You might know Cochabamba, even if you think you don’t. In 2000, Cochabamba was the sight of what was to become known as ‘The Water War’, a street-fight over the future of Bolivia’s water supply. Despite missteps on all sides of the issue, the end result was the expulsion of the foreign (American) company to whom the government had sold a water system in shambles, and who had in turn callously raised rates to exorbitant heights in order to fix it. Uninvolved in the political machinations, some of the city’s poor received an increase totaling 20% of their monthly wages. The reaction was explosive and became a symbol world-wide for a successful popular uprising against globalization. There is even a movie about it, “Even the Rain” starring that dreamy guy who played Ché Guevara.
The epilogue is less ideal. The city’s poor are still without water, the wealthy areas pay a fraction of what they probably should, and more poor Bolivians from the country are moving to Cochabamba all the time, exclusively to the neighborhoods that don’t just have a little water to spare, but have no water at all.
While the world heard this loud shot across the IMF’s bow, it hears not much about the continued civil unrest in Bolivia. Feeling disenfranchised is part of the Bolivian national psyche and though ostensibly a democracy, the people’s voices aren’t paid much attention to even by the people they’ve elected to represent them. This leaves one last powerful tool in the people’s toolbox: blocking the highways.
There is a dramatic scene in Even the Rain when the people of Cochabamba announce they will block all the roads into and out of the city. As the crisis worsens, the blockades engulf the entire country. What the movie obviously doesn’t have time to point out is that this is fairly usual, even if the circumstances were not. Bolivia is a heavily unionized country and many of the largest companies are run by the government. So when the citizens want the government’s attention, they organize to close the roads.
Having finally arranged for our replacement ATM cards to come to the Las Lilas hostel and received a cash advance from American Express via Western Union, we had the money and motivation to finally leave Cochabamba. We said goodbye to Alex and his wife, the hostel’s owners who had been so sweet and so helpful to us and schlepped our packs to the bus station downtown.
Inside the station it was oddly silent. The public benches were full of people who seemed to be waiting quietly for something to occur. Throughout the cavernous room the occasional shouts of city names was the only audible noise. When we approached a bus company to inquire after tickets to Oruro, our destination, they told us no buses were leaving because of a nation wide blockade. Looking around at the dozens of people patiently waiting in the cavernous station, we asked if there was any word on when it might be over. The answer was at least two or three days. What could we do? We asked, impotently.
It was suggested we wait.
We walked through the gates of Las Lilas an hour later and dropped our bags back down in the familiar dining room, greeted once again by our hosts. They hadn’t known about the blockades but weren’t particularly surprised. While they got our room ready again we sat on the lawn and tried to figure out what to do. We’d glimpsed Bolivia’s charms and were excited to explore the country, but so far had hit wall after wall trying to do so. Once again our only option seemed to be to fly, so we started scouring the internet for information on where we could go. The next day there was a cheap flight to La Paz, so we put our planned itinerary on hold and booked two tickets to the biggest city in Bolivia and the highest city in the world.