<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
 English | Español August 28, 2014 | Issue #34


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Oscar Olivera, Spokesman for the People

With the Doctrine of “Propose and not Impose,” He Wins Political Battles


By Amy Casada-Alaniz
2004 Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar

August 20, 2004

COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA, AUGUST, 2004: In the office of the Coordinadora de la Defensa del Gas y Agua, the action never stops. The push to nationalize the hydrocarbon industry is a non-stop process of communication: the phones here never stop ringing; people move constantly in and out of the space; project plans lay everywhere and are all the time being worked on and worked out. This process of working out and coordinating is the role of this body in the revolutionary war to nationalize the gas of Bolivia, and the man at the desk in the middle of this colorful, moving space is Oscar Olivera.


Oscar Olivera Foronda
Photo: Noah Friedsky D.R. 2004
Oscar Olivera Foronda is the Executive Secretary of the Federation of Factory Workers of Cochabamba, a co-founder of the open school, Primero de Mayo, and spokesman for the Coordinadora, a group which by declaration has no fixed leadership. The reality of consensus happening among this group speaks loudly to fears of mob rule which may accompany a discussion of contemporary liberal democracy. What Oscar Olivera describes as transparent, horizontal, bottom-up expression of power, by definition non-hierarchical, can have no head. This is not representative democracy. Oscar sees his role as a single voice serving like a mouthpiece to focus a movement of bodies with voices which have had no ear. Oscar has, in fact, helped to attract to this movement, an ear.

El Chato,” as he is known to his companions, speaks with a deep, sensitive voice. His speech is slow, quiet, and deliberate. His voice enchants, and his words describing this conscious effort to realize participatory democracy are unforgettable, almost unbelievable.

Oscar Olivera worked in factories from the age of sixteen. He took his first leadership role in the labor movement twenty five years ago when he went to work in a shoe factory. While he still considers himself to be a union man first, he has managed to participate in weaving a colorful coordination of many movements that are not apparently connected, yet are bound together toward realizing what Oscar refers to as the “common good.” By “the common good,” Oscar means things such as work, sustenance, and family – the foundations of everyday life that people and other creatures need for basic survival – together with those that enrich a life with pleasure.


Oscar Olivera with Narco News South American Chief Alex Contreras
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
In October 2000, the Institute for Policy Studies awarded to Oscar its Letelier-Moffit International Award for human rights activity, named after two IPS staff members who were murdered in Washington DC in September 1976 by agents of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet. This was a few months after he helped to organize and lead the resistance against water privatization in the city of Cochabamba. After the Bolivian government had already privatized other public utilities, such as the airline, the train system, and the electricity utility, the water and sanitation system of Cochabamba was conceded in 1999 to the transnational consortium Aguas del Tunari. The movement, now popularly known as the “Water War”, resulted in the driving out from Cochabamba of the Dutch Bechtel Corporation, an end to Aguas del Tunari, and on April 10, 2000, a tearing up of the contract made between these entities and the Bolivian government. Oscar went to DC with his family to receive this award. He was presented a medal which he gave in turn to his son, seven years old at that time, as a symbol of a generational promise: that the struggle to preserve and defend human rights is one that doesn’t end but must continue through the generations.

The Goldman Institute awarded to Oscar in 2001 a $125,000 prize for environmental action. When asked about the significance of a labor leader winning an award for environmentalism, Oscar describes the idea of “environment” in general, discussed as “resources,” as being for him an “imported idea,” having deep implications of usefulness in the context of capitalism. He proposes moving away from this idea of “resources” and moving instead towards the idea of the common good, which would include the goals of social movements like the labor unions and less tangible rights than water and earth. Oscar invested the prize money he received from the Goldmans in the April Foundation, so named for the last days of the Water War, and the interest earned on this money funds much of his group’s work. Oscar did not accept this prize in person because at the time, in November 2001, he had been detained by the Bolivian government on charges of sedition, conspiracy, instigating public disorder, and criminal association.

Oscar and his wife, Gladys, have six children ranging in ages from 24 years to two-year-old twins. His life of struggle has resulted in his serving prison time and also gained him infamy among the bourgeoisie of Cochabamba. His work is constant, daily, complicated. Organizing and coordinating means non-stop meetings, telephone calls, discussing everything from how to pay the bills to where to borrow trash cans for a public event to finding someone to do a last minute printing job. Oscar’s work days are long and sometimes go into the night. He calls to check in with his family and tell them when he’ll be home and to hear his children tell him how their day is going, too: What have they been playing at? What was for lunch?.... Focusing on the everyday things is the road of Oscar’s struggle toward the common good.

