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.