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Water Wars in Bolivia
An interview with Carmen Pereda and Marcela Olivera
Marcela Olivera and Carmen Pereda both played a key role in the Water Wars, which ousted the U.S. transnational Bechtel from Cochabamba, Bolivia. Olivera helps to manage international links such as speaking tours for her brother, Oscar Olivera, and volunteers from abroad. Pereda is part of the Federation of Irrigators and a spokesperson for the Co-ordinadora for the Defense of Water and Life.
The Co-ordindora is a coalition of workers, environmentalists, artisans, peasants, market vendors, neighborhood organizations, local governments, and others struggling against the privatization of Bolivias water system.
STYLES: What is the representation of women within the Co-ordinadora?
OLIVERA: There isnt a specific womens group within the Co-ordinadora. Carmen is the most visible person at the moment. We have never really looked at the question of women and menit has always been open, anyone can get involved. This week well be having our first ever workshop on the participation of women in the Water Warsto explore the role of women and how they have been involved.
When Oscar, one of the spokespeople of the Co-ordinadora, talks about the Water Wars, he always mentions the participation of women. Along with the young people, womens participation has been incredible, he says. I remember that in one of the neighborhoods where one of the largest blockades took place, the women stayed there to make sure that no one would get through and that the police wouldnt break it up, while the men came to the center of town.
PEREDA: We did a workshop with the irrigators and it came out how resourceful the women werefor example, against the tear gas, they came prepared with vinegar. Then they stood in the front line to face the soldiers saying that it would be harder for them to hit women. You almost always saw women at the front.
OLIVERA: Yes, I remember that whenever there were confrontations with the police, it was mostly women who were fighting back and getting arrested. Their bravery was really incredible.
PEREDA: Its also interesting that in the points of the blockades, the people in charge of the groups were women, especially outside the city center, because they are the ones that dont drink. They wouldnt be drunk and starting fights. They would go around and shut down the local bars and say, Right, were going to take things seriously here. No one is going to drink.
OLIVERA: The women had more moral authority. And they were of all ages. Another important thing was that when everyone was gathered in the central square for a few days, it was women who brought foodlike groups of nuns.
There was this idea in a lot of peoples mind that the Co-ordinadora was a woman. That it was a physical person, rather than a group of people. There was an old man in April who went to Oscars office and wanted to meet the Co-ordinadora, and Oscar kept saying, She doesnt exist. We are a group of people. This was lovelythat people had an image of the Co-ordinadora as a brave woman, from the countryside.
Do you think this has changed peoples attitude to women?
PEREDA: Yes, I think so. When the issue about water started in 1994 in a village called Vinto outside Cochabamba, it was the women who organized and started to fight against the government.
What was also incredible was the children and young people on the streets who took over the square.
OLIVERA: One of the very important things that happened over these few days was that the most marginalized sectors of societythe street children, the unemployed, homeless, also womentook control of very symbolic spaces. They were the ones at the center, the objects of massive attention for a few days. People brought them food.
What are your personal experiences during these days?
PEREDA: I was in charge of the organization of the blockades, so I was in an office. If there was a warning that the army or police were going to break up a blockade, I was responsible for telling the companeros. I was also involved in the meeting about an alternative proposal to the law and lots of meetings with the state governors. Sometimes I would go on my own and be in meetings that were only with only men.
OLIVERA: One of the things that Oscar remembers is that when he was being arrested and dragged away, Carmen went over and said Just wait a minute, youre not leaving with him. She started to argue with police and they arrested her too.
PEREDA: That night I was the only woman arrested with other men, but I wanted to be with them, I didnt want to be on my own, and the police said, What if something happens to you? I said I could be in a cell with 20 of my companeros and nothing would happen. It was a very interesting experience and there was a lot of solidarity.
We are starting an election period, but we are against traditional political parties. What they want is that we dissolve the Co-ordinadora. They are terrified that well convert ourselves into a political party. But this isnt our intention. I think we have shown that transnational corporations are not the priority. I dont think the government would dare to pass a law without first consulting the local population. The consciousness of people in Cochabamba has been raised.
What was the response from groups in other parts of the world?
OLIVERA: The two people who played a key role in this were Jim and Tomthey sent out information by email on what was going on in Cochabamba. After they did this, we realized that there was an incredible amount of support around the world and that lots of eyes were on Cochabamba. There were solidarity actions in places as far away as New Zealand. We never imagined that something like this would have so much resonance. Another thing that happened is that contacts were made abroad. The week after the Water Wars, Oscar went to protest against the World Bank in Washington. There was so much solidarity.
