A rusty pipe hangs from an improvised water tower, and drips miserably into the desert air. A crowd of simple-looking people in traditional Andean clothes, their dark faces furrowed with worry, surround it with empty buckets and containers, waiting for the water to come gushing out, but the pipe has run dry. They turn away in dismayed resignation.
This is one of the silent set-pieces in the new Bond film Quantum of Solace, set in Bolivia, which takes as its inspiration the struggle to control water and other natural resources in the developing world. Bond is on a mission to stop a faux-environmentalist billionaire from secretly appropriating all of Bolivia’s water supply by replacing its left of centre president with a handpicked despot, in a coup which the USA blithely ignores.
As in most Bond films, the ‘Bolivian’ extras (no footage was shot in Bolivia) provide a voiceless, picturesque background against which the heroics can be played out. The plot of the film makes reference to a real struggle carried out by the social movements of Bolivia to resist privatisation of water supplies, and while it is broadly sympathetic, it is also based on a central conceit: that the Bolivian people need the intervention of a suit-clad British action hero to save them from grasping transnationals and corrupt governments.
However, recent history in Bolivia contradicts this: the long struggle to reclaim sovereign control over natural resources has been fought by everyday women and men, through direct action and democratic participation, and control has been won with nary a high-octane plane chase in sight.
One can’t help imagining an alternate version of the scene described above, which would more closely reflect the Bolivian reality. The conversations happening underneath the plaintive music might go as follows. ‘Compañeros’, an old lady might shout, ‘the transnational has taken our water! Something must be done!’ More voices rise in protest, ‘A march on the capital! We should blockade the road! Demand a meeting with the President! This cannot continue!’
In this astonishingly politically active country, this would be a standard response, not muted resignation. Grassroots-led protests stopped the privatisation of water in Cochabamba in 2000, marking a significant point on the journey to power of current President, Evo Morales. Under his watch, the Bolivian constitution has been rewritten to include access to water as a basic human right, and this stands to be passed into law in January 2009.
As for attempts to topple his government and install a business-sympathetic autocrat, this would meet with short shrift in today’s South America, even if the depiction of the US authorities covertly supporting the coup skates uncomfortably close to reality.
After a wave of violence in September which various international bodies recognised as an attempted coup d’etat, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) threw their weight behind Morales in a resounding declaration of solidarity.
They recognised that he was recently affirmed in his post by 67 per cent of the popular vote, and stated that any attempt to destabilise or overthrow his government was anti-democratic and would not be tolerated.
When the villains in Quantum of Solace affirm ‘we have twenty neighbouring governments ready to recognise the incoming administration as legitimate’, it rings false.
Not only has the Morales government secured natural resources for the benefit of the Bolivian people, but it has also cultivated a strong base of regional support which provides a counterweight to interventionism from the USA or elsewhere.
Isolated left-wing governments falling prey to US-backed coups only to be replaced with bloody dictatorships? Too bad the updated Bond didn’t take into account the political changes in Latin America: like his martinis and speedboat chases, the plot of Quantum of Solace all looks a bit dated.