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Struggles against Accumulation by Dispossession in Bolivia : The Political Economy
of Natural Resource Contention
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Latin American Perspectives
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Struggles against Accumulation by
Dispossession in Bolivia
The Political Economy of Natural Resource Contention by
Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber
David Harvey suggests that, compared with struggles waged by traditional political parties and labor unions, struggles to “reclaim the commons” typically result in a lessfocused political dynamic of social action, which is both a strength and a weakness. Whilethese social movements draw strength from their embeddedness in daily life, not all man-age to make the link between the struggle against accumulation by dispossession and thestruggle for expanded reproduction that is necessary to meet the material needs of impov-erished and repressed populations. Social movements in Bolivia have framed theirdemands differently in the struggles against the privatization of natural gas and waterdepending on the different roles these resources play in the region’s political economy.
Struggles against the privatization of natural gas pose a greater challenge to neoliberal-ism because of their macro frame and politics.
Privatization, Social movements, Natural resources, Neoliberalism, Bolivia On June 6, 2005, Bolivia’s second gas war came to an end. After months of steady road blockades and protests demanding the nationalization of thecountry’s natural gas reserves, President Carlos Mesa offered his resignationto Congress, explaining that he was incapable of presiding over such a tumul-tuous country. This was one of many climactic points in a series of popularuprisings that have posed a fundamental challenge to the neoliberal model.
Since the Cochabamba water war of 2000, Bolivia has seen the emergence ofsome of the most powerful social movements on the continent. While socialmovements are by no means new in Bolivia, a country with a long history ofrevolution and struggle, the latest protest cycle marks a renewal of militancyand growing success on the part of these movements in putting their demandson the political agenda that have potentially revolutionary implications(Hylton and Thomson, 2005).
Building on David Harvey’s (2003) concept of struggles against accumulation by dispossession, this article compares and contrasts the movements that eruptedduring key moments of this protest cycle—the water wars of Cochabamba in Susan Spronk is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at York University. Jeffery R. Webber is aPh.D. candidate in political science at the University of Toronto. Authors’ names appear alpha-betically. They thank David Camfield, Étienne Cantin, Linda Farthing, Ben Kohl, Liisa North,Adam Schachhuber, Susana Wappenstein, and LAP reviewers for constructive comments on var-ious drafts. The usual disclaimers apply. Susan Spronk thanks the International DevelopmentResearch Centre (IDRC) and Jeffery R. Webber thanks IDRC and the Sir Val Duncan Travel Grant,Munk Centre for International Studies, for making possible the field research upon which this arti-cle is based.
LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 153, Vol. 34 No. 2, March 2007 31-47DOI: 10.1177/0094582X06298748 2007 Latin American Perspectives 2000 and La Paz–El Alto in 2005 and the gas wars of October 2003 andMay–June 2005. During these events, diverse sections of the population weremobilized in massive actions against the government and concentrated theirattention on foreign investment projects that were perceived to transfer theeconomic benefits brought by natural resources to transnational corporations.
In contrast to the anti-International Monetary Fund (IMF) movements of themid-1980s, these movements articulated a clear link between accumulatedpopular grievances and an identifiable set of government policies that wasable to sustain coalitions of indigenous movements, workers, peasants, andthe urban poor around a unitary national project (see Nash, 1992; Perreault,2006). While the struggles are intimately connected and even involve many ofthe same participants, we argue that the fight for the nationalization of naturalgas poses a more fundamental challenge to neoliberalism than the strugglesaround water because of the political-economic importance of the resource.
The struggles against the privatization of the hydrocarbons and water sectors of the Bolivian economy provide exemplary demonstrations of the kinds ofmovements that have emerged in the neoliberal era to contest what Harveycalls “accumulation by dispossession.” For Harvey, Marx rightly highlightsprocesses of capital accumulation “based upon predation, fraud, and violence”but incorrectly imagines them to be exclusively features of a “primitive” or“original” stage of capitalism (2003: 144). In the neoliberal era, privatization hasbecome a fundamental strategy of accumulation by dispossession, whichHarvey argues is a veritable “enclosure of the commons.” Privatization entailsthe release “at very low (and in some instances zero) cost” of a set of assets for-merly owned by the state that can then be seized by private capital and used forprofit (149). This latest phase of accumulation by dispossession was set inmotion on an international scale largely under the tutelage of the U.S. imperialstate and a neoliberal ideology that sought to redefine the role of all states andwas implemented through international financial institutions such as the WorldBank and the IMF. Accumulation by dispossession is not merely privatization offormerly state or public resources but their acquisition by transnational capitalin the U.S. and other core economies.
