Walking a new path

10 walking a new path

Photo: Aldo Cardozo ©

What’s to come? No one can know.

– Billy Bragg

Beginning in 1986, in Bolivia and neighbouring countries, economic structural adjustment was initiated by multilateral financial institutions, resulting in the privatisation of public companies.

In 1999, the Bolivian government privatised the water system of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city, and applied that policy nationwide. Over several months, we, the people, fought this policy under the umbrella of The Coalition for the Defence of Water and Life. People mobilised in the streets; the government responded with violence. In April 2000, after days of confrontations, the company was expelled and the law changed. The Water War, as it became known throughout the world, was the first popular victory in 18 years of neoliberalism in Bolivia, and it changed history.

Public management of the water company was then instituted in an attempt to clarify what ‘public’ means. However, our belief that we could manage our water resources better was naïve and mistaken. We couldn’t build a self-managed public company within a global context of privatisation. The Water War became not just about water but about what neoliberalism deprived us of: our right to participate in decision-making.

Throughout Bolivia and Latin America, people are working hard to replace the neoliberal system with new systems of government. Free-market philosophy has such a stranglehold on global economic development that new approaches are thwarted everywhere. We believe that one of our mistakes in re-visioning economic policies is that we always frame a ‘global economy’ when the people are building a different economy, one based on life’s realities, not capital. The media does not report these initiatives, so, they do not ‘exist’ in the formal world, but they are happening nonetheless. We are walking a new path that has many problems, both known and unknown. While we have made mistakes about what could be done, we know that our life of the past 20 years is not the way forward.

Marcela Olivera and Oscar Olivera are water-commons and labour activists based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Oscar is author of ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia

This article is part of the t-10 series from Issue 5 of Turbulence asking, ‘What were you wrong about 10 years ago?‘.

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