Friday, January 27, 2006

Bechtel vs. Bolivia:Economic Opportunism Exposed

The Cochabamba water revolt , which began exactly six years ago this January concluded this month when Bechtel, one of the world's most powerful corporations, formally withdrew its legal efforts to take $50 million (USD) from the Bolivian people. Bechtel made that demand before a secretive trade court operated by the World Bank - the same institution that initially coerced Bolivia to privatize its water. Faced with protests, barrages of e-mails, visits to their homes, and years of damaging press, Bechtel executives finally decided to acquiesce by walking away with a token payment equal to thirty cents or about two bolivianos. That quick retreat seems to have set a staggering global precedent.

The Cochabamba Water Revolt
In January 2000 the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia woke up one morning to discover that their public water system had been taken over by a mysterious new private company, Aguas del Tunari. The World Bank had coerced Bolivia into privatizing its water, as a condition of further aid. The new company, controlled by Bechtel, the California engineering giant, announced its arrival with a huge instant increase in local water bills. Water rates increased by an average of more than fifty percent, and in some cases even higher. Bechtel and its Spanish opportunist co-investor, Abengoa, had priced water beyond what many families here could afford.

Citizens of
Cochabamba demanded that the imposition of rate hikes be permanently reversed. The ruling Bolivian government had belligerently denied these requests. Then those of Cochabamba demanded that the contract with the company be quashed or voided. Instead, the US-backed government deployed national police forces and soldiers to seize control of the city and enforce a state of martial law upon its own citizens.

The people of
Cochabamba were then faced with severe police brutality and beatings at the hands of authorities. The leaders of the civil disobedience were then forcibly removed from their homes and illegally detained in the dead of night. Sadly, the city lost a seventeen-year-old boy after he was shot & killed by government forces. Even in the face of such brutality, those same citizens refused to relent or desist. Finally in April of 2000, Bechtel was forced to abandon its water contracts & leave its facilities in Cochabamba - the people of Cochabamba had won back their right to public water.

Bechtel Fights Back
Eighteen months later Bechtel and Abengoa sought to economically bankrupt Bolivia by filing a $50 million legal action against the country in the World Bank's trade court, the
International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). An “extra-judicial” forum that was tailor-made for global multi-national companies like Bechtel. The people of Cochabamba were required to make arguments & attend court proceedings in Washington DC. The proceedings were then to be conducted in English & contained within a process so secretive that no member of the public or press would be allowed to bear witness. There was to be no notification of those who would testify before such a court, nor would there be access to the records of what was actually to be testified in the record.

Bechtel maintained that it was suing for both its losses and the future profits that the company was not going to accrue. Public records had later verified & established that Bechtel and its opportunistic associates had yet to spend $1 million USD in Bolivia. The estimated annual GDP for Bolivia in 2005 is $25,892,000.00 USD, making Bechtel's intentions questionable and the ICSID court's mere establishment an embarrassment.

The People vs. Bechtel
Organizations from 43 countries joined in a citizens' petition to the World Bank demanding that the case be made available to public scrutiny & participation. Activists in Washington DC began to stage protests at the home of the head of Bechtel's water company. Hundreds of articles and dozens of documentaries were published and produced worldwide, making Bechtel and its Bolivian water takeover a poster child of corporate economic colonialism and opportunism.

Bechtel is so powerful a corporation that it is awarded billion-dollar, no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq by the Bush Administration. This multi-national company had to discover the hard way that the people of Cochabamba were a greater force than such a conglomerate could maneuver past. In June of 2005, Bechtel and its associates capitulated to public pressure and initiated a negotiating process to withdraw their case for the token payment of two bolivianos (thirty cents).

Sources closest to the negotiations say that Bechtel's CEO, Riley Bechtel, personally intervened to bring the case to an end. Seemingly, the company was weary of the ongoing damage to the corporation's public perception. Bechtel even flew officials to Bolivia this month to sign the closing document, collect their two coins and perform the proverbial media perp walk.

Bechtel's Settlement & Its Implications
Bechtel's settlement is historic in the context that it stems from the economic raiding of a developing country's natural resources by advocates of free market globalization. The World Bank's system of closed-door trade courts has received more than 200 cases similar to that of Bechtel's. Both the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement administer "trade courts" which have a myriad of cases where multi-nationals are permitted to move against impoverished nations.

