My Doggie

Lost in the hectic week prior to Saturday night’s upcoming trip to Bolivia is the fact that I’ll soon be reunited with my dog, unhealthy Sasha. More than four years old, it is hard to believe that it has been a year since I last said my latest farewell to her.

There’s a reason why she’s remained in Cochabamba, and that is because she is so content in her surroundings. Treated like a queen compared to other dogs in Bolivia, I even feel guilty that she often gets better food and medical care than some poor human beings.

Instead of being holed-up in a small patio in the city, she has wide green spaces to frolic and guard my parents’ house on the outskirts of Cochabamba. Many have asked me whether I ever thought of bringing her back to the United States with me, and yes, I had thought about it. However, it wouldn’t be fair to her. Life in the United States, with long commutes and small dinky apartments would seem like a demotion.

She even has her own homepage, which is still being constructed. Although she is a slow learner with html.

One Cocalero Dead

One of President Carlos Mesa’s self-professed accomplishments over the past year has been the avoidance of violence between the various social sectors and the government. Even though yesterday’s death of cocalero Juan Choque ended that streak of a year free of bloodshed, some are quick to place the entire blame and Mesa and his government without taking into consideration the responsibility of the cocalero movement.

The event took place far from the streets of the urban centers, where cameras and reporters could have better understood that morning’s occurrences. We only have the word of the two sides, and each has a stake to appear as the innocent party acting only in self-defense.
Continue reading

One Year Ago

One year ago today, physician I returned from my second year-long stint in Bolivia. Even though my brother’s wedding was the official reason to why I decided it was time to come back, I fully acknowledge that I was wandering aimlessly in Bolivia with no sense of clear purpose. All signs pointed to trying something new.

My translating gig with an Alternative Development organization more than paid the bills, yet it had little to do with my education or general interests.. With that job, I was able to accompany a delegation from Colombia into the Chapare region. However, that experience was less than two weeks. Seeing poverty kilometers away from the larger towns and main highway just added to my internal database of knowledge tucked away for future reference.

Upon further reflection, the wealth of experiences that I have had in Bolivia continued to add up. Putting them into words was something I’ve always had difficulty with, as I prefer to take in information through my senses, and somehow it registers.

Reading old journals from that first year (nearly four years ago), I cringe and laugh at my relative naivety. I’ve come a long way in better understanding my country and how I fit into that paradox of being an American and a Bolivia at the same time. However, I acknowledge that my internal struggle with self and cultural identity has no end in sight.

Throughout the past twelve months, my mind inevitably wandered back to Bolivia. Flashbacks from my recent history there have encouraged me to ponder the purpose of all those experiences. I am not satisfied with having those experiences for the sole sake of having them. In my mind, they have to used for an eventual purpose.

Ever since I’ve graduated high school, I’ve felt as if I’m working towards something. Every single experience, person that I’ve met, degree that I’ve received, was part of a greater and loftier goal. Over that time period, those goals have come and gone, and now it seems as if the struggle to define the goal at hand, is more difficult than ever. If I can’t use those experiences for the greater good, then what value do they have?

The Team for Six

..Six points, which would be the points accumulated for victories against Peru and Uruguay in the World Cup qualifiers on October 9 and 12. In order to have a flicker of hope to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Bolivia must win these two games.

I’m so excited to be in La Paz for those games. It’s ridiculous to think that it costs more to watch the games on closed-circuit here in the States ($20), than buying a ticket to the stadium ($6-$18).
Continue reading

Carlos Mesa at the UN

Thank heavens for CNN en Español, the cable channel that broadcasted live Carlos Mesa’s address to the United Nations.

As expected, he reiterated Bolivia’s longstanding claim for access to the Chile. Mesa will speak to whoever listens and always at an international meeting of world leaders. He said that “El problema marítimo boliviano se ha convertido en la piedra en el zapato de ese camino a la integración.”

Everyone knew that the subject was coming, even the Chilean ambassador prepared a rebuttal in advance to counter Mesa’s claims. Maybe it’s never kosher to call out another country in front of your peers, and perhaps the Chilean ambassador was trying to hide behind the ambassador from Chad, so the cameras wouldn’t focus on him when the guy at the podium is talking about him.

It’s possible that Mesa is trying to copy the high school boy who repeatedly asks the prettiest girl in class for a date. She always says “no”, but the boy desperately keeps trying. Finally, she agrees only to shut him up.


Carlos Mesa interpela a Chile en el pleno de las Naciones Unidas (Los Tiempos)
ONU: Mesa pide salida al mar y Chile reitera negativa (El Deber)

Mesa in New York

President Carlos Mesa is scheduled to address the United Nations on Wednesday. Among the topics he is expected to address include the Referendum results, remedy the ongoing diplomatic struggle to regain access to the sea, clinic and the current state of Bolivia.

He also appeared on CNN where he was asked:

Cuéntenos ¿qué ha sido lo más difícil en esta labor presidencial del primer año?

MESA:Hemos heredado un país con una fuerte convulsión interna y sobre todo con una relación quebrada entre Estado y sociedad. Vivimos en medio de tensiones y de demandas muy fuertes. Con respeto a los derechos humanos, que es lo más difícil, los resultados demuestran que es posible negociar, solucionar los conflictos sin que tengamos que buscar la represión o contar con víctimas humanas.

That pretty much summed up his first year in office.