Harvey (2003: 162–169) further argues that accumulation by dispossession gave rise to a multifaceted array of struggles that display some new charac-teristics. These struggles—ranging from the Ogoni people’s struggle againstShell Oil to campaigns for preserving biodiversity to the thousands of anti-IMF austerity riots of the 1980s—do not take place under a working-class ortrade-union banner or with working-class leadership identified as such butrather draw from a broad spectrum of civil society. Given the wide range ofsocial interests that participate in these struggles, he posits that they produce“a less focused political dynamic of social action” (168) than, for example, thatof the revolutionary socialist movements that emerged throughout the devel-oping world after World War II. He argues that, although these movementsdraw strength from their embeddedness in daily life, a “danger lurks that a Spronk and Webber / STRUGGLES AGAINST ACCUMULATION politics of nostalgia for that which has been lost will supersede the search forways to better meet the material needs of impoverished and repressed popu-lations” (177). He nonetheless sees revolutionary potential in contemporarystruggles to “reclaim the commons.” For Harvey, “it is often relatively easy toeffect some level of reconciliation” between traditional socialist concerns andthe latest wave of struggles against accumulation by dispossession when theconnections are cultivated with “struggles within expanded reproduction”(177–179).
Harvey’s contribution to our understanding of the dynamics of contempo- rary resistance injects a much-needed focus on political economy into analy-ses of the social-movement struggles against neoliberalism in Bolivia. Existingstudies of the gas and water wars in Bolivia have tended to focus on the strate-gies of the social movements, emphasizing questions related to the subjectiveself-understanding and self-representation of movement actors during thesemoments of popular struggle. Insufficient attention has been paid to the wayin which structural factors shape collective action. In what follows, we aim toanalyze the context in which the social movements struggling against the pri-vatization of water and gas in Bolivia emerged and framed their demands interms of the particular roles these resources played in the political economy.1 We argue that in the gas wars the social movements produced a macro frame and politics based on the fact that natural gas is what Jan Selby (2005)has described as a “structurally significant” resource: an important input inindustrial capitalist economies, unevenly and scarcely distributed in theworld, relatively easy to establish oligopolistic control over, and a centralsource of revenue for economic development and state building. When socialmovements and the state negotiate over natural gas, they are effectively strug-gling over the future trajectory of the state. Resources that are not structurallyimportant—such as water—are fundamentally important to the sustenance ofhuman life but do not have the same economic importance in the contempo-rary capitalist system, measured in terms of their contribution to grossnational income (GNI). Therefore, the micro frame and politics developed bythe movements struggling over water focus on local democratic control ratherthan on national development and the construction of a different, distinctlynon-neoliberal state.2 NATURAL GAS
In the Bolivian context, natural gas is clearly a natural resource of structural significance, and its privatization in the 1990s is a clear illustration of accu-mulation by dispossession. The importance of natural gas in Bolivia’s econ-omy is on a par with the significance of silver and tin historically (Chávez andLora, 2005: 3).
The hydrocarbons sector of Bolivia’s economy generates between US$1.4 and US$1.5 billion annually. Of this sum, US$860 million stems from theexploitation of natural gas, US$106 million from liquid petroleum gas, andUS$460 million from condensed petroleum and gasoline (Chávez and Lora, 2005: 3). To put these numbers in perspective, Bolivia’s GNI was US$8.3 bil-lion in 2000, US$8.1 billion in 2003, and US$8.7 billion in 2004 (World Bank,2005). New discoveries since 1997 put the country’s gas reserves at the second-largest in Latin America. Demand for natural gas in the neighboring countriesof Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay has experienced sustained growth inthe past 10 years and is projected to continue. The combination of substantialreserves and growing regional demand places Bolivia in the enviable positionof being the only Southern Cone country with the capacity to meet thisdemand (Villegas Quiroga, 2004: 35–39) (Table 1). Natural gas exploitation isa defining component of Bolivia’s political economy and therefore subject tovery high stakes in the struggles over accumulation by dispossession.
With the Law of Capitalization and the Hydrocarbons Law of 1996, the Bolivian state, then under the first administration of Gonzalo Sánchez deLozada (1993–1997), privatized the hydrocarbons sector, returning it to a type ofmanagement not seen since the 1920s (Miranda Pacheco, 1999: 242). For morethan 70 years prior to 1996, “the oil industry was owned and controlled by thegovernment. Foreign companies participated in petroleum exploration and pro-duction, splitting the benefits with the Bolivian government 50/50” (Shultz,2005: 16). Capitalization in the case of hydrocarbons split the industry into activ-ities of exploration and exploitation (production) and transportation with thegoal of facilitating the entry of more foreign firms. Furthermore, through thislegislation, wellhead royalties owed to the state by the transnationals werereduced from 50 percent to 18 percent in all “new” discovery sites.