Yet to this date, in no other publicly noted case has such a powerful multi-national withdrawn from pending litigation as a result of public pressure.

International financial institutions, such as the
World Bank and International Monetary Fund, coerce poor countries into privatization arrangements as a condition of most developmental aid. Corrupt & incompetent government officials negotiate with multi-national corporations behind closed doors, often producing transactions that are detrimental to the developing countries. It is only after the natural resources are sold to multi-nationals - which sell the basics of life for a profit - that the affected populations are made aware of these policies.

In Cochabamba, the people decided to take no more of "economic opportunism" by acting in the spirit of Caesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., & Dr. Ernesto "Che" Guevara de la Serna and they secured their water. The local and global campaigns against Bechtel had sent an important message to other multi-nationals who are intent on their "legal" free-market raiding of even the poorest counties, like Bolivia and beyond.

Most global corporations can manage media relations with great ease. When Bechtel and it's associates assumed the risk concerning litigation in Cochabamba, they could only conclude that the cost to the company's
public reputation outweighed the bankrupting payment they were to require of Bolivia.

Once again, it was made clear that the economic rules of the game can be modified even in the face of a tsunami-like tide of the free market. The people of Cochabamba won their struggle over water with personal courage & a steadfast commitment to the future generations. This series of events now emboldens the people of Bolivia as they have won the second and most important final round of the "water revolt".

Another world is indeed possible.
Si, otro mundo es posible.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

Alasita 2006: From Dreams to Reality

After inaugurating a new President and welcoming a new Cabinet, the citizens of La Paz celebrated the traditional fair of Alasita which begins every January 24th at Noon. The symbolism of new beginnings came full circle as residents purchased miniature replicas of cars, homes, official documents and money, hoping for prosperity in the coming year.

At the Plaza Murillo President Morales was presented with an oil well and agrarian titles by Pablo Groux, Senior Officer of Culture, as reminders of the nationalization of hydrocarbons and the plight of Bolivian farmers. One of his gifts also included scissors to end corruption. After receiving his gifts, Morales kicked off the festivities around the Plaza Murillo, which involved a parade that surrounded the square, with live music and dancing.

Walking along the street market on Calle Yanacocha, heading towards Plaza San Francisco, the snow-capped Andes were visible in the distance for the first time since our arrival in La Paz on Friday morning. Vendors, who two days before were selling hats, gloves, batteries and sweets had changed their wares for the Alasita fair - most were now offering stacks of “billetitos”. Some of the funny money looked real enough to pass along to an unsuspecting person in the United States or European Union.

One can acquire an entire replica of their own business, whether an Internet café, a doctor's office, or a lawyer’s office for about 10 Bolivianos or the equivalent of $1.50 (USD). For those who yearn to travel, Alasita offers miniature suitcases and passports from around the world.

If one desires change and prosperity in their personal relationships replicas of marriage certificates or certificates of divorce are available for purchase. Young people bent over tables writing their names onto college diplomas and military certificates with the belief that this exercise would bring their dream that much closer.

After purchasing a miniature, Bolivians will take their desires to one of the “yatiris” or wise men standing along the street. The smell of burning incense filled the air as yatiris placed flower petals over hot coals, and for a small price, will place objects through the smoke in an offering to the Aymaran god Ekeko.

The Traditional Fair of Alasita was carried out in different cities across Bolivia. Alasita is a word in the Aymara language which means "Comprame" or “buy me”. It is a celebration of devotion to Ekeko, the God of abundance. By offering objects to him, Ekeko fulfills the desires of his devotees. People buy objects in miniature with the firm belief and faith that their desires will become reality.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The People´s President

In La Paz, the support for President Evo Morales is overwhelming and the past two days have been filled with fiestas at the Plaza Murillo - location of the Presidential Palace and Congressional Palace.

Miners, indigenous Bolivians and socialists from other parts of Latin America poured into the Plaza Murillo where President Morales was inaugurated. His two-hour inaugural speech delivered before the National Congress was broadcast into the plaza. Occasionally attendees broke into spontaneous applause as Evo spoke about the responsibility of a democratic government without discrimination; a government that showed respect to all peoples regardless of ethnicity or economic status.

Nine Latin American presidents, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Peru´s Alejandro Toledo attended the ceremony.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was the most popular head of state. Whenever Chavez appeared, people in the crowd would chant ¨Chavez, Chavez¨ and ¨Viva Chavez, Viva Venezuela.”

Also present were leaders from Bolivia´s indigenous communities and other Latin American nations. The multi-colored wiphala of the Andean indigenous community flew all over the city – along major avenues and on buildings surrounding the Plaza Murillo and the Plaza San Francisco. Two wiphalas flanked the Bolivian flag on the balconies of the Governmental Palace.

Evo has remained consistent with his representation prior to assuming the presidency. He donned black pants, white shirt and black jacket adorned with a bufanda - a sash-like piece of cloth symbolic of many indigenous communities -but no tie. ¨Look, no cravate,¨ remarked Jose Manuel Matos, a entrepreneur in La Paz who was proud that Evo has not donned the clothing representative of the colonizers.

Bolivians seem genuinely happy that Evo is their president, with street markets and numerous stores closed on Sunday as more than 100,000 people poured into the Plaza San Francisco after the inauguration.

“Usually it´s very boring when it´s a new president because all the guys with suits and ties,” said Gabriel Caprilles, a student at the Catholic University of La Paz. “As you can see most of the people are very happy for this. It´s beautiful all the people."

Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Sea of Change

Tiwanaku, Bolivia - On the two-lane road from El Alto to Tiwanaku, cars, autobuses, and pick-up trucks were filled to capacity as passengers proudly waved the multi-colored flag of Bolivia´s indigenous communities. In the countryside of this part of the highlands small houses made of brown mud bricks are surrounded by acres of short grass and shrubs. From time to time along the roadside painted in blue, we see "Evo¨ or ¨MAS¨ and writings of support.

We arrive in the town of Tiwanaku, an archaelogical site more than 7,000 years old, that is usually an hour drive from La Paz, but today it takes almost an hour and a half as thousands have descended upon this town to celebrate the indigenous history and significance of Evo Morales.

The characteristically unpredictable weather has brought a slight drizzle and before we can cross a shrub-filled field to reach the boundaries of the ancient ruins, the sky is dropping hail and clouds of thunder have echoed loud enough to set off a car alarm in the distance.

Amazingly the spirits of the people around us are high as impromptu vendors have laid out blankets or set up stands to sell their wares. The crowd was predominantly indigenous people in their varied colorful shawls, ponchos, skirts and pants. There was even a contingent of indigenous police officers identified by their maroon ponchos and black short-brimmed hats.

While waiting for more than two hours for Evo to complete the traditional Aymaran ceremony, families sat together on the ground eating meals, women braided hair and young children slept swaddled in heavy color-infused blankets.

After the private Aymaran ceremony that preludes his official inauguration tomorrow evening in La Paz, Evo emerged from the ancient Incan ruins of Tiwanaku to the adoration of thousands of indigenous people from all over the Americas.

Wearing a traditional red robe of sheeps wool and standing barefoot, he completed the cleansing ceremony by receiving his final blessings from Aymaran elders before waving to a crowd that chanted "Evo, Evo".

Morales descended from a top a hill to stand in a squared archway of the earthen ruins. There he addressed the crowd speaking of brotherhood, unity and democracy. He spoke of an end to discrimination and equality and the need for other countries to respect the sovereignty of the Bolivian people.

After his fifteen minute speech, indigenous representatives from Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Cuba, and the United States demonstrated their support and respect by bestowing blessings and presenting Morales with gifts. In a sign of how much negativity the United States invokes from the indigenous community in Latin America, when an indigenous representative from the U.S. was announced, the crowd gave mixed reviews, very few cheered and many even booed.

Against the background of the Andean mountains, flags and banners waved above the mass of people. Most pronounced was the multi-colored flag of Bolivia´s indigenous communities as well as the blue, white and black colors representing Morales´s Movement Towards Socialism or MAS party.

Supporters from all over Bolivia flew the national flag and colorful banners that identified community groups and localities. Some flew the face of Che Guevara, others the name of Fidel Castro, which read ¨Fidel es nos¨or ¨Fidel is us¨. The sounds of drums, flutes and chanting could be heard throughout the crowd as people celebrated the rise to power of Bolivia´s first indigenous president.

The official press is giving a count of more than 10,000 people. We estimated the crowd to be at least 12,000.

Morales returned to La Paz, about 44 miles northwest of Tiwanaku, on Saturday night to meet with foreign government officials. The official transition of power from current President Eduardo Rodriguez will occur tomorrow afternoon at the Plaza de Murillo.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Hoping for Change

From the shoe shiner to the cafe owner, the feeling on the street is one of apprehension, but one of hope. Hope that change will not be too drastic and that whatever happens will be for the better.

While sitting at a small table discussing the climate of change with representatives at El Centro de Bolivianos Americanos, two teachers described how former governmental leaders only seemed interested in benefiting themselves and exploiting the resources of Bolivia. They believe Evo and the policies of MAS can bring about more equality in Bolivia, but if it does not, they are confident that the people of Bolivia have the power to vote in new leadership.

In Bolivia the people expect "one person, one vote", so several Bolivians were surprised to learn that the majority of Americans choose not to exercise their constitutional right to vote. It was difficult to comprehend how the citizens of a country, who speak so proudly of their own democracy, would be so apathetic towards politics and exercising their public power.

The power of the Bolivian people was evident this week - represented by the coming inauguration of the first indigenous president of Bolivia and the victory of the people of Cochabamba over the multi-national corporation Bechtel.

Early Friday morning, a communication from the Democracy Center announced that on January 20, executives of Bechtel were signing final papers effectively withdrawing their $50 million lawsuit against the residents of Cochabamba. Leaving with a 2 Boliviano payout - the equivalent of 30 cents - Bechtel was forced to eliminate a contract privatizing the water of Cochabamba´s residents and return the rights of their natural resources to the people.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Anticipating Change

Conversations with people in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, offer a glimpse of the sentiments towards "Evo", as he is respectfully called. In the region where he gained the least support, taking approximately 30 percent of the vote, some people fear that Evo and the policies of his Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS), may threaten their way of life.

Santa Cruz boasts tourism and the highest economic production of all the regions in Bolivia. For the average middle class worker Evo resonates as a likeable individual. He does not represent the corruption that is rampant throughout Bolivia’s political, economic and social structure, but his policies of nationalization and support of the cocaleros may draw criticism. Many hope that he will be more like Brazil’s Lula and less like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Those who have the most to gain, however, do not live in Santa Cruz but rather in poorer regions of Bolivia such as Beni or Potosi where intense poverty brings women and their children to the streets of Santa Cruz de la Sierra to sleep on the streets, hands out, begging for change.

Yet when speaking with Anitha Vasquez, the President of MAS in Santa Cruz, there is no need for apprehension - just a positive outlook for the future. When asked about the critics of Evo within Santa Cruz who want to vote for economic autonomy from the rest of Bolivia, she dismisses those as a small minority of wealthy people who do not represent the interests of the country.

Proudly wearing a royal blue t-shirt with the words "Evo es mi presidente" across her chest, Ms. Vasquez spoke with us briefly about the historical significance of Evo’s victory for Bolivians and the entire world. She drew parallels to the struggle of all oppressed people including those in Africa and even African-Americans living in the United States.

It is a major moment in history, not only for Bolivia, but for all of Latin America – a region of the world that still suffers under the rule of its colonizers. Bolivia is the first Latin American country to bring into power a traditional, indigenous person, who won with the absolute majority of the people. "This is a new Bolivia, one unified with respect."

The future is unknown, but one thing is certain…Bolivians are waiting for the change that will arrive when Evo Morales becomes "el Presidente".

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Looking for Change

On the ground in Santa Cruz de la Sierra the lure of global capitalism is alive and well in this urban center. Described as the most western city in all of Bolivia, its location in the most prosperous region of the country is easily felt. Walking the streets surrounding the city center of the Plaza 24th de Septiembre, one may not sense that they are in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. A number of stores feature designer clothing, consumer electronics and the cafes are filled with young people surfing the internet or sipping "los bebidas".

Besides the indigenous street vendors selling food, newspapers and small trinkets, the most curious individuals parading around the plaza are the money changers – men who walk along the square with wads of Bolivianos in their palms offering ¨"el cambio". Almost as soon as one enters the immediate perimeter of the plaza, the money changers approach, showing their stack of money, often bound with a simple rubber band. They provide the convenience of swapping euros and dollars into the local currency, but at a rate much lower than one will find just a few steps away at any number of money shops or banks surrounding the heart of the city.

At the larger banks, men dressed in military green complete with boots and automatic weapons stand guard at bank entrances and automated teller machines during operating hours. Around the plaza, the presence of money changers as well as a myriad of currency centers and banks indicate that money from the United States and Europe is encouraged and vital to the economy of Santa Cruz.

