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Bolivia: Rebellion Rises Again

Bolivian Mineworkers

Bolivia is Latin America's poorest country but rich in minerals and natural gas.

The violent protests that forced the resignation of Bolivia's president last week were the latest in a series of political upheavals, which have rocked Latin America's poorest country since 2000. Back then, the subsidiary of a U.S. company, Bechtel, privatized the public water system in Cochabamba, one of Bolivia's largest cities, and attempted to raise water fees. Impoverished residents resisted and their protests sparked a national uprising, forcing Bechtel to leave the country.

"The bottom line is that Latin America is in open rebellion of the economic policies of the Washington consensus."

We remember this event well because it was the first broadcast story we covered at FRONTLINE/World.

"Leasing the Rain" was produced by David Murdock and reported by New Yorker magazine staff writer William Finnegan. You can see the story again here.

Watching it now you can understand the chasm in Bolivia between the U.S.-backed government and the poor indigenous population, which is deeply suspicious of foreign multinationals and the International Monetary Fund.

When we first envisioned FRONTLINE/World, Executive Producer David Fanning commissioned this Bolivia story as a test. Was this the sort of story we should tell? The kind of investigative journey we should undertake? The answer was yes. It is a story about one of the central issues of our time -- globalization. Many of Bolivia's nine million people, especially the 70 percent who live below the poverty line, say market reforms have left their country poorer than ever. At the time, the clash in Bolivia over privatizing water was largely unreported in the American media.

We showed early versions of "Leasing the Rain" to PBS programmers and potential funders, and the story became a prototype for our series. Ironically, although we initiated the story, we did not air it ourselves. Our pilot episode in May 2002 was already overflowing with stories -- a problem we frequently face -- and we did not want the Bolivia report to languish while we were off the air that summer. So we offered the story to our colleague Bill Moyers and his then new show, NOW. To our delight, Moyers aired the story as a coproduction with FRONTLINE/World, and it was nominated for an Emmy.

Since then we have reported a range of stories from Latin America, including news from Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. We are currently working on a major story in Peru. The U.S. media have been focused elsewhere in the world, but that's short-sighted. Since 2000, leftist candidates have swept into power in two-thirds of Latin America's countries.

"The bottom line is that Latin America is in open rebellion of the economic policies of the Washington consensus," says Jim Shultz, executive director of Democracy Center, quoted in a New York Times article last week. Shultz lives in Cochabamba and we remember him well as the Internet activist who appears in our Bolivia story. "Sometimes it happens in the ballot box. Sometimes it happens on the street, like in Bolivia. It is, in essence, the same rebellion."