Two specific facets of the hydrocarbons privatizing process deserve special mention because they match so perfectly Harvey’s accumulation by dispos-session. First, immediately prior to its capitalization, the state companyYacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales de Bolivia (YPFB) had been “on the verge ofcompleting a contract to build a pipeline to connect Bolivian gasfields toBrazilian markets,” which would have increased its profits “by at least $50million a year for 40 years. These earnings, instead, were largely transferred toprivate firms that borrowed capital from the same international institutionsthat had previously offered loans to YPFB” (Kohl, 2004: 904). Second, Sánchezde Lozada’s Hydrocarbons Law No. 1731, promulgated on June 26, 1996,manipulated the previous Hydrocarbons Law No. 1689—implemented justshort of two months earlier, on April 30, 1996—to redefine “new” and “extant”fields of natural gas.3 Production defined as new under both versions of thelaw would be subject to 18 percent wellhead royalties as compared with 50percent in the existing fields. The 1996 law affected principally the major nat-ural gas camps of San Alberto and San Antonio. Each was effectively movedfrom “extant” (both camps previously so defined because in each case thedeposits were “proven” not simply “probable”) to “new” and thereforesubject to the lesser royalty (Villegas Quiroga, 2004: 84–85). In Kohl’s estima-tion, this constitutes “a giveaway that could cost the nation hundreds ofmillions, if not billions, of dollars over the next 40 years” (2004: 904).
The effect on the budget has been catastrophic (Kohl, 2003: 346). From 1997 to 2002, Bolivia’s budget borrowing increased from 3.3 to 8.6 percent of itsGNI (Shultz, 2005: 16–17). As Shultz (2005) points out, privatization of thehydrocarbons sector was a key component in the World Bank’s and IMF’s Spronk and Webber / STRUGGLES AGAINST ACCUMULATION Demand for Natural Gas in the Southern Cone
(Millions of Cubic Meters per Day)
Source: Villegas Quiroga (2004: 38).
overall plan for Bolivia. The IMF demanded that the budget shortfall be madeup through cuts in social spending and increases in regressive taxes that hitpoor Bolivians the hardest. Such a pathological economic model could not besustained, and it would be yet another IMF demand to increase taxes againstthe poor—in order to reduce the deficit dramatically—that would set off themassive confrontations of Bolivia’s Febrero Negro (Black February) of 2003.4Thirty-four people were killed in two days, and the stage was set for the gaswar of October 2003.
Recognizing the strength of the reactionary forces with interests in gas, Oscar Olivera argues, “If six hundred thousand people had participated in thewater war just to recover [the former public water company] SEMAPA and topreserve our traditional customs and practices, then all eight million of usBolivians would have to mobilize to get back control of our hydrocarbons”(Olivera and Lewis, 2004: 179). Olivera’s statement is a clear reflection of thesignificance of the differing political economies of natural gas and water andtheir impacts on popular struggles.
For some, the gas war of September-October 2003 represents the culmination of a rising indigenous radicalism and the ultimate exposure of the racist cleavagethat most fundamentally defines Bolivian social reality (Luis Gómez, interview,2005; 2004; Mamani Ramírez, 2004a). For others, it signifies a convergence of theolder “national-popular” traditions of the miner- and political-party-driven leftand the new indigenous radical sectors (Hylton and Thomson, 2004). Finally,some see as its cause the social failure of the neoliberal model (Arze and Kruse,2004; Escobar de Pabón, 2003). Virtually no one, however, contests that the futureof natural gas in Bolivia was at the heart of the matter.
During Hugo Bánzer’s administration (1997–2001) a deal to export gas through a Chilean port to Mexico and the United States was initiated withPacific LNG, a Spanish-British-U.S. energy consortium. In 2002 Sánchez deLozada assumed the presidency, and, as Hylton and Thompson note, “hisattempt to close the gas deal in 2003 sparked massive opposition to which heresponded with blunt force” (2004: 18). The first major social force in theSeptember-October insurrection was the largely Aymara indigenous peas-antry in the altiplano and Lake Titicaca regions, which set up major roadblockades (García Linera, 2004; Gómez, 2004; Mamani Ramírez, 2004a). These actions were met with the brute force of the state in a series of massacres inSeptember, spawning outrage in the urban shantytown of El Alto, a city ofclose to 650,000 people 81 percent of whom identify themselves as indigenous(INE, 2001). These residents maintain strong familial and cultural connectionsto the countryside. The shantytown mobilized in a powerful, united fashionfrom October 8 to 17 and was met by fierce state violence. Miners fromHuanuni marched to El Alto and joined in the popular struggle. The centralmobilizing organizations in El Alto during this period were the Federación deJuntas Vecinales de El Alto (Federation of Neighborhood Associations of ElAlto—FEJUVE-El Alto) and the Central Obrera Regional (Regional Workers’Central of El Alto—COR-El Alto).
