The Water Wars and Bloqueos “Every Day”

Oscar Olivera, one of the primary leaders of the Water Council that coordinated the successful campaign against water privatization in 2000

Cochabamba  I had met Oscar Olivera in 2003 at the World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, but in the way of these things, it was a passing acquaintance at a meeting of unions who were fighting water privatization I attended along with Luis Isarra Delgado, our partner with the water workers of FENTAP in Peru, after Local 100 and ACORN’s fight to stop the privatization in New Orleans.  For over two hours we were enthralled as he delivered a three part “master’s course” for our Organizers’ Forum Delegation.

The first part was his long 30-year history was an activist with the Oblatos Order and Communists that worked with miners and which his whole family, including 10 siblings, supported to the degree that they were a safe house for blacklisted miners trying to get work again in the city or the mines.   He had gone to work at 16 in a factory and was pushed out of a job in metal fabrication for inviting the Oblate priests in to help organize.  He ended up as a worker in a shoe fabricating plant and within 3 years was an emerging leader of the union and over his 30 year career there he held every conceivable job with the union including serving as president at the local, regional, and state level.  He talked movingly and at length of what he learned about “workers’ culture” from the old hands at the plant and with the union.  In some ways he was able to bridge the old pre-1985 change in labor laws which decimated the miners and much of the institutional labor movement and the new unionism of informal workers.

The second part was the fast moving campaign from late 1999 when farmers and irrigators realized that a law with almost 200 articles had been passed by Congress which would have privatized their water, raised prices to 20% of their income paid to Bechtel, and even given the state the ability to regulate their ability to collect rainwater.  The agricolas had started blockading roads coming into Cochabama, and in Oscar’s story, his union, had become a sanctuary for social movements and experiments with different types of organizing, so they were able to form a Water Council with Evo Morales and his cocaleros, the agricolas, his union, and others to oppose the bill.  The story is rich and well told in various documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles.  The movement held a consultation with 5000 in the principal plaza.  People were allowed to vote on a corrupt-ometer.  Bloqueos were everywhere.  He told of one with nothing but children’s toys, and the children joining adults to stop any breach.  Another used wheelchairs from the elderly.  Classes were united.   A mobilization was held every month and the last in April had 100,000 people all demanding an end to the privatization scheme.  After brief negotiations Congress repealed the whole package in a day.

The third part of Oscar’s story was the future, and in some ways it overlapped with strikingly similar observations from another side of the street that were made by Gonzalo Lema, who is a member of the Electoral Court and was President of the City Council of Cochabama from 2005 to 2010.  Both agreed that the Constitution had many good features.  We asked each to describe their last conversations with Evo, since both of them had known and worked with Morales in the various Cochabamba fights before he became President of Bolivia.  Oscar’s last was in 2009 where in answer to a question, he gave Evo the three things he thought were the biggest unresolved issues, including corruption and narco-trafficing.  Lema’s was in 2008 and about as productive, but he shared a revealing conversation with Evo and several others where they tried to debate the question “What would a Boliviano call ‘comfort?’”

Everyone agrees that the social movements are weaker now and weakening steadily.  Many of the innovations that Oscar brought to his union didn’t last past 2003 when he left after receiving a Goldman Environmental Prize for $125,000 that funds his Fundacion Abril where he continues to work on water and work issues.  No one believed that Evo was not popular enough to win or that there was a contender in sight.  When we asked Gonzalo Lema how he dealt with the social movements and the bloqueos, he simply said, “they happened every day.”

Yet, somehow they still have some impact.  We thought we were going to see the teachers’ blockade the bridges today.  But, the police were in force on every bridge, so it didn’t happen.  The social movements may think that Evo is their friend, but no longer quite one of them on many issues, and Gonzalo was articulate on how much Evo had isolated Bolivia from most of the rest of the world and that even the new referenda might isolate them further.  Nonetheless, Evo is still one of them sufficiently that he is not going to use state power to crush social movements and their tactics during the next couple of years he is in power.

Both said almost identically, they were not seeking the responsibility, but when I said to Oscar, there is still no way “not to answer the call,” both also understood that was true.  Everyone agreed that the society was in a state of change, and more change was coming, though both were less optimistic about what that might mean compared to the experience of the past.


police mass to stop the teachers bloqueo planned for the bridge


Fighting Everywhere over Drinking Water

6 de mayo Organizing CommitteeSan Pedro Sula It has rained three straight days virtually non-stop in San Pedro Sula. Water is standing on many streets in huge ponds in the colonias, as cars, bikes, and pedestrians try to navigate the deep ruts for a path home or to work. Unfortunately the situation is literally “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!”

Meeting with an organizing committee during the rainstorm on Sunday in Colonia 6 de Mayo, the issue they repeated over and over was their frustration at having no potable water in their sector of the barrio. Early settlers had dug a few wells, but these were closed and for 15 years families that now added up to over 1000 people had been vainly pleading with the municipality to provide potable water. The river was not that far away, perhaps 10 kilometers, but unfiltered and therefore undrinkable. Within a few blocks were huge pipes fenced in behind a sign saying Agua San Pedro, but still no water for Col. 6 de Mayo, which meant buying water litre after liter at what residents said were escalating prices as well. If they could drink promises, they would be more than full, but that is all they had been served. After animated discussion around the table with ACORN Honduras – San Pedro Sula head organizer, Luis Martinez, an agreement was finally reached on a strategy and tactics. A grand reunion or meeting was planned for the 6th of March to mobilize all of the residents, circulate petitions of support, and force the officials to attend to finally commit to a plan. If that did not work, then in the next steps, people were committed to “go all Cairo” on the authorities.

In some ways this discussion was not a surprise. In the leadership meeting the day before in San Pedro Sula, delegates from the ACORN Honduras chapters in Cholomo had also talked constantly about water, and it had nothing to do with the pouring rain, but the efforts by the Mayor of Cholomo to privatize the water with an outside company and the rising rates people were already paying. There the details were not transparent yet on the exact name of the company, its scope, and its relationship to the powers that be in Cholomo. The only thing the leaders knew for certain was that the project was being pushed and financed by the Inter-American Development Bank, an arm of the United States based in Washington, D.C. Given ACORN Peru’s many years of fights against privatization with our companeros in FENTAP, the water workers’ union of Peru, this was a battle where we knew the field and many of the combatants. Unfortunately we did not know whether or not we were too late, and the endless rain might prevent another meeting to get the details on this trip.

Fortunately, Luis has recruited his own “intern army,” as I call it with four volunteers from the University helping him and another couple of his companeros committed to lending their hands, cars, and anything else to make the organizing work. The core capacity and leadership is coming together in San Pedro Sula for Honduras ACORN, and it will take more than a lot of rain to stop the members from organizing aggressively to win their basic needs. Water is at the top of the list for us in the colonias.