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Oscar Olivera in collaboration with Tom Lewis, [??]Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia.

Oscar Olivera in collaboration with Tom Lewis,[??]Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia (Cambridge, MA: South End Press 2005)

THE BOLIVIA "Water War" of 2000 has become an iconic example of the power of social movements to resist corporate globalization. In April 2000, a widespread coalition of small farmers, coca growers, factory workers, the unemployed, and small business people shut down the city of Cochabamba, protesting the privatization of public water resources. After a dramatic standoff between protestors and the military that left one young man dead, the government finally backed down, amending the national water legislation, rescinding the contract it had signed with the private consortium, and granting control of the local water utility to the network of social organizations that emerged to coordinate the protests, the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life, known as "the Coordinadora."

The Cochabamba Water War is widely regarded as the first major victory won by social movements after fifteen years of neoliberal structural adjustment programs in Bolivia, and as the authors claim in the introduction to this book, "the first great victory against corporate globalization in Latin America." (xiii) This inspiring book documents the triumphant struggle that kicked American transnational corporation, Bechtel, from Bolivia. Divided into four sections, the first, third, and fourth sections are primarily based on interviews with Oscar Olivera, the main spokesperson of the Coordinadora, that have been compiled and translated by collaborator Tom Lewis. The second section consists of chapters written by other activists and intellectuals about what happened after the Water War that place the new forms of struggle that have emerged in Bolivia in their political-economic context. Raquel Gutierrez and Luis Sanchez-Gomez contribute chapters that describe the challenges of operating the city's water service in the interests of local residents rather than for profit. In the latter section, Tom Lewis contributes a chapter that chronicles the activities of the Coordinadora from the Water War in 2000 to the Gas War in 2003.

[??]Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia is about much more than the struggle against water privatization. It is also about the dilemmas faced by all social movement organizers fighting for social transformation in the new era of neoliberal capitalism. Oscar Olivera, a former shoe-factory worker and trade-union leader, provides an astute political analysis of how the changes to the economy have affected the forms of working-class organization in Bolivia. In the "New World of Labour," he documents how privatization and economic restructuring throughout the 1990s have led to a dramatic reduction in the number of workers organized in unions and concentrated in large workplaces. He argues that this process of restructuring has been accompanied by "an inverse process of 'reproletarianization'" marked by the growth of smaller, decentralized workplaces that employ between one and four employees who confront precarious conditions of employment. Contrary to the "historical delirium" that the decline of large factories has rendered the working class irrelevant, Olivera suggests that "the number of wage workers who sell their labor power is much higher than it was ten years ago." (106) Given the atomization and insecurity that characterize these new forms of work, however, he argues that "the basis for formation of class identity has changed." (106) Olivera observes that the new working class has thus far "found it extremely difficult to project itself as an active social subject with sufficient personality to launch convincing mobilizations, to generate demands that motivate large numbers, or with even less success, to put forward practical proposals that incorporate the demands of other social sectors." (107) In "A Political Thesis" and "Towards a National and Continental Rebellion," he argues that new forms of doing politics are needed in Bolivia, proposing that political struggles organized around "the basic necessities of life" such as water and sewers can provide a way to overcome the working-class fragmentation described above. The Coordinadora that emerged in the Water War, for example, pulled together a "multiform torrent of workers, independent peasants, and communal peasants" (126-7) in an alliance that managed to expel a large transnational corporation.

In his thought-provoking essay entitled "The 'Multitude'," Alvaro Garcia Linera presents an academic analysis of changes to the forms of working-class organization and identity that have accompanied the restructuring of the Bolivian political economy over the past fifteen years. He argues that the decline of the "union-form" along with large-scale factories has "inaugurated a slow and multiform reconstitution of working class identities" and a strengthening of "local forms of unification with a traditional character and a regional base." (70-1) In this context, Garcia Linera argues that the organization that emerged in the Water War of Cochabamba--the Coordinadora --represents a new kind of popular movement in Bolivia. Unlike the hierarchical union structures that dominated Left politics in Bolivian history, the Coordinadora was a horizontal organization without formal elected leaders. It also introduced a new repertoire of resistance strategies in their fight against the government and transnational capital, holding a popular referendum and public assemblies attended by 50,000. Linera dubs this new form of collective action "the multitude," defined rather obtusely as "a block of collective action through which the subaltern classes give rise to autonomous, organized structures in relation to hegemonic discursive and symbolic structures." (n. 10, 85) While this murky concept attempts to describe the diverse social energies that can be harnessed in the struggle against neoliberal capitalism, the text is about as clear as to what precisely "the multitude" means as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's infamous text on Empire.

If the book has one minor flaw, it is the tendency of the authors to overstate the extent of the political transformation achieved by the movement that emerged in Cochabamba. Garcia Linera writes, for example, that the "new social movement of the multitude" embodied by the Coordinadora "has contributed to the formation of mobilizing strategies and symbolic struggles embodying a breadth and impact never before seen in the history of social movements in Bolivia." (79, emphasis mine) Such a statement repeats the tendency towards uncritical celebration of the novelty of such "non-class" forms of organizing typical of some of the early literature on "new" social movements, particularly in Latin America. Was the Coordinadora really more effective than any previous social movement in Bolivian history? The events of April 2000 in Cochabamba certainly opened a new cycle of contention in Bolivia, but to suggest that the new strategies employed by the Coordinadora have achieved a greater transformation of state-society relations than that attained by the national-popular Revolution of 1952 is a flight of exaggeration. After all, neoliberalism drags on and even the question of social control over the local water utility has been left unresolved. A more sober analysis of the limits and possibilities of the movement that emerged in Cochabamba would be better served by a perspective that recognizes the inherent tensions that emerge in cross-class, "issue-based" forms of organizing, such as presented by the work by Heather Williams on coalitions formed between labour unions and social justice organizations in the Mexican maquiladoras.

What the authors do correctly highlight, however, is the need for activists to employ organizing strategies that differ from those that dominated the 'old' labour movement, such as organizing unorganized workers beyond the formal place of work. Others such as Kim Moody have termed this type of organizing "social movement unionism," strategies that are eloquently described by Olivera's chapter, "Organization," on the outreach work of his trade union, which laid the basis for the Coordinadora.

Overall, this is a compelling book that will appeal to readers interested in social movements and recent events in Bolivian history, including geographers, Latin Americanists, labour historians, and political economists alike.

Susan Spronk

York University
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Author:Spronk, Susan
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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