|English | Español||September 21, 2017 | Issue #67|
The History Behind the Organizer of the Water War
Oscar Olivera remembers how the Bolivian people took back their land and their power
By Chen Blanc
Oscar Olivera speaking during a plenary session at the 2013 School of Authentic Journalism (DR Noah Friedman-Rudovksy)
“A creative and happy man is a child who has resisted,” says Olivera.
He believes that true revolutionaries are like children and that their creativity and joy can change the world. When he was 9-years-old, he saw his best friend die from bullet wounds inflicted by a soldier. “Why does a child have to die?” he asked himself that day.
Oscar Olivera was born on January 10, 1955 in Oruro, Bolivia, a mining zone. He describes the place as a great plan of sand that meets with the sky, surrounded by huge snow capped mountains.
“It is a cold place. When I think about it, I see people that dress warmly to protect themselves from the cold, but it is hard for us to open up our hearts,” described Olivera.
He grew up in a large family with 10 siblings, and he remembers working since he was six years old. After school he helped his mom cut up 10 kilos of meat to make empanadas for the family business.
“The knife was larger than my arm,” said Olivera.
The family business taught him a lot about how to work in a group and about the importance of dividing labor, of discipline and of responsibility. His father, a military man, was always working in some place where he had been sent. The weekends were an important time for the family: Olivera shined shoes for everyone, his brothers cleaned the house and one of his sisters bathed all the younger siblings. When his father was home, he played music on the Victrola so that everyone could listen.
One day his mother, who always had beautiful long hair, had to cut it. That same day, she arrived home with food for everyone. He didn’t realize it until some time later, but she had sold her hair that day so that everyone could eat. When he asked her why she had done it, she answered simply that it weighed too much. According Olivera, he learned about generosity from her.
At 16, Oscar began working in a shoe factory. He met seminarians that were doing community work, and her recommended them [to the manager] because he thought they would support the factory. The manager got mad at Olivera because, for him, he conflated seminarians with communists. The manager fired all three because they were already organizing the workers and had developed a sense of community.
“Why were they afraid of the heads of the unions?” asked Olivera.
After this, Olivera worked for various unions and worker organizations. He was the director of the Federation of Factory Workers of Cochabamba, the messenger of the Central Bolivian Workers’ Union and a delegate of the Workers’ Union of Manaco, which was the strongest union organization in the workers’ movement as a whole.
In 2003 they founded, with social representatives from different areas of the country, the Great State of the Bolivian People, where Olivera served as the spokesman.
That same year, he was reelected for the fifth time as the leader of the Federation of Factory Workers of Cochabamba.
However, his work as spokesman of the Coordination of the Defense of Water and Life in 2000 is what gained him international recognition as a human rights advocate.
Oscar Olivera grew up in a place where services like water and electricity were not very accessible. To get electricity, he and his family had to install it themselves. To get water, they had to go together and collect it at the well. There wasn’t always water in the well, so they had to ration what they got. They couldn’t survive without water and neither could their animals.
In exchange for a bank loan to create trucking infrastructure in Bolivia, the government decided to change the law about natural resources and to expropriate and permit the privatization of water. It granted all benefits to the new owner, who could create a market for water for 40 or 50 years as he wished. This was imposed upon the population, who would have to pay a price for water that represented a 300% increase from the previous price. In reality this equaled up to 20% of the earnings of a family.
Olivera believed that in order to convince everyone to participate in the fight, they would have to look to history “to face it as if it were our grandparents and ask it what to do,” explained Olivera. So they set up a campaign to inform the people.
Demonstration during the Water War in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000
The movement organized other events that promoted action. For example, they used handkerchiefs [to show their support of the movement], normally a symbol of a party, and they all wore them, and it made them happy.
“These events made us converse among ourselves, recognize ourselves and feel that we were equals,” said Olivera. “We were afraid of those above us. When they heard of our actions, we had important weapons such as solidarity, reciprocity and respect.”
Oscar Olivera then became the speaker for the Coordination of the Defense of Water and Life. In assemblies with several speakers from the city and the country, he tried to recover local control of water.
“It is the blood of the earth, a gift from Pachamama,” said Olivera, making reference to the regional word for “Mother Earth.”
It was very difficult to organize many assemblies so they decided to take over the media – radio and television – without violence. Ordinary people began to report on events about the fight and the state of movement at the barricades. They also used poetry to communicate the feelings of the people. The next step was to take the city.
“We are the owners of the city, and we will take it over peacefully,” commented Olivera.
They closed all entries to the city for five months. The army was sent to fight against the people and repress them. The government said that the people at the barricades were five vandals and criminals who were financed by drug traffickers, and that nobody should negotiate with them. This made more people unite with the movement, because they knew that it was a just movement. The power of the spoken word was an important factor that benefited the movement.
At some point during the fight, some people were put in jail, among them Oscar. However, the movement wasn’t worried because everyone else continued outside fighting because, in terms of organization in their assemblies, they had always maintained a horizontal structure [in which there were no leaders and everyone was equal].
The Coordinator organized a protest attended by so many people that the government had no other option but to negotiate and accept that the movement in defense of water was real and authentic. The government modified the law, those in jail were liberated and families were compensated for the injured.
“We didn’t just recuperate our water; we broke an economic model that not only expropriated resources but also our spirit. We broke with authoritarianism. We forced them to understand that we make our own decisions,” said Olivera.
Years later, in 2005 when the social advocate Evo Morales became president of Bolivia, he proposed to Olivera that he join politics as a minister [in his government]. But Olivera has the firm belief that the power of government officials and politicians is ephemeral. He believes that true power is held by the Pachamama. After the difficult task [of the water war] Oscar returned to his family. Since he wasn’t able to be there for his children during those years, he prefers to give priority to his family now.
Oscar Olivera currently works in rural schools where he creates school gardens. They are spaces where children and adults can interact in harmony among nature, seeds, water and earth. People ask him why he makes gardens. Oscar answers:
“I am doing the same thing I did in 2000. I put up fences [barriers] like I did before, but this time they keep out rabbits and other animals.”
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism