In April, five people were shot dead in Bolivia, a military policeman was lynched and the president declared a state of siege following a general strike that shut down much of the nation. At the end of it all, for the first time in a decade anywhere in the world, American and British corporate giants, the targets of the protest, were booted out of the Andean nation, a stunning reversal of the march of globalization.
You didn't read the story? Come now, it was right there in the Washington Post ... in paragraph 10 of the story, on page 13 of the Style section. I kid you not: the STYLE section. It dangled from the bottom of a cute little story on the lifestyle of some local anti-WTO protesters.
And so, one of the most extraordinary international stories of the year just when PFZZZT! and disappeared from sight.
Here's what you didn't hear. In the 1990s, Bolivia became the World Bank's South American poster child for neo-liberal "reform" by following with pathologic care all the Bank's dicta. This included the forced sale of all the nation's public water systems. But when the new Anglo-American owners of one city's water company hiked prices 35 percent to 150 percent per World Bank orders, a general strike shut the town. The government's bloody reaction helped spread the protests nationwide. After 13 days, Bolivia's president, in fear of the strengthening protests, took back the water company from the U.S.-British operators and canceled the price hikes.
Some vital stories get buried because they fail the "sex" test of hot photos, or they have no domestic news hook. But Bolivia had it all. Networks could obtain high-quality video footage of the military gunning down civilians. At the center of the story were huge American and British multinationals, including Bechtel of San Francisco and Britain's United Utilities. Most importantly, this general strike in South America offered a dramatic and bloody parallel to protests in Washington against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which were occurring that very week. By any normal news measure, this was a helluva story of globalization stopped dead in its tracks ... all while McDonald's burned in Washington.
James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, was so shaken by events in Bolivia that on April 12, in the midst of responding to the Washington demonstrations against the Bank, he took time to denounce the Bolivian protesters as "rioters." Wolfensohn's wild statement (the rioters were peaceful demonstrators led by the town's archbishop) was meant to discourage the press from writing sympathetically about the Bolivians.
He need not have worried. There was nothing on the tube; and aside from the mention in the Post's Style section and a few news wire paragraphs in The New York Times, for the mainstream media, the Bolivians simply vanished.
I can't say there were NO reports. The Financial Times sent a reporter to Bolivia. The lead paragraph of his April 26 report informed us that on the wall of the protesters' headquarters hung "faded portraits of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro." There was no mention at all that five civilians and a policeman had died.
The FT reporter, who should have known better, picked up the line that drug traffickers were somehow behind the water protests. This fanciful accusation originated in a Bechtel news release. (As one Bolivian told me, deadpan: "Traficantes don't care about their water bill.") Bolivians themselves were also denied the full story, but by more direct means. The courageous editor of the Bolivian newspaper Gente (People) published an investigative series exposing the sweetheart deals between the U.S.-European investors and politically connected Bolivians. At the end of April, Gente's publishers, admitting to threats of financial ruin by the water system's Bolivian partners, demanded that the editor, Luis Bredow, print a retraction of his reports. Bredow printed the paper's retraction ... and his resignation in protest.
- 194 World Financial Institutions