[Marxism] Bolivian poor and oppressed gain ground in water wars under Morales

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Mar 7 12:20:17 MST 2006

Posted on Sat, Mar. 04, 2006 BOLIVIA Water wars nearing end under
Moves by Bolivia's new president to end foreign control of water
utilities have drawn the eyes of other South American countries. 
BY JACK CHANG Knight Ridder News Service 
EL ALTO, Bolivia - Living on the barren outskirts of the fastest-growing
city in Latin America, Hilda Tintachipana doesn't expect many modern
Raising and selling rabbits pays the bills for the 27-year-old woman and
her young family. They live in a dank, two-room house with spotty
electricity, but that's just a fact of life, she said. 
But Tintachipana draws the line at water. 
It's a disgrace, she said, that she must tap the muddy spring outside
her house or collect rain to feed and bathe her young children. She
blames the foreign company that promised her water years ago, but never
''We've been waiting for service in this part of town for a long time,''
she said. ``We even have the pipe running down the middle of the road,
but it's dry. Without water, there is no possibility of life.'' 
Such complaints can be heard throughout Latin America in countries that
privatized water and other resources during the 1990s, only to see whole
populations react with outrage. 
The reaction was strongest in Bolivia, where opposition to foreign
control of water and natural gas set off an explosion of civil unrest
that brought down presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa. 
Peasant leader Evo Morales rode that wave of protest to assume the
presidency in January. One of his first proposals was to kick out the
last foreign company delivering water to the impoverished, 9
million-person country -- the French firm Suez, which serves La Paz, the
capital, and the adjacent city of El Alto. 
To anti-globalization activists around the world, what has become known
as the water wars, and their imminent end in Bolivia, are a celebrated
case of poor people defending themselves against wrong-headed
free-market policies pushed by institutions such as the World Bank. 
Such protests have also raged in Argentina, where anger over rate
increases pushed Suez to abandon its water contract in the city of Santa
Fe. The company is also seeking an early end to its concession in Buenos
Aires due to government price controls that the company says prevented
it from turning a profit. 
Last month, hundreds of people in the Argentine town of Córdoba took to
the streets to protest water rate hikes of as much as 500 percent
mandated by Suez. 
'This was the first shot across the bow of people saying, `Hey, these
policies aren't working for us,' '' said Thom Kruse, an activist who has
written extensively about the Bolivian water conflict. ``It played an
important role in marking the beginning of the end of these neoliberal
Suez spokeswoman Maya Alexandesco said the privatizations helped rescue
crumbling water systems long run inefficiently by public water
companies. In Latin America, Suez has water concessions in Argentina,
Bolivia, Brazil and Mexico. It is the biggest water company in the
''The whole argument of the big, mean private company coming in to make
money from the poor is not valid,'' she said. ``We never made much
profit from the Bolivia concessions.'' 
Bolivian officials fault Suez for not connecting enough households to
water lines as mandated by its contract and for charging as much as $455
a connection, or about three times the average monthly salary of an
office clerk. 
They have met once with Suez representatives to negotiate the company's
exit, although Suez's contract runs through 2027. 
''Our experience with the company has been a disappointing one, and it's
time to take another approach,'' said vice water minister René Orellana.
``We need to think of people first instead of paying dividends to
What Morales will do about water after the utilities are back in public
hands remains unknown. 
Orellana suggested setting up a new public water company, although
problems with such public companies led Bolivia to privatize its water
utilities in the first place. 
When the U.S. company Bechtel took over the water works in the city of
Cochabamba in November 1999, it increased rates by as much as 100
percent to raise money for needed improvements neglected by the public
That move proved to be suicide for Bechtel and launched the first round
of protests in Latin America's water wars. With Cochabamba paralyzed by
street blockades, the Bolivian government canceled Bechtel's contract
just six months after it started. 
The citizens' collective Semapa that ran Cochabamba's water utilities
before it was privatized is back in control and has so far left water
rates largely untouched. But it hasn't had much luck delivering water.
Only about 40 percent of the city's residents enjoy running water. email
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