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The battle continues in Maldonado

According to Luiz Garcia, the issue of water really radicalized vecinos in the region of Maldonado. The region where Luiz was born and raised has grown in the last 15 years from a small town of subsistence fisherpeople to an internationally coveted tourism hot spot where Hollywood stars and affluent foreigners own stunning beachfront properties and fill the cafe bars that come alive in summer months from January to March.

It was Maldonado’s affluence that also attracted multinational water corporations. In the late 1990s when the tourism industry developed, the right-wing government of the time argued that Maldonado required a quality of service that only private water corporations could provide. Water services in the region were eventually taken over by Agua de la Costa, a subsidiary of the French multinational, Suez, and Uragua, a subsidiary of the Spanish corporation Agua de Bilbao. Luiz tells me this spelled disaster for the town’s working class and for the environment.

As I sit on the patio of his beachside house in the town of Manantiales sipping yerba mate with other Maldonado water activists he pulls out a giant scrapbook and shows clippings of articles about the battle against private water that began in the late 1990s. “Maldonado became a laboratory for private water in Uruguay,” says Luiz. “Vecinos here were the first to feel its impacts.” Just the connection fees of $2000 were impossible for workers to afford. In addition, monthy rates rose drastically. According to Carmen Sosa of the water worker’s union FFOSE, the corporation charged 700% more than the public utility.

Luiz becomes quite animated as he tells me the story of an elementary school, which had its water supply cut off by the Suez subsidiary Aguas de la Costa for failing to pay its bills. The authorities at the neighbouring police station were so moved, they diverted part of the station’s water supply to the school. Eventually they were forced to stop sharing their supply when they received a warning from the corporation. It highlighted how much more powerful the multinational was than local law enforcement authorities.

Suez also failed to take environmental precautions and wound up nearly drying up the Laguna Blanca. Luiz shows me pictures of water levels so low the bottom of the lake is exposed in some parts. When people protested against Suez for pumping excessive amounts of water from the Laguna Blanca in the Maldonado region, nearly drying it out completely, a Suez executive is said to have replied “then give me another lake.”

Luiz is determined to see an end to all water privatization schemes in Uruguay and doesn’t think the government has moved fast enough. Suez still owns 40% of the utility that serves Luiz’s community of Manantiales and while service fees have dropped to match those of the public water utility, Luiz and his group of local activists, La Liga de Fomento de Manantiales, are not satisfied.

The next day, Daoiz Uriarte, Secretary General of OSE, the public water utility, highlights the public utility’s success in nationalizing water utilities across the country. “We own Aguas de la Costa and run it on our terms,” he reassures me. The public utility has a plan to purchase the remainder of the 40%, but no date has been set for the transfer yet. Daoiz explains the difficulties of eliminating private services in a context where private services are delivered by large multinationals protected by trade law.

In the case of Uragua, the situation was simpler. The company had failed so drastically in meeting its end of the agreement to maintain and upgrade infrastructure that OSE ended up taking them to court and reclaiming the 60,000 connections under Uragua’s control. In the case of Suez, Daoiz Uriarte, a lawyer by profession, explains to me that it is important to negotiate cautiously.

For Luiz Garcia, that is not good enough. He has walked the 200 odd kilometres from his town to Montevideo twice in the last two years demanding that the Suez’s 40% be recovered by the state immediately. He is now threatening to sue the government for failing to uphold the constitutional right to public water in Manantiales. It wouldn’t be his first time in court. In a classic David and Goliath battle, he was recently sued for defamation by Suez and won. Garcia fears that if the government doesn’t act quickly the momentum will be lost.

Later, on a spontaneous visit to the Aguas de la Costa plant, two other local activists accompanying me try a different approach. Zulma and her husband Alberico, two retired public water workers corner the young employee working for Aguas de la Costa and interrogate him about his wages and benefits. In the firm, but well-meaning spirit of two grandparents concerned for the younger generations, Zulma and Alberico launch into a passionate speech about the benefits of working for the public sector. The employee cannot help but nod in agreement. It’s hard not to be impressed with the pride Zulma and Alberico have in their many years of service at the public water utility. I wonder as I watch them if their intervention will spark a revolution from within Aguas de la Costa.

The trip to Maldonado is sobering. Revolution doesn’t happen over night and five years after the people of Uruguay voted to have privatization eliminated the battle continues in Manantiales.