Jim Shultz, founder of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center, gives a snapshot of Bolivia ahead of the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth. Ten years ago, Shultz helped expose the role of Bechtel in the privatization of Cochabamba’s water supply. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting live from just outside Cochabamba, Bolivia. I’m Amy Goodman.
We’re walking here on the street where on April 8th, 2000, Victor Hugo Daza, a seventeen-year-old Bolivian teenager who lived here in Cochabamba, was gunned down by the Bolivian military. This was during the time of the Water Wars. The military that day had declared martial law in Cochabamba. Ultimately, it was the military, it was the state, that was forced to back down and rescind the contract that they had signed with the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation, that was privatizing the water of the people of Cochabamba.
Water Wars. Ten years ago this month, the Bolivian city of Cochabamba was at the center of an epic fight over one of the city’s most vital natural resources: its own water. The Water Wars occurred just months after the Battle of Seattle. The uprising against Bechtel on the streets of Cochabamba was seen as the embodiment of the international struggle against corporate globalization.
Over the past week, water activists from around the world have gathered here in Cochabamba to mark the tenth anniversary of the Water Wars. Meanwhile, thousands of climate justice activists have begun arriving here in Bolivia for the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth. Bolivian President Evo Morales called for the gathering to give the poor and the Global South an opportunity to respond to the failed climate talks in Copenhagen. The global summit kicks off today here in the Bolivian town of Tiquipaya, just outside Cochabamba. We’ll be broadcasting here at the site of the summit throughout the week, right through Earth Day.
But we begin today’s broadcast with Jim Shultz. He’s the founder of the Democracy Center. It’s based in Cochabamba. He’s co-editor of the book Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization. He runs a blog about Bolivia at the Democracy Center website democracyctr.org.
Jim Shultz, welcome to Democracy Now!, although I’m welcoming you to your city.
JIM SHULTZ: It’s really great, Amy, that Democracy Now! and you are here in Cochabamba. I just think it really is commendable you came all the way here.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it is astounding to see the gathering of people that is happening, has been, as a result of the tenth anniversary of the Water Wars. Before we go to the Water Wars, we’re going to take a fascinating tour of Cochabamba with Marcela Olivera, who was there ten years ago in the streets. But I wanted you to place us geographically and in what is happening right now, this Peoples’ Climate Summit that’s about to begin.
JIM SHULTZ: Well, you know, it’s interesting. The climate summit and the Water War are related by more than just a coincidence of the calendar. Bolivia is — in the way that Bolivia was a symbol in the Water War of economic globalization and resistance to it, Bolivia, I think, is becoming a symbol of the impact of climate change. I mean, this is a country where glaciers that have existed for thousands of years, some of them are gone completely, and the rest of them are going. And so, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that here in this valley of Cochabamba against these hills that we are bringing people together to talk about, from a people’s perspective, rather than just a government’s perspective or a corporation’s perspective, what is it that needs to be done to deal with this crisis of climate change.
There’s something about Bolivia. You know, people talk about it as being the heart of South America. It’s not just the geographic part. There’s something very spiritually compelling, maybe environmentally compelling, about this place that, once again, has called people to think about their relationship with the resources of the earth and who controls them.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re broadcasting, technically, in Tiquipaya, this town just outside of the city of Cochabamba. Right behind us, in this glass convention center where the people’s climate summit will take place, is a mountain. That will transition us to the Water Wars.
JIM SHULTZ: Right. Well, it’s called Mount Tunari, and it’s beautiful for those of you who could see it. Those of you who are on radio, you can probably find a picture of it on the internet. And in 1999 and 2000, when Bechtel from San Francisco, very huge corporation, obviously, came here, they came under an assumed name. You know, they weren’t going to come here as Bechtel. In fact, nobody knew they were Bechtel. And so, what name did they pick? They called themselves Aguas del Tunari. They named themselves after that mountain.
AMY GOODMAN: So this subsidiary of Bechtel, what did it attempt to do? Give us the chronology. Marcela will take us through the streets of Cochabamba in a few minutes, but explain how this transpired. And also, in your book, a fascinating look at the Water Wars, the first chapter, you talk about documents that you got a hold of at the Democracy Center and what you’ve come to understand about how this deal went down.
