The 1999-2000 Cochabamba Water War

On 7 December 2009, President Evo Morales was re-elected president of Bolivia by a landslide. Less than 10 days later, alongside Venezuelan President Chavez, he upset the imperialists’ hope for the Copenhagen negotiations when he stated in a plenary session that not only was capitalism responsible for climate change, but that the rich nations should make climate reparations to the poor. Ten years ago it was unthinkable that a Bolivian president should have such international influence. But that was before the 1999/2000 Cochabamba Water War, an event which together with Chavez’s election in December 1998 turned the tide against imperialism in Latin America, and led eventually to Morales’ first presidential victory in December 2005. Robert Clough reports.

The background to the Water War was an agreement by the neo-liberal Bolivian government, under Hugo Banzer, to privatise the water supply in Cochabamba province, to meet a condition set by the World Bank for the extension of $600 million debt relief. The new owner was a consortium run by US multinational Bechtel, Aguas del Tunari, which was the sole bidder for a contract that guaranteed an annual profit rate of 16% over its proposed 40-year life. At the same time the Bolivian congress passed Law 2029 which handed control of all irrigation, water collection systems and wells in Cochabamba to Aguas del Tunari. With only half the population of one million connected to a mains water supply, the wells were vital; many of them had been built by small cooperatives. Law 2029 also allowed the consortium to install water meters in every household at consumers’ expense. The terms of the law were so broad that they essentially passed the ownership of rainwater to Aguas del Tunari as soon as it hit the ground in the province. Prominent among supporters of the privatisation was the very wealthy Mayor of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes, because it would finance the construction of a dam from which he and many of his political cronies would benefit.

The privatisation of the Cochabamba water system was part of a wholesale privatisation of Bolivian industry and resources which had started in the mid-1980s with the New Economic Policy (NEP) under the direction of planning minister Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, later to become president on two occasions. Under the NEP, gas and oil resources, electricity generation, tin mines, rail and air transport were sold off at rock-bottom prices. The results were devastating for the poor: massive unemployment – 20,000 miners alone lost their jobs – and a bonanza for the rich. State income collapsed: annual revenue from gas fell from $3-400 million to less than $100 million. By 1990, per capita GDP had fallen by nearly 20% below its 1980 level and was a mere $836. From the late 1990s, however, popular resistance to imperialism’s onslaught started as coca farmers began to organise against the US-funded and organised coca-eradication programme, particularly in the Chapare region to the south of Cochabamba.

The start of the Water War

The first signs of opposition to Bechtel appeared within a few weeks of the contract being signed in September 1999. In early November, farmers and irrigators organised a 24-hour blockade of Cochabamba city to protest against the handing over of their resources to the consortium. On

12 November, farmers’ and workers’ organisations came together with environmentalist groups to form the Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua

y de la Vida (Coalition for the Defence of Water and Life). The initial focus of the Coordinadora was on the consortium’s announcement of a 35% increase in water charges which would make working class families pay an average of $20 a month where the minimum wage was only $60, and the average wage $100 a month.

When new bills arrived in January 2000, many had doubled and tripled, hitting the middle class and local industry as well as the poor. A Bechtel official said that if people didn’t pay their water bills, their water would be turned off. The Coordinadora organised its first major protest, a city-wide general strike which stopped the city for four days. Roads were blockaded, the airport shut down and thousands of protestors filled the central square. After initially refusing to negotiate with the protestors, the Cochabamba governor agreed to press the government to rescind the increases; the Coordinadora gave him a three-week deadline. When by the beginning of February nothing had happened, the Coordinadora organised a peaceful demonstration to the city centre. It was attacked by police drafted in from other Bolivian cities. 200 were arrested and dozens injured in clashes which lasted two days. The outcome was greater determination. The principal spokesperson for the Coordinadora, Oscar Olivera, later wrote: ‘The greatest achievement of the February days was that we lost our sense of fear.’

The April days and victory

Protests and mass assemblies continued throughout March 2000, joined by Chapare coca growers who had been fighting US-led eradication programmes; their president was Evo Morales. The Coordinadora organised a referendum. 96% of those voting called for the termination of the contract. Popular assemblies discussed tactics and strategies; their proposals were put to city-wide cabildos, mass open meetings which could involve over 50,000 people, for discussion and agreement. The whole of the population of Cochabamba, apart from the rich, had been mobilised against the contract. By the beginning of April, demonstrations had spread to other cities in the country.

On 4 April, a cabildo demanded the contract be cancelled within 24 hours; the next day, tens of thousands occupied the central plaza and refused to move until they achieved their demand. Province-wide road-blocks organised by campesinos cut off the city from the rest of the country. On 6 April, the government declared martial law and tried to hunt down the Coordinadora leaders who all went underground. Tens of thousands of people were involved in hand-to-hand battles with police and soldiers. ‘The poorest young people were always on the frontline, throwing stones at the police’, one participant recollected. ‘They are people who have a tradition of fighting because they have been ignored, marginalised, pushed around ... They inspired us to move forward.’ On 8 April, Captain Robinson Iriarte, who had been trained in the infamous School of the Americas, shot dead a 19-year-old student, Victor Daza, who was not participating in the protest. The deliberate nature of the act was picked up on camera and broadcast nationally, fuelling the protests which were now raging night and day throughout the city and province. The position of the coalition government had become untenable: two days later, it capitulated. Bechtel had been kicked out of Cochabamba.

The Cochabamba Water War showed that popular forces organised in a democratic and revolutionary manner could defeat neo-liberalism and imperialism. From that point on in Bolivia, the anti-imperialist social movements were in the ascendancy, and the ruling class in retreat. In December 2002, Evo Morales was narrowly defeated by Sanchez de Lozada in presidential elections after a crude intervention by the US ambassador. The following October, despite ruthless repression costing the lives of 70 people, Lozada was forced to flee the country in the face of a mass mobilisation insisting on the re-nationalisation of the country’s huge gas resources. In June 2005, his replacement Carlos Mesa was also forced out of office. Six months later Evo Morales was president. The Cochabamba Water War served as an inspiration for social movements across Latin America, in Argentina, Ecuador and Peru.

FRFI 213 February / March 2010