Everyday War

When he describes how at the beginning of the Water War the people decided to organize, Oscar tells a story of how the course of a stream was diverted away from a certain village where it had always flowed. The people became very upset because after the stream was gone; the birds stopped coming. The birds that had lighted in the trees next to the stream would sing every morning, and to that singing the people woke up to start their work days. The diversion of the water was a project not initiated nor approved by the people it affected, and it upset the everyday life of those people. The people of the village were not so upset over the loss of the water in the stream; they still had rain barrels and wells. But they were upset over losing the company of the birds as a result of losing their stream.


Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
The “Wars” for water and gas, Oscar says, are so termed by the people in general who in reality live in struggle and “war” daily. He asks: is it not violence to wake up every morning in a state of anxiety, unsure of how the day will play out… vulnerable to employers whom he testifies force birth control on female workers, threatening them with the loss of their jobs in no uncertain terms if they should ever become pregnant? He says that some factory working women here are told that they must accept a copper apparatus that will prevent pregnancy, an IUD, if they wish to keep their jobs, and that they must keep this secret from their husbands. “Is this not violence?” asks Oscar. Working women and men the world over can understand this state of vulnerability and insecurity which creates profound anxiety and fear. Lying in bed at night trying to pay the bills in one’s head… going to a workplace where one may be told at any time that there is no more work… being without work… withstanding the attitudes of employers who wish to make one believe that work is a privilege and that one should be grateful for her pay and benefits, even when her work is the dirtiest and hardest and least well-paid. This is war every day; it is essentially violent. It is in this context that the resistance of the people empowered with a voice and given an ear, name their collective struggle: WAR.

It is important to address alongside this point recent comments made by Democratic U.S. Presidential candidate John Kerry. Kerry said to the National Association of Elected and Appointed Latino Officials, on June 24 of this year, “We cannot sit by and watch as mob violence drives a president from office as it did in Bolivia and Argentina.” On the 30th of the same month, Kerry was quoted in the Miami Herald: “In Bolivia, Bush encouraged the election of a pro-market, pro-U.S. president and then did nothing to help the country when riots shook the capital and the president was forced to flee.” This “mob violence” that Mr. Kerry speaks of is the movement of a people who already find themselves in the middle of violence everyday. Even though the popular actions of the Bolivian people are unarmed, they inspire shooting and gassing and mass arrests on the part of authorities. It is in order to question the source of this violence: would Kerry consider any popular action within a democracy to be violent? Shouldn’t the nature of democracy allow for popular action? And if the circumstance of the people is perceived as described by Oscar to be one of everyday war, would every popular action be an extension of that war, in essence a war for democracy?

An Organic Approach

The bottom-up expression of power proposed by Oscar and the Coordinadora is miraculous. Oscar likens the structure of the organization itself to a weaving: horizontal, without any kind of permanent leadership or even position of authority. The philosophy behind this is one of personal autonomy, focused on the well-being of the community as a whole. The growth of this movement is very difficult in societies where power structures are established and maintained through economic manipulation, but as evidenced by the Water War, not impossible. To empower this movement, sharing our stories from one end of the Americas to the other is necessary. That information free-flow to the true base of power, the people itself, is vital. As well, information must flow upward. The voice of the people, united by common interests of everyday well-being, must reach the globally strong powers of elitist governments and monstrous money-making machines.


Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
Oscar and his group have opened up a space for dialogue in which all are invited to participate. This is an invitation and not an obligation, or to use words the man himself has used: “propose and not impose.”

In order to resist the hierarchies of power imposed on us up to now, Oscar proposes we look to the wisdom of the indigenous people who are among the base of his community. The idea that we work together in cooperation for our collective well-being is an idea he says he has accepted based on his experience of listening to those people. He says that among many of those who make up his base there is an understood symbiosis in nature, of humans and other creatures. This symbiosis or cooperation is in fact what allows our communal survival, in contrast with the idea of the existence of the natural competition for resources that has been proposed to us by capitalism. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the Empire’s book. As one of Oscar’s heroes, Che Guevara, said: “The people united will never be defeated.”

This philosophy taken to its logical end, true power already existing in the people, it must continue to exist like it always has in reality, and one man like Oscar realizes his role as simply a mouthpiece for the collective. That power or simple presence being organic, is alive as it always has been. The miracle here is that in spite of generations of economic manipulation, there is a true recognition that our community is alive and present and already in possession of its power, and that the fear created by the years of manipulation is the truest enemy.

Oscar has called fear our first enemy.

Maybe, it is our only enemy.

But he encourages us to not be daunted by the challenge. The time has come for us to suck it up and get back to our loom, back to the office, back to the streets, or wherever our work takes us. Oscar says, “This is a tough and crucial moment in history; however, we have no choice.”

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America