The Scarlet Letters

Unscramble these letters: R, M, I, A, N, F, D.

What does it spell? Group them together: MIR, MNR, ADN, NFR and it spells trouble for the political party system in Bolivia. Ever since President Carlos Mesa assumed the Presidency last October without respresenting, nor the explicit backing of one of the traditional political parties, it is now hip to be an independent. Even though the President is struggling to find consensus within the Congress, the general public’s opinion of these parties continues to be at an all-time low.

With the municipal elections scheduled for December 5th, hundreds are taking advantage of the new law stating that one does not need to be affiliated with a political party in order to run for office. At the deadline, nearly 917 candidates have expressed an interest in becoming Alcalde (Mayor) of their respective municipality.

This new law specifically allows agrupaciones ciudadanas (citizen groups) and pueblos indigenas (indigenous communities) to join political parties as the only organizations that are allowed on the ballot. However, before being placed on the December ballot, those who have expressed interest must gather signatures from 2% of the eligible voters in their municipality. Due to the small size of some municipalities, this number often equals between 5 and 99 signatures. Additionally, interested groups must submit a name, symbol, and the colors of their new group; as well as other legal documentation.

Yet, as this law strives to open up democracy to include people outside of the political party system, the list of those who have registered as a representative of one of these new eligible “independent” groups, reads like a who’s who from the political party scene. For example, Ivo Kuljis, the businessman from Santa Cruz, once ran as a Presidential candidate with the UCS and in 2002, ran as Vice-President with Manfred Reyes Villa (NFR). Kuljis is now posing as the leader of a citizen’s group named the Movimiento Unidad y Progreso (MUP).

The Department of Cochabamba leads the way with approximately 136 groups that have registered for the upcoming election. These new groups have colorful names such as: Ciudadanos Unidos (CU), Primero Cochabamba (PC), and Cambio Total (CT).

Those politicians who want to gain control of their municipality already see the beneficial strategy in distancing themselves and even formally going as far as renouncing their old party.

However, one party that has not shied away from their recognition as a political party has been Evo Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). As a frequent supporter of Carlos Mesa and a staunch defender of the Referendum process, he is gambling on this new-found perception that he wants to continue participating in the democratic system. Thanks to the extremism of Felipe Quispe and Jaime Solares, they make Evo seem like a level-headed moderate.

Whether or not this new perception that the MAS is much more than a cocalero movement and now a peaceful democratic institution, translates to the capture of major Alcaldias, remains to be seen. They have been the only major political party to announce their candidates before the September 7th deadline.

Perhaps the best chance to win one of the four major cities appears to be in Cochabamba. Gonzalo Lema, the Tarija-born writer, has gained a large curious following because he is not an insider politician. Pablo Sanchez has been named as the candidate in La Paz, and is expected to face stiff competition from the incumbent Juan del Granado. In Santz Cruz, Osvaldo Peredo, brother of current MAS leader Antonio, and the deceased guerrilla fighter “Inti” Peredo, faces an uphill battle in that city.

On the outside it looks promising to see so many people that want to participate in Bolivian democracy. However, seeing so many familiar former party members trying to shroud their identities behind the cover of these new groups, it is a bit disappointing. They will still try to work within the political party system. Support and votes will still be rewarded through the distribution of public sector jobs, favors and other patronage benefits.

The sheer number of candidates that may potentially be on the ballot will spread thin the available support and those groups (most likely the shamed political parties) that are the most organized and convey the perception that they have the best chance to win, will attract even more support. Those who are banking on aligning themselves with the eventual and likely winner, because of the possibility of these favors, will cancel out the true intentions of this new participation law.

ESPN Visits Bolivia

When the national sports channel ESPN began its five-part series on sports around the world, online I wondered which country they would visit in South America. Coming up after the commercial break, ESPN would travel to Bolivia and visit the famed Tahuichi Academy in Santa Cruz. That was my answer.

Not often does Bolivia receive such mainstream national attention for something not involving riots, protests or the drug war. So I was anxious to see how Bolivia and their obsession with futbol would be presented. The commentator would joke that the one thing that many people know about Bolivia was when Mike Tyson, not known for his vocabulary ease, said after losing to Lennox Lewis that he will “fade into Bolivia” (when he meant oblivion).

