April 14, 2000
Attached below is a media backgrounder on the struggle and government violence in Bolivia surrounding privatization of the public water system. Last year World Bank economists told Bolivia that "no public subsidies" should be allowed to keep water rates affordable. When the Bolivian government tried to privatize the water system in response by selling it to the Bechtel corporation, massive protests began and the government declared the equivalent of martial law on April 8. You can learn more about the Bolivian protests on the web at http://www.americas.org.
Also attached is a bio of Oscar Olivera, a Bolivian labor leader who is the most prominent protest leader. Olivera will be present at this weekend's IMF-World Bank protests in Washington, DC and he will remain in the US next week. Please feel free to forward this information to interested journalists or organizations. If any journalists would like to meet with Olivera please call Tom Matzzie at 202-251-8545 (cell phone) or 202-490-7009 (pager). Olivera is also interested in meeting with labor leaders, citizen activists and others.
============================================= ============================================= MEDIA BACKGROUNDER
HOW BOLIVIANS TOOK THEIR WATER BACK FROM THE BECHTEL CORPORATION
(Additional information and press-available photos posted at http://www.americas.org)
As thousands converge on Washington this week to protest the abuses of economic globalization, from Bolivia comes the story of a corporate giant being chased out by a popular uprising. On Monday, following a week of massive public protests that nearly brought this country of 7 million to a standstill, the Bolivian government declared null and void the agreement it signed last year selling the water system of its third largest city to a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation.
Like many poor countries, Bolivia is under heavy pressure by the World Bank to sell its public enterprises to international investors, like Bechtel. In a closed door process rife with corruption, Bolivia has sold off one public enterprise after another - the airline, electric utilities, the national train service and finally the public water system for a city with more than a half million people.
Price Hikes of More Than Double on the Poorest
In January, just as the company posted its new logo over the door, it hit local water users with rate hikes of double and more. In a country where the minimum wage is less that $100 per month, the poorest families were being told to pay water bills of $20 and up. Tanya Paredes, a mother of five who supports her family knitting baby clothes, saw her water bill leap by $15. For the World Bank economists who told Bolivia last year that, "no public subsidies" should be allowed to keep water rates affordable, that's a light dinner in a Georgetown bistro. For Paredes it is food for her family for a week and a half.
Public outrage against the rate increases was huge and swift. A mid-January general strike and transportation stoppage, demanding reversal of the rate hikes, brought the city to a total standstill for four days. The government of President Hugo Banzer (who ruled Bolivia as a dictator through much of the 1970s) promised that rates would be rolled back. When those promises evaporated, protest leaders organized a peaceful march on the city's central plaza. Banzer responded with police, tear gas and rubber bullets, leaving more than left more than 175 injured and two youths blinded.
The government then agreed to a temporary rate rollback and further negotiations. Water rights leaders and local economists began scrutinizing the Bechtel contract, raising serious questions about the numbers. A leading daily newspaper reported that investors had put up less than $20,000 of up-front capital for a water system worth millions. In March, water rights leaders surveyed more than 60,000 local residents, with more than 90% saying that the government should break the contract and that Bechtel's affiliate should go.
"The Last Battle"
When the Tuesday April 4th deadline arrived for breaking the contract arrived, the government and the water company refused to budge. Once again, Cochabamba ground to a halt, the streets empty of cars, the schools, stores and businesses all closed. Two days later, when protest leaders sat down with top officials and civic leaders to negotiate, police stormed the meeting and put the water rights leaders in jail. "We were talking with the Mayor, the Governor, and other civil leaders when the police came in and arrested us," says Oscar Olivera, the protest's most visible leader. "It was a trap by the government to have us all together, negotiating, so that we could be arrested."
Released the next morning, protest leaders cautiously agreed to another negotiating session Friday afternoon. As thousands of angry people gathered in the city's plaza, many armed with sticks and rocks, the government failed to show and rumors spread that army units were preparing to enter the city. Suddenly the Archbishop received a call from the Governor with news that the Bechtel contract would be broken, an announcement made to enormous cheers from a third floor balcony. The thousands gathered below and the whole city began an enormous victory celebration, one that did not last long.
Within hours government officials were saying that the water company's departure was not confirmed. The company issued an announcement that it wasn't leaving. At midnight the Governor went on TV, resigned, and in tears declared that he did not want to be responsible for the "bloodbath" many saw coming. Throughout Friday night the homes of the protest leaders and their families were invaded by police, with half the leadership arrested and flown to a remote jail in the Bolivian jungle. On Saturday morning Bolivia awoke to news that President Banzer was declaring a "state of emergency", equivalent to martial law. Throughout the morning radio news reporters warned that police and military were entering their studios as their broadcasts went dead. Power was cutoff to the area of the city where broadcast antennas are located.
>From hiding, the water rights leaders that remained free repeated their
demand for Bechtel's departure. Thousands of farmers and their families, waging a parallel campaign over control of rural water systems, began walking to the city from as far away as 70 miles. Military units called out to enforce Banzer's orders fired not only tear gas but bullets. At least two were killed, and more than 100 injured, just in Cochabamba, including a 17 year old boy killed by a shot in the face. Still, Bechtel's affiliate refused to go, its leaders hanging up on reporters who tried to reach them. Olivera issued a statement saying that the bloodshed, "now had the fingerprints of Bechtel."
On Monday, April 10, with Cochabamba's shut down in its 7th day, thousands of people continued to crowd the central plaza and also fortify the highway blockades cutting off access in and out of the city. Women went door to door gathering food to cook for the protesters. As the sun set news reports broke the story of that the government had signed an agreement, declaring that Bechtel's representatives had fled the country and had therefore broken the contract. Members of the Bolivian Congress flew to an emergency session in La Paz to ratify the changes in the rural water law demanded by the people from the countryside.
As the people of Cochabamba awoke last Tuesday morning, life was beginning to come back to normal, with mini-buses running up and down the city's hillsides and people running to catch them to make their way to work. Yet, as movement leader Olivera says, "We do not live in the same Cochabamba that we did three months ago, the people are together, they are mobilized. As people in the US gather in Washington, they have a new and powerful model to look at, globalism without rules being challenged and beaten from the bottom up.
============================== ============================== OSCAR OLIVERA
A Leader of the Bolivia Water Protests
Oscar Olivera is head of the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers. A 45-year-old machinist, he says he did not expect to become a national voice against multinational institutions and corporations, but the protests against water-price hikes by the privatized company Aguas del Turani made him a national figure.
Olivera was forced into hiding, escaping detention hours before President Hugo Banzer imposed a state of emergency and rounded up protest leaders. After four days of hopping between safe houses, Olivera emerged Wednesday after verbal assurances we would not be arrested. He traveled Thursday to La Paz to seek a visa to participate in the march in Washington.
The Cochabamba union leader was a member of the "coordinadora," the citizen body that was negotiating with the government and private company and Olivera quickly became the voice of the people. "I think that when the economy is globalized, it is important to globalize the fight for the people," he told the international press while seeking his visa to march in Washington.
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