The Guardian November 8, 2000


Water and repression in Bolivia

by Jim Shultz*

On Saturday morning, September 30, at 4am the Bolivian Government sent 
1,100 army troops into Vinto, a small town on the outskirts of Cochabamba. 
There, for more than a week, local residents had erected and maintained a 
blockade of the main highway, one of many put up nationwide as part of 
widespread public protests [against the privatisation of Bolivia's 
water].

In the weeks since, in visits to the local hospital, I have spent a good 
deal of time listening to first hand accounts of what happened there.

Tear gas canisters, I have been told repeatedly, "fell like rain" smashing 
onto people's roofs and into their small brick and adobe homes.

At 6am, one of those canisters flew at high velocity from 200 metres into 
the patio of the Zenteno family.

It hit their six-year-old daughter, Jimena, directly in the face. Knocked 
out cold and bloodied, her mother thought she was dead.

Fortunately she was alive, but her nose was completely destroyed and she 
will likely lose much of the sight in her left eye.

Doctors say she will need re-constructive surgery over and over again 
through her adolescence.

A short distance away Jimena's 15-year-old cousin, Wilson, woke up choking 
from tear gas pouring into his house, and was forced to flee into the 
street.

He told me the gas was so bad that three of the family chickens died on the 
spot from asphyxiation.

As he and his friends walked through the town to see what had happened, 
Wilson became a target.

Army fire  live rounds  caught him in the legs and has left him 
disabled for the rest of his life.

There are other serious cases here as well, people I have also met, many 
with injuries still unattended from the conflicts earlier this year over 
water privatisation.

Antonio, a 16-year-old, had the nerves severed in his right arm during last 
April's protests.

Half a year later he still awaits surgery. Bolivian officials have signed 
formal agreements promising to pay for the care needed by the wounded, 
promises still not kept.

Human rights groups will continue pressing the Government on these promises 
but the injured can wait no longer.

Even if and when the Government does pay, it won't cover a good portion of 
costs the wounded must cover.

It is important to note that the US Government has had a significant role 
in this violence.

Just hours before the military invasion of Vinto, the chief spokesman for 
the US State Department made a formal declaration of support for the 
Bolivian Government in the midst of its repression.

* * *
*Jim Shultz is the Executive Director of The Democracy Centre, Cochabamba, Bolivia

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