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The Cochabamba Water Revolt, Ten Years Later

A decade after the streets of Cochabamba exploded in what became known as the Water Revolt, the people of Bolivia’s third largest city filled the streets once again to commemorate the anniversary of a grassroots victory that has become known around the world.

Jim Shultz

Ten years ago these streets felt very different than the festive atmosphere this week. Under pressure from the World Bank, Bolivia's conservative government signed a 40-year lease, putting the city's water system into the hands of the San Francisco-based engineering giant, Bechtel. Within weeks of taking over, Bechtel raised water rates by an average of 50 percent, much higher in many cases. People from the countryside, concerned that their water systems were next, joined the city in a series of massive protests that were met with repression at the hands of a dictator-turned-president, Hugo Banzer. A 17-year-old boy, Victor Hugo Daza, was killed by an Army sharpshooter.

But in the end the people of Cochabamba prevailed. The government finally caved in and Bechtel was forced to leave, its contract canceled. A year later Bechtel sued the people of Cochabamba in a trade court operated by that same World Bank, seeking a payment of $50 million after making investments in Cochabamba of less than $1 million. A huge international campaign--ranging from legal petitions to direct action at Bechtel's San Francisco headquarters--forced Bechtel to settle for a token payment of thirty cents.

Coming just months after the 1999 Seattle protests, the Cochabamba Water Revolt was a vivid demonstration of what the struggles over globalization truly meant in people's lives. The Water Revolt, an inspiring story of David conquering Goliath, soon became legend in many circles, the subject of numerous documentaries and articles and even more doctoral dissertations.

A Legend with Mixed Results

This week's tenth anniversary march was buoyant. Thousands of people lined city streets. Water Revolt fans and followers from the northern hemisphere came by the dozens to join in. David Solnit, the renowned maker of protest puppets, spent weeks working with Bolivian activists to make huge puppets for the anniversary march. Dozens of eye-catching masks with long, flowing bodies floated over the streets of Cochabamba. Mona Caron, the talented muralist from San Francisco, was here as well, leading a mural project to commemorate the historic events a decade before.

A decade later, what does the Cochabamba Water Revolt really tell us about the power of protest and about the challenges of getting people in an impoverished country access to water, the one thing they can't live without? I wrote the first international reports from the scene of the Revolt a decade ago, and had a good deal to do with helping create the legend. But a decade later, it is a legend with markedly mixed results.

For Bolivia, the Water Revolt was the spark that changed everything. Emboldened by their ability to fight and win against guns and conglomerates, Bolivians took to the streets over and over again, winning more victories for economic self-determination. In February 2003, the people of La Paz and El Alto led protests that forced the government to drop a plan to tax the poor, part of an IMF-induced belt-tightening package. Later that year, nationwide protests stopped another plan by the government to sell off the nation's gas at bargain prices through Chile to the U.S.


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Each of these protests also left dozens of dead in its wake. Taking action in the streets in Bolivia proved, as always, to be a much more bloody and less cheerful exercise than in the North.

In December 2005, that demand for change found an expression at the ballot box with the landslide historic election of Evo Morales as President--an event that had its roots in the Water Revolt. The first time I ever met the President-to-be was in the streets of Cochabamba in 2000, as he pitched rocks at the shields of police firing tear gas into the protests.

But the results, in terms of access to clean and affordable water, are far more mixed. Half the homes in the area served by the public water utility still have no water service; many of those that do have service only have it a few hours a week. A decade after people shed blood in the streets to retake their water, the company that manages it remains riddled with corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency--a source of graft for the city's mayor and the union that represents the company's workers.

The political unity that marked Cochabamba during the Water Revolt has fared no better. This year there were two separate commemorations of the Revolt. One featured President Morales and the people who led the rural wing of the Revolt. Another, led by the famous head of the factory workers' union, Oscar Olivera, included workers and organizations from Cochabamba's impoverished southern neighborhoods. Each commemoration took political shots at the other.

An Enduring Symbol of Inspiration

None of this should detract from the fact that the Water Revolt is a genuine symbol of the power a people can exercise when they are united and brave. Kicking out a foreign corporation hell-bent on profiting handsomely off water was a major victory. But the deeper lessons of the Water Revolt ten years later also include this: Protest is often essential to winning the space where positive change can happen. In a place like Bolivia, protest of that sort is often both dangerous and brave. As such, it becomes, rightly, a source of inspiration to those who participated in it or wished they had.

But once that space is won, the second part of that work begins: building the systems and making the concrete changes that actually deliver the goods that people fought for. That work, like building a public water company, is not nearly so romantic but essential nonetheless. A decade later, that remains the unfinished work of the Cochabamba Water Revolt.

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Jim Shultz wrote this aticle for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jim is a contributing author and co-editor of Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization (UC Press). His writings from the street during the Cochabamba Water Revolt shared honors for top story of the year in 2000 from Project Censored.

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