Making a new world – Part Two: From Genoa to Cochabamba

Paul Kingsnorth
14 May 2003

openDemocracy: After visiting Chiapas you went to Genoa, Italy, for the demonstrations surrounding the July 2001 meeting of the G7. That’s a long way from the jungles of southern Mexico. What’s the connection?

Paul Kingsnorth: The Zapatistas were a tremendous inspiration to the global justice movement. Following their uprising in 1994, they began to talk to the rest of the world through the internet – at the time, a novel way of communicating – and in January 1996 they called a meeting or ‘encounter’ in Chiapas: the ‘Intercontinental Encuentro For Humanity and Against Neo-liberalism’. Anyone who was interested would be welcome; about 3,000 people turned up from all across the world.

They talked about life under ‘neo-liberalism’ as they called it, and the way that the Zapatistas had responded with a push for local autonomy and a focus on local democracy. This inspired activists in other parts of the world. Many of the people who were at that Encuentro were the same people who took action on the streets of Seattle against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting in 1999 and on the streets of Genoa against the G7 summit in July 2001.

Riot police charge, seemingly oblivious to the dead body of the young protester Carlo Giuliani. See photos of the whole episode here

At the Genoa Social Forum, for example, there was an Italian anarchist group called “Ya Basta!” (Enough Already!), which is a network of Zapatista support groups. You could also see the inspiration of the Zapatistas in the ubiquitous ski masks and Marcos T-shirts.

But the Zapatistas’ influence was of course at a deeper level than the way people dressed; it was also on the way they protested. Instead of the traditional approach, where a bunch of people follow a leader, march with flags, listen to speeches and then go home, the demonstrations at Genoa were very decentralised. There were small blocks of people all of whom believed different things and chose to act in their own ways.

Lessons in power and protest

openDemocracy: There was violence at Genoa. I guess a lot of that can be put down to the way Berlusconi’s government handled the demonstrations (they were much more restrained two years later at the European Social Forum (see this Globolog). You’re very impassioned about this in your book. Did it radicalise you?

Paul Kingsnorth: Yes. I’ve never before seen the level of police violence I saw in Genoa, and I’ve seen quite a lot. It was absolutely horrific. The police battered ordinary people and journalists. They tortured people. They killed a protestor. There was also activist violence that I wasn’t prepared for. A lot of it came from the so-called Black Bloc, whoever they are and from, and - as Italian police later admitted - from people posing as demonstrators who were actually infiltrators from the police. There was an enormous level of violence on both sides.

Here are the leaders of the world, the eight supposed leading democracies having to resort to military measures to protect themselves against half a million of their own people. You can see that something is wrong here.

There were so-called activists trashing, burning and looting property. But the police response was disproportionate. Genoa became a one day police state. The state took draconian actions to protect itself. It suspended the Schengen agreement (on open borders in Europe). It built massive fences around the central ‘red zone’. It had armed anti-terrorist groups everywhere.

Consider what this actually meant. Here are the leaders of the world, the eight supposed leading democracies having to resort to military measures to protect themselves against half a million of their own people. You can see that something is wrong here, and it’s not enough to talk about violent activists. It is clear that there is a great gap between the leaders and the led, and that’s something that radicalised a lot of people – including me.

Cochabamba – resistance to water privatisation

openDemocracy: From Genoa you flew to the Bolivian town of Cochabamba, where there had been an uprising against an attempted privatisation of the city water supply. It looks to me and to those who have studied the issues that the Cochabamba case was one of the most ill thought-out privatisations ever attempted. Is it fair to condemn all privatisation on the grounds of this particular event?

Map of Bolivia

Paul Kingsnorth: No, it isn’t. This isn’t a blanket case. One of the things that I explore in my book is the fact that every case is different. Governments are different, activism is different, local communities are different, traditions are different. So it’s not fair to condemn every private water company in the world by the actions of the Bechtel Corporation who are an astonishingly incompetent and deeply unpleasant company.

The attempted privatisation in Cochabamba was not simply unjust. It was inept in every way, and it made people rise up in a way that hadn’t happened before. But the principles on which it happened can be applied around the world, because here was the Bolivian government being pressured by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to open up its national services for privatisation. It did so, flogging them off to grasping western multinationals without any consultation with the local people. All this forced up prices to levels way beyond exorbitant. The process did not just take over Cochabamba’s water and sewerage apparatus, but also the local irrigation systems that farmers had created over the years by themselves without help from the state.

This type of experience does not happen only in Bolivia. What Bechtel did may be an exception in the sense that it was much more extreme than has happened elsewhere, but it’s not unusual in developing countries especially. And the Cochabamba case is certainly not the only mass resistance to water privatisation.

Next: South Africa

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