by Jason Wallach, Upside Down World

After tens of thousands of Salvadorans marched against water privatization on Oct. 5th, the Legislative Assembly voted to advance a measure that would guarantee all Salvadorans the right to water access and ensure environmental controls over water usage. The bill was supported by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), Christian Democratic Party (PDC), and National Conciliation Party (PCN). A final floor vote on the bill could come as early as next week, though some analysts voiced skepticism that right-wing PDC and PCN were sincere in their support of the legislation.

Demanding “blue democracy,” Salvadorans, led by a coalition of over 125 unions and social organizations, crowded tightly into the plaza outside of the Chamber of Deputies. The march was attended by former US Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White and Maryland politician Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Ana Sol Gutierrez, who represents Maryland’s 15th District in that state’s House of Delegates and was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador, also attended.

“The law should be a legal vessel that allows everyone” water access, said Gutierrez, “We cannot stand silent knowing that 12,000 children are dying because of diseases caused by the lack of hygiene and health that clean water provides.”

FMLN Deputy Lourdes Palacios, a member of the legislative Assembly’s environmental Committee, concurred: “This has been a huge march, a clear manifestation that the public rejects water privatization.”

Palacios questioned whether there was sincere political will to pass the anti-privatization measures into law, but explained the importance of doing so, “This country needs to regulate water usage in a way that guarantees it as a right. There should be access, quality and [an adequate] quantity [of water] for Salvadoran families in a way that doesn’t privilege economic interests.”

Legislating Water

The left-wing FMLN, and the right-wing PDC and PCN supported the bill, which was scribed in large part by environmentalists, consumer advocates, and human rights workers in the faith community. PDC and PCN support of the water bill mimicked a strategy employed in January by those parties to spur Salvadoran President Tony Saca into action on water reform.

Saca has supported water “decentralization”-a euphemism, say detractors, for privatization. However, his Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party has been hesitant to push specific proposals since August 2006, when Saca tried to submit a bill that would have allowed for local municipalities to contract water services with private companies for up to 50 years. Activists caught wind of the proposal and generated a firestorm of opposition.

Interviewed last week by the left-leaning Diario Co-Latino, PCN deputy Orlando Arévalo expressed disdain that the executive branch had not yet presented its water management reform proposal.

“The executive [branch] has spent many years studying and elaborating a proposal, and nothing ever gets to the Assembly.”

That claim echoed statements Arévalo made in January 2007, which were published in the national daily paper La Prensa Gráfica. At the time, his statement was largely seen as an effort to kick-start executive action.

Funes: “Hey, we tried!”

In January of this year, the chief of the Salvadoran national water company, known as ANDA, grabbed headlines at one major news daily exclaiming, “The water law is 80% complete!” The declaration was a signal to all that ARENA was willing to flex its political muscle and move toward privatization. ANDA director Cesar Funes, who is a possible presidential candidate in the upcoming 2009 election, forwarded a proposal for a “General Water Law” to Saca, but nothing has came of it.

Shortly afterward, reports surfaced that Saca was holding back due to internal disagreement between industry leaders, some of whom favor a restructuring of industrial water tariffs and others who benefit from the current fee structure. The resulting stall in legislative momentum was a windfall for activists opposed to such legislation. They spent the time slowly organizing community-based opposition to any potential Saca plan.

That resistance came to a head on July 2, 2007 when police attacked an anti-privatization protest in Suchitoto-30 miles northeast of San Salvador and charged 14 protesters, including four prominent movement leaders, with “acts of terrorism.” The arrests catapulted the issue into the national spotlight.

In late August, members of SETA, the water workers’ union at ANDA (Sindicato de Empresa de Trajabadores de ANDA), met with Funes to check in about the delay in legislation. Funes told them the political situation was too hot for him present anything before the end of the year.

With the 2009 presidential campaign just around the corner, any attempt by ARENA to present a controversial bill would be considered political suicide for their candidate on the campaign trail. However, observers close to the situation said that civic groups are unlikely to let their guard down.

Considering the massive character of October’s march, the Assembly’s action toward progressive water management reform, and the upcoming “terrorism” trial of the July 2 protesters, it doesn’t seem as if things will cool down any time soon.


This story first appeared Oct. 10 in Upside Down World

See also:

Popular Movement Stands Up to Privatization
by Jason Wallach, Upside Down World
WW4 REPORT, October 2006

From our weblog:

El Salvador: anti-privatization protesters jailed
WW4 REPORT, Sept. 17, 2007


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Nov. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution