They sent a water-privatizing multinational packing, and chased an ultra-neoliberal president all the way to Miami. Now they have come head-to-head with the ultimate goliath of globalization. The people of Bolivia — stalwarts on the front lines of anti-globalization — are trying to wrest control of the country’s oil and gas reserves from the big boys of fossil fuel.

But as Oscar Olivera — one of the most recognizable figures of the Bolivian movement — tells it, the struggle is not so much against corporations or politicians as it is for public control of decisions affecting everyday life. “People can change things,” says Olivera. And a seemingly unstoppable public momentum is building around this simple realization.

This momentum got a huge boost in 2000 when the people of Olivera’s hometown of Cochabamba de-privatized their water system to world-wide anti-globalization acclaim. As the aftermath of the 2000 “Water War” plays out on the streets of Cochabamba and the board rooms of Bechtel Corporation, the people of Bolivia are slowly and surely molding a new, less corporatized country.

Crude politics

Olivera — a shoe factory worker by trade — says oil and gas are vital to the sort of country the people are creating. “We want a different country,” he says, “and for that we need an economic base.” He sees Bolivia’s oil and gas reserves — second only to Venezuela on the continent — as the obvious economic foundation.

But where there is oil there is an excess of politics. Currently Bolivia’s oil is controlled by foreign powers and revenues pour out of the country.

For most of a century Bolivia has vacillated between nationalized and privatized control of its oil. In 1996 president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada signed privatization deals with various oil companies. Now, Olivera says, for every $100 of oil extracted in the country, $18 stays in Bolivia and $82 goes to the companies.

In 2003 Sánchez de Lozada — purportedly Bolivia’s second richest man — said Bolivia would sell gas to California. The people, seeing more of their national birthright siphoned off, said “no.” And they said so forcefully. The government responded with its own force. In the end more than 60 people were dead and hundreds injured. Sánchez de Lozada ended up resigning and retreating to Miami.

Arising largely from continued public momentum, the Bolivian government is now debating a draft Hydrocarbons Law that could nationalize management of the resource and ensure greater industry benefits for the country as a whole. The high-stakes parliamentary debate on the law continues (it began November 3), as do pro-nationalization protests. The current president is caught between prevailing international oil interests and a people proven capable of toppling a president.

To Olivera the oil and gas issue is a matter of “life and death” for his homeland. It could be an historic step toward realizing the vision of the people, or it could bring two powerful forces into direct conflict. Olivera says he fears violence if parliament defies the people. His hopeful eyes betray grave concern.

It is not clear when Bolivia will see a final version of the Hydrocarbons Law.

Why Bolivia?

Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians knows Olivera and his homeland well. “The resistance of the people of Bolivia to the neoliberal agenda,” she says, “has been one of the most important anywhere.”

What makes Bolivia unique? Olivera says the template of the free trade gurus has been applied particularly directly and brutally in his country. Water and gas are but examples of rampant privatization, and unrestrained pursuit of economic “liberalization.” The people were told it was the only way to go: progress and prosperity were at hand. Despite the promises, Olivera says the people feel the “violence of neoliberalism” in their daily lives.

Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America and the second most unequal society on earth. Evidence of neoliberalism’s failure to alleviate this situation is a daily reality.

Olivera also emphasizes the uniqueness of the peoples’ approach to this failure. The people have rallied around a positive, participatory vision. People know what they want. Part of what they want is founded in long standing indigenous traditions of localized resource management and decision making. Of Bolivia’s 8.6 million inhabitants 60 per cent are indigenous people.

Barlow says Bolivia has been “particularly influential in creating a progressive climate in Latin America” where power is shifting away from the neoliberal camp. Similarly, Olivera sees Bolivia playing a key role in a shift much broader than one country.

“La gente”

As I listen to Olivera one phrase rises above the others — a phrase at the centre of that shift: “la gente.” Translated directly, it simply means “the people.” But punctuated with a history of struggle and the taste of an inevitably better future — as it is when Olivera says it — “la gente” carries meaning beyond its English rendering. There seems to be a davidian confidence spreading amongst the people, a modest momentum that is slowly shifting the locus of power away from national electoral politics. Getting the right guy in power is less and less important, as power increasingly lies elsewhere — a view also portrayed in Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s The Take. This is not electoral reform, but a bottoms-up reclaiming of democracy.

