Bolivia’s Cochabamba Water Wars: People vs. Elites.
The role of social protests is unquestionably immense, as the core element of uprisings is the continuous impact on the socio-political and economic formation of society. Through means of mass mobilization, individuals greatly influence the formation of a political structure of the country as their collective behaviour influences the direction of internal and external politics of the state. Although social protests take various shapes involving different motives behind the actions, the general function of the social movement revolves around addressing social problems in society caused by population itself or the institutions of governance. DeFronzo J. and J. Gill (2019), for instance, in the chapter "The Sociology of Social Movements", conceptualize the idea of social movement as an arranged attempt of individuals to bring the societal change that they believe is beneficial or resist the proposed change that is “viewed as harmful” (p.47). In other words, societal mobilization is driven towards the establishment of necessary reforms or is perceived as a reactionary movement where the protesters are determined to block the occurring changes to preserve the socio-cultural elements of the past. Apart from the general conceptualization of social movements, it is important to realize that mass protests and campaigns usually take a form of a social and political force that challenges existing laws and regulations through which the state authorities exercise their power upon the people. Charles Tilly (1993-1994), a prominent sociologist and expert in the area of social movement theory, in his article "Social Movements as Historically Specific Clusters of Political Performances", highlighted that a social uprising embodies a tight interaction in the form of “mutual claim-making between the challengers and power holders” (p.3). Popular defiance, therefore, occurs once the power holders abuse their power by implementing certain laws laid out by the traditional authorities who fail to provide fundamental needs, protection and a healthy growing environment for the population.
Social movements have always played a central role in every society throughout history. Examining the past, it becomes apparent that history has witnessed a great number of social movements, especially the ones that occurred in the states of Western Europe. Between the 1760s and 1820s, Great Britain, for instance, was an epicentre of social unrest, and the social movement as a strategy for facilitating a change became a central issue of English society. Charles Tilly (1993-1994) described Great Britain as a place of birth for social protests as a standard strategy of “claim-making” on a national level (p.10). The social movements continued to be a weapon of the population in demanding change in all of Europe as well as in America, where history witnessed major influential and world order changing revolutions. The crucial part of these historical examples is the fact that the social mobilizations took place within the national boundaries where the individuals challenged the power holders and demanded a change in the political system of the country. In the contemporary period, on the other hand, social movements are not limited to the national scope. Rather, people’s determination is driven towards an attempt to question and challenge the legitimacy of the existing global order that greatly influences the domestic politics of countries. To be more precise, if during the 1920s and onwards, the social campaigns and protests were challenging the national ruling class and the institutional apparatus of the country, in today’s world the claim-making movements are directed not only towards the state authorities, but against the politico-financial global order as a result of neoliberalism and globalization. There have been many social unrests throughout the world in the last two decades, and one of them is the Cochabamba Water Wars in Bolivia.
With the example of the Cochabamba Water wars, this paper does not aim to simply analyze the financial-economic order, although it is an inseparable part of it; one of the main targets behind this article is to demonstrate how social movement became the only means for the population to influence not only the domestic structure of the country but also to question the legitimacy of the financial organizations of the globe and the hegemonic power of the politico-economic elites.
The Cochabamba Water Wars was one of the crucial social phenomena that became worth consideration while studying the topic of social movements and their global-scope influence. The event that took place in Bolivia during 1999-2000, and lasted for five moths. This historical event was not a simple domestic unrest facilitated by a group of people, rather it was a well-organized and wide-scale movement that opened the eyes of many to the socio-political and economic structure of the world. Even though, at first, it resembles the rest of the social movements, such as the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, the Bolivian mass insurgence is a great example of the dreadful impact of global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank and the national and transnational ruling elite. Cochabamba Water Wars are a series of eye-opening cases of how international agencies and transnational enterprises function. It reveals how “government and local elites work against the interests of their people”(La Fuente, 2003, p.98). The politics of the IMF and World Bank in regards to Bolivia resembles the African case where the agents of the imperialist and hegemonic countries created a neocolonial iron curtain in Latin America. George Caffentzis (2002), in the article "Neoliberalism in Africa, Apocalyptic Failures and Business as Usual Practices", underlined that the loan-based politics of IMF and World Bank in Africa, whose strategy is the coercive imposition of neoliberal policies in the indebted countries, entails commodification of natural resources and labour sectors resulting in famine, internal conflicts and mortality. The resemblance is apparent with Latin America, where the continuous politics of the world financial organizations backed up by the hegemonic states strangle the political and socio-economic sectors of victim states.
