In April 2000, the people of Cochabamba captured the imagination of anti-corporate campaigners the world over. Only months after the US transnational Bechtel took control of the regions water supply – forcing citizens to pay for rainwater they collected – the people of Cochabamba, organised through the Coalition in Defence of Water and Life, rose up and booted out the corporation.
Many heralded this as the first decisive reversal of neoliberal policy and the beginning of an intense cycle of mass struggle for a new Bolivia, led by the country’s indigenous poor. One of those involved in this struggle and who continues to work with the Coalition in Defence of Water and Life, as well as the National Coalition in Defence of Water, Basic Services, Environment, Natural Resources and Life, established in December last year, is Gissel Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is currently in Australia as part of the Second Latin American and Asia Pacific Solidarity Gathering to be held in Melbourne, October 21-22. Green Left Weekly spoke to Gonzalez about the current situation in Bolivia, where, six years after the “Water War”, Bolivia has its first indigenous president, Evo Morales.
Asked why such an intense rebellion had occurred in Bolivia since 2000, Gonalez explained that “for more than 20 years, we, as Bolivian people, have been suppressed by governmental and state policies”, which were carried out by governments “managed, utilised and pressured by imperial powers like the US, like England, and all those bad governments in the world that look to eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor”.
However, he said, “the dignity and strength we have will never be eliminated”. In Bolivia “after having lived through neoliberalism, where they privatisated our basic services, privatisated our resources, privatisated our strategic companies that had maintained Bolivia, we began to realise what was happening and said ‘Ya Basta!’ [Enough!]
“We said ‘enough’ in April 2000 when we expelled a transnational, that same transnational that is now controlling the system of potable water and sewerage in Iraq – Bechtel … Since 2000, I would say we have begun to fracture and break this neoliberal model.”
Gonzalez explained that following the Water War, a number of other important struggles and fights emerged. A key point was in October 2003, when the government of then president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada attempted to sell off Bolivia’s gas to the US via Chile and the people responded by “expelling a president, an icon of the neoliberal model in Bolivia”.
Less than two years later, another uprising, again over the issue of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons, forced the resignation of another president, paving the way for new elections.
“This took us to the situation where, in December 2005, brother Evo Morales was elected, for the first time in Bolivian history by 54% of the vote, as president of the republic.” Gonzalez explained that “this cycle that began in 2000 has led us to lose our fear, to recover our voices, and above all, demonstrated that we have the capacity to decide what kind of country we want to live in”.
However Gonzalez noted that although the right wing were dealt “a solid, strong blow” the conservative forces were “not eliminated, it has been difficult to eliminate them”. The right is in “agony” but it “has not died” and has plans “to not allow us to change the structure of the government like we have proposed since April 2000”.
The intense polarisation that is occurring at the moment, which has included a general strike by the pro-business civic committees in the eastern region of Bolivia, is one example of this. “The trip of the departmental prefects [state governors] to the US, the information that the Santa Cruz elite have arms, and the fact that we have discovered that the prefect in Pando has a group of young people receiving paramilitary training” are further proof that the right is planning to fight back against the Morales government.
Regarding rumours of a possible coup, Gonzalez believes “that the participation of all the people is very important” to avoid this, but he added “we are not aiming for this to end up as a confrontation among Bolivians, a civil war or a coup … We simply have to eliminate that tiny group of business owners, of oligarchs, that exist in Santa Cruz.”
Gonzalez believes that the spreading of an idea of a confrontation is “an exaggeration by the mass media managed and manipulated by the right wing”, which is looking to create instability.
Commenting on the relationship between the social movements and the Morales government, Gonzalez noted that “clearly the government of Evo Morales is a government that has emerged from the social movements”. He explained that “brother Evo”, who rose up out of the cocalero (coca growers) trade unions, helped bring together different social organisations that “decided upon the recuperation of power via democratic votes, such as participation in the elections”.
“Parallel to this, we have also done important work of reorganising; bringing together, organising and unifying the social movements in Bolivia and all of us aim to strengthen this government”, added Gonzalez. “But we should not mix up the administration of the governmental and state apparatus with the social movements. We believe that there has to be, if you want to call it this, autonomy – of decision making, of power – as much for the state as for the social movements.” Gonzalez says that he believes the recuperation of power has to come about by “listening to the social movements”.
He explained that this was part of the reason why the coalition he is a member of has not joined the newly reestablished General Staff of the Peoples (Estado Mayor del Pueblo, EMP). The EMP is “a social bloc of social movements” involving around 30 social organisations, which was formed to “defend the policies of the state, which would be coming from the government of Evo Morales”.
Whilst Gonzales “respects the participation of these social movements” in the EMP, he argues “that there needs to be an autonomy of the attitudes and actions of the government and of the social movements and their needs”.
“What we are looking for, and what we have to do is totally eliminate this tiny group of elites that operate in the east of Bolivia so that afterwards we can come together as Bolivians, and amongst ourselves rearticulate a new form of state.”
When GLW asked Gonzalez if he believed the current Constituent Assembly, which began its deliberations on writing a new constriction on August 6, could play a role in creating this new state he answered that “as it is now, and left on its own, it will not function, because inside the Constituent Assembly are delegates from the right, the left, centre-right and centre-left”.
This is due to a “small error” committed in the calling of the Constituent Assembly, which was that “the norms and regulation of the Constituent Assembly were drawn up within a neoliberal schema. This meant that the indigenous peoples were not able to participate directly and that instead the delegates were elected in the traditional electoral contest between political parties.” “This has been done with the aim of having the participation of all, not exclusion”, he added.
That is why, according to Gonzalez “this CA will not function if it is not accompanied by the social movements, if it is not accompanied by the unity, strength and, above all else, the mobilisation of all the people, of all of us who have demanded and are looking for a new Bolivia for ourselves, a new form of state, a new example of a state that we want.
“We are going to push that the voices of the social movements in regards to the … problems, demands and solutions to our problems be heard. As social movements we are going to demand the delegates attend to our priorities and our necessities.”
Gonzalez said solidarity from people around the world will be important to “allow us to achieve what we did with Bechtel”. After being forced out of Bolivia, Bechtel threatened to sue the government for US$25 million for supposed losses of potential profits. The corporation doubled that to $50 million, but after an international campaign the trial was ended by an agreement that the people of Bolivia would by the shares off Bechtel and end the case for two bolivianos (less than forty cents).