The struggle descended from El Alto to La Paz, with the popular neighbor- hoods of the latter joining forcefully in the revolt. Eventually, even middle-class residents of La Paz engaged in hunger strikes against the government.
With an estimated 500,000 people in the streets (Hylton, 2003), Sánchez deLozada and his closest supporters fled the country for exile in the UnitedStates on October 17. This left the vice president, Carlos Mesa, who had dis-tanced himself publicly from the violence of the regime, to assume office fol-lowing constitutionally defined procedures. Under Sánchez de Lozada,according to the highest figures, more than 80 people were killed inSeptember-October 2003 and more than 400 were injured by bullets (Oliveraand Lewis, 2004: 176). While its epicenter was clearly El Alto, the protest orig-inated in the altiplano and around Lake Titicaca and radiated out to country-wide solidarity mobilizations and marches in a host of cities—Oruro,Cochabamba, Sucre, Potosí, and Santa Cruz.
A fundamental frame during the insurrectional episode of October 2003 was the call to nationalize gas. As Álvaro García Linera puts it, “There is a sortof collective intuition that the debates over hydrocarbons are gambling withthe destiny of this country, a country accustomed to having a lot of naturalresources but always being poor, always seeing natural resources serve toenrich others” (interview, April 10, 2005).5 The “injustice” of the frame isclearly delineated: being poor in a resource-rich land. The “us” included thepopular classes and indigenous peoples struggling for a socially just develop-mental model with a more equitable distribution of wealth. The structural sig-nificance of natural gas made the strategic frame materially plausible andaccounted in large part for its wide resonance throughout the country. Themacro characteristics of the frame and the politics it advocated are also salient.
Comparing the uneven geographies of the Cochabamba water war in 2000and the gas war of 2003, Perreault points out that the gas war was a more“national, and nationalist, uprising,” involving the central site of El Alto andthe rural altiplano but fanning out across much of the country (2006: 165). The“them” identified included the transnational gas corporations that formedpart of the transnational gas consortium Pacific LNG (Repsol-YPF, British Gas,and Pan-American Energy), the neoliberal model personified in the presi-dency of Sánchez de Lozada, and American imperialism writ large. Finally,the pathways of change advocated by the frame to overcome the injustice itevoked involved the ousting of the neoliberal president and, literally, thenationalization of gas.
Spronk and Webber / STRUGGLES AGAINST ACCUMULATION The gas war in October 2003 did not lead to a revolutionary break with neoliberal capitalism. Indeed, Carlos Mesa adopted a neoliberal reformiststyle of governance with the support of the Movimiento al Socialismo(Movement toward Socialism—MAS), the largest left-indigenous party, forthe first year and four months following the event. However, the issue of nat-ural gas would not disappear. Mesa faced ongoing mobilizations and roadblockades in January, February, March, May, and June of 2005, many focusedon formulating a new hydrocarbons law that would wrest more control andprofit away from the transnational petroleum companies and confer them onthe Bolivian state. With Mesa unable to respond to popular discontent withrepression—given the popular indignation that answered Sánchez deLozada’s violence—the most reactionary elements of the Bolivian internation-alized bourgeoisie, rooted in the petroleum and natural gas industry based inSanta Cruz, took matters into their own hands.
The main organization representing these interests was the Comité pro Santa Cruz (Pro Santa Cruz Committee). For weeks in January 2005 they mobilizedhundreds of thousands of people—at their peak 300,000—under a right-wingpopulist set of demands called the “January Agenda,” which was pitted againstwhat had by then become widely known as the popular “October Agenda”(Webber, 2005). Complementing the Comité pro Santa Cruz, the key organiza-tions pressing for the January Agenda included the Cámara Agropecuaria delOriente (Agricultural Chamber of Eastern Bolivia), the Federación deGanaderos de Santa Cruz (Federation of Ranchers of Santa Cruz), and, mostimportant, the Cámara de Industria, Comercio, Servicios y Turismo de SantaCruz (Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Service, and Tourism of Santa Cruz—CAINCO). The Spanish oil giant Repsol-YPF, Brazilian state-owned Petrobras,and Enron are members of CAINCO’s board of directors (Ballvé, 2004).
