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In early 2000, a broad cross-section of civil society in Cochabamba rose up to protest the privatization of water and corresponding rate hikes for water service. The Coalition for Defense of Water and Life brought together rural and urban sectors into a common force, including members of irrigation associations (regantes), neighborhood and community organizations, and provincial civic committees, as well as environmentalists, professionals, and unionized workers. When the government responded to their demands with escalating hostility, they were joined by coca producers and other peasant farmers, as well as growing numbers of plebeian and middle-class urban residents. Protestors gained an important initial victory when they managed to occupy the central square after two days of clashes with security forces on 4–5 February. The coalition’s communiqué on 6 February conveys the heady feeling of triumph. In March, the coalition organized a popular referendum that showed overwhelming support for the protestors’ demands. The coalition launched what it called the “final battle” on 4 April. Faced with unrelenting popular pressure, the government attempted to arrest the leaders with whom it was negotiating and to apply a state of siege and lethal force to block the movement. However, widespread anger over government recalcitrance and repression galvanized the social movement. Tens of thousands of people, led by audacious young “water warriors,” seized effective control of the streets and plazas. Beyond Cochabamba, new fronts of protest opened up on the altiplano of La Paz, in Oruro and Potosí. Ultimately, on 10 April, the government conceded: the foreign water consortium Aguas del Tunari would withdraw, and neoliberal water legislation (Law 2029) would be reformulated. The Water War was the opening salvo in a cycle of insurgency that would challenge the reigning neoliberal orthodoxy in Bolivia. Internationally, activists confronting neoliberal globalization also saluted Cochabamba as a source of inspiration.

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