The event itself erupted as a result of people’s lack of accessibility to water. As a result of the deprivation of the fundamental need upon which the life of a person depends - water. Bolivia has turned into an epicentre of mass mobilization of thousands of people in demand of accessibility to water resources and removal of the existing ruling class with the transnational politico-economic elites included.
The water supply of Bolivia was regulated by the Cochabamba municipal water company - Servicio Municipal de Agua Potable de Cochabamba (SEMAPA); however, in 1999 the government of Bolivia made a huge step by granting control over the water supplies to the private company “Aguas Del Tunari, partially owned by transnational corporation Bechtel” (Curtis, 2015, p.4). It became the moment of dislocation that led to the emergence of a group of 100,000 people who started the social unrest against the government and its deals with the multinational corporations that commodified the national water resources. In order to grasp a bigger picture of this particular event, it is necessary to analyze the case from different angles.
Initially, the Cochabamba Water Wars demonstrated the unique structure of the economic-financial global order that. Bolivia’s ruling administration conformed to the rules and regulations of Washington Consensus whose main principal revolved around promotion of Foreign Domestic Investments along with “macroeconomic reforms: privatization, liberalization, deregulation” (Curtis, 2015, p.54). The acceptance of the neo-liberal concessions from the international financial organizations led the country to the state of deprivation which resulted in massive breakdown of Bolivia’s population. The prevailing distressing environment in the country erupted a strong determination in individuals to challenge the state apparatus, as well as the international actors.
Bolivia’s economic situation was in a state of failure and ruination as the country has undergone various political regimes causing socio-political and economic destabilization in the country. The major attack on the population and the economic instability within the country came in 1980 with the implementation of the new economic order under the name of neo-liberalism and capitalist expansionism. Heather Curtis (2015), in her paper "The Cochabamba Water War Social Movement: A Successful Challenge to Neoliberal Expansion in Bolivia", highlighted that during the 1980s, the world experienced a sudden change in regard to economic politics, and the Latin American countries one by one reconstructed their economic model of governance by adopting the neoliberal reforms proposed by the transnational capitalist class with the support of World Bank and IMF. Although the supporters of neoliberalism reassured that the policies, such as privatization and liberalization of the trade and capital flows would adjust the domestic and international market and facilitate economic growth, the results showed the opposite. With the adoption of the neoliberal mode of economy, the hierarchical structure of the country expanded further, placing working-class and poor people at extreme poverty and destitution. Privatization became the central strategy of neoliberalism, and Bolivia’s economic default began with the government steps to privatize the public sectors of the country. The state-based company SEMAPA, which privatized the water resources of the country, had a weak performance in providing water for the population since it reached only 57 percent of the citizens (Nickson & Vargas, 2002, p.104). Because of the economic default in the country, the state was granted loans from the IMF and World Bank; however, being not able to return the debt, the financial institutions proposed a joint venture where the foreign companies would take control over the water resources. The introduction of concessions to private companies resulted in a detrimental and slowly destructive macroeconomic environment that prevailed in the country and led to economic destabilization for the citizens. As a result, 70 percent of the population remained below the poverty line (Shultz, 2008, p.28). The state elite of Bolivia had a high level of corruption. Their private interests made the country drown in hyperinflation, whereby in 1985, the hyperinflation level reached 23,000 percent (p.28). Within the implementation of the contract, the rates for water rose by more than 100 percent, which put ordinary citizens in a vulnerable situation. As the contract outlined, the country's water supplies were distributed among the shareholders, whereas 50 percent were owned by the USA and Italian companies, 25 percent belonged to Spanish Abengoa, and the rest was under the Bolivian ruling elite (La Fuente, 2003, p.98).
This brief analyzes of the economic background of the country was a prelude to the Cochabamba Water Wars. It is significant, as the economic default that lasted for a long time in the country was the main reason for the emergence of the social unrest, whereas the privatization of the water resource by foreign companies became the moment of dislocation. Laurence Whitehead, in his article "Banzer's Bolivia", highlighted that Bolivia's experienced economic crisis during the 1970s led the country to scarcity, and the working-class, in particular, faced financial deprivation (Whitehead, 1976). The preexisting circumstances greatly affected the population even though the dreadful environment did not mobilize people. The social unrest emerged once the population faced the absolute deprivation reflected in massive dispossessions and unaffordability of water resources caused by the political and economic interventions from the financial institutions and hegemonic countries. By the obedience to the guidelines and laws of the Washington Consensus, Bolivia's ruling class reaped a harvest of trouble from the population, and it became the core cause of massive unrests. As stated by Piven and Cloward (1977), the main feature that leads to the massive protest movement requires dislocation that will “push the protests to a higher pitch” (p.8), and the rise of prices and inaccessibility of people in reaching the water resources became the moment of dislocation leading to the massive uprising.
Moreover, the Cochabamba demonstrations were not simply directed towards the economic structure of the country. The country's political system was the main source of the hierarchical structure of Bolivian society. The social movements emerge as a response to inaccessibility to the decision-making realm as the political elites intentionally limit the populous' access to the apparatus of governance. Charles Tilly (1993-1994) identified that one of the major demands of the social movements is the rising appeal for “inclusion, consultation” (p.21). Because of the fraudulent political system in the country, the majority of the population finds themselves in a state of marginalization, deprivation and abundant negligence. The nefarious and corrupt nature of the political structure is caused by various factors, such as striving for power and capital accumulation. It is important to underline that the abusive head of the state could be a strategy of the international actors in the acquisition of political and economic interests. In the case of Bolivia, the deprivation that the population experienced was mainly caused by the ongoing centralized political governance initiated in the 1960s. The state apparatus was limited to the governance of the few: the economic and political elite who, instead of investing in the development of a country, transferred the accumulated earnings abroad (Spronk, 2007). The political strangulation of the society began with the internal totalitarian structure since, in 1974, president Hugo Banzer alienated the social groups and depolarized the whole socio-political environment of the country by neutralizing “opposition from political parties, labour unions, peasant syndicates and student activists” (Whitehead, p.80). The role of the political oppositions and social groups is essential, and by eliminating them, the power became concentrated in the hands of a few. The ruling class possessed control over the security, capital and legislative and executive branches of the country. As a result of the devastating political and economic conditions in the country, Bolivia, through population pressure, changed the recourse of politics. Although the country adopted a multi-party system and proportional representation, the whole “electoral process was politicized, fraudulent and lacking in reliability and transparency” (Domingo, 2005, p.1732). The capitalist ruling class strongly established itself in the country and, instead of applying the redistributive policy in the country, the Bolivian elite transferred the accumulated money overseas and welcomed foreign investments. The political situation of the country was indeed in the hands of a few, who enforced unconstitutional mandates by transferring “state property to private enterprises” (Spronk, 2007, p.11). In addition, as a consequence, by getting indebted to IMF and World Bank, the Bolivian government proposed Law 2029, which “granted monopoly rights over water sources to private companies” (Spronk, 2007, p.14). The adoption of Law 2029 was proposed and ratified in the inner circle of political elites leaving out public opinion.
The prevailing structure demonstrates the inability of the citizen to take part in the legislation and public affairs of the government. Their representation simply did not exist as the designed and then implemented regulations had a drastic effect on people and served the interests of private investors and the state elite. People were unable to access the institutions of governance. The elected principles did not represent the voices of the people. It is a crucial moment because the transition from a military dictatorship to “democracy” does not necessarily mean the transition to a democracy of people. Rather, it was a democracy of the bourgeoisie. Democracy in the form of representatives does not grant the poor enough power or ability to have some degree of governance over the common affairs. Vice versa, the democratic establishment is just a “political stage that makes visible and institutionalizes the struggle between wealth and poverty” (Kalyvas, p.547). The struggle in this scenario was implemented through social mobilization. Because people limited access to the institutions of governance caused by the electoral-representative system, the only source of struggle remains mass mobilization. It is the only weapon of the marginalized and deprived as their capital and power are limited compared to the power holders.
To oppose the consortium that the national government granted to private companies, mass insurgence was inevitable. This protest was unique in terms that various communal sectors of the society, such as professional societies and neighbourhood associations unified towards one goal: the elimination of the corrupt government and withdrawal of the foreign private companies (La Fuente, 2003). Charles Tilly (1993-1994) highlighted that one of the most distinguished features of social movements revolves around significant characteristics, such as unity, numbers, worthiness and commitment, and their presence in the formation of social mobilizations indicates the support, effect and overall organization of the social protest (p.8). These indicators are apparent in the case of the Cochabamba Water Wars. In terms of unity, the mass mobilization in Cochabamba clearly displayed the unification of the citizens in the protests. Different sectors of the country, such as “professional societies, neighbourhood associations, enterprises, manufacturing unions, coca leaf producers, and peasants” were the main actors in the protest showing their civil disobedience to the abusers of power (La Fuente, 2003, p.99). The protests did not simply involve ordinary citizens, rather they attracted high-level officials, such as Mayor Nestor Villazon and Mayor Reyes Villa (Assies, 2003, p.23). Their cooperation in the protests demonstrates the level of disruptive nature of the country and the world economic order. Manipulated with the promises of economic development, the mayors were one of the signatories of the concession contracts between the two entities; however, the consequences of the neoliberal mode of the economy led them to the realization and change of sides. Although it began as a spontaneous protest and erupted at the central square in the city, the number of protesters kept rising. The protest expanded dramatically, and hundreds of thousands “gathered in the plaza to demand a break with Aguas del Tunari and revision of Law 2029" (Assies, 2003, p.29). The commitment of the people led to the development of a well-organized social apparatus - Coordinadora that further helped the protesters in achieving their proposed target (Assies, 2003, p. 25).
