COCHABAMBA, Bolivia A week of enormous, often violent, civil uprisings here earlier this month left at least seven people dead, more than a hundred others injured and flashed pictures abroad pictures that made leaders here very nervous.
The government was quick to blame. Spokesman Ronald MacLean told the few international reporters in Cochabamba after the first demonstration, "I want to denounce the subversive attitude absolutely politically financed by narcotraffickers."
Even a few minutes on the ground would show how big a lie this is. The week's uprisings had nothing to do with drugs; they were about water. And the culprits were not narcotraffickers, but the executives of the Bechtel Corporation in downtown San Francisco.
The uprisings here are a response to the Bolivian government's sale - under heavy pressure from the World Bank of Cochabamba's public water system to a Bechtel subsidiary, Aguas del Tunari.
The details of the deal are secret the company claims the numbers are "intellectual property" but it is very clear that Bechtel's people here were intent on getting as much as they could as fast as they could out of people's pockets in South America's poorest country.
Only weeks after their corporate logo appeared over local water facilities, the Bechtel subsidiary at least doubled rates for local water users. Families earning a minimum wage of less than $100 per month were told to fork over $20 and more, or have the tap shut off. Tanya Paredes, a mother of five who supports her family as a knitter, was hit with an increase of $15 per month, about what she spends for food for her family for a week and a half.
The recent demonstrations can come as no surprise to Bechtel executives or the Bolivian government. In January, general strikes shut Cochabamba down for four straight days.
To end the protests, the Bolivian government promised to force rates down - a promise broken within a few weeks. When thousands tried to march peacefully here on Feb. 4, President Hugo Banzer called out police and hammered people with two days of tear gas, leaving 175 citizens injured and two youths blinded.
In March, a survey of more than 60,000 residents found 90 percent saying the water system should be returned to public control. When residents staged a shutdown, the Bolivian government announced that the corporation must not leave.
After four days of protest, the government declared a "state of siege," arresting protest leaders in the dark of night, closing radio stations in mid-sentence and sending soldiers into the street with live bullets.
The strength of (and international attention to) the water protests did link them with other protests around the country. They include marches against a new law taking away rural water systems, a police strike in the capital city of La Paz and complaints about unfinished highways. But when people walk 70 miles from small towns to join a protest and women come door to door to gather food donations for demonstrators, narcotrafficking has nothing to do with it.
In the middle of the protest, the mayor of a small town nearby explained, "This is a struggle for justice, and for the removal of an international business that, even before offering us more water, has begun to charge us prices that are outrageously high."
On April 10, government officials made public a letter they had sent to Bechtel executives, accusing them of fleeing the country and therefore nullifying the contract.
The next day Bechtel issued a statement of its own: "We are also dismayed by the fact that much of the blame is falsely centered on the government's plan to raise water rates in Cochabamba, when in fact, a number of other water, social and political issues are the root causes of this civil unrest."
Bolivians may be mad about a lot of things, but it was Bechtel's greed and Bechtel's price hikes that were at the center of the protests - and the damage and death left behind.
If Bechtel's chief executive officer, Riley Bechtel, has any doubt about that, he can come here. There are about 100,000 angry Bolivian mothers who would love nothing better than to steer him straight.
Jim Shultz, executive director of The Democracy Center (www.democracyctr.org) lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.
Copyright 2000 San Francisco Examiner