In the heat of a new state crisis, Mesa offered his revocable “resignation” to Congress on March 7, 2005. In his televised speech he made extensive use ofimperial threats to support his new openly reactionary politics and to dis-credit the popular movements. For example, in response to MAS’s proposedhydrocarbons law, he complained, “Brazil has told us, Spain has told us, theWorld Bank, the United States, the International Monetary Fund, GreatBritain, and all of the European Union: Bolivians, approve a law that is viableand acceptable to the international community.” He argued bluntly, “If themechanisms of [international] cooperation with our country are cut, we can-not function.” Congress refused to accept his resignation (a fact that it seemshe had counted on), and he abandoned his unofficial alliance with the MASand moved decidedly toward the right. The reaction on the left was a brief butimportant nationwide union of various popular forces, primarily aroundissues of who would control natural gas and to what ends and thereforewhose interests would predominate in the future political economy of theBolivian state (Spronk and Webber, 2005). The short-lived “antioligarchic”social pact was signed by Evo Morales (leader of the MAS), Jaime Solares (theleader of the Central Obrera Boliviana [Bolivian Workers’ Central—COB]),Felipe Quispe and Román Loayza (leaders of the campesino union, theConfederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia [Unified Syndical Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia—CSUTCB]),Roberto de la Cruz (councilor of El Alto and former leader of the RegionalWorkers’ Central of El Alto [Central Obrera Regional—COR], who played acentral role in the October rebellion), Alejo Véliz (leader of the Trópico deCochabamba, an association of coca growers), leaders of the BolivianMovimiento Sin Tierra (Landless Movement), Oscar Olivera (from theCochabamba-based Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida[Coordinator for the Defense of Water and Life]), and Omar Fernández (fromthe irrigating farmers’ association in Cochabamba), among others.
The popular struggles against accumulation by dispossession in the natural gas sector clearly played a large part in spawning a social rebellion with amacro frame and politics: in October 2003, 500,000 people assembled in thecapital, and there were countrywide solidarity mobilizations culminating inthe ousting of the president. The second gas war saw similar numbers in thestreets to oust president Mesa in June 2005. Both moments represented seriousideological challenges to neoliberalism, even if thus far it has not yet beendefeated. The October 2003 gas war generated a vicious state response, fol-lowed by Mesa’s use of imperial threats and the right-wing mobilization ofSanta Cruz. It demonstrated that when social movements are able to aggre-gate their demands around a natural resource of structural significance, thestruggle becomes intense, national, ideological, and political, even if it doesnot guarantee victory. The local and international capitalists with interests ingas recognize its value and respond with a corresponding viciousness,employing the repressive tools of the state.
Water companies tend to be among the last to be dispossessed because it takes a long time, if ever, to make profits selling water. Throughout thepost–World War II period, water was considered a public good to be providedby public utilities, since the private sector was considered incapable of pro-viding adequate services. The World Bank extended major infrastructureloans to aid the development of public water resources because it believedthat investment in public utilities and infrastructure would lead to develop-mental “takeoff.” With the neoliberal revolution of the past quarter-century,however, the World Bank began making loans to governments conditioned onthe privatization of public water utilities in an effort to improve the manage-ment of “scarce” water resources (Public Citizen, 2004; World Bank, 1993).
Increasingly, it has been argued that water should be treated as an economicgood and priced in such a way as to recover the full costs of productiondirectly from its users (Budds and McGranahan, 2003). According to neolib-eral arguments, consumers will waste water if they do not have to pay its truecost. In a twist of logic, privatization has thus become a quick-fix solution towhat is depicted as an impending ecological crisis—the global scarcity offreshwater. As water pollution and the growing specter of climate change Spronk and Webber / STRUGGLES AGAINST ACCUMULATION have brought the issue of water scarcity to center stage, large transnationalcorporations have increasingly seen water as a resource worth possessing.
The cases of water privatization in the cities of Cochabamba and La Paz–El Alto are exemplars of accumulation by dispossession, but they demonstratethat not all accumulation strategies work as planned. Despite fears that waterwill be the “blue gold” of the twenty-first century, the growing number offailed experiments with water privatization suggest that trying to sell waterfor a profit to poor people in the Third World is much more difficult than orig-inally predicted.
The World Bank was clearly the driving force behind the privatization of water utilities in Bolivia. In the mid-1990s it extended a US$4.5 million loanintended to improve the efficiency of the public water and sanitation utilities inthe main cities of Bolivia and thus make them more attractive to privateinvestors. The municipal water utility that served the neighboring cities of LaPaz and El Alto was granted in a 1997 concession to Aguas del Illimani, a con-sortium controlled by the French multinational Suez. In 1999 another concessiontransferred control over Cochabamba’s municipal utility to Aguas del Tunari, aconsortium controlled by the San Francisco–based construction giant Bechtel.
The privatization of the water utility Servicio Autónomo Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado (SAMAPA) in La Paz–El Alto can be counted asa modest success from a business point of view. The water system in La Paz–ElAlto was a fairly attractive investment at the time of its privatization. Waterwas available for about 19 hours a day, and fairly high coverage rates hadbeen achieved. Tariff increases of approximately 35 percent introduced a yearbefore privatization doubled the utility’s income and were expected to bringin US$27 million per year, greatly improving the utility’s financial prospects(Guillermo Arroyo Rodriguez, personal communication, May 20, 2005). Thecentral government further sweetened the deal by assuming SAMAPA’sUS$50 million debt and guaranteeing the company a 13 percent rate of return.