Extra Pages

My new amended passport arrived today, medicine and just in time. I had overlooked the fact that I had run out of visa pages. Rather to be safe than sorry, help I sent my passport in to add extra pages. Turnaround time was estimated at six weeks, try which would coincide days before my departure date. With my trip fast approaching, I still hadn’t received my passport. After a quick call to the State Department’s customer service line, the operator was suprisingly very helpful and friendly. Through her computer network, she found exactly where my passport was, and that it was ¾ of the way through the process. Expect it next week, she said.

It arrived today, with approximately 15 new and squeaky clean pages. However, it seems as if my passport is taunting me, daring me to fill up all these pages with entry and exit stamps before my passport expires in June of 2005.

Bolivian Restaurant – Elena's Oven

Note: This is the first in a series of reviews of Bolivian Restaurants in the Northern Virginia area.

Elena’s Oven
9542-B Arlington Blvd
Fairfax, VA

Mammoth PA speakers belted out Bolivian brass band classics, as the volume-less flat-screen TV showed the Nickoledon cartoon Bob Esponja (Spongebob). Entire families spread across two or three tables while attentive waiters would stand patiently to be “a tus ordenes.” That was the atmosphere, and often I had to remind myself what country I was in.

Another reminder of Bolivia was the overabundance of food. This was the first buffet-style restaurant that I have encountered catering to the Bolivian community. There’s a bit of conventional wisdom that says that if natives of a particular country are dining there, then you can count on it being authentic.

Advertised as a criollo (native) buffet, for $7.95 (the price of a plate at other local places), one could definitely have their fill, including a small salad selection, two kinds of soup (sopa de mani and fricase), and four different entrees, as well as majadito and chicharron.

Unfortunately, I’ve had better sopa de mani, as this was severely watered down to be enough for the growing crowd. But the main courses all but made up for it. Now people accuse me of being of being a fake Bolivian, because I refuse to eat chuño and lengua, and mote if I can help it, but those naysayer can’t bring me down.

Eliminating these choices still left a lot for picante de pollo and the highlight was the beef. Couple that with arroz con queso, which seldom you find on the menu, then the meal was complete. Baskets of fresh bread would be brought out every 15 minutes fresh out of the oven (hence the name of the restaurant?).

Trying to decide from the menu is often the worst part of dining in a restaurant. However, the buffet option allows you to sample and then go back for those items you find exquisite. For me, I’d be happy with the beef, arroz con queso and yuca. This would probably have been an outstanding meal, if they added a buck or two and included salteñas on the fare, but now I’m just being difficult.

The criollo buffet is served only on the weekends. A smaller non-Bolivian exclusive buffet is served from Tuesday-Friday.

One Billion Dollars

Any plan that touches the volatile coca leaf and cocaine issue will undoubtedly be received through leery lenses. Past experiences of forced eradication, human rights abuses, alternative development failures, and a sense of imposition would make any cocalero highly skeptical.

Yet, Bolivia has no choice in the matter. Spurned by external pressues, namely from the United States embassy, the Government of Bolivia (GOB) has to make due and find a way to make the plan work. Recently the GOB released their new plan titled, “Estrategia Integral Boliviana de Lucha Contra el Tráfico Ilícito de Drogas 2004-2008,” with a whopping budget of $969 million dollars. Roughly 89% of that money will be funneled through external international sources.

What makes this plan different than the doomed Plan Dignity, which was resisted throughout the Chapare and Yungas Region? Primarily, the Minister of External Relations Juan Ignacio Siles explained that no longer will this effort be imposed upon the communities affected, as every effort will be made to work in conjunction with unions, community groups, and farmer associations to determine where and how the money will be used.

Easier said than done. Some groups already say that this plan has been imposed on them and no dialogue took place before it was released.

Those on the far left continue to capitalize on the illusion that all coca is grown for traditional and medicinal purposes. Yet, they never acknowledge the fact that a large majority of the coca grown is destined for cocaine production. If this leaf is so sacred, and has been for centries, then why is it allowed to be used (knowingly and unknowingly) for the manufacturing of an illegal and illicit product?

Granted, cocaine use is largely a U.S. and Western European problem, but it affects poor Bolivians far removed from those areas.

Money is the only reason why this crop continues to be grown in both those regions. Both the Chapare and Yungas regions are typical examples of rural extreme poverty. Poor infrastructure and the lack of basic needs can only be diminished by additional funds, where perhaps, a family can send their child to the doctor in one of the urban centers.

These regions need development. No one disputes that the income from the sale of coca to these third-parties cannot be rivaled by alternative development plans for banana, papaya, etc. But development is much more than equalling income levels, it also is access to education, health and clean water.

Like any other government project, a large portion of these funds will be channeled through agencies and development organizations. The bulk of these funds should be used for basic needs, such as the construction of hospitals, schools, and water sanitation projects. This new plan seeks to improve these areas throughout the country, so that people are not tempted to move to the Yungas and Chapare.

Likely, this plan will be met with resistence, and rightly so, because past experiences have not been totally successful. But it’s time for the cocalero movement to admit that a large portion of the coca leaf goes towards cocaine production and use the reduction of that as a bargaining chip – one that brings actual and meaningful change in those regions and helps improve the lives of the inhabitants of those regions.

To see an example of a biased look at this issue please watch the film titled “Chew on This”.