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Bolivian Protesters Win War Over Water

Sunday, April 9th Cochabamba, Bolivia

Dear Friends:

The situation here in Bolivia remains critical. Since the declaration of martial law yesterday at least three people have been killed, including a 17 year old boy shot by soldiers with live ammunition here in Cochabamba. More than 30 people in Cochabamba alone have been injured from conflicts with the military. Respected leaders of the water protests have been jailed, some flown to a remote location in Bolivia's jungle. Soldiers continue to occupy the city's center. However, there is now something very real and straightforward you can do to help.

The massive protests that prompted the declaration of martial law here were prompted by the sale of Cochabamba's public water system to a private corporation (Aguas del Tunari, owned by International Water Limited) which then doubled water rates for poor families that can barely afford to feed themselves. It turns out that that the main financial power behind that water corporation in the Bechtel Corporation, based in San Francisco (Source: http://www.bechtel.com/whatnew/1999artsq4.html).

The people of Bolivia have made it very clear that they want Bechtel out. The Bolivian government is so committed to protecting Bechtel that it has declared martial law and killed its own people. While some in the government here are saying this afternoon that Bechtel will leave, given the government's reversal on the same promise Friday the statement has no credibility here ansent a written agreement and end to martial law. It is critical that pressure be brought to bear directly on Bechtel in the US. You can help, here's how:

1) Send an e-mail, letter, fax or make a phone call to:

Riley Bechtel, Chairman and CEO, Bechtel Corp E-mail: northame@bechtel.com Tel: (415) 768-1234 Fax: (415) 768-9038 Address: 50 Beale Street, San Francisco, CA 94105

2) The Message:

"Bolivians have made it absolutely clear that they want Bechtel's water company, Aguas de Tunari, out of Bolivia, through a week of huge protests that have nearly shut down the country. To protect Bechtel, the Bolivian government has now put the country under martial law, leaving many dead and wounded. Bechtel has a responsibility to honor the wishes of Bolivians and bring the crisis to an end by immediatley signing an agreement to turn the water system back over to Bolivians."

3) Please send this information as far and wide as you can. More than 1,000 other are receiving this message today. Even 100 e-mails ro calls to Bechtel Monday will make an enormous difference.

To give you some additional context on events here I am including below an article, which I published in Saturday's San Jose Mercury News. The article went to press just before the government reversed position and declared martial law.
Many thanks,
Jim Shultz The Democracy Center

Bolivian Protesters Win War Over Water

COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA

In a stunning concession to four days of massive public uprisings, the Bolivian government announced late Friday afternoon that it was breaking the contract it signed last year that sold the region's water system to a consortium of British-led investors.

A general strike and road blockades that began Tuesday morning in Cochabamba shut down the city of half a million, leaving the usually crowded streets virtually empty of cars and closing schools, businesses and the city's 25-square-block marketplace, one of Latin America's largest.

The government's surprise agreement to reverse the water privatization deal follows four months of public protest. It came just as it appeared that President Hugo Banzer Suarez was preparing to declare martial law, possibly triggering fighting in the streets between riot police and the thousands of angry protesters who seized control of the city's central plaza.

Greater meaning

While rumors are surfacing that the government might backtrack on their promise, for Bolivians the popular victory apparently won over water has much wider meaning. ``We're questioning that others, the World Bank, international business, should be deciding these basic issues for us,'' said protest leader Oscar Olivera. ``For us, that is democracy.''

The selling-off of public enterprises to foreign investors has been a heated economic debate in Bolivia for a decade, as one major business after another -- the airline, the train system, electric utilities -- has been sold into private (almost always foreign) hands. Last year's one-bidder sale of Cochabamba's public water system, a move pushed on government officials by the World Bank, the international lending institution, brought the privatization fight to a boil.

In January, as the new owners erected their shiny new ``Aguas del Tunari'' logo over local water facilities, the company also slapped local water users with rate increases that were as much as double. In a city where the minimum wage is less than $100 per month, many families were hit with increases of $20 per month and more.

Tanya Paredes, a mother of five who supports her family as a clothes-knitter, says her increase, $15 per month, was equal to what it costs to feed her family for 1 1/2 weeks. ``What we pay for water comes out of what we have to pay for food, clothes and the other things we need to buy for our children,'' she said.

Public anger over the rate increases, led by a new alliance, known here as ``La Coordinadora,'' exploded in mid-January with a four-day shutdown of the city, stunning the government and forcing an agreement to reverse the rate increases.

In early February, when the promises never materialized, La Coordinadora called for a peaceful march on the city's central plaza. Banzer (who previously ruled as a dictator from 1971-78) met the protesters with more than 1,000 police and an armed takeover of La Cochabamba's center. Two days of police tear gas and rock-throwing by marchers left more than 175 protesters injured and two youths blinded.

February's violent clashes forced the government and the water company to implement a rate rollback and freeze until November, and to agree to a new round of negotiations.

Deal scrutinized

Meanwhile, La Coordinadora, aided by the local College of Economists, began to scrutinize both the contract and the finances behind the water company's new owners. While the actual financial arrangements remain mostly hidden, the city's leading daily newspaper reported that investors paid the government less than $20,000 of upfront capital for a water system worth millions.

Amid charges of corruption and collusion in the contract by some of the officials who approved it last year, La Coordinadora announced what it called la ultima batalla (the final battle), demanding that the government break the contract and return the water system to public hands. The group set Tuesday as the deadline for action.

Government water officials warned that private investors were needed to secure the millions of dollars needed to expand this growing region's water system. They argued that breaking the contract would entitle the owners to a $12 million compensation fee, and pleaded for public patience to give the new owners time to show the benefits of their experience.

Among the vast majority of Cochabamba water users, however, that patience had run out. Two weeks ago, an inquiry surveyed more than 60,000 local residents about the water issue and more than 90 percent voted that the government should break the contract. During one of the marches this week protesters stopped at the water company's offices, tearing down the new ``Aguas del Tunari'' sign erected just three months ago.

Tuesday, city residents took to the street with bicycles and soccer balls -- only a few cars moved across town to take advantage of the day off from work and school. By Wednesday, armies of people from the surrounding rural areas, fighting a parallel battle over a new law threatening popular control of rural water systems, began arriving, reinforcing the road blockades, and puncturing car and bicycle tires. Thursday night, with another day of wages lost and no sign of movement from the government, public anger started to erupt.

Bolivian Protesters Win War Over Water Protesters arrested

A crowd of nearly 500 surrounded the government building where negotiations, convened by the Roman Catholic archbishop, were taking place between protest leaders and government officials. In the middle of negotiations, the government ordered the arrest of 15 La Coordinadora leaders and others present in the meeting.

``We were talking with the mayor, the governor, and other civil leaders when the police came in and arrested us,'' said Olivera, La Coordinadora's most visible leader. ``It was a trap by the government to have us all together, negotiating, so that we could be arrested.''

In response, thousands of city and rural residents filled the city's central plaza opposite the government building, carrying sticks, rocks and handkerchiefs to help block the anticipated tear gas. Television and radio reports speculated all day that the president would declare martial law, and there were reports of army units arriving at the city's airport.

Freed from jail early Friday morning, the leaders of water protests agreed to a 4 p.m. meeting with the government, called by the archbishop. At 5 p.m., government officials still had not arrived and the plaza crowd waited tensely for the expected arrival of the army.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the archbishop walked into the meeting and announced that the government had just told him that it had agreed to break the water contract. Jubilant La Coordinadora leaders crossed the street to a third-floor balcony, announcing the victory to the thousands waiting below, many waving the red-green-and-yellow Bolivian flag, as the bells of the city's cathedral echoed through the city center.

"We have arrived at the moment of an important economic victory," Olivera told the ecstatic crowd.

ends

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