Monday, May 10, 2010

Bolivia's "Tea Party" - 10 Years Since Cochabamba Water Wars

Its been 10 years since the Cochabamba "Water Wars".     Evo Morales' "unofficial" press agent  (thanks to George Soros ) Jim Schultz at the Democracy Center - has the usual self-congratulatory piece about this.   The Bolivian Water Revolt, Ten Years Later,  reminding us of this.

In this complicated story the movement that went from a social mobilization opposed to water rate hikes to a  movement marked by a political-ideological component, that of fighting neo-liberalism, calling for the unconditional expulsion of a multi-national consortium from Bolivia in the words of one Bolivian observer.

 Evo Morales' cocalero Union played a "large part" in that victory, which led Evo to shrewdly see the possibilities of linking the Unions fights against erradication with the disparate indigenous, anti-neoliberal and anti-globalization movements in the country. 

Ma-te Party

This Coordinadora movement became more about an ideological extreme position rather than one of negotiating for an end;  to use the hard-left term it was making "transitional demands" on the government, asking for the expulsion of the company rather than modification of the contract.   It was using language and rhetoric that  resonated with many of Bolivia's poorer citizens, playing on long-bottled frustrations and resentments against traditional politicians, the old oligarchy, and the ever-present fear of foreign control of resources.  What Dunkerely called "the Potosi Syndrome"  It was about passions, and yes, prejudices and fears,  held by many Cochabambinos including a xenophobia and distrust of outsiders.

  In many ways this is like the irrational part of the "Tea Party" movement in the U.S. that brings out the insecurities and the fears of some Americans.   Calling Obama a "socialist" and drawing imaginary lines in the sand against government action,  avoids entirely the practical problem of 25 million plus Americans who have no health care.   In  the case of the Coordinadora it was extreme anti-capitalistic, anti-american rhetoric, hysteria over stopping "multinationals"from "pillaging": the countries resources,  avoiding rational discussions of possible private/public solutions that could make sure people in Cochabamba got water in an efficient, modern, and reasonably priced manner.  


One of the Water Wars leaders calls it the“first great victory against corporate globalization in Latin America." It is this defiunition of victory that is celebrated by Schultz and company, even while they have to admit that the "social" movements have failed to implement the objective that everyone agreed upon - which was to improve the supply of water to the residents of Cochabamba.  Tom Kruse, another scholar-activist wrote that  “while you can’t drink the rhetoric of antiglobalization, struggles like the water war are vital, and the only hope for rebuilding a progressive agenda."    That is little confort to the poor Cochabambinos still do not have an adequate supply of water, a fact that Schultz acknowledges.
1. The Cochabamba Water Revolt was and remains a powerful David and Goliath struggle in which some of the most humble people in the world took on the forces of the World Bank, Bechtel, and a former dictator, Hugo Banzer, and took back a resource essential to life – their water.

2. Nine years later the public company reborn from that revolt, SEMAPA, is marked by an ongoing history of mismanagement and corruption which, combined with Cochabamba's rapid population growth, has left much of the city without the basic water they need and deserve.

In other words, Cochabambinos won the war in the streets but lost the battle to have honest and competent water service. In my chapter on the Water Revolt I was frank about this paradox, and have continued to be in my recent talks in the U.S.

What Schultz doesn't mention is that he has continued to beat away at #1, the variation of the familiar narrative.  David could beat Goliath, in this battlefield, then this could apply to the entire evil of "globalization", the washington consensus, neo-liberalism, which was "imposed on Bolivia", etc., etc..     For the past 10 years Jim Schultz and The Democracy Center have used Cochabamba as a justification for reversing policies that actually worked, and as a blanket justification for Evo Morales' misguided and impractical "solutions" like nationalization.   

Even critics of the Coordinadora concede that the Aguas De Tunari  concession was a "very bad deal", though as Roberto Laserna said it was "negotiable" implying that solutions like a freeze on water rates could have been bargained for.   But rationally, one bad deal, should not condemn other private or public foreign capital deals in Bolivia.   Brazil's State Oil Company contract to invest billions in exploring and producing national gas - with World Bank finance for the pipeline, was an undisputed success, that was negotiated in an entirely different time and space than the Aguas De Tunari deal.   No matter for Schultz and company, anything having to do with the IMF, pre-Evo governments, is inherently bad.   Evo's failed nationalization  policies have been spun as victories for the Bolivian people by The Democracy Group, to borrow the title of the Groups book:  Dignity and Defiance, Bolivia's Challenge To Globalization.


What Cochabamba produced was a perfection of a political discourse and ideology, that would appeal to many poorer Bolivians, and which would provide a rallying point for the social movements that catapulted Evo Morales to power.    These themes guide the government, and more ominously have been enshrined in Bolivia's Constitution where they will constrain future governments.  Not only is the Constitution rigid in many aspects including economics, it is also confusing and inconsistent  product of the internal contradictions of the ideological smorgasborg that produced it:  Indigenous sovereignity over land, and government control over underground resources is one telling example of the many potential headaches.    

Then there is the matter of practical governance.   Bolivian government comes with an ideological straightjacket, that forces the government to act within very narrow paramaters,  especially in economic policy.    Evo's recent calls for foreign investors sound hollow and insincere, since most official statements and actions show a predisposition to nationalize everything foreign owned    But, according to what MAS stands for, it necesarilly must nationalize everything in order to hold up what its been preaching.  
Anti-Americanism - never as harsh before the Cocaleros as it was in other Latin American countries has led to a useless conflict with the U.S.  Obsolete Marxist (or pseudo-Marxist) views of economics  suffused with traditonal Bolivian and Indigenista strains of resource nationalism,  are a recipe for failure and when it comes down to it, anti-modern.   The ideological cocktail with its mix of indigenismo, anti-americanism, social mobilization, and victories over Bechtel and later Oil Companies, while disastrous to Bolvia and inefective as policy, is irrestible to foreign observers, obsessed with anti-globalization themes.   Great as an exportable tale for foreign consumption, bad for anything real.  

 Just how destructive, is visible in  the follow-up to the Water War, the Gas Wars: was over a contract that would have involved Billions of investment in Bolivian gas fields and infraestructure, including a port in Chile to export Liquid Natural Gas -  a deal cruelly dismissed by Schultz as "Cheap Gas for Chile".  A government fell, investments dropped, and as a result billions of foreign investment have gone to Peru (with less gas reserves),  and Chile, Brazil and Argentina invested billions in facilities to import Liquid Natural Gas owing in large part to the unreliability of Bolivia as a supplier..  But to Olivera, Schultz, and company it was a great victory for people power!!!   You don't want to bother with such things as facts.

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