JIM SHULTZ: Well, you know, people like a good David-and-Goliath story, and the water revolt is David not just beating one Goliath, but three. We call them the three B’s: Bechtel, Banzer and the Bank. The fact that the water was privatized at all in Cochabamba, it wasn’t like people in Cochabamba said, “Gee, that would be a really great idea. Let’s vote for it.” I mean, it was done completely behind closed doors, when the World Bank coerced the government of Bolivia in 1997. The World Bank said to the government of Bolivia, “Thou shalt privatize thy water in Cochabamba, or we’re cutting off aid for water development,” which is really crucial in a city like Cochabamba, where you have a growing population and they have a lot of need for infrastructure. So Bechtel — so the government of Hugo Banzer, who was our former dictator in the ‘70s, who became the president — the government of Banzer privatized the water system of Cochabamba into the hands of this mysterious foreign corporation Aguas del Tunari.
And during the water revolt — I remember it was Saturday, and it was the morning that Victor Hugo Daza, a seventeen-year-old boy, was shot in the face and killed. And his family and other people carried his body literally to the central plaza for a wake. And the Democracy Center, I mean, we started looking on the internet and trying to figure out who the heck this company was. And we had a lead from somewhere that there was a Bechtel connection, and we were able to track down that in fact it was Bechtel. And we —- a reader of mine actually was able to get us the personal email address of Riley Bechtel, the CEO. And we were able to get thousands of people in the United States to bombard him with emails. And -—
AMY GOODMAN: He was the great-grandson of the founder?
JIM SHULTZ: I think so. And he’s the president and CEO. And just to put that in context, Bechtel is an $18 billion —- then, it was an $18-billion-a-year corporation. Bechtel of San Francisco built Hoover Dam, built BART, built that great Big Dig project in Boston that’s worked out so well, and was also, along with Halliburton, one of the two companies that got the big no-bid contract in Iraq from the Bush administration. This was a very power—- you couldn’t find a bigger Goliath than Bechtel.
AMY GOODMAN: So here they are, privatizing the water. Talk about the different forces, from the farmers, who would now be charged for irrigating their land; the cocaleros, who were headed by, well, then the cocalero leader Evo Morales; the factory workers in town, led by Oscar Olivera.
JIM SHULTZ: In some respects, you can say that the water revolt really began right here in Tiquipaya, because this is an agricultural community. This is the community where I live. Most of my neighbors are cows or corn. And obviously irrigation is very important. And it wasn’t just the city water system in Cochabamba that was privatized; the government had plans, as well, to require these rural communities to get permits for these water systems that they had built and managed on their own, without any help from the government. So the rural people were the first ones to really call for a revolt, and then they allied with the people in the city —- the factory workers, others, environmentalists. The cocaleros from the other end of Cochabamba joined in.
And, you know, you’re going to be in this city for a week, and in the video, I think, people will see this is not a tiny city. This is a city of half-a-million people. This is, you know, almost the size of San Francisco. Imagine this city, for a week, without any cars. None. This city was shut down by its people, tight as a drum, for a week, in order to kick Bechtel out.
AMY GOODMAN: So the farmers went to the factory workers.
JIM SHULTZ: The farmers went to the factory workers.
AMY GOODMAN: And said, “Join us.”
JIM SHULTZ: And said, “Join us.” Environmentalists [inaudible] you had Oscar Olivera -—
AMY GOODMAN: Oscar Olivera, talk about his significance.
JIM SHULTZ: Well, you know, Oscar, in many ways, is the symbolic leader of the water revolt. And you can’t understate the amount of courage that people had. Remember, when they led this rebellion, they were arrested. Some of them were put on a plane and sent to a jail in the Beni, in the jungle. I remember, in the night that the government — the governor of the state went on television live at midnight and announced he was resigning because he did not want to be responsible for a bloodbath. And for the hours that followed, we were getting calls all night of — the police had just busted down the door of Oscar Olivera’s mother’s house, looking for Oscar. So the courage that people like Oscar and others had, it’s easy to forget ten years later, especially if the city looks so peaceful. They were up against the Pinochet of Bolivia.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, where did Evo Morales, of course not president then —-
JIM SHULTZ: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- but head of the — well, talk about the cocaleros, who they are.
