Water rate hikes provoked Bolivia protests

The streets quieted here yesterday, in this country's third-largest city.

Congress passed legislation revising a planned water hike that had set off one-week protests. At least two people died, and dozens were injured in the rioting.

People were angered by the privatization of the local water company. Some families faced rate hikes of as much as 400 percent. Delia de Flores, a secretary, says that her three-person family's monthly water bill was hiked from about $5 to almost $30, even though her family economizes by washing clothes just once per week.

But many other factors, including anger at gasoline price increases, which followed the privatization of the national refining company, and resentment over Bolivia's recession, corruption, and unequal distribution of wealth contributed to the recent protests.

"I believe that at bottom are the people's living conditions," says Oscar Olivera, spokesman for the Coordinator of the Water, the Cochabamba organization that led the battle to expel the water-company privatizer.

Many people also resent the globalization that has affected nearly all services and commodities. "The great powers, by way of their economic empires, are seeing Bolivia and other nations like their haciendas," says Walter Medano, a campesino, or small farmer, on Cochabamba's outskirts. "They want to privatize even the air. Ever since this nation's government privatized public services, it became just one more servant of the International Monetary Fund."

This past week, citywide protests and barricades were allied with blockades on all the nation's major highways. The government responded by imposing a national three-month state of siege and by arresting strike leaders.

The government blamed the unrest on narcotraffickers. But although coca farmer leader and Senator Evo Morales was prominent in the demonstrations, protesters' signs and comments focused solely on the water issue.

"The Water is Ours" read a banner hung from the balcony of the campesinos association. "Aguas del Tunari Go Home!" said another. Aguas del Tunari was created by the privatizer, International Water Limited, a British Company owned partially by US-based Bechtel Corp.

The Coordinator of the Water organization investigated the privatization agreement and reported that the company had only $10,000 of its own assets and that a prominent local cement industry businessman and political leader had an interest in it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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