The Cochabamba Water Wars became a symbol of struggle against the elites, and people's strong commitment and belief showed the worthiness of the protest itself. Social mobilization became a strategic weapon of the citizens in influencing the world. Even though Bolivians succeeded in certain aspects of the protests, the most outstanding outcome that emerged from the social marginalization is the fact that it influenced people across the world. It was an inspiration to many people. Inspired by the water war, India, Uruguay, and Atlanta, Georgia and other states started protesting against the attempts of multinational corporations to privatize water resources (Heather, 2015). Rachael Moshman, in the article "The Constitutional Right to Water in Uruguay", outlined that Chile experienced the same fate as Bolivia, and by following the Cochabamba Water Wars, people of Chile united under the slogan of opposition to privatization of water resources and fought the presence and policies of private companies (Moshman, 2005). The Cochabamba Water Wars showed the true face of the international global order and how exploitative it is that it resembles the notions of colonization as Evo Morales described Bolivia being the subject of "internal colonialism"in an interview to the Time magazine (Heather, 2015, p.11)
The overall insurgence consisted of various steps. For instance, the protests emerged as the general strike where Coordinadora encouraged people on a general march throughout the streets of the city. The general strike did create disorder in the city and government officials were very concerned, therefore they decided to reevaluate the law 2029, and as a result, it was decided that “privately owned systems in the concession area were not to become part of the water sources of the concessionaire” (Assies, 2003, p.26). However, the hostility of the government towards the citizens continued. Even though it was promised to resolve the water problems, the demanders kept the barricades throughout the streets. Willem Assies, in the article "David versus Goliath in Cochabamba: Water Rights, Neoliberalism, and the Revival of Social Protest in Bolivia", described that the protesters blocked the roads and set-up a "multitude of small barricades" in the urban and rural areas (Assies, 2003, p.25). People were strongly determined in opposing the privatization, pushing for accessible rates and pressuring the state to withdraw from the corporate deal with the foreign investors from the national frontier. February of 2000 became known as one of the violent confrontations between the protesters and the government. Military and police forces were imposed by the government as the country was in the state of emergency, which resulted in tear gas fights (Assies, 2003). If the state is imposing a state of emergency and implementing its coercive forces, then the protest is becoming alarming. The demanders were met by the police and the Special Security Group, who were brought up from the other cities of the country. It was a success. It meant that people could create a state of crisis which created danger for the state rulers. It was not just a simple peaceful protest, but a militant one. The disobedience led to the establishment of barricades in the streets and the breaking of doors and windows of the government buildings. As a consequence, approximately 70 civilians, and 51 policemen were wounded, and 172 people were arrested (Assies, 2003).
The protesters had no choice but to continue to push on for their rights even if the state implemented a state of emergency and militant intervention to demise the protestors. Coordinadora even held a referendum where nearly 97 percent of the people disagreed with the privatization policies and supported the annulment of Law 2029 (Assies, 2003, p.27). The state leaders were determined in keeping their collaboration with the international investors. They disregarded the referendum and treated it as illegal and illegitimate. (Assies, 2003). Thousands of the demanders from various sectors occupied the Plaza and started attacking the members of the Civic Committee and blocking the roads until the government broke the deal with Aguas del Tunari. On April 9, the state announced the withdrawal of the Aguas del Tunari and the modification of Law 2029 (Assies, 2003).
Even though foreign investors were evicted, the water supplies again returned to SEMAPA. SEMAPA was inefficient in solving the water supply, and it still required a massive loan and was under huge pressure from the Inter-American Development Bank (Spronk, 2007, p.23). The foreign investors created a certain degree of dependency without helping the country to solve the problem. Hence, SEMAPA still could not handle the water case of the country, and as a result, “forty percent of the population did not have access to water” (Curtis, 2015, p.70). However, one of the most positive results that came out of the protest was the emergence of multiple strong social organizations that had the right to participate in the political realm. The emergence of certain political forces was functioning as a mechanism of scrutiny where the established government had to share its power. One of the prominent achievements of the protest was the establishment of the Movement toward Socialism. The Movement towards Socialism created a space for more political alternatives, and one example is the election and presidency of Evo Morales, a socialist leader of the union (Shultz, 2000, p.29). His politics was mainly driven against the Washington Consensus and neo-colonialism exercised by the international financial institutions. The social mobilization led to the creation of more radical discourse, which substantially differs from the parties that already were in power. It is a significant shift in the politics of Bolivia because it was an example that demonstrated the widespread “disaffection with the traditional political class” (Domingo, 2005, 1738).
