A New Victory for the Bolivian People
by Luis A. Gómez, Special to The Narco News Bulletin. January 14, 2005

EL ALTO, BOLIVIA, JANUARY 14, 1:00 AM: We turn once again to El Alto, to its power and its grace. And now, we see not only a government beaten, forced to obey its people, but also the exit of a transnational corporation over the issue of water, much like what happened with Bechtel in the city of Cochabamba in 2000. We will witness years of marginalization and discrimination, five months of pressure, three days of strikes, and a victory march, all here, in this indigenous (mostly Aymara) city of nearly 800,000. The inhabitants of this place already overthrew a murderous president in October 2003, and now they begin a long march to win back all that which has always belonged to them. El Alto, on its feet (“never on its knees”), at four thousand meters (13,000 feet) above sea level, is the highest point of social mobilization.

But let’s proceed calmly, kind readers. Let’s imagine this place, encircled by snow-capped peaks and and a vast grassy plain, where the people grow potatoes and herd llamas. We are surrounded by red brick houses. The streets and plazas, poor but proud, are populated by these men and women armed only with their own bodies, with nothing holding them together but their own poverty. Many of them, 60 percent, barely survive on two dollars per day. More than half lack potable water and sewage facilities. They are craftspeople, construction workers, bus drivers, domestic servants, street vendors; they are the people of this part of the world, giving lessons in strength with each step they take.

Facing us to the south, spread out beneath the plateau of El Alto, lies the seat of power, the city of the whites and the mestizos, “the big hole,” a long valley once called Chuquiagu and today known as La Paz. There, with salaries higher than President Carlos Mesa ($3,500 dollars per month or more), hiding behind their desks, are the executives of the world’s second-largest water corporation: French conglomerate Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux. The Suez group runs Aguas de Illimani, the company that provides running water, sewer systems, and water treatment facilities for both cities… and that today is packing its bags because of the actions taken by the alteños, the people of El Alto.

1. Knowing their Strength

Let’s look at this city first on the early morning of Monday, January 10. Men, women, children and old folks are going out to shut down the streets, to block the bridges and avenues. Here they come, with their wide skirts, with their dark hats, with their sticks and stones. After five months of mobilizations and warnings to the Bolivian government, the residents of El Alto are tired of waiting for the right answer from President Mesa and Congress. In vain they have listed their demands, in vain they have spread the word in any way possible. They have spoken, but they have not been heard.

These ex-miners, these ex-farmers, forced by poverty to move to the city, marched late last August to demand justice, to demand a trial against ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. They got their wish a few weeks later, but in the story of El Alto, there are still many things left to be resolved. The El Alto Federation of Neighborhood Committees (shortened to Fejuve in Spanish) released an extensive list of complaints and demands on September 27, 2004, after “grassroots discussion in our neighborhoods on different issues regarding the needs of the Bolivian people.”

The demands in the document, entitled “Pliego Nacional” (roughly, “letter to the nation”), include the nationalization and industrialization of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons, the recovery of state enterprises that have been privatized, the expropriation of various politicians’ properties, the repeal of Supreme Decree 21060 (which in 1985 essentially established neoliberalism in Bolivia), as well as better healthcare, employment and education. No one in power attended to their demands, and the leaders of Fejuve decided to return to their base, to the people, to discuss what actions to take. They spent weeks debating.

On November 15 they returned to the streets for a 24-hour shut-down. With the biggest mobilization since the October 2003 insurrection, the alteños gave the government 48 hours to respond to their demands, to which the people had added several new points. The most important of these, which expressed the need to expel transnational corporations from Bolivia, had to do with water and sewage service – that is, with the Aguas de Illimani company, administered by Suez. On that day, Carlos Mesa had to come down from his cloud in the sky, where he vainly believed himself to be popular and backed by the people. Contacts were made to begin negotiating, point by point, with all the necessary authorities.

Three days later, a score of Bolivian officials, among them Ministers, Vice Ministers, and Superintendents, came to El Alto to begin the negotiations. With the arrogance of the state and the strength of the neighborhood leaders together in the same room, the demands of the people were heard. Once the subject of “water” had been breached, Fejuve President Abel Mamani made the people’s point of departure very clear: “We didn’t come here to discuss what to do to improve service or lower our bills. We’re going to start with the root of the problem: Aguas de Illimani simply must leave.”

And to get started, they demanded that the officials turn over all their documents related to the company (contracts, memos, rulings, reports – everything). Little by little, as the meeting moved forward, the government representatives accepted the conditions that the alteños had brought to the table. Take note, kind readers: on that 18th of November, Mesa got a look, up close, at the power of the people.

2. Moving Forward, Denouncing Injustice, Not Giving In

For several days in November, there were meetings and surprise inspections in Aguas de Illimani-Suez’s El Alto installations. And despite the precarious situation of this indigenous city’s services, the Bolivian bureaucrats tried to help the company, claiming that it was working “within valid legal frameworks” so as not to cancel the company’s contract. Fejuve broke off negations with the government, and announced a general civic strike beginning Monday, November 29, to continue indefinitely. The Mesa administration then offered to review their contract with Suez, so that, in the case that some irregularities or cause for breach could be found, the entire process could end with the company’s “legal” and “peaceful” exit. The people of El Alto agreed to rejoin the dialog, unwavering in their demand that the company leave, but giving the government until December 20 to comply.

And so, his hand forced by the “social upheaval” of the alteños, Superintendent of Sanitation Johnny Cuéllar (the top regulatory authority for companies in the sector) sent a letter to Aguas de Illimani on November 24, summoning the company to a contract review process. Antoine Kuhn, a French citizen and the company’s general manager in Bolivia, responded five days later with an long missive, refusing flat-out to review the contract, calling such a proposal “contrary to legal structures,” and making it clear that the company could resort to actions against the government based on international law.

During the month of December, as meetings with the government were being restarted, the El Alto neighborhood leaders began to report all of the failures and irregularities in Suez’s administration of their water.

For example, in the six years since the privatization of the city’s water services, Aguas de Illimani had raised installation and water and sewage service to prices unpayable for the alteños. The prices were set based on the dollar, so when U.S. currency rose in value compared to Bolivian currency (and it rises every day), the price of water rose with it (the price for a fresh-water hook-up had reached $460 dollars).

Or, we could talk about the extreme pollution of the Hernani river, in the north of the city, where several factories dump their chemical waste while Aguas de Illimani did nothing about it. Or should we mention that in the poorest areas of El Alto, the company did not install water meters, but rather charged the houses a fixed rate that far exceeded their actual consumption? In all, Fejuve and its advisors had found at least fourteen good reasons to kick the company out of the city, according to the leaflet they began distributing in early December.

Did I forget to mention that Suez President Gérard Mestrallet is a personal friend of French President Jacques Chirac? Ah, yes, that’s important, because the Fejuve leaders even met with an official from the French embassy in Bolivia, and, well, it all ended with threats of international lawsuits, and with a phone call from Chirac to Mesa to inquire about things such as the “security of French investments” in the country, according to a source in the government. The government maintained a posture of respect for the “legal security of the company,” which meant, among other things, that Superintendent Cuéllar was forced to resign. And so, on December 22, the alteños said, “enough, there will be no more dialog,” and announced the general strike that began on Monday, January 10.

Tired of, as their resolution put it, “the government’s inattentiveness towards the demands of the El Alto Federation of Neighborhood Committees,” the alteños decided to begin a “general civic stoppage, mobilized for an indefinite period… for the definitive expulsion of Aguas de Illimani, and demanding an immediate answer to the points in our [September letter to the nation].”

