Sunday, July 27, 2008
Visiting Bolivia in turbulent times
Saturday, July 26, 2008: I’m in Bolivia as an invited participant in the Gathering of World Intellectuals and Artists for the Unity and Sovereignty of Bolivia that will take place on July 28-30 in La Paz. It’s a weighty name for a gathering of hemispheric leaders to show solidarity for Evo Morales before the recall referendum on August 10 and in light of the efforts of the nation’s elite to divide the country.
I arrived early to get oriented to Bolivia, a country I have not been to for 30 years.The Conference organizers warned us about two things. One is the cold—it’s winter here and the temperature can drop to below freezing at night. The other is the altitude. Many people to La Paz (4000 meters high) get altitude sickness, called soroche, which includes dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath—and can be life-threatening. They recommend that you drink coca tea (yes, made from coca leaves) and that the first few days you “camina lento, come poco and duerme solo”—walk slowly, eat lightly, and sleep alone. The only one I had trouble with was the “walking slowly.”
It’s inspiring to see how much the young people here are fascinated and proud of their history. From 8am until late at night, they parade through the street watched by throngs of spectators who cheer wildly for their favorite group.
Llamerada, tinku, diablada, pujllay, kullawada, caporales, chacarera—these are just a few of the brilliant mosaic of dances the students have revived from Bolivian folklore.
My favorite was the diablada, the “dance of the devils”, where the dancers wear scary devil masks with horns and weave in and out of plumes of colored smoke.
As a “special guest”, I was given a seat in the jury stand where groups are judged by their costumes, choreography and music. It was an amazing introduction into the contractions of modern Bolivia, where the indigenous customs are celebrated, where the first indigenous leader has been elected president, but where indigenous people continue to be discriminated against in everyday life.
The evening was another spectacular opportunity. How often does one get to meet the president the first night in the country??? It so happened that Saturday night was the opening of a new documentary on the life of President Evo Morales. Since the filmmaker was Cuban—Jorge Fuentes—the opening was hosted by the Cuban Ambassador to Bolivia, Rafael Dauså, who I had known when he was stationed at the Cuban Interest Section in Washington and when he visited us at Global Exchange in San Francisco. So I was invited to the opening and stood with the ambassador and his wife as they warmly greeted hundreds of other guests.
The guests ranged from the Chinese and Costa Rican ambassadors to indigenous groups in traditional costumes to social workers and Cuban doctors. Just standing in the lobby of the cinema watching the crowd was mesmerizing. Then the President, Evo Morales, and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera drove up. The crowd on the street cheered when Evo emerged from the car, and with little fanfare and minimum security, he greeted the crowd and took his seat in the front row of the theatre. What a thrill it was when I was also escorted to the front row to sit with the dignitaries! A far cry from the U.S.—I thought—where I am so often treated like some kind of dangerous terrorist.
While Evo sat modestly through the entire evening, with no public speech, the vice president gave a moving presentation before the film about how Evo’s life represented 500 years of indigenous suffering and resistance—and ultimately hope and triumph. The speech and the film painted an amazing picture of Evo Morales. Born to a poor family in Orinoco, his father was a llama herder and farmer. The film showed his home—an abode shack with a straw roof in the middle of a stark altipano. The film included an interview with the president talking about his childhood. He mentioned that he would run after the buses that came through town, chasing and eating the discarded orange peels the passengers threw out the windows. “My dream,” said Evo, “was to be a passenger on the bus and have the luxury of throwing away orange peels.”
He became coca grower and the movie showed how central coca has been to the lives of Bolivians—giving them the strength they need to survive under such harsh conditions. While today coca is associated with cocaine and Bolivia is seen as a provider of illicit drugs that make their way to the U.S. and Europe, the coca leaf continues to be a staple in the lives of Bolivian Indians and Evo, as a leader of coca growers, became a powerful force in the country—so powerful that he was eventually elected president.
The documentary didn’t delve into the present political situation, where the opposition is trying to squeeze Evo to the breaking point by organizing autonomous movements to physically divide the country. It’s amazing how tranquil the president and vice president seemed, given the difficult political situation they are facing, including a recall vote just two weeks away.
The movie ended to resounding applause, and the president left the theatre as humbly as he came in—shaking hands and greeting well-wishers. A far cry from the way George Bush interacts with the public!
As I walked back to the hotel (slowly), I thought sadly about how my government has been working closely with the opposition to defeat Evo Morales, instead of embracing this leader who represents the dreams of a people who have been so oppressed for so long. I was also saddened by the thought of how few people in the U.S. know or care about Bolivia, how there is virtually no solidarity movement in the U.S. as there was with progressive Central American governments in the 1980s. Perhaps because Bolivia is harder to get to, perhaps because many U.S. activists are immersed in the Middle East struggles. But there needs to be a more organized effort to support this government that has taken on the daunting task of trying to undo 500 years of oppression…