The role of social protests in the scenario of the Cochabamba Water Wars is crucial. Through the means of social mobilization, individuals possessed certain power directed towards challenging the abusers and establishing a new socio-political and economic order in the country. The Bolivia example generates several significant points in regard to the social protest theory. First of all, it becomes apparent that the driver of mass groups of people into the streets consists of various factors. Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs (2015), prominent experts in the area of politics, in the article"The Complexities of Global Protests", argued that the causes of mass mobilization can be distinguished into different categories, such as purely political ambitions, socioeconomic and politico-economic. The major trigger that pushed the individuals on the streets of Bolivia was not limited to one factor. The struggle of Bolivians was aimed at demanding substantial change in the political and socio-economic spheres of the country. Besides the point of socio-economic deprivation caused by the presence of foreign investors, companies and financial institutions, the target of mass mobilization was to eliminate the existing political structure. Pilar Domingo (2005), a senior researcher in the area of Politics and Governance Programme, in her article "Democracy and New Social Forces in Bolivia", underlined that as a consequence of continuous social protest in Bolivia, the country witnessed the emergence of new political strategies in governance. Therefore, the significance of the social protests in Bolivia revolves around the fact that the population’s decision to build a reactionary movement developed as a result of multiple causes. Furthermore, The Cochabamba Water Wars is a distinguished example of the evolution of social protests. If the social movements occurred within the national borders targeting the national elites, in the contemporary period the uprisings are aimed to question the legitimacy and efficiency of the political and financial-economic world order. The case of the Cochabamba Water Wars vividly demonstrated how the Latin American countries suffered from the impact of international forces, and that their struggle through social mobilization was directed towards the forces, such as the “World Bank, transnational enterprises, national and regional governments” (La Fuente, 2003, p.98). The ability of protesters to mobilize and demonstrate defiance of the global order is a hope to everyone everywhere.
Social movements play an immense role in forming a society. As a result of collectivized reactionary movements, the individuals possess the power in influencing the socio-political and economic structure of the country. Undoubtedly, the study of social protests is highly complex as it requires thorough qualitative and quantitative analyzes to identify the causes, motives, strategy of forming and implementing the protests and various implications that the social movements involved. Although the rise of unrest worldwide may suggest that social movements are identical in nature, in reality, each mobilization is a highly complicated unique phenomenon. Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs (2015), in the article"The Complexities of Global Protests" published in the non-partisan international think tank - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, underlined that social movements tend to have resemblance in certain ways; however, when it comes to a deep analyzes of protests in a global context, the nature of protests dramatically varies as they have a difference in “motivations, implications…” (p.3). Nonetheless, social movements have been considered to be one of the most efficient weapons of grieved and deprived masses in society, and their ability to raise voices through mass mobilizations remains one of the influential tactics. The world has witnessed various social movements; however, in the contemporary period, collective uprisings have substantially evolved. If individuals used the protest as a means of challenging the socio-political structure of domestic governance, in the contemporary world with the adoption and expansion of neo-liberal policies, the social movements are directed towards challenging not simply the domestic ruling class but the transnational elites and economic-financial organizations. The Cochabamba Water Wars is one of the prominent examples that demonstrate how social protests can become the source of power in the hands of powerless, deprived and marginalized masses. The movement in Cochabamba can be examined through various perspectives, including the organizational and strategic side, the importance of commonly shared grievances that lead to the emergence of collective identity and development of the movement, or the political and social implication in the aftermath of the movements. Yet, from a holistic perspective, the Bolivian scenario became a symbolic case. It proved how the excluded from the socio-political and economic decision-making processes population can become the subject of subjugation from the policies of transnational and global economic-financial organizations, and how the purpose-driven mass movement can challenge the people as well as the prevailing global system of governance. Despite the powerful and resourceful power holders, people’s strong determination and collectivized behaviour dramatically transformed the recourse of politics of hegemonic entities. The Cochabamba Water War left a mark in history proving that social movements are, indeed, the only means of breaking from the chains of subjugation and deprivation.
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