And that is why we are seeing, once again, rocks in the street early on a monday morning…

3. Winning and Fighting Another Day

It was a little after 10:30 in the morning when this reporter climbed up to El Alto in a bus, on the highway, this Monday. At a curve in the road, about 200 people came down from a steep street, setting off dynamite and waving their tricolor banners (green, red, and yellow, like the Bolivian flag). In a few seconds the traffic was blocked. They were the men of Alto Lima, the women of the Ballivián neighborhood, from 16 de Julio – delegations from the 6th District, in the north of this Aymara city, who had come in a show of force. They did it on monday, repeated it on Tuesday, and then again on Wednesday, at nearly the exact same time. The same happened in the south, near the highway to Oruro, and in the north, on the way toward Lake Titicaca. For three days they paralyzed their city and blockaded La Paz.

On the morning of Tuesday, January 11, the Bolivian government sent a letter to Abel Mamani. The letter offered to terminate the contract with Suez. The president, who two days earlier had threatened to quit, blackmailing the country, decided he would rather hand over the company’s head before he left power. In the Ceja area of El Alto, near the border with La Paz, Mamani held an emergency meeting of the more than 600 neighborhood committee presidents. They needed to decide if this was enough to end the strike, or on the other hand, if it meant they needed to radicalize their tactics. The alteños said “no.” After an anxious meeting at Fejuve’s headquarters, the city’s nine districts agreed that night to demand the president issue a supreme decree ending the contract, and gave him twenty-four hours to do so. If not, they would march down into La Paz and occupy all of Aguas de Illimani’s installations by force. The meeting had not been over for twenty minutes when the government called: the decree would be ready at 8 o’clock Wednesday morning.

And on Wednesday the little piece of paper from government arrived, speaking of, among many things, the “population’s rejection,” of the “obligation to protect national security,” and to “make the decision to find a final solution.” But it was not complete, because nowhere did the decree express El Alto’s urgency in expelling the company as soon as possible. Once again, blockade by blockade, neighbor to neighbor, the people discussed the problem. The government’s statement, they decided, would have to say “immediately,” or it would be worthless. And while Fejuve held a closed-door meeting in its offices, with a few journalists waiting outside for news, the government sent out the decree, now official, that ordered “all immediate action” be taken to terminate the contract. All that was left was to see if the alteños were satisfied.

On the last night, after three and a half days of strikes and blockades, the people met all around the city to discuss whether or not to accept Supreme Decree 27973. No one slept that night. They decided that yes, this time, at least on one issue, the government had heard their demands. Yesterday’s march, Thursday December 13, became instead a “victory march,” and 20,000 alteños formed themselves into a snake that slithered into the heart of La Paz to celebrate. Doña María Ticona de Copa, an elderly woman with big, sweet, brown eyes, raised the Fejuve banner and led the march.

“It was conclusive, brother journalist. El Alto is on its feet and now we’re going to get rid of Electropaz [the electric company owned by the Spanish Iberdrola corporation], and to win every one of our demands,” doña María, not just the flag-bearer but also the doorwoman at the Fejuve building, told me. And so it is, kind readers, because this is just one more step for the alteños.

“Brother Gómes,” Mercedes “Mechi” Condori, a Fejuve leader, said to me, “we are content because we got rid of a transnational corporation defended by France. Starting tomorrow, we are going to begin the months of negotiations for each one of our other demands, but if the government does not listen to us, we will go back to mobilizations.

During the demonstration in La Paz, in front of the factory-workers’ union hall, Abel Mamani, smiling and exhausted, made sure to mention all that was left to be done, as well as to congratulate his neighbors for their strength, their courage, and their ability to mobilize. As he left, this reporter wanted to ask him a few things about the struggle that lies ahead…

“Come with us, we’re going to celebrate. Tomorrow we will get back to the new water company that must now be created, to the issues that still need to be resolved, to everything,” he answered. And I went with them, to eat and to toast to El Alto… and here I am now, kind readers, awake and happy among the men and women who, five years after the water war in Cochabamba, have beaten another transnational corporation. Good night, kind readers, and stay with us, toasting to the health of the the alteño people who scored a knockout against Suez. And pay attention, because this story is not over.