The piece focused on Americans that attend the Tahuichi soccer Academy and the unusual training methods used. The relatively higher costs (2 week session costs $2100) for this camp helps pay for the thousands of poor Bolivians that get to attend the other school. For example, these Americans run and jump in the Rio Pirai and run up sand dunes as a way to build endurance. These teenagers said they learned not to take things for granted, when seeing their Bolivian counterparts utilizing torn shoes or flat soccer balls.

Unfortunately the piece was relatively short. I wish they would have interviewed Marco Etcheverry or Jaime Moreno, two graduates of the regular academy, who have gone on to star with DC United.

The Problems With Having an Extended Family

Definitely I am not complaining about my endless supply of tias, tios and primos that I met when living abroad for close to three years. It just seems that as the circle gets wider, so does the potential to lose someone you adore.

My father’s best friend from the University had to flee Bolivia in the 1970s because of political oppression at the hands of the military dictatorships. Back then, he was a bit of an izquierdista, and rather to meet the fate of other Bolivians on a hit-list, he took a chance and landed in Mexico.

Thirty years later, he would eventually re-marry with a Mexican woman, who would somehow become my tia. I say somehow because even though I knew her a short time in 2001, it seemed as if I knew her my entire life. She was one of the most cariƱosa people I have ever met. She would also affectionately call me “chico”.

Soon after they returned to Mexico after visiting Bolivia for the first time in over thirty years, I would correspond with her through the internet. Telling her about my wonderous travels throughout South America, she would always end her reply email asking me when I would visit Mexico. Soon, I would say, yet circumstances never really lent themselves for such a visit. After a planned fall trip to Bolivia, I hoped to go to Mexico in the Spring of 2005. It would so great to spend time with them in el D.F., taking me to special and obscure places in that capital.

However, that visit will never take place the way I always imagined it would.

Today, my mother told me that she had passed away. After a sudden illness, she was gone in less than 48 hours. Someone who had never been part of my life before the year 2000, it suddenly feels that my closest relative had left.

This is the third death in the past year that took place while I was thousands of miles away. The news reaches me through cell phone, email and computer screens. Yet, their deaths never seem real to me. The fact that I am so far away, makes their absence feel the same that it always has been. Now that they are gone, how do I really know that they just aren’t far away?

Northward or Bust

Take a look at a world map, and you will see that Bolivia and the United States share no common border (hopefully you know that without having to take a peek at a map). Bolivia does not even have access to the sea making it very unlikely that a dozen or so hopeful sailors would pile into a balsa boat made from totora and attempt to reach United States soil looking for greener pastures.

Official 2000 Census numbers recorded a total of approximately 42,000 individuals of Bolivian descent living in the United States. Considering that just in the Metropolitan Washington, DC area (Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs), rough estimates place this number closer to 90,000. It is easy to see that there exists a large population of undocumented Bolivian immigrants. With growing communities in Houston and Rhode Island, this number of U.S. citizens, residents and undocumented individuals must hover around 200,000.

Before 9/11, the easiest way for Bolivians to arrive in the country illegally was to secure a tourist visa, take a flight into the country, allow said visa to expire, and then stay, while continuing to work odd jobs or acquiring a fake social security card. However, now in order to secure the same tourist visa, a Bolivian must have a thorough formal interview with Embassy officials in La Paz and submit information about family members, bank accounts, current job status, and property ownership. Many young adults have been denied tourist visas due to the perceived probability that they will stay.

With these tighter restrictions, now Bolivians who want to come to the United States, must now take actions normally reserved for Mexicans and Central Americans, who cross the Rio Grande. Recently thirteen Cochabambinos were picked up by the border patrol, attempting to cross into the Arizona desert.

This shift in methods for crossing into the United States just shows the lengths that Bolivians, and other Latin Americans, take to pursue better opportunities for their families. The amount of remesas (money sent from immigrants to family members in their home countries) is estimated at 340 million dollars. Representing a large part of the Bolivian economy, this cash infuse definitely keeps the current numbers of Bolivians who leave at a lower level than it could be. These totals from remesas include the money sent from the United States, Spain, and Argentina (where the number of Bolivians once reached one million), the countries with the highest rates of Bolivian emigration.

No one ever wants to leave their home country, but the availability of opportunities forces people to look elsewhere. Ask any Bolivian anywhere, and they’ll tell you they have an extended family member living in el exterior.

Also posted in Living in Bolivia here