Clothing stores, with names like Manhattan and I Love New York feature European and American designer clothing with the prices listed only in dollars. Although outside of the main square, the purchase of a bottle of water or piece of bread may leave the vendor asking other customers if they have enough money to offer change in the local currency, Bolivianos.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Bolivia Transition Project Reponse Team Members

On January 17, 2006, the Bolivian Transitional Response Team from the Center for a New American Socialist Democracy will arrive in Bolivia. Response Team members Troy P. O’Dend’Hal and Karah Woodward will be cataloging the events surrounding the inauguration of President-elect Evo Morales in Bolivia’s urban centers.

The 10-day project will collect and record events on the ground through interviews with the local population, both governmental and non-governmental organizations and international media. The goal of the project will be to provide Bolivian and foreign news outlets with articles, photographs and video footage regarding these events, along with a summary multi-media presentation to be released in March of 2006.

Karah Woodward joins the Center for a New American Socialist Democracy as the Senior Media Policy Analyst. Currently she is pursuing a Masters of Arts in urban policy and media at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. She has co-authored an article for Dollars and Sense Magazine that won a 2005 Society of American Business Editors and Writers award for student journalism. Her work has been published in City Limits Magazine, The Amsterdam News, Caribbean Life and The Courier. She is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Ms. Woodward is now joining Troy P. O’Dend’Hal, the Senior Policy Analyst for CNASD, to record and examine forces within Bolivia that challenge policies endorsed by free market capitalism. Her specific duties as a Response Team member will be to identify and document the global media’s role in promoting the ideals of free market capitalism, paying particular attention to major international media outlets and governmental organizations. A comprehensive observation of Bolivian and foreign media, accompanied by interviews with NGOs and governmental agencies will provide context for coverage leading up to the Presidential inauguration.

On Sunday, January 22nd, the Response Team will be on-the-ground in La Paz, Bolivia to capture video footage and provide first-hand observations of the inaugural ceremonies by gathering the reactions and responses of local citizens and international observers.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Transitional Response Team

This January of 2006, the Center For A New American Democracy will dispatch a “Response Team” to observe, monitor & issue a multi-media report on the transition of the democratically elected leadership of Bolivia.

Goals of the Response Team members will be to identify, explore and report on a range of topical priorities including:
  1. The events, activities & reactions on the ground during the transition of political power.
  2. Identify & define how the transition is represented & reported on via the various local, regional and global media outlets.
  3. Gauge the public presentation of aboriginal representation within the new transition of government.
  4. Analyzing and disseminating the available public information on private land ownership, labor laws & worker's rights that brought about this transition of leadership.

The Response Team members will achieve these goals by securing & recording interviews and daily on-line journals . Interviews with various media journalists, business owners, political leaders, and activist groups will focus on the urban centers of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Sucre & La Paz . In addition, members will be dispatched to the various NGOs serving Bolivia to collect demographic information and interview representatives.

Response Teams members will be assigned tasks according to physical location & available workable resources. All members are informed that they alone are solely responsible for their own transportation, lodging, provisions, & overall safety. All participating members will be asked to affirm to this in the form of a waiver.

The Bolivia Transition Project

This January, at the behest of socialists around the world, the Center For A New American Democracy will dispatch a response team to observe monitor & report on the transition of the democratically elected leadership of Bolivia.
From January 19, 2006 to January 25, 2006 CNASD will be putting boots on the ground to witness social democracy taking the reins of the political leadership in Bolivia. Via a daily on-line blog, press releases and articles for compensated submission, we will produce a detailed & comprehensive chronicle of one of the Americas most powerful indiginous leaders peaceful ascention to power..
The staff & volunteers on site will identify, explore and report on a range of issues including: Indigenous peoples' representation within the new government, labor & worker's rights, portrayal of the Morales Government within western main stream Media and the effect of socialism in Bolivia. CNASD will issue a comprehensive review on the rise of Socialism since the death of Dr. Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna .
CNASD will be devoting the total complament of our limited resources for the coming weeks to this endeavor. Those organizations and/or indiviuals interestted or wishing to donate resources or join our expedition are encouraged to do so by January 16th, 2006.

Press Contact Information:
Troy O'Dend'Hal,
Senior Policy Analyst
Center For A New American Socialist Democracy
244 5th Avenue, Suite g-283
New York, New York 10011