Thanks in part to the role played by the state in facilitating capital accumula-tion, during the first seven years of the concession the company declared prof-its of US$12 million (in current dollars).
Compared with the water utility in La Paz–El Alto, the public utility in Cochabamba was in poor shape. Citizens received water for an average of fourhours per day, and the system served only about 57 percent of city residents. Thecontract awarded to Aguas del Tunari included commitments to expand waterproduction through the construction of Misicuni, a dam and tunnel project esti-mated to cost over US$300 million (Assies, 2003). Recognizing the risks involved,the contract guaranteed Aguas del Tunari a real return rate between 15 and 17percent for the 40 years of the contract. Since the World Bank (1999) “recom-mended” that none of this money come from the public purse, the most imme-diate source was the users themselves. The company hiked users’ water tariffs,and this triggered the water war of 2000.
Given the negligible role that water plays in the regional political economy, the social movements that emerged during the water wars have involved a more micro frame and politics as compared with the gas wars. This microcharacter is reflected in the geography of the protests, the pathway to changeidentified by the participants, and the protests’ lesser impact on neoliberalism.
In the first water war, residents of Cochabamba, frustrated over govern- ment neglect and drastically increased water bills, protested peacefully in thestreets, shutting down the city with roadblocks, marches, and demonstrations.
Protests became increasingly violent, with the Bolivian government dispatch-ing riot police to control the movement. A bullet from a sniper claimed the lifeof a young man, which radicalized the protests and brought 100,000 peopleinto the streets. The social base of the mobilizations demonstrated that thewater war was not about tariffs alone. Coca growers, peasant farmers, andperiurban residents joined the protests even though they were not customersof Aguas del Tunari and thus were not directly affected by the tariff increase.
Their primary concern was the new Water Law 2029 approved a month and ahalf after the privatization contract was signed, which granted exclusive prop-erty rights over water to the private operator for the duration of the conces-sion contract. The monopoly provision meant that residents were preventedfrom drilling their own wells, which had long been the privileged practice ofsome large commercial users and wealthy residents of Cochabamba and thesurvival strategy of periurban residents, who had formed small water com-mittees and cooperatives that served 15–20 percent of urban residents (CrespoFlores, 2002: 107). The law also threatened the water supplies of irrigatingsmall farmers in the Cochabamba Valley, who had managed water resourcesaccording to communal principles (usos y costumbres) that date back to pre-Inca times (Assies, 2003; Crespo Flores, Fernández Quiroga, and Peredo, 2004;Laurie, Andolina, and Radcliffe, 2002). Social movement leaders thus framedthe struggle as one to “reclaim the commons” and defend water users againstan attack on communal property rights.
The blossoming academic and popular commentary on the event has emphasized that the Cochabamba water war was the first symbolic break withneoliberalism in 15 years in Bolivia (Assies, 2003; Ceceña, 2004; Crespo Flores,2000; García Linera et al., 2001; García Orellana, García Yapur, and QuitónHerbas, 2003; Olivera and Lewis, 2004). While it resulted in some importantpolitical changes—the amendment of national water legislation, the rescissionof the contract, and the return of water to public management—there werelimits to what it could accomplish. The many obstacles subsequently faced bythe deprivatized utility demonstrate that while the battle to expel the transna-tional corporation was won, the war that was required to reverse neoliberalpolicies was not.
After the “final battle” of April 2000, the government rescinded the contract with Aguas del Tunari and signed an agreement with the Coordinadora (thenetwork of organizations that emerged to coordinate the protests).6 Responsi-bility for operations immediately returned to the former municipal companyServicio Municipal de Agua Potable y Alcantarillado de Cochabamba(SEMAPA), under the control of the Coordinadora (Assies, 2003; Crespo Flores,2002; Olivera and Lewis, 2004). In December 2000 the Coordinadora proposedto disband SEMAPA and form a new type of democratic water utility ownedby its users, but the government refused, arguing that such forms of “social Spronk and Webber / STRUGGLES AGAINST ACCUMULATION property” were not recognized under the law (Gutiérrez Aguilar, 2001:202–203). Instead the government allowed the local water authority to berestructured to grant more “social control” over its operations. The board ofdirectors, which was formerly constituted only by professionals and municipalpoliticians, now has three elected members from the different districts ofCochabamba (Sánchez Gómez and Terhorst, 2005).
