It’s hard to be a Latin Americanist without a hyperawareness of the systematic gutting Latin America and the Caribbean have experienced at the hands of Europe, and later the United States. The region has endured inconceivable losses in natural resources, wealth, cultural autonomy, and most tragically, life. Through 500 years of colonization and imperialism, both in war time and in “peace,” there have been countless attempts on the part of the oppressed to fight for their liberation. These represent some of the most exciting moments in Latin American history, when ordinary people gain a sense of confidence in what they can accomplish by organizing and uniting in collective action.
In the constant struggle between a ruling class in perpetual search for new mode of wealth extraction (and the corresponding oppression required), and resistance from below, it’s impossible to predict whether a given moment will represent a victory for the rulers or the ruled. Oftentimes it is a combination of both.
But in Bolivia, in the final years of 1999, the deck certainly seemed to be stacked in favor of those at the top. The President (and former dictator) of Bolivia, Hugo Banzer, worked with the World Bank to award a no-bid contract for 40 years of private control over Cochabamba’s water supply to US corporation Bechtel. While the city’s residents would see enormous, unaffordable rises in the cost of their water, Banzer’s arrogance (and willingness to employ the military to smash dissent) meant there would be little room for negotiation.
And yet in just over four months, ordinary Bolivians mounted a struggle that expelled the private water company, returning their water supply to municipal control. Leaders from the irrigation/agricultural communities and some important unions were able to bring together an unprecedented show of solidarity that crossed many segments of oppressed Bolivia. The streets were soon – and often – filled with indigenous peasants, miners, coca growers, factory workers, students, informal workers, street vendors, and some of the middle class.
In this incredibly short amount of time trust was built between groups who are constantly portrayed to be at odds with one another. Under the slogan “¡El agua es nuestra, carajo! (the water is ours, dammit!), over a hundred thousand people filled the Plaza 14 de Septiembre for several days at a time, to act as one through collective and democratic decision-making.
The astounding victory propelled Cochabamba into the global spotlight, as it provided inspiration to those around the world and to other Bolivians, who engaged in their own struggles in the ensuing years.
The Water War in Cochabamba was clearly a victory with enormous significance to those throughout the world seeking to mount our own struggles. But the exact meaning of what happened is still unclear. Much attention has been focused on the spontaneous aspects of the Water War, as tens of thousands of Cochabambinos poured out of their homes to participate. Many observers have even called the Water War an example of a New Social Movement (NSM). But there has been less discussion of the role of leadership, of those who consciously organized in advance, laying the groundwork for the mass spontaneity to be channeled and effective yet incredibly democratic.
I am spending six weeks in Cochabamba this summer to collect as much information as I can about the organizers of the Water War. Because of the incredibly complicated nature of Bolivian politics, I have organized my work by creating a social network map and time line of events (including the gaps in what I know). These will be the basis for my interviews with several leaders of the water war, knowledgeable observers, and participants.
Discovering the ways in which such disparate groups were brought together so quickly is a critical question facing us in the United States, where mass anger amongst working people and the poor has not yet been matched by mass action. I am hopeful that my work on this issue will contribute to a fuller understanding of the Water War and of a tremendously exciting example of building struggle from below.
Jason Farbman is an MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU