Bolivia Vanishes (11/00)

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, US 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 that story? Come now, it was right there in the Washington Post — in paragraph 10, 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 neoliberal "reform" by following with pathologic care all the Bank’s dicta. These included the forced sale of all public water systems. But when the new Anglo-American owners of one city’s water company hiked prices 35 to 150 percent as per Bank orders, a general strike shut down the town. The government’s bloody reaction helped spread the protests nationwide. After 13 days, Bolivia’s president, fearful of the strengthening protests, took back the water company from its US-British operators and canceled the price hikes.

Some vital stories get buried because they fail the "sex" test of hot photos, or 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 US and British multinationals, including Bechtel of San Francisco and Britain’s United Utilities. Most important, 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 the nations capitol.

James Wolfensohn, president of the 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 actually peaceful demonstrators led by an archbishop) was meant to discourage the press from writing sympathetically about the Bolivians.

He needn’t have worried. There was nothing on the tube; and aside from the mention in the Post’s "Style" section, plus 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 (FT) did send a reporter to Bolivia. The lead paragraph of his April 26 report noted that, on the wall of the protesters’ headquarters, hung "faded portraits of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro." There was no mention 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 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, publish a retraction. Bredow ultimately complied, printing the paper’s retraction — and then resigned in protest.

Gregory Palast, an investigative journalist, writes a column called "Inside Corporate America" for The Observer of London. Thanks to Robert Rodvik, Roger Lagassé, Jan Slakov, and