Cochabamba is perhaps most well-known around the world for its water protests of 2000, which shut down the city for days. The “Water Wars” pitted farmers and the working poor against a government-backed multinational consortium, who had taken control of the city’s water supply. Cochabamba’s struggle was unusually successful, and has become an inspiration for those who rail against against corporate greed and injustice.
In 2000, after closed-door sessions, control over Cochabamba’s water supply was given to Aguas de Tunari, a coalition of foreign companies dominated by the USA’s Bechtel. Water supply was (and continues to be) a difficulty for the city; a large proportion of residents lack steady access, or only have dirty water unsafe for consumption. In 1999, as a prerequisite to further loans, the World Bank insisted on privatization of Cochabamba’s water, and the cash-strapped Bolivian government was quick to bend over.
The way in which Aguas de Tunari went about their business was astoundingly deaf to the realities of life in Bolivia. Soon after operations began, water bills were jacked by over 200%. Households which only made about $70 a month were suddenly being billed $20 for water: more than their monthly food budget. The company even claimed homemade wells and devices which collected rain water as their property, and charged for their use. Of course, people freaked out. Bolivia is famous for its strikes and roadblocks, but the intensity of the reaction in Cochabamba took everyone by surprise. Poor Bechtel! Corporations are used to trampling on a domesticated, complacent people.
For four days, students and even the middle class joined campesinos and cholitas in the streets, completely shutting down Cochabamba. The primary demand was simple: Aguas de Tunari must leave. The government declared a state of siege and sent in troops to quash the riots, and Cochabamba became a war zone. This was the era of Hugo Banzer, a former dictator who had been toppled in 1978, and returned to power as the leader of a legitimate, and starkly conservative, political party.
When an army captain was filmed shooting and killing a young protester, Víctor Hugo Daza, the riots reached fever pitch. The executives of Aguas de Tunari were airlifted out of Cochabamba, and when the dust settled, the protesters were surprised to learn they had won. Unequivocally. A well-organized grassroots movement, started by some of the world’s poorest and most humble people, had defeated both a deep-pocketed corporation and their own hostile government.
It’s a fascinating part of Bolivian history — for further reading, PBS has an in-depth feature on the protests. And we just saw a great 2010 Spanish film called Even the Rain, which is set in Cochabamba during the water crisis. Though it’s really about a troubled film production, the protests serve as a fascinating backdrop and are an integral part of the story. The Water Wars also play a big part in the excellent documentary The Corporation, which looks at abuses of big business around the world.