Oscar Olivera: After the Water War

The victory in the Cochabamba water wars created new challenges: figuring out what to do with success.


Photo by Sarah van Gelder. Oscar Olivera
Oscar Olivera

President of the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers, Oscar Olivera was spokesperson for the Coordinadora, the umbrella for those who came together in 2000 to reclaim water. He since wrote ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia (South End Press, 2004) and was awarded the Letelier-Moffitt and Goldman Environmental prizes. YES! Editor Sarah van Gelder spoke to him at his office in Cochabamba.

Sarah van Gelder: What do you think the water war means for Bolivia's future?

Oscar Olivera: The water war changed our history. We kept our sources of water from becoming the property of a foreign investor. And we stopped the confiscation of our self-managed water systems, which were developed by workers, neighbors, and farmers, through our own efforts and the wisdom of our communities.

Above all, we demonstrated to Bolivia and the world that when we come together and when we know what we want, it is possible to defeat multinational corporations, the World Bank, the IMF, and the policies of right-wing political parties.

I believe the water war was a fight for democracy, because democracy is, above all, about who decides. And since April 2000, the Bolivian people began to say that it is the people who decide. We not only recovered our water, we recovered our voice.

Sarah: What does your success mean for other places that are facing similar situations?

Olivera: Based on this victory, people in many parts of the world started to rebel and to organize. There is a network in the Americas and elsewhere that is working to preserve water as a commons, as a collective right, a patrimony of all living beings.

We expelled some very powerful multinationals, but when the companies left, we realized that we lack the alternative. We want to create participative, social, communal management of water, but we're lacking the specific means to create this alternative.

I want to emphasize that the fight for water is really a struggle for life. It's about understanding ourselves not as proprietors, but as beneficiaries of this “blood,” as indigenous communities say, which Pachamama [Mother Earth] generously gives us so life can continue.

We need a new kind of relationship between people and nature; we cannot keep letting multinational corporations and governments turn everything into commodities. We know that Mother Earth gives us life, and we must use oil, water, gas, biodiversity—not as commodities—but in a way that allows the generations of today and of the future to live lives of dignity.

Beginning with water, I think we can build and design a new world, a new society, based on this struggle for life.

Sarah: You have been asked to join Evo Morales' government. Why did you refuse?

Olivera: I believe that the true transformational power of life resides in people's capacity for organization and mobilization. So it would be inconsistent to try to change things from above, when that is what I have fought.

Sarah: Is there anything you would like to say to the people of U.S.?

Olivera: Yes, I've been 14 times in the U.S. I've seen much dignity in the American people, but I also have seen much fear, and I think one of the most important things that the American people should do is let go of the fear, as we have here in Bolivia.

I don't believe we will win a victory for all of humanity until the peoples of the North and the South come together to struggle for what we have in common, which is the struggle for life itself.

“… The U.S. company Bechtel took over the water system and tripled the rates overnight. Indigenous communities marched in from the valleys and blockaded the city, which also rebelled, raising barricades and burning water bills in a great bonfire in the Plaza de Armas. The Bolivian government answered with bullets, as usual. There was a state of siege, people were killed and imprisoned, but the uprising continued day after day, night after night, for two months unstoppable, until with a final push, the people of Cochabamba won back the liquid that nourishes their bodies and sustains their crops. …”

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