JIM SHULTZ: Well, up until the water revolt, the really prominent and most visible social movement in Bolivia were the cocaleros, the coca growers in the Chapare region of this department of Cochabamba, who had been fighting the US war on drugs and the repression of the US war on drugs for many years. And Evo Morales, a cocalero, was their leader.
The cocaleros and Evo joined in this, because the water revolt became about more than just water. This is a country, as we talked about in Dignity and Defiance, that for ten years was the lab rat for the Washington Consensus. They did it all. They privatized oil, gas, the airline, the electric company, the trains, everything. Water was the end of the line; water was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And I think a lot of movements that were upset with all of these foreign-imposed changes to Bolivia’s life and economics saw this as the moment to challenge this in a way that was unprecedented in Bolivia.
And so, that’s why I think we had other groups like the cocaleros — I mean, they weren’t directly impacted, obviously, by the water privatization, but you know the story about the three blind men and the elephant, you know, and each one grabs a piece, and they think they see, you know, a different way. Everybody saw the same elephant, even though they came at it from a different place. And the elephant was foreign control of their lives.
AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from break, we’re going to go to the streets of Cochabamba with Marcela Olivera, who was in the streets ten years ago.
JIM SHULTZ: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: A well-known activist herself, she’s the sister of Oscar Olivera. But can you, finally, talk about what happened afterwards, right after this period ten years ago, where — well, it was just after the Battle of Seattle —-
JIM SHULTZ: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- that all of this was coming to a head, and right afterwards was a major march in Washington —-
JIM SHULTZ: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- taking on the World Bank and IMF and globalization —-
JIM SHULTZ: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- and how Oscar Olivera ended up being there, and how Cochabamba became this global symbol?
JIM SHULTZ: Well, you know, it was — it was this chance. I remember getting a call in the middle of the water revolt from a friend of mine in western Massachusetts, who said, “I just read your alert,” because, you know, we were the only people writing from the streets at the time. And he said, “I just read your alert in front of a thousand students and Ralph Nader, who were mobilizing to go to Washington, and they all cheered.” I said, “Well, what are a thousand students going to Washington for?” It was the first time I’d heard about these April mobilizations.
And Tom Kruse and I, a colleague of mine here in Bolivia, cooked up this idea to have Oscar invited to go to Washington, Oscar Olivera, and get that into the press here in Bolivia, so that the government might leave his hands off it. And on Tuesday, when the water revolt ended, Oscar said, “Yo pienso que debemos ir.” “I think we should go.” And we turned to Oscar, and we said, “You know, you have two problems. One, you don’t have a passport. And second, you don’t have a visa to get into the United States.” Can you imagine that the US ambassador is going to be real excited to give Oscar Olivera a visa to go to the United States? He says, “Es Bolivia. Todo es posible.” You know, “Everything’s possible.”
So he goes to the immigration office, and he comes back the same day with a passport. He says, “The guy who runs immigration, I went to high school with him,” which is just so Cochabambino, you know? And then he was, the next day, sitting the US embassy in La Paz waiting for his interview, and I got a phone call from, I think it was the Gannett correspondent for South America, who says, “Can you get me an interview with Oscar Olivera?” And so I called Oscar on his cell phone. I said, “Hey, how about this? You give him his interview. He’ll call the US ambassador and say that you’re sitting in the lobby and see if they’ll give you a visa.” And he walked out the next day — or that day, with his visa.
Well, and so, he was in Washington. I’ll never forget this. We were walking at the front of the march in Washington that Saturday, and, you know, Oscar is kind of small, and so, you know, he barely saw over the banner that he was holding. And I said, “Oscar, it’s your first time in the United States. What do you think?” And he says to me in Spanish, he says, “Well, you know, it looks like Cochabamba. There’s young people and police everywhere.”
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Shultz, I want to thank you for being with us.
JIM SHULTZ: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s co-founder of the Democracy Center and editor of Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization. When we come back, we go to the streets of Cochabamba. Stay with us.