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Bolivian Activist Oscar Olivera on Bechtel’s Privatization of Rainwater and Why Evo Morales Should Remember the Ongoing Struggle Over Water

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Leading Bolivian activist, Oscar Olivera joins us in our firehouse studio to talk about the ongoing struggle over water in Cochabama and the successful fight against the privatization of water by Bechtel six years ago. Olivera says, “If that uprising in 2000 had not ended in a popular victory, Evo Morales today would not be the president.” [includes rush transcript]

We speak with Oscar Olivera, the executive secretary of the Bolivian Federation of Factory Workers and spokesperson for the Committee in the Defense of Water and Life in Cochabamba. Oscar emerged in 2000 as the leader of the nationwide protest movement against water privatization in Bolivia. He is in New York City for a conference at the Cornell Global Labor Institute where he is meeting with trade union leaders and labor-based researchers from several countries.

  • Oscar Olivera, executive secretary of the Bolivian Federation of Factory Workers.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to another comment of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who talked about the importance of natural resources in Bolivia, and specifically the issue of water in indigenous communities.

PRESIDENT EVO MORALES: [translated] I think it’s important to democratize the United Nations so that we can deal with issues like humanity, how to save the planet, how to avoid loss. The indigenous communities live in harmony not only with their fellow persons, but also with Mother Earth. And we’re very worried about global warming, that’s leaving people without water. In the past we’ve seen the bodies of water that were up to certain level, are now declining. That means that in a very short time we’re going to have very serious problems. Without light, we can live with lamps, with oil lamps, but without water, we can’t live.

AMY GOODMAN: Bolivian President Evo Morales. In our studio, as well as Rogelio Mayta, we’re joined by Oscar Olivera, perhaps the most well-known activist in Bolivia. And we welcome you to Democracy Now!, Oscar Olivera.

OSCAR OLIVERA: Gracias, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of water. You are particularly well known for taking on a major U.S. multinational, Bechtel. Tell us what happened in Cochabamba and where that stands today?

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated] In reality, the confrontation with Bechtel and other businesses has been the proposition of converting water into a commodity. We’ve only been spokespeople for that demand, that water should not be converted into a commodity. Six years later, the theme, the matter of water in Cochabamba has not been concluded. There are still attempts from the World Bank, with international cooperation, to privatize water. Still, any breach of contract with the multinationals could be submitted to tribunals in the World Bank.

AMY GOODMAN: But could you explain, though it’s well-known in Bolivia, hardly known here at all, though it’s a U.S. company, what happened in Cochabamba? Talk about what Bechtel tried to do and what the people responded.

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated] It’s not that Bechtel tried to do it. They did it. They increased the charges for water, the cost of water, by 300%, so that every family had to pay, for this water service, one-fifth of their income.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they get control of the water? I mean, here, you turn on the tap. You don’t pay.

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated] The government, under a law that was passed, conceded control of the water under a monopoly to Bechtel in a certain area. So that means that Bechtel tried to charge a fee and had the monopoly power over a very basic necessity for people. The law said even that people had to ask, had to obtain a permit to collect rainwater. That means that even rainwater was privatized. The most serious thing was that indigenous communities and farming communities, who for years had their own water rights, those water sources were converted into property that could be bought and sold by international corporations.

In confronting that situation, the people rose up, confronted Bechtel, and during five months of mobilization, managed to defeat Bechtel, breach the contract and change the law. But the most important thing — and we need to remind Evo Morales of that today — was that that victory of the people in Cochabamba was the reason why Evo Morales could be president today. If that uprising in 2000 had not ended in a popular victory, Evo Morales today would not be the president.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you say you have to remind President Evo Morales?

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated] Because Evo does not talk today about that struggle. And he was not the principal protagonist in that struggle, nor was it Oscar Olivera. It was the Bolivian people, which up until the 18th of December, when Evo Morales was elected, was the primary protagonist in that struggle. At this time, Evo Morales is in the government because the people put him there so that we can continue pushing together. He is in the government to obey what the people has decided. He needs to change the political and economic systems of the country. We’re going to continue pushing forward that process, which means recovering our common goods, as well as our capacity to decide.

AMY GOODMAN: Who died in that struggle back in 2000?

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated] In that struggle, a 17-year-old boy named Victor Hugo Daza was killed along with four indigenous Aymara in El Alto.

AMY GOODMAN: Every November in the United States is a mass protest against the School of the Americas. That’s the old name for it. Were there any connections with the soldiers and the School?

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated] Of course, there were connections. At that time, the president, Hugo Banzer Suarez, and the mayor of Cochabamba had gone to the School of the Americas. And also the soldier who actually killed the youth, who we mentioned, also had been a graduate of the School of the Americas.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, today, you are in the United States meeting with trade union leaders. What are you doing with them?

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated] What we want, as the program says, is democracy now for everyone. Today, there should be five people at this roundtable, but instead, there’s only four. The best democracy in the world, which supposedly is the United States of America, the government of the United States did not permit that Juan Patricio Quispe, the brother of a man who was killed in 2003, could come here today. The American embassy refused to give him a visa so that he could come and give his testimony about the suffering of the people. But the government of the United States allows the presence of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to be here, and they don’t even want to give him the paper of notification, so that he has to respond to the accusations in Bolivia.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does he live here?

OSCAR OLIVERA: In Washington.


OSCAR OLIVERA: D.C. [translated] And soon, we’re going to do an action at his house to demand to the government and to ask to the American people that they help us in bringing Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to justice.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being here. When will you do that at Lozada’s house?

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated] It’s going to be this weekend.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will cover the event. I want to thank you both for joining us. Oscar Olivera, we’ve spoken to you on the phone. It’s good to have you in our studio. And Rogelio Mayta, we will continue to follow your attempts to have the former president and two ministers of Bolivia extradited.

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