Campesinos take on goliath of globalization

Will Braun talks to Oscar Olivera about the life and death politics of water, oil and gas in Bolivia.

December 1, 2004
6 min read

They sent a water-privatizing multinational packing, and chased an ultra-neoliberal president all the way to Miami . Now they have come head-to-head with the goliath of globalization. The people of Bolivia -stalwarts on the front lines of anti-globalization-are trying to wrest control of the country’s oil and gas reserves from the big boys of fossil fuel.

But as Oscar Olivera – a key figure in the Bolivian movement – tells it, the struggle is not so much against corporations or politicians as it is for public control of decisions affecting everyday life. ‘People can change things,’ says Olivera. And a seemingly unstoppable public momentum is building around this simple realization.

This momentum got a huge boost in 2000 when the people of Olivera’s hometown of Cochabamba de-privatized their water system to world-wide acclaim from all those opposing the power of global capitalism. It was one of democracy’s more dramatic moments in this era of globalization.

The people of Cochabamba discovered control of their water system was in the hands of a multinational consortium spearheaded by U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation. Bolivia ‘s government had granted the consortium, under the name Aguas del Tunari, 40 year concession to run the city’s water system. The deal guaranteed the company 16% annual profits, while the city’s people, many near the brink of survival, suffered water price hikes averaging 51%. A Bolivian water law that coincided with the privatization compounded the conflict, serving to restrict access to water people had always used.

After a dramatic five month struggle Aguas del Tunari withdrew and the Bolivian government handed over the city’s water system to a public board. The government passed a new water law that helps keep common water sources in common hands, as Olivera puts it.

Olivera is spokesperson for Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida , the organization that headed the struggle. He says the new water board is engaged in the difficult task of improving a troubled water system in a dry region. Prices are back to previous levels, but he says the challenges are considerable.

For Olivera the victory was one for local control of decisions that impact daily life. He says the people recovered not only their water but ‘their capacity to decide’ and their voice. It was an important step toward building a de-corporatized society, a process that has only become more intense since the water conflict.

Crude politics

Olivera, a shoe factory worker by trade, says oil and gas are vital to the sort of country the people are creating. ‘We want a different country,’ he says, ‘and for that we need an economic base.’ He sees Bolivia ‘s oil and gas reserves, which are second only to Venezuela ‘s on the continent, as the obvious economic foundation. But currently Bolivia ‘s oil is controlled by foreign powers and revenues pour out of the country.

For most of a century Bolivia has vacillated between nationalized and privatized control of its oil. In 1996 president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada signed privatization deals with various oil companies. Now, Olivera says, for every $100 of oil extracted in the country, $18 stays in Bolivia and $82 goes to the companies.

In 2003 Sánchez de Lozada, purportedly Bolivia ‘s second richest man, said Bolivia would sell gas to California . The people, seeing more of their national birthright siphoned off, said ‘no.’ And they said so forcefully. The government responded with its own force. In the end more than 60 people were dead and hundreds injured. Sánchez de Lozada ended up resigning and retreating to Miami .

Arising largely from continued public momentum, the Bolivian government is now debating a draft Hydrocarbons Law that could nationalize management of the resource and ensure greater industry benefits for the country as a whole. The high-stakes parliamentary debate on the law continues (it began November 3), as do pro-nationalization protests. The current president is caught between prevailing international oil interests and a people proven capable of toppling a president.

To Olivera the oil and gas issue is a matter of ‘life and death’ for his homeland. It could be an historic step toward realizing the vision of the people, or it could bring two powerful forces into direct conflict. Olivera says he fears violence if parliament defies the people. His hopeful eyes betray deep concern.

It is not clear when Bolivia will see a final version of the Hydrocarbons Law.

In the meantime, the city of El Alto is on the verge of its own ‘water war’, with civil society groups demanding the authorities return the city’s water system, currently run by a company controlled by French water giant Suez, to public control. This comes as Bechtel has finally dropped its US$25 million suit against Bolivia for cancelling its Cochabamba contract.

Bolivia ‘s increasingly intense political dynamics also played out in the December 5 municipal elections. The Movimiento Al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism), which aligns itself with the popular movements garnered significant popular support though not enough to unseat incumbent mayors in the major cities. Nonetheless the election marked a significant shift away from the traditional parties and toward MAS, which is a force both inside and outside the electoral system. Indigenous peoples, who make up 60% of Bolivia ‘s 8.6 million people are proving to be a growing force in the country.

‘ La gente’

Olivera says the ‘neoliberal’ template has been applied particularly directly and brutally in Bolivia . Water and gas are examples of the particularly rampant privatization which Bolivian people have been told is the only way to go. But the promises ring hollow. Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America and one of the most unequal societies on earth. Neo-liberalism hasn’t remedied this. Olivera emphasizes the uniqueness of the people’s response to this failure. They have rallied around a positive, participatory vision. People know what they want.

As I listen to Olivera one phrase rises above the others: ‘la gente.’ Translated directly, it simply means ‘the people.’ But punctuated with a history of struggle and the taste of an inevitably better future, as it is when Olivera says it, ‘la gente’ carries meaning beyond its English rendering. There seems to be the confidence of a David spreading amongst the people; a modest momentum that is slowly shifting the locus of power away from national electoral politics. Getting the right guy in power is less and less important, as power increasingly lies elsewhere. This is not electoral reform, but a bottoms-up reclaiming of democracy.

Olivera distils the issues of globalization and democracy into a single question: ‘Who decides?’ Increasingly in Bolivia , the common people-with their blemishes, hopes and montage of interests-are deciding.Will Braun is a writer from Winnipeg, Canada. He has lived and travelled in Latin America .


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