In April and May, while in South America as part of solidarity brigades to Venezuela and Bolivia, I met some people who have risked everything to make their communities and their countries better places to live. I became so used to people passionately fighting for things they believed in that when I returned to Australia I received a sharp shock.
Suddenly I was back among people who, in general, did not care much or want to know about issues of inequality or other problems in our society. It is for these people that this is written.
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, we visited the heads of the new water workers union at the state-run water company, Semapa. There we met Juan Marcelo Rojas, nicknamed “Banderas” (“Flag”).
In 2000, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Cochabamba to protest the privatisation of Semapa, which led to a huge rise in water prices.
When the police and army began a crackdown, Banderas was in the middle of the fight. He told us what he (then a 19 year old) did at that time. At one point during the protests, a protester’s Bolivian flag fell as the police began to fire tear gas.
After running through a cloud of tear gas and struggling with a police officer, Banderas managed to grab the flag and make it back to the group of protesters. He passed out from the amount of teargas he inhaled, and was only revived when a peasant woman squatted over his face and peed on him.
He was angry at the time but told us: “Later on I realised what she had done for me. The police had begun a baton charge and if she had not woken me I would have been captured and beaten, so when I saw her a few weeks later I thanked her.”
After this episode he was given the nickname Banderas.
During these protests the people of Cochabamba occupied the main square, building barricades to block the roads. At the same time peasants blocked the roads to Cochabamba to prevent police and army reinforcements from reaching the city.
During the protests many hundreds of people were injured and some were killed. The most notorious death was that of high school student Victor Hugo Daza. The protests grew in size and spread throughout the country, leading then-President Hugo Banzer to declare a “state of siege” that suspended many civil liberties.
During this time Banderas was arrested by the police, beaten and jailed without trial.
He told us a story from when he was in jail: “I saw a woman being beaten by some police officers, she had a little boy who tried to stop them, they swung a baton into his face and he fell silent.”
Banderas, and hundreds of others arrested, were eventually released after the government was forced to back down.
Semapa was returned to state control, but it has been only more recently that the water service has begun to improve because of the work of people in the water workers union like Banderas.
Banderas, and the thousands of others who took part in the protests, did not sit and wait for their local member of parliament to do something. They got up, organised and worked together for change.
In the Cochabamba water protests Banderas told us that there were people as young as 13 involved.
Young Australian people should also organise and struggle to achieve change.
Too often society ignores us, but when people organise together we are strong and can make a difference. That’s what the stories of Banderas and the people of Cochabamba show.