I drummed my fingers on the counter as I wondered whether the photocopier would notice. I was inside the press centre at the official World Water Forum, and they were happily printing off for free 300 copies of a press release that yelled: "WATER ACTIVISTS DISRUPT WORLD WATER FORUM".
Half an hour later, I was liberally handing them out to journalists and delegates as fifty activists stormed the central lobby with banners, bottles filled with coins and loud chants of "Agua es un derecho, no una mercancia" (Water is a right, not a commodity). Security guards looked on anxiously, delegates snapped photos, organisers growled impotently knowing what photos would fill the papers the next day.
For a moment, a group of people who had gathered outside had pierced the security barriers of power and carried a message of resistance inside against the corporate-driven agenda of the Forum. The official organisers seemed unaware that I had managed to use their very own resources to amplify that voice.
Earlier on that day I had found myself using the same press credentials to organise a press conference for the Bolivian Ministry of Water, where they had rejected the consensus of the conference and issued an alternative declaration. Minister Abel Mamani, who had once led protests against water privatisation, insisted that water must be included as a human right and denounced the Forum as exclusive.
The rattled Mexican host dismissed them as a "disrespectful" minority outsiders, but their defensiveness failed to hide that the Bolivian Government’s demands had joined with those of civil society and were dominating the debate.
The outside coming inside. The inside joining the outside. Are these the new dynamics in Latin America?
It certainly felt new to me. I am used to being on the outside, denouncing the limited gestures of governments as charades designed to protect and bolster privilige whilst avoiding radical democratic change. I feel structures of power have their own logic and momentum that are very difficult to unravel and invariably moderate even radical voices – no more so than when a left-Government comes to power and inherits a State structure moulded by centuries of exclusion.
Yet in Mexico, I found myself happy to amplify the voice of the Bolivian Government, and perhaps more surprisingly able to maintain a consistent position whether I was talking about the Bolivian Government or demands of social movements. I was in Mexico with several hats – activist campaigning to take water out of trade agreements, press officer for the Ministry of Water, journalist and blogger for Red Pepper magazine – yet strangely all the hats seemed to fit.
One day, I joined a march against water privatisation outside the forum organised by those opposed to the Forum. In solidarity and to show his continued commitment to the social movements, Abel Mamani and various figures of the Water Ministry joined in marching behind the iconic banner from the Cochabamba Water War "El agua es nuestro, carajo" (The water is ours, damn it!). I introduced one of the Water Ministry advisors’ to a fiery activist, Santiago Arconada who I had met at the World Social Forum in Caracas. He was a member of the Venezuelan government delegation.
Soon our part of the march had turned into an impromptu meeting with activists from Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil who all agreed to facilitate a meeting between all their respective Governments. The eventual meeting proved crucial in helping to build a consensus of several countries behind Bolivia’s position. The boundaries between the world of activists and Governments in Latin America has clearly blurred.
There appeared to be a new dynamic at work which made it seem very natural for Government officials to attend meetings of social movements in Mexico, and for the social movements to expect Governments like Bolivia to represent them. The Governments speaking out alongside the social movements were clearly still a small minority – they still ended up being painted as ignorant rebels by the organisers – but it was exciting to see new types of relationships between governments and civil societies, ones that could grow further as Government after Government in Latin America swings to the left.
This new fluidity between civil society and government reflects an impressive surge of civil society movements across Latin America that have fuelled the rise of "progressive left" Governments. Yet whilst this has created new opportunities for movements and new forms of relationships, the shift from protest to power has not been easy.
In many countries such as Brazil and Argentina, social movements have shouted out betrayal as Governments have failed to realise the radical changes that they hoped for. There is already evidence of these tensions within Bolivia, where social movements are denouncing Evo Morales’s cautious hydrocarbons proposals and his exclusion of radical voices from the Constituent Assembly (more on that in a future blog)
Yet interestingly on water, social movements and the Government of Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Cuba (and to a lesser extent Argentina and Brazil) spoke with one voice. I found myself wondering why at least on the issue of water, social movements have found true allies in left Governments.
I think mainly it is a result of social movements having worked on the issue of water privatisation for a number of years and having won the arguments by showing that water privatisation has failed to deliver promised investments. Thanks to global campaigning, water became a defining fight against neo-liberalism.
It is noticeable that within Bolivia, the recent rise of protests in the last five years against neo-liberal economic policies started with the Water War in Cochabamba that threw out US multinational Bechtel. In 2005, this fight was followed up with huge protests against privatised water in El Alto. Defending public water emerged as a central demand for social movements which Evo recognised when he created a new Water Ministry and appointed Abel Mamani, a leading protestor against privatisation, as its Minister.
This victory happened in the context of a global groundswell of resistance against water privatisation which has meant that the Bolivian Government’s defence of water is not a solitary act. In October 2004, over 60% of Uruguayans voted for a constitutional amendment that says water must be run publicly. As the World Water Forum met, President Kirchner of Argentina said that its contracts with Suez would be ending and announced the formation of a new State water company. Even in the Republican-dominated US, German multinational RWE has decided to sell its subsidiary American Water after facing battles by countless local communities to take back their water systems.
“Water has led people, not only in Bolivia but from all over the world, to take action,” said Oscar Olivera who helped lead the Cochabamba water war.
These have created a new context and a political space for Bolivia to pursue a firm policy of public water management. This is perhaps most strongly shown by the changing position of the World Bank in Bolivia. In 1996, they conditioned debt relief on Bolivia privatising water in Cochabamba, La Paz and El Alto.
After Morales was elected with a commitment to bring back La Paz and El Alto’s water utilities into the public sector, the World Bank initially said they would only give grants to a public-private partnership.Yet at meetings in Mexico, World Bank officials were forced into a complete u-turn saying they would be prepared to fund an all-public water company.
Meanwhile, activists in Mexico were not meeting to just talk about resistance but increasingly to share proposals and experiences in building publicly accountable water enterprises.
For Bolivia, these came together when the French NGO France Liberté announced a joint initiative between French municipalities and the Bolivian Government to provide resources and share expertise in building a new model of public water management for El Alto and La Paz. The initiative received backing from the UN that trumpeted a new era of "public-public partnerships."
There was an unmistakeable confidence in Mexico by those defending public water, and an umissable defensiveness by the private water companies who saw their advances in the last decade sliding away from them.
For me, the Forum more than anything laid out the challenges to social movements on how to make effective change. It showed that when campaigns are global, focused on a particular issue, and most importantly move towards looking at proposals and alternatives, then they can move from being protests on the sidelines to actually shaping the debate. With the rise of Left governments across Latin America, global activists now have the chance to move towards not just framing the debate but actually constructing practical alternatives.
Yet too often movements remain in the comfortable world of protest, happy to denounce but not to propose. There is an unprecedented opportunity to forge imaginative alternatives in Latin America that fight inequality, protect the environment and end poverty, but sadly many movements have yet to formulate clear united proposals on key issues such as gas exploitation. In this vacuum, even more radical left Governments will invariably swing back towards the narrow neo-liberal consensus, forced by outside pressures to accept the status quo. We will have lost the chance to bring the outside in, and turn the inside out.