In September there was a protest march by some of our companeros from Cochabamba to La Paz and the government stopped the marchers, grabbed them, and brought them back to Cochabamba. Some of our companeros disappeared, so we very quickly sent out news of their disappearance. Two hours after sending the emails, hundreds of faxes and letters came to the government demanding to know what had happened, saying we are watching you. This is really important. The government now knows that it cannot treat us like this.
Carmen and Oscar are traveling to speak about what has happened and so am I. Not only to share our experiences, but also to learn from other struggles in other parts of the world. Something we have learned over time is that we cannot only be against things and say No to the World Bank, No to the IMF. We also need to have an alternative, otherwise were doomed.
Thats a little bit what happened here. We got back the company and now what do we do with it? We never imagined in our wildest dreams that we would be in charge of a company. How are going to manage it? At the most, we thought that we would be able to get a modification of the contract, and to change a few parts of the law, but we never thought we would have this kind of victory.
Why do you think you were so successful?
PEREDA: One of the main reasons for our victory is that we organized a lot of educational workshops about the law so the people on the streets knew exactly why they were there. A group of professionals analyzed the contract very closely and found that it was completely illegal. There was a lot of press coverage and the people of Cochabamba knew that this transnational was of no service to them.
OLIVERA: I agree with Carmenfirst, the clarity of information that people had about Aguas del Tunari [a subsidiary of Bechtel] and why they were against the it and, secondly, the company made a lot of mistakes. Coming in and increasing the prices was very foolish. This really hit people very hard. There were people who were earning 500 Bolivianos per month and had to pay 300 of those on water. It was unbelievable. Also, when the government arrested people, more came out in the streets.
PEREDA: When we organized the march, we thought everyone would get together1,000 or soand after a few speeches, that would be it. But the government came with tear gas, beating people up, so people reacted. There was a point when we were really weakit was the seventh day of the blockades. They arrested us. At that point, thousands of coca growers came to support us, which was amazing.
What is the situation with SEMAPA?
PEREDA: Before the water wars, SEMAPA was directed by people related to the government, but afterwards the management changed and it included representatives of the Co-ordinadora as well as one of the workers. We have worked to have a transparent process that is accountable to the people.
OLIVERA: Another thing that has happened is that people have come to the offices of the Co-ordinadora about issues other than water. We are all realizing that the struggle was not only for water. You may suddenly have control of the water, but other living conditions stay the same.
So now the Co-ordinadora is moving into other types of campaigns, denouncing other problems. An old woman came to us about her land being taken away by the legal system. There are also parents who come to us about the privatization of education and health. We are trying to organize a series of campaigns, start discussion groups, go out into the neighborhoods and let people know what is happening in their area. We are also trying to give people legal advice about their situation. People come from a rural community about a plan the council has and we can analyze the project and let them know if they are being cheated. People from all over the state now see the Co-ordinadora as a trustworthy center where they can take their problems.
PEREDA: Weve had contact with people in these areas to help them resist, organize, understand the legalities. Organizations have come together in other parts of Cochabamba and Bolivia and have created a structure like the Co-ordinadora, which the local and national government are getting very worried about.
OLIVERA: We dont want to enter the system and become another institution, because we dont believe in the rules of the game. We are going to carry on as assemblies, as committees, with spokespeople. It has to come from the grassroots and we see this as a long journey of opening spaces, even if it is just a conversation with one or two people. One of our companeros says that its about a process of reweaving the social fabric. Neoliberal structural adjustment policies have divided us and turned us into small separate cells, so now it is about bringing these togethernot just individuals but whole social groups. The irrigators, a very rural group, have linked with professionals, a very urban group; peasants with economists. This is what it is about.
Do you feel part of a global movement?
OLIVERA: I do now, but I didnt before, and I think this is the same for a lot of people. Before, issues around the World Bank and the IMF were very distant, in the newspapers that only economists read. Since April, it has all changed. Both institutions are now in the language of people on the streets. Everyone knows that they have directly influenced what has happened here. When I had the opportunity to travel and meet other people, it was incredible to realize there are thousands of people all over the world in resistance, maybe not about water, but against the same policies. I think that this an important part of our work now, to make links with people abroad, to understand what we have in common, and how we can find solutions togetherto learn from each others victories. Z
Sophie Styles is a freelance writer and activist.