and sewer services for the city, and to supply water for irrigation and electrical generation to the Cochabamba valley. The single-bidder sale of Cochabambas public system was pushed on government officials by the World Bank.
The consortium is led by International Water Limited (IWL), jointly owned by San Francisco-based Bechtel and the Italian utility Edison.
When IWL assumed control of the water systems in January, it imposed massive increases for water and sewer services. Activists, led by Oscar Olivera, the head of the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers, responded quickly.
We’re questioning that others, the World Bank, international business, should be deciding these basic issues for us, said Olivera in an interview with a California newspaper. For us, that is democracy.
They organized a city shut-down, forcing an agreement to reverse the increases. That agreement was not honoured. Tensions continued to grow through February and peaked at the end of March.
After a week of protests, blockades and tense negotiations with the government, reports emerged that IWL was fleeing the country. When the consortium tried to backtrack, the government, feeling the heat from a pot about to boil over, announced that IWL had broken its contract by attempting to leave, and was no longer welcome.
At the same time, both Bechtel and the Bolivian government downplayed the role of privatization in sparking the protests. Knee deep in denial, government officials blamed the unrest on the drug trade.
But Bolivians werent deceived. The blood spilled in Cochabamba carries the fingerprints of Bechtel, said Olivera.
In 1999, the World Bank ranked privatizing Cochabambas water as a top priority, arguing that all water users, even the very poor, should pay water bills that reflect the full cost of water treatment and delivery. In Cochabamba, families earning $100 a month saw their water bills soar to $20 per month in some cases more than they spent on food.
The courage of the Bolivian protesters prompted messages of solidarity from around the globe.
In one particularly spirited solidarity action half a world away, the New Zealand Water Pressure group drove a bright red fire truck to the local Bolivian consulate and hosed it down, while holding up signs saying Bolivia, the world is watching you.
The Cochabamba killings came as development bureaucrats gathered for a World Bank/International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington. The Bolivian deaths further strengthened activists demands for the bank to end its sponsorship of water privatization projects and for IMF loans to be given without any privatization strings attached.
World Bank director James Wolfensohn responded to journalists questions about Bolivia by saying the country needed a proper system of charging, mouthing the Banks official line that the solution to water shortages is to increase prices.
CUPE is part of a global group of unions and allies that condemned the Bolivian governments actions, and continues to call on the World Bank for a halt to water privatization projects.