Urban Bolivia is a very easy environment to live in. It seemingly has all the modern convienences one could ask for, coffee shops, plentiful taxis, buses, discos and internet cafes on every block. However, when taking a closer look the basis of these conviences often betray their seeming affluence.
For instance, it is often rutine to hop in the front passenger side seat of a taxi and find yourself staring at the driver´s dashboard. Look to the left and find the stearing wheel jerry rigged to the glovebox for the left drivers seat. In Bolivia, a car is a car, no matter if it was built for Japan or Britian. A bit of tinkering will fix any problem. Taxis never go fast enough down narrow city streets to warrent use of the dashboard, and I usually find it fun to watch the speed dial while killing time. The fuel dial is always hovering somewhere dangeruosly above empty. Public buses often have japanese or korean print meaninglessly etched across their sides, like the middle aged women obliviously wearing a t-shirt with english print. My favorite is "Too Cool for School". Although, I am forced to crack a bigger smile when sitting down at an internet cafe to find a chinese keyboard awaiting my frantic typing fingers.
There are three heroic figures you are sure to find on the walls of any Bolivian restuarant, cafe, or bar. The first is to be expected, Che Guevara. His daughter recently did a speaking tour through the country. The second has more universal appeal, The Beatles. I was suprised to find the third, Charlie Chaplin, hung with equal esteam, usually from Modern Times or The Little Tramp. I think the three are, admirably, a pretty well rounded bunch.
Bolivians are overall, relatively short. It is a lucky day I don´t have to duck an inch or two under the branches of a tree walking down the sidewalk. I have no idea how the lanky six foot plus northern Europeans manage to stay sane or free of head injuries.
I believe the commonality of most striking observations of Bolivian life lie in their contradictory nature. Most frequently I am reminded of this leaving the home of the university professor´s family I am currently living with. Their cute three year old boy, like many around the world, is addicted to power rangers. Next door is the shell of a housing construction project long abandoned. In the course of my weeks here in Sucre, a family has made it there home, installing a steel door and plastic pipes to funnel water and waste down the hill into a gutter. Despite the obvious poverty squatting would seem to convey, whenever I catch the man of the family leaving, he is always wearing a clean and freshly press white button collar shirt.
Bolivia is quickly aproaching the three year anniversary of what is known here as Black October. Three years ago, the then President of Bolivia, Gonzalo "Goni" Sànchez de Lozada and his Washington backed neoliberal government were preparing to authorize the export of natural gas to the United States and Mexico through Chile. It had just been made public that the transnational corporations running the exploitation of Bolivia´s hydrocarbons were cooking their books, only showing 45% of their profits for tax purposes. Only 18% of total profits were going the way of the government for social spending. Bolstered by a defeat of transnationals in the Cochabamba ¨Water War¨of 2000 and a near victory for MAS in the 2002 elections, Bolivia´s energized social, labor and indigenous organizations lauched a campaign of massive popular resistence. The "Gas War" was famously typified in the road block, cutting downtown La Paz´s main artery to the outside world through the impoverished and radicalized slum of El Alto off for weeks.
On October 12th, Goni imposed martial law on El Alto and deployed the military. The subsequent violence by the military against protestors resulted in offically 67 deaths and hundreds wounded. Disgust in the violence turned the entire country, including his own party, against Goni and he was forced to resign. Being a "Chicago Boy", whose knickname also included el Gringo, Goni fled to the United States with several close associates. In Bolivia, Goni currently faces prosecution for the murders in El Alto and additional corruption charges. The Bolivian government has officially sent a extradition request to the US Justice Department but has yet to recieve a reply four months on. Goni currently lives a life of impunity in Maryland.
October 17th, the day Goni resigned and fled to the United States has been chosen as a day of Internatioanl Bolivian Solidarity. The day has been designated for actions in the international campaign to bring Goni to justice. The Bolivian Solidarity Network has a list of events, activities and information on the campiagn.
Since arriving in Bolivia, it has become increasily obvious how poorly this country is covered in the english language press. The link I have provided to a google news search for Bolivia is about a good a spread of Bolivian news coverage as exists.
The first observation I have made is that it takes atleast if not more than twenty-four hours for any happenings in Bolivia to make it into the news, or more exactly to be translated into english from spanish. Second is that american and european news agencies coverage is very sporadic, following some events and not others with little discrimination according to relative importance.
For instance, this last week a major meeting of social organizations from all over the country, campesino cooperatives to mining and teachers unions (MAS´s primary constituants) was held in Cochabamba with the President and Vice-President in attendance. The pressing issue was the main political question in Bolivia today; through what kind of majority will the new constitution be drafted and passed, an absolute or super majority. MAS had been pushing for a absolute majority because of the veto power it gave the opposition neo-liberal PODEMOS party in halting MAS´s stated reforms.
Frustrated, PODEMOS supported a day of strikes across the eastern departments (states) two weeks prior. The strike was largely facilitated by locking workers out and using the fascist paramilitary Crucena Youth Union for enforcement. Several days prior to the social meeting, several campesino groups and mining unions had decided to blockade the east, particarly Santa Cruz in retaliation for the strike and a stalled land reform bill sitting in the national legislature that would take land from large landholders. Seeing little to gain, the MAS led government negotated an end to the blockade.
At the meeting of social organizations, a compromise position was reach in which MAS proposed parts of the constitution be drafted by an absolute majority while the final complete constitution be approved by a two-thirds majority. This compromise is currently being greatly contested in the constitutional assembly here in Sucre. Nowhere in the english language press will you find this story in any spectrum of politicaly tainted narrative.
The most widely distributed article on Bolivia two days following in the New York Times was Bolivia Reaches for a Slice of Coast that Got Away. The main pull of this article is that fact that Bolivia officially has a navy without an ocean. This little fact is not news. Bolivia lost its coast to Chile in a war over one hundred years ago and continiously has had an official navy despite. The loss has never been officially accepted by Bolivia, so why should they give up a naval department? It makes complete sense for Bolivia and is nothing new. The negotations initiated by Morales with Chile to regain access to the sea have not progressed for months.
This news article is not exactly news, it is an interest peice for Americans to read over their morning coffee, be slightly amused by such an odd fact and maybe smirkly shoot the way of a collegue at the office or a cocktail party. "Hey Gary, get this..." This is one of those moments I wish I had a copy of Foucault, Marxs, or Gramsci to pull a devestating quote from about modernity and subjectivity. But I don´t. All I have is a sense that our perspective on the world ought to be different and can be, if we want it.
The most informative news coming out of Bolivia are sporadic reports writen by free-lance journalists, radical activists, and academics that summerize months or years into digestable chunks, but do not allow the reader to feel as present or engaged in the moment as continuous reporting. The best day to day coverage comes from the Cuban Prensa Latina. While this paper certainly has an obvious political slant, it is the only english language coverage committed to following the progression of happenings in Bolivia as they occur, day by day.