The serious problems that SEMAPA had before its privatization could not be solved by merely inserting a limited degree of social control. Service toexisting customers has not improved substantially since 2000, and attempts toexpand the water network to residents in the poor southern zone of the cityhave been delayed because of lack of capital (Nickson and Vargas, 2002;Sánchez Gómez, 2004). The largest obstacle is the utility’s enormous debt,which was transferred from the central government. Because of the publicutility’s poor credit rating, several plans to expand the network have beenstalled because the public company had difficulty securing new loans (Pozo,2005; Sánchez Gómez and Terhorst, 2005). Over time, the local water activistshave learned that expelling a foreign company and changing the nationalwater legislation—two central demands of the water war—were only smallsteps in a longer struggle to exert social control over the local water system,which remains a difficult task in a context in which local politicians and inter-national lenders continue to favor private over public companies in the watersector. Despite the lobbying efforts of water activists, it has been impossible tochange national legislation to ban profits from water, since Suez still has itscontract in La Paz and El Alto.
Problems with tariffs and the Aguas del Illimani contract eventually led to Bolivia’s second water war in January 2005. As a struggle against neoliberal-ism and privatization, this one produced an even more ambiguous victorythan the first. Pressured by a general strike organized by residents of El Altothat lasted three days, the Bolivian government announced on January 12 thatit would terminate the contract held by the private consortium. It could beargued that the state had learned from previous mistakes in the water war andthe gas war and chose not to escalate the situation with violence. It is morelikely, however, that the private company actually wanted to leave and there-fore it was not necessary to defend its interests against the protestors.
Over the life of the concession, the company continually complained that it could not make enough money selling water to poor people in El Alto torecover its investment at an agreeable rate of return (Poupeau, 2002). In 2002Suez, which owned 55 percent of Aguas del Illimani’s shares, announced apolicy of pulling investments from “risky markets” like Bolivia. Dissatisfiedwith the return on its investments in La Paz and El Alto, the company lobbiedthe government regulator to approve increases in the costs of its services.
Having learned from Aguas del Tunari’s experience in Cochabamba, itdecided to increase the costs of services for new connections rather thanoffend existing customers with tariff hikes. In 2001, the cost of a new waterconnection increased from US$155 to US$196 and the cost for sewerage fromUS$180 to US$249. This price hike was still not enough, and Aguas delIllimani reopened negotiations of its contract with the government a few yearslater. In June 2003 it managed to reduce the number of new connections that it was obliged to make from 15,000 to 8,000. In March 2004 this number wasreduced to zero. This decision left 200,000 people who lacked household waterconnections with little hope of receiving services within the life of the 30-yearconcession, a figure that was publicized by neighborhood leaders to symbol-ize the corporation’s disregard for the population’s needs.
Similar to the ongoing struggle to exert social control over water in Cochabamba, the struggle to return water to public control in El Alto has beenframed as a struggle for local democracy. The main protagonist in the conflict,the FEJUVE-El Alto, building on the new political legitimacy it had gainedfrom the gas war, elaborated a proposal to establish a new water company thatwould be controlled by a board of representatives democratically elected fromall the districts in La Paz and El Alto. The hope was that guaranteeing popu-lar participation would enable citizens to secure transparency and efficiencyin management through social control. In response to the proposal, the majorfinanciers of the water sector in Bolivia—the World Bank, the Inter-AmericanDevelopment Bank, and the German embassy—told President Carlos Mesathat should a public water company replace Aguas del Illimani they wouldrefuse to extend loans.
Compared with those with regard to gas, the struggles against the privati- zation of water in Bolivia were organized around a micro frame and politics.
The protestors shared a frame that pitted the needs of the local communitiesof water users against the abuses of two transnational corporations, Bechteland Suez. Both struggles involved the populations most directly affected bythe exploitation of water resources either as agricultural producers or con-sumers. In contrast to the gas protests, the mobilizations involved people pri-marily from the regions affected: the residents of Cochabamba and thesurrounding valley and the urban residents of the shantytown of El Alto. Theurban residents who participated in the protests in Cochabamba and El Altowere disgruntled about the company’s billing practices and disregard forcommunity needs. Despite promises that privatization would bring thefinancing and expertise needed to expand and improve services, residents feltthat they were being asked to pay the full cost of network expansion. Theincreased cost of services heightened the perception that water was beingturned into a “commodity,” a perception reinforced by the fact that the rev-enues went to private foreign companies whose aim was to make a profit.
Therefore, the protestors in both cases demanded that the new water compa-nies be publicly owned and operated on a not-for-profit basis. The protestors’demand for social control thus reflected a struggle to democratize the man-agement of local water supplies. The slogan of the Cochabamba protest, Elagua es nuestra, ¡carajo! (The water is ours, dammit!), repeated by protestors inEl Alto, referred to the water that fed these cities’ thirsty residents and not, forexample, the water that supplied the residents of Santa Cruz.
While the struggles against water privatization were crucially important, their impact has been smaller than that of the gas wars in terms of reversing15 years of neoliberalism. Oscar Olivera, central spokesperson for theCoordinadora, sums up the dilemma faced by any social-movement leaderwhen the gains made in the struggle seem limited in comparison with the sac-rifices. He recalls a woman’s comments as the blockades came down after the Spronk and Webber / STRUGGLES AGAINST ACCUMULATION Cochabamba water war: “‘Compañero, now the water is going to be ours,what have we really gained?. . . My husband will still have to look for work.
As a wife and mother, I will still have to go out into the street to sell things,and my children will have to drop out of school because there’s just notenough money. Even if they give us the water for free, our situation still won’thave gotten any better” (Olivera and Lewis, 2004: 48). Access to potable wateris fundamental to the quality of daily life but of limited significance to thepolitical economy of the Bolivian state. As we have argued, it is preciselybecause of this that struggles for public water have been more quicklyresolved with considerably less bloodshed than struggles over natural gas.
We have here demonstrated the importance of recognizing the political economy of different types of Third World struggles against accumulation bydispossession. Social movements fighting against the privatization of waterand natural gas in Bolivia have both made important gains in the struggleagainst the deepening of neoliberal capitalism. The protagonists in thesemovements have framed their struggles as efforts to “reclaim the commons,”drawing upon the widespread perception that foreign interests have plun-dered Bolivia’s natural resources for centuries and left behind little butpoverty. Yet the struggles over the “commons” of water and gas have had dif-ferent political implications because of the role that each resource plays in thepolitical economy of the Bolivian state and the world market. The strugglearound natural gas, as a resource that is structurally significant to the region’spolitical economy, stands a greater chance of laying the foundations for thetype of alternative globalization movement that looks for ways that “bettermeet the material needs of impoverished and repressed populations” (Harvey,2003: 179).
The violence perpetrated by the state to protect private interests in the hydrocarbons sector as opposed to water reveals one of the cruel aspects ofneoliberal capitalism in the era of globalization. Access to potable waterarguably has a greater immediate impact on the quality of life and contributesmore to public health than the benefits that may accrue from the nationaliza-tion of gas. Nonetheless, water remains an invisible input to industrial pro-duction, and therefore its exploitation does not contribute directly to GNI. Inthe dollar-and-cents terms of the market, water remains a much less valuableresource than natural gas, and the state is less likely to use violence to defendprivate property rights to it.
It may seem paradoxical that across the globe the privatization of water has been more consistently controversial than the privatization of gas. The issueof water privatization strikes an emotional chord; water has cultural and sym-bolic meaning as the essence of life. It also falls from the sky and does notrequire complex technological mediation to bring it from source to user.
Therefore, it is much easier to frame arguments that it belongs to “us.” Theright to water is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In global protests in Cancun and Genoa it is common to hear the argument thatit is “immoral” to privatize water. There are numerous sessions on fightingwater privatization at the World Social Forums. Despite the importance of theissue, there is no comparable global network defending the right to naturalgas. No “right” can be said to exist because gas is a thoroughly commodifiedresource that has long had big dollar signs attached to it. Natural gas is notnormally considered a “commons.” It is therefore testimony to the revolutionary potential of the Bolivian social movements that they framed one of their central demands around the nation-alization of natural gas. The escalation of popular struggle over a structurallysignificant natural resource at the national scale may have delivered a criticalblow to neoliberalism in Bolivia. Such self-organization of the popular classesto hit capital where it seriously hurts serves as an example for social move-ments struggling for economic and social justice throughout the Third World.
1. We understand a “frame” to be an interpretive schema “that simplifies and condenses the ‘world out there’ by selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experi-ences, and sequences of actions within one’s present or past environment” (Snow and Benford,1992: 137).
2. It is not our intention to provide in-depth analyses of these struggles; see, inter alia, Albro (2005), Assies (2003), Crespo Flores, Fernández Quiroga, and Peredo (2004), Gómez (2004),Hylton and Thompson (2004), Laurie (2005), Laurie, Andolina, and Radcliffe (2002), MamaniRamírez (2004b), Postero (2005). Rather, our goal is to provide a rough sketch of the protests toprovide a basis for comparison.
3. The neoliberal economic logic at work is that in cases of “new” camps, in which the company invests to explore where there are probable but unproven gas deposits, the risks arehigher. Therefore, reducing the royalties paid to the state in these “new” camps from 50 to 18 per-cent compensates the company for the risk assumed, and more foreign capital is attracted.
4. For details and analysis of Black February see APDHB/ASOFAMD/CBDHDD/ DIAKONA/FUNSOLON/RED-ADA (2004); Shultz (2005).
5. At the time of this interview García Linera was a prominent sociologist and TV personal- ity in Bolivia. Following the electoral victory of the MAS on December 18, 2005, he was electedvice president of the country.
6. Given Oscar Olivera’s active role in the struggles for water and now gas, this network, orig- inally called la Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida, now goes by different names,including the Coordinadora de Defensa del Gas (Coordinator for the Defense of Gas).
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