Launching the Final Battle in Bolivia's Water War
As long-time followers of our work know, in January-April 2000 the people of Cochabamba took to the streets to take back their public water system which had been privatized six months earlier into the hands of three foreign corporations – Bechtel of the US, Edison of Italy, and Abengoa of Spain. The corporations raised rates astronomically for the city's residents. One seventeen-year-old boy was killed and more than a hundred people were injured when the government of former dictator Hugo Banzer sent out troops to stop the protests. Here's the link to our reports on the water revolt.
In November 2002 the three corporations filed their multi-million demand before a closed-door trade court at the World Bank (ICSID) and shortly afterwards The Democracy Center and its allies in Bolivia and around the world launched a massive citizen effort to fight them. More than a thousand people wrote emails to the heads of the companies demanding that the case be dropped. Three hundred organizations from 43 nations endorsed a legal petition to the World Bank demanding that the case be opened up to public scrutiny and participation. Direct actions have been held at Bechtel's headquarters in California and Holland.
On October 21 the tribunal in the case ruled that it has legal jurisdiction to hear the corporations' demand and put the people of Cochabamba on trial. If the corporations win they could force the people of Cochabamba to pay an amount equal to what it costs to run the local water company for three years. Funds that would otherwise be used to provide water to families who have none would be used to pay off three of the wealthiest corporations in their respective countries.
So today The Democracy Center and the Coordinadora ready an international action campaign to send a message to the heads of these three corporations. That message is that the cost of their continued assault against Cochabamba will be a furious citizen campaign taken to their offices, their homes, and their public reputations. Just as international solidarity work demonstrated two weeks ago that President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada is not beyond public reach, so it is for the heads of these companies.
[Note: Watch for an action alert on this blog within a few days.]
This is a case with wide repercussions, beyond water and beyond Bolivia. As this country seeks to recover its oil and gas (a position that even the conservative candidates for President proclaim on television), the biggest threat is not finding investors it is fighting off potential trade court cases just like this one. This point was made by Joseph Stiglitz in the Sunday New York Times magazine article:
"They could do it." If Bolivia abrogated its existing contracts, he said, some of the non-Western oil giants would gladly negotiate new deals on better terms. "Petronas" - the Malaysian state oil company - "would come in, China would come in, India would come in." If Morales did nationalize the country's oil and gas, the multinational oil companies that currently hold the Bolivian concessions, including Repsol, a Spanish company, and British Gas, would probably sue Bolivia in an international court and try to organize an international boycott. But Stiglitz dismisses that threat: "If you had three, four, five first-rate companies around the world willing to compete for Bolivia's resources, no boycott would work."
These closed-door trade courts are being used by international corporations to attack everything from California environmental laws to Bolivian demands for affordable water rates. Corporations worldwide are watching this case. If powerful Bechtel can be beaten by Bolivians, then other corporations will take extra caution before following in its footsteps.
In April of 2000, when Cochabambinos took to the streets, they called it la ultima batalla (the last battle). In reality that last battle begins now. It is one that citizens everywhere in the world have a huge stake in winning.