Minding my own business at a corner internet cafe along a main avenue in Cochabama, I noticed a commotion originating from the city’s main plaza, one block away. Dozens of pedestrians were holding their mouths and I knew that could only mean one thing – tear gas was dispersed to quell some disturbance. I quickly closed all of my open browsers on my computer and paid my bill and took off. For several blocks leading away from the plaza, I noticed individuals trying to compose themselves keeled over. One couple with their baby in stroller tried to wash away the sting from the innocent child’s eyes while hearing his wails.
What had happened was that some of the social movements, some belonging to MAS, had tried to “vigilar” and prevent the meeting of 8 of the 9 departmental civic committees and several of the prefects. They were in town at the invitation of the Cochabamba prefect, Manfred Reyes Villa, to brainstorm about possible measures hoping to convince the government to support 2/3 majority in the Constituent Assembly for all of the articles. As it stands now, the government only wants simple majority for the articles with a 2/3 vote for final approval.
This is what I had picked up in the random news footage that I have seen and bits and pieces of newspaper articles. It seems that I tend to be more up to date about the going-ons in Bolivia when I am out of the country, than when in the country. If I hadn’t been around the city’s center when the tear gas was used, then it would have hardly registered.
The civic committees announced that they will give the government 72 hours to support the 2/3 approval or a massive civic strike would take place on Friday. Some of the cattle ranchers in the Orient announced that they may stop sending meat to the Western part of the country. These are some of the same measures that the social movements and others in the government employed in the past. Like all civic strikes, it may not have the support of the entire populace, but those who want to “atacar” (join), everyone will know where they stand. The recent reader poll at Los Tiempos.com asks, “With which of the positions do you most identify with?” The choices are rather simple – with the government or with the opposition.
Well, there was a third choice – “don’t know”. I guess that is what anybody’s best guess to the question, “what about Bolivia?”
PS – Yes, I am in Bolivia (again) for eleven days.
I was sick to my stomach. A pounding headache confined me to bed most of the afternoon. The cause must have been some combination of the high altitude and what I had seen on TV. Usually Bolivian cable television offers up some pretty good programming without the excess of commercials. However, the images of the repercussions of the general strike in four of the eastern departments put me over the edge. The clashes were no longer citizens vs. police, but rather citizens vs. citizens. Live unedited images showed rock-throwing Bolivians launching projectiles without any idea where they would land. The problem was that you could not really distinguish who was the MAS supporter and who was the “autonomy” supporter. Meanwhile, on the streets of La Paz the effects of this shutdown was hardly felt. Hearing the chants on TV of the anti-government protesters and their racist language really served no purpose, while the claims of the government that the protests were orchestrated by PODEMOS was only half-true. People have been growing frustrated at some of the actions of the government, but are afraid of being lumped into the category of those powerful interests and those that do not want to see the landscape change. Some of the criticism are on target, while others are sweeping bouts of condescension. “My god, how could they let a former domestic worker become minister of justice?” in reference to Casimira Rodriguez’s new post. Later that afternoon in La Paz, I delivered an invitation from my place of employment to the Ministry of Justice. There I met a Vice-Minister, the Chief of Staff and other staff members, who were all very professional and had worked decades in other international organizations. It was obvious that she surrounded herself with top-notch staff, but also I noticed others who were given a chance to contribute. A very pleasant campesina was working as the elevator operator, and another sharply dressed young cholita was working in the main office as a receptionist. The tide has been changing, as thousands of young empleadas, such as the new helper at my aunt’s house now sees someone like them in positions of power and agents of change. However, the strike that took place last Friday was not the work of the “silent majority”, but rather groups that have an interest in seeing the government failed. Just as questions arise to who is paying for the lodging, transportation and food of the cocaleros that are vigilando the Constituent Assembly in Sucre, questions must arise as to who is paying the Union Juvenil Cruceñista to do their dirty work, such as threatening businesses that did not join the strike, much like their counterparts in El Alto that used pressure tactics against those who just wanted to work and live peacefully. So at 5 pm, I decided that I had enough. Off went the television and we went to one of the newest restaurants in La Paz, Brosso, which is trying to compete with Dumbo, employing the same copyright infringement. A huge lighted sign featuring the Bear in the Blue House from Disney overlooked El Prado. So I sat there eating our nachos and watermelon juice, trying to forget about the mess the country is currently in, knowing full well that I would be leaving early the next morning on my plane back to the United States.
During my last “vacation”, it was hardly rest and relaxation. I could not pass up an opportunity to witness and be a part of history. A family friend invited me along the campaign, where I met a who’s who of Bolivian politicians, hearing and seeing things from the inside. From sun-up to sun-down, if it wasn’t a radio interview, an unexpected trip to Evo’s house, or watching a live debate, the adrenaline of politics and campainging was something that I could grow to crave. I grew a bit more idealistic, but also planted my feet firmly on the floor because of some politics as usual. The December 2005 elections were a hopeful step forward for Bolivia, but now everyone’s optimism if wearing thin. “I expected more,” are words that I hear from my friends who live in the Zona Sud of Cochabamba and enthusiastically voted for Evo nine months ago. The second day I arrived, I visited the site where the Brigada Parlimentaria de Cochabamba (Congressmen and women from Cochabamba from all parties) meets on off days of Congress. I had expressed an interest in meeting the new Bolivian ambassador to the U.S. because I am on the Board of Directors of an organization in Northern Virginia called Escuela Bolivia. It would be great to strengthen our relationship with the Embassy, as we have had a strong relationship with every Ambassador regardless of political affiliation. When I was introduced to another Congressmen who was good friends with the new ambassador, there was a little bit of suspectibility. Who can blame them, as party members are still looking for espacios to be accomodated? I certainly was not looking for a job in this administration, but I did not want to give them the wrong idea. So this time around, I really made it my vacation. Sleeping in until 10 am, eating so many tasty dishes here in Cochabamba (where they say you can eat 6 times in one day), watching movies at the Cine Center and just hanging out with family and friends. A change from my time in Bolivia last December.
Whenever I return to Bolivia, buy mind the first thing that I do is see what´s new. Construction is booming. It appears that on every block in the city center, sovaldi a new apartment building is on its way up. For starters, fewer individuals want to live in a house, even though it offers more space, a garden and more privacy. The security of an apartment building is too much to pass up, since crime continues to rise in Cochabamba.
Apart from these new dwellings, the biggest news is opening of the new Cine Center movie complex. With ten screens, it may leave the newest theater, Cine Norte, located a good distance away from the city center, soon of out of business. However, they are trying new things such as host the Latin American Film Festival, which runs for ten days. The bad thing is that they fail to release the schedule so that we know what plays when.
It´s incredibly windy these days and I incorrectly assumed that the cold of winter had passed. Walking at night is very pleasant and one of the things that I love about Cochabamba is that you are bound to run into someone you know along the city sidewalks. “When did you arrive?” is a question that I will get many times over the next three weeks. For some, due to the frequency of my returns, may incorrectly assume that I had never left.
Watch this space.