The Guardian August 9, 2000


Bolivia Vanishes: See Style Section

by Gregory Palast*

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 globalisation. 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 went 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 US-British operators and cancelled 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 centre 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 globalisation 
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 in the hall 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.

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 US-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.

* * *
*Gregory Palast, an award-winning investigative journalist, writes a fortnightly column, Inside Corporate America, for The Observer of London, the Sunday paper of the Guardian Media Group.

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