by Weekly News Update on the Americas


On Jan. 10, members of more than 600 neighborhood organizations in the Bolivian city of El Alto mobilized in an open-ended peaceful civic strike to press a series of demands, including cancellation of the city’s water and sewer contract with the private consortium Aguas del Illimani. The Federation of Neighborhood Boards (FEJUVE), which organized the strike, says the water company charges rates that put water and sewer service out of reach for a majority of El Alto residents. The protesters were also demanding that the government reverse its Decree 27959 of Dec. 30, which instituted price increases of 10% for gasoline and 23% for diesel, causing the cost of basic goods to skyrocket.

The water and sewer system of El Alto and neighboring La Paz was privatized to Aguas del Illimani in July 1997 when the World Bank made water privatization a condition of a loan to the Bolivian government. The Aguas del Illimani consortium is owned jointly by the French water giant Suez (formerly Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux) and a set of minority shareholders which include an arm of the World Bank. Suez’s water and wastewater business, which is run through its subsidiary Ondeo, is the second largest in the world. El Alto residents say that by pegging rates to the dollar, the company raised water prices by 35%. A water and sewer hookup for a single household now costs over $445, while many Bolivians earn about $2.50 a day. The company has also failed to expand water service to the outlying areas of the municipality, residents complain. The latest population census showed that 52% of El Alto residents lack basic water and sewer services.

FEJUVE called the strike for Jan. 10 after five months of protests and negotiations failed to win a solution to El Alto’s water crisis. On Jan. 9, FEJUVE rejected a Jan. 6 government decree–a last-ditch effort to halt the strike–which called for "review" of the contract with Aguas del Illimani, de-dollarization of the company’s rates and expansion of its service. "The ‘Bolivianization’ of the rates is a promise from November of last year," complained FEJUVE president Abel Mamani Marca. "Now they want to talk about expansion of the service, but they don’t say anything about non-fulfillment of the contract terms or of irregularities in the bidding for the concession. Aguas del Illimani has not complied, they have to go," he said.

Later on Jan. 9, President Carlos Mesa Gisbert made a national television address in an attempt to stem the mobilizations in El Alto and a 48-hour civic strike planned for Jan. 11-12 in Santa Cruz department against the fuel price increase. Mesa urged Bolivians not to participate in strikes or protests, and threatened to resign if violence breaks out. He justified the fuel price increase by arguing that cheaper subsidized Bolivian fuel was being smuggled into neighboring countries, causing a national shortage.

On Jan. 10, thousands of El Alto residents hit the streets, setting up road blockades which cut off traffic in and out of La Paz, and shutting down El Alto’s international airport, which serves as the main airport for the capital. At the same time, in the city of Cochabamba, factory workers, students, campesinos, retirees, homemakers, unemployed workers and others joined in a march organized by the Departmental Labor Federation (COD) against the fuel price increase and to protest Mesa’s Jan. 9 speech, while truckers held a separate march against the fuel hike. The national Bolivian Workers Federation (COB) also coordinated marches on Jan. 10 in La Paz and Potosi.

Later on Jan. 10, the government tried to convince El Alto residents to halt their strike by announcing a new decree, 29745, which would institute a series of economic measures to encourage investment in El Alto. The decree would suspend the charging of utility taxes for 10 years and of the value-added tax and another tariff for two years in the municipality.

On Jan. 11, residents of the outlying El Alto neighborhoods of Ballivian and Alto Lima–which lack water and sewer hookups–seized several Aguas de Illimani facilities, including a water tank. That same day, Mesa sent FEJUVE a letter, saying he was beginning "the necessary actions for the termination of the concession contract" with Aguas del Illimani. The heads of the neighborhood associations met at FEJUVE headquarters to discuss the letter; after three hours, they decided to continue their strike. They gave Mesa’s government 24 hours to promulgate a decree immediately cancelling the contract with the water company; otherwise, protesters would seize the company’s facilities. Shortly afterwards, a government official called Mamani to tell him the decree would be ready the next morning.

On the morning of Jan. 12, as El Alto remained paralyzed and the civic strike in Santa Cruz entered its second day, the government gave FEJUVE an unsigned decree, prompting the neighborhood associations to convene another assembly. FEJUVE rejected the new decree, saying it needed to make clear that Aguas del Illimani would leave Bolivia "immediately." After 6 PM, the government presented Supreme Decree 27293–already promulgated–stating that the government would take the "necessary actions" to terminate the contract "immediately" and to guarantee water and sewer service for El Alto and La Paz. This time, after each neighborhood association had a chance to discuss the document with its members, FEJUVE called an end to the strike–but warned that its members would remain on alert to make sure the company does not remove any equipment from its facilities, and would continue pressing other demands. "Electropaz is next," activists warned, referring to the electricity company for El Alto and La Paz, operated by the Spanish transnational Iberdrola.