Olivera distills the issues of globalization and democracy into a single question: “Who decides?” Increasingly in Bolivia, the common people — with their blemishes, hopes and montage of interests — are deciding.

“The people want to participate in the management of all that affects their daily lives,” says Olivera. “The people want to construct a new model.” And they appear to be doing just that. The people of Bolivia are on the move. The momentum of “la gente” is tipping the scales of Bolivian history in favour of the common people.

Water for the people, by the people

It was one of democracy’s more dramatic moments in this era of globalization; the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia chased a multinational water company out of town and pressured the government which had let the company in to change its water law. Though the company is long gone, the Cochabamba water conflict has become part of a much larger chapter in globalization’s history.

Oscar Olivera is spokesperson for Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida, the organization that headed the struggle for de-privitization and local control of water. He recounted for me the events of the struggle and reflected on its significance.

In late 1999, people in Olivera’s hometown of Cochabamba discovered control of their water system was in the hands of a multinational consortium spearheaded by U.S. engineering giant Bechtel. They learned the Bolivian government had granted the consortium — under the name Aguas del Tunari — a 40 year concession to run Cochabamba’s water system. This included the right to every well or potential well in the city, the right to future water sources required to supply the city and the right to require potential consumers to connect to its system. The deal guaranteed the company 16 per cent annual profits, while the city’s people — many near the brink of survival — suffered water price hikes averaging 51 per cent.

Evidence shows the World Bank, with its strong leanings toward privatization and its lender influence, pressured the Bolivian government into granting the concession. Bechtel spokesman Jeff Berger says “the idea that the World Bank forced [the concession] is misguided,” though he notes differing views as to whether the political climate in Bolivia at the time may have included World Bank influence.

A Spring 2002 report by the World Bank’s Operations Evaluation Department says “the President of Bolivia decided to privatize the La Paz and Cochabamba water and sewage utilities, a [World] Bank condition for the two year extension of the loan to 1997.” Bolivian papers also contained reports directly linking World Bank funding and water privatization in the 90s. The Bank has claimed this pattern did not shade the Aguas del Tunari deal.

The World Bank — notorious for operating beyond the reach of public accountability — did not return my calls.

A Bolivian water law that coincided with the privatization compounded the conflict, serving to restrict access to water people had always used. As Berger points out, much of what people were protesting had as much to do with the law as with Aguas del Tunari.

After a dramatic and deadly five month struggle Aguas del Tunari left, the Bolivian government handed over the city’s water system to a public board that includes representatives elected by the people, and the government passed a new water law that helps keep common water sources in common hands, as Olivera puts it.

The aftermath

Olivera says the new water board is engaged in the slow and difficult task of improving a troubled water system in a region where water is scarce. Prices are back to previous levels, but he says the challenges are considerable.

Meanwhile Bechtel and company are playing transnational musical chairs in an attempt to have the World Bank arbitrate a decision that could see Bolivia pay them for canceling the contract. In a soon to be released book, Jim Shultz says of the arbitration: “Bechtel is masquerading as a Dutch company, shifting its Bolivian registration to an Amsterdam post office box in hopes of getting covered by a Bolivia-Holland treaty that makes the [World] Bank the arbiter of their investment disputes.” Shultz is the director of the Democracy Centre which was pivotal in breaking the Cochabamba story to the world as it happened.

Bechtel is quick to point out Cochabamba’s previous public system was in shambles and privatization was poised to fix it. But Olivera says the issue is not private versus public, but rather the struggle for participatory and accountable management in a country where water was only the latest in a long string of troublesome privatizations. The victory was not so much against a corporation or a government as a victory for de-privatized local control of decisions that impact daily life. Olivera says the people recovered not only their water but “their capacity to decide” and their voice.

Will Braun is a Winnipeg writer who has lived and traveled in Latin America.