On Jan. 13, El Alto residents had already planned to march into La Paz; some 20,000 participated in what became a victory march, celebrating the cancellation of the contract with Aguas del Illimani. (La Jornada, Mexico, Jan. 13; Los Tiempos, Cochabamba, Jan. 10-3; Pacific News Service, Dec. 17; Servicio Informativo "Alai-amlatina," Jan. 10; La Prensa, La Paz, Jan. 7, 9)

The former Municipal Autonomous Drinking Water and Sewer Service (SAMAPA) will be revived to take over water and sewer service in La Paz and El Alto for a three-month period while a new entity is established. FEJUVE is working on proposals for the new company, possibly a cooperative or with partial worker control. "We have two proposals, but the objective is that it will be a company with majority citizen participation and with minimal municipal and state participation," said Mamani. Meanwhile, the Regional Workers Federation (COR) of El Alto plans a march on Jan. 17 to La Paz to demand repeal of the fuel price hike and passage of a new gas law that includes nationalization. (Bolpress, Jan. 16)

The Jan. 11-12 civic strike in Santa Cruz department was called by the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, which is dominated by regional agribusiness interests; the Santa Cruz Departmental Labor Federation (COD) also backed the protest, against the instructions of its national affiliate, the COB. Another 13 campesino and indigenous organizations in Santa Cruz department rejected the strike, accusing large-scale farmers of using it to try to destabilize the country’s democratic system. The Santa Cruz FEJUVE backed the civic strike, and FEJUVE members and factory workers began an open-ended hunger strike on Jan. 13, which the Civic Committee said it would join beginning on Jan. 17 unless the government reverses the fuel hike. Some sectors in Santa Cruz and other cities were also protesting public transport fare hikes instituted by drivers in response to the fuel increase.

On Jan. 11, in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the Santa Cruz strike, Mesa issued six new decrees supposedly designed to support agriculture, stimulate the economy and generate jobs. At least one of the decrees seems to reduce tariffs on imports; others extend rural debt forgiveness for small farmers and facilitate the importing and distribution of farm machinery. (LT, Jan. 11, 12, 14; LP, Jan. 9)

Bolivian campesinos are planning to mobilize against the government starting on Jan. 17. Campesino sectors led by Felipe Quispe Huanca are planning a national hunger strike to demand that Mesa step down, and sectors led by Roman Loayza plan to join indigenous people and colonists in blocking roads to demand reversal of the fuel hike or the calling of early elections. (Servicio Informativo "Alai-amlatina," Jan. 13) Sectors of the Only Union Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers (CSUTCB) led by Quispe have also threatened to seize military and police installations. (LJ, Jan. 13) Cocaleros in Los Yungas region of La Paz department are planning to block highways to protest construction of an anti-drug police base in the region. The COB, Quispe’s sectors of the CSUTCB, the Coca Producers Association (ADEPCOCA) and the Committee to Defend Coca Leaf of Traditional Origin signed a "revolutionary unity pact" on Jan. 10 in which they agreed to coordinate protest actions. Campesinos in Tarija, Oruro and Chuquisaca departments are not expected to participate in the national highway blockades because they don’t recognize Quispe’s leadership. (Bolpress, Jan. 16)

The "water war" that ended the Aguas del Illimani contract brought comparisons to a successful April 2000 revolt in Cochabamba that forced the cancellation of a water contract with a consortium led by the Bechtel corporation. Bechtel and its shareholders in the Aguas de Tunari consortium later filed a $25 million legal action against Bolivia in a secretive trade court operated by the World Bank. This past December, Deputy Minister of Basic Services Jose Barragan revealed that Bechtel now wants to drop the claim in exchange for a token payment equal to $0.30. According to Barragan, the resolution is being held up by another Aguas de Tunari partner, the Abengoa corporation of Spain. (PNS, Dec. 17)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 16


On Dec. 20, Bolivian police surrounding the Paila estate in San Julian municipality, Santa Cruz department, fired their weapons at landless campesinos who were trying to reoccupy the site. The 150 landless families had been evicted from the estate the previous week after living there for two years. The eviction came after the Eastern Agricultural Chamber (CAO), a rural business group, began pressing the government to get tough on squatters in the region.

Landless resident Medrin Colque Mollo was killed by a bullet to the chest, 20 others were injured (including one wounded by gunfire) and two disappeared. Eight police agents were also injured, one by gunfire. Campesinos say it was the police commander who killed Colque. Some 115 police agents had been stationed at the property for a week when the conflict occurred; after the clash, police commander Freddy Soruco sent in another 120 agents. The landless residents insist they will not give up their struggle to obtain 50 hectares of productive land per family. (Los Tiempos, Cochabamba, Dec. 21-2; Bolpress, Dec. 25)

Authorities from La Paz arrived on Dec. 22 to begin talks with the landless residents at Paila. The same day, Presidency Minister Jose Galindo Nedder said the government planned to distribute 30,000 hectares of land starting in January to landless campesinos in the area of San Julian. The Bolivian Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) said it doubted the government’s offer and was urging its members to "take up arms" to defend themselves against forced evictions. (LT, Dec. 23)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 26

See also WW4 REPORT #104


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 17, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution