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Past Tomorrow: A Letter From Bolivia

ISSUE:  Fall 2007

In 2004, Bolivia’s postal service led a campaign to write the world’s longest letter. It collected missives from school children, glued and taped them together to form a chain over fifty kilometers long, and addressed it to the United Nations. The letter, which fell short of being the world’s longest, was entrusted to the Bolivian Navy for delivery, but three years later it still sits in a warehouse at the La Paz Naval Headquarters, great spools of paper over six feet in circumference, draped in plastic and covered by dust.

“Dear Kofi Annan,” one letter begins. “I want to speak to you of our pure sea which must be returned to us, the people of Bolivia, for these marvelous and lovely waters pertain to us, and so I want you to help recover our sea which was once stolen from us by the Chileans.” They all read this way, thousands of letters in children’s handwriting, each asking that Annan return their sea.

Bolivia lost its narrow corridor to the Pacific coast in an 1879 war and has been landlocked for over a century, yet here the sea is still thought of as patrimony, and its loss remembered as but another historical wrong to set right. Bolivia could be a case study in the institutionalized nostalgia of patriotism, and Exhibit A would be Day of the Sea.

In La Paz each March 23, festivities take place in the Plaza Avaroa, named after a hero of the War of the Pacific. The Plaza is a city block with some benches, a swing set, and grass planted in the form of an anchor. In the center stands a statue of Eduardo Avaroa several stories high surrounded by an empty fountain; he has fallen to the ground but keeps one arm outstretched as if to continue fighting. His hand is larger than scale. It makes a good perch, so the statue is visited by La Paz’s few birds. Naturally, they defecate on Avaroa.

The War of the Pacific was fought over petrified bird droppings. In the mid-1800s, along the coast of Antofogasta, then a part of Bolivia, deposits of cormorant, pelican, and booby guano were discovered. The guano was a particularly valuable sort prized for the manufacture of fertilizers and explosives.

By 1877, a British-Chilean company was working the guano deposits, and they wanted only the right moment to seize the territory outright. When an earthquake that year destroyed several towns in the region, the Bolivian government levied a ten-cent tax per hundredweight of guano to fund reconstruction, giving the Chileans their opportunity. They railed against the tax and declared war against Bolivia. Chile seized the coast several years later in spite of Eduardo Avaroa’s best efforts.

Nonetheless, Avaroa is still celebrated for having led the scrappy Bolivian resistance, for his contributions to the Bolivian troops (flour and bullets, among other items), and, most of all, because just before dying, he’s said to have shouted, “Me, surrender? Your grandmother surrenders, dammit!”

The phrase is repeated often over cheap beer, as well as in schoolrooms and state discourse, not just as a punchline but as the source of significant civic pride, something on the level with our “I cannot tell a lie,” though losing the ocean is many times worse than losing a cherry tree.

*  *  *  *  

National history is a collection of stories told by a people about its past to explain the present and intimate the future. For the world’s empires, history is glory and epic. Adversity must be met, but in the end, wars are won and ideologies prevail, leaders are garlanded and wave from balconies with their demure wives. National heroes are not usually the vanquished—except, perhaps, in Bolivia.

Bolivian heroes include failed defenders of the sea, massacred indigenous leaders, and disappeared intellectuals and politicos, like Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz, the prizewinning novelist turned hydrocarbons minister. Sent into exile by the Banzer dictatorship of the early 1970’s, he returned home nearly a decade later, only to be kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the dictatorship of Luiz Garcia Meza. Depending on whom you speak to, Quiroga Santa Cruz’s body was dumped from a plane in the jungle, sunk to the bottom of Lake Titicaca, or incinerated in a tin smelter.

*  *  *  *  

Events are not only recorded, but are remembered and experienced viscerally. Bolivians discuss a putsch in the same breath as the price of cooking gas and the weather. Even the structure of language reflects this. The Aymara, an indigenous people who make up a third of the population and constitute a majority in La Paz, situate time mentally by placing the past before or ahead of the self, and the future behind. This elegantly spare logic implies a larger cultural attitude, that the past has occurred and so it can be seen, revisited, touched, tasted, articulated. The future, however, is a great unknown and thus out of sight, at our backs.

Sixty-five percent of Bolivia’s nine million plus inhabitants are indigenous, but these groups have generally been treated like subordinates meant to work the land or the mines, often both, as slaves or for a pittance. Though indigenous people won suffrage in 1952, most still lack access to land, education, health. They’ve even had to fight for water. It’s long been a country notorious for its records in poverty and corruption, in a region notorious for its poor and the political elites who step on their backs.

*  *  *  *  

“Bolivia is an abstract fiction,” said Felipe Quispe, the Aymara activist who has made several unsuccessful bids for the presidency.

It was October of 2005 and we were driving to Omasuyos, a rural Aymara province a few hours outside the capital of La Paz, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, where Quispe lives and farms potatoes when he is not campaigning.

In the early 1990s, Quispe led the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK), which, among other modest projects, allegedly blew up some power lines. Quispe’s collaborator in this incident was the current vice president, Álvaro Garcia Linera, a charming mestizo polymath who has since traded his poncho for pinstriped suits. For the power line episode both Quispe and Garcia Linera spent several years in jail without trial. Although Quispe still gets a kick from asking foreigners if they are not afraid he will kidnap or murder them, he now uses other political tactics, such as running for office and acting as an organizer of massive protests that threw presidents from office in 2003 and 2005.

“They say that the Spanish arrived here, in this very spot, in 1580. It became an enormous plantation of Gonzalo Pizarro, the brother of Francisco. Since then we haven’t advanced in anything,” Quispe said. He gestured to the altiplano, or the high plains, an expanse of two dozen shades of brown and chartreuse smudged by rain running across the truck windows.

“There isn’t potable water. We drink from the river like animals, ingesting pollutants and microbes. There isn’t assistance from the central government because we aren’t counted. We are like birds. We exist without knowing our true numbers,” he said.

“We’re obligated to mobilize,” he said that morning. “We have to convert this indigenous movement into a political tool. Because we also want to be the government, make laws, run the country.”

“We aren’t here only to take orders,” he said.

Quispe would lose the 2005 presidential elections, and his MIP (Pachakuti Indigenous Movement) party wouldn’t win enough votes to keep a single seat in Congress or their government subsidized headquarters, an old house in the La Paz suburbs. Quispe, already eccentric by most standards, would drop twenty pounds, grow a tragicomic moustache, and take to scheduling meetings on street corners and in alleys.

*  *  *  *  

In 1544, as the story goes, a llama herder named Diego Huallpa discovered silver near Potosí, some 500 kilometers southeast of La Paz. Having lost his llamas, Huallpa searched all night for the animals, lit a fire on a hillside to stay warm, and from these flames ran threads of melted silver ore. He brought the news back to his village, and the mountain was christened Sumaj Orko, “Rich Mountain” in Quechua.

It proved to be the largest silver deposit in the Americas, just the sort of treasure Europeans had hoped for in the New World. They made Potosí the temporary Paris of the Americas, and remnants from that era make the town look today like an eerie mirage of Baroque architecture in the midst of the altiplano. It became fashionable to say the mountain contained enough metal to build a bridge from Bolivia to Spain.

The indigenous people living in and around Potosí, however, never benefited from the mountain’s wealth. A year after Huallpa’s discovery, the Spanish had taken over. They bound the indigenous population to obligatory turns of labor in the mines, preferring Quechua and Aymara slaves to Africans, who couldn’t stand up to the high altitude environment and died too quickly.

The basic condition of indigenous people didn’t change much over the next centuries. Even when the country won its independence from Spain in 1825, it was simply the Bolivian-born mestizo sons of Spanish elites who continued to rule and misrule the country, inspiring such a widespread lack of faith in the state that it wasn’t unusual to change presidents two or three times in as many years. With more than 190 coups d´etat, Bolivia counts more coups than years as a republic.

By the twentieth century, tin had replaced silver, and indigenous people continued to work the mines. If you visit a mine today, you will no doubt meet some miners, particularly if you buy passage on one of the popular “adventure tours” that bring Westerners into the wet, dark shafts with the notion of commiserating with the miners’ plight for a few hours. Most but not all of the miners will be men, and if they are out of their teens, they will frequently bear a physical mark of their trade: a limb or face disfigured by falling rock or dynamite. They will nearly all be indigenous people.

As tin reserves diminished, Bolivian technology failed to advance. The industry fell into decline. By 1950, Bolivia was the highest cost producer of tin in the world. Foreseeing a bust, indigenous Aymara and Quechua people began a mass migration from altiplano tin centers to the unsettled lowlands in the 1970s.

In 1985, the London Metal Exchange would stop trading tin; eventually five-sixths of Bolivian miners would lose their jobs. Investment was abysmal. Inflation soared to 250,000 pesos per dollar – today the exchange is eight to one – and people recall stuffing their purses full of bills to buy a liter of milk.

Indigenous workers saw the tin crash as yet another failure of the state. Some turned away from colonial institutions to create their own industries, keeping intact a robust organizing tradition from the mining unions and their communities. Many returned to cultivating a crop that they’d had since before the arrival of the Spanish. But the movement was troubled from the start, because this traditional crop is coca, also the raw material for cocaine.

At the end of 2005, Bolivians elected Evo Morales, an indigenous coca union leader, to the presidency.

*  *  *  *  

The presidential election fell on a Sunday just before Christmas and seemed like a holiday. Driving is prohibited during polling, and voting mandatory, so the streets were full of citizens with their families, as well as vendors taking the opportunity to hawk cotton candy, balloons, and carousel rides.

Only in the evening did the day take on tangible energy and weight. As votes were counted, people gathered outside party headquarters; the street before Evo Morales’ base was multi-colored with indigenous wiphala flags and blue, black, and white for the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism), a loose conglomerate of social movements that make up Morales’ party. Unofficial polls were written in marker across scrap cardboard and hung out a second floor window. At 40 percent, the crowd began to jump and whoop. One hour later, at 50 percent, everyone froze. It was like the hush following casually thrown rocks, when one breaks a window and the sound is louder and more frightening and more thrilling than expected.

Morales would be inaugurated in mid January. He would celebrate at the Plaza San Francisco, where for the previous five years enormous marches, many organized by him, had gathered to protest against the government. Social movements from all over the country converged on La Paz for the inauguration, and the new president asked 1,200 miners to act as de facto security at the event. Coca would be ubiquitous.

*  *  *  *  

Several weeks after the inauguration I met with President Morales in the second floor parlor of the presidential palace. The room has been left as it was, elegant and severe, with hard settees upholstered in pale brocade and gilt framed paintings. Several French doors stood open to the Plaza Murillo. A television had been left on mute. The President entered, scowled at the TV, and snapped it off before offering his hand. When he sat, his gray trousers hiked above a pair of running shoes; the same kind sold for ten dollars at the hill market, strung up by the laces next to teakettles and stolen cameras.

The day before I’d attended a speech in the coca-producing Chapare region at which he’d promised to protect the cato, a forty by forty meter plot of coca allowed each union member there. When I questioned him about this, he leaned forward slightly, warily.

“How is it that you know about the cato?” he asked.

I explained that I had been at his speech.

He straightened and laughed. Because coca often coincides with cocaine—and, more significantly, because Morales’ politics lean decidedly left—most Americans at the State Department have been anti-coca and anti-Morales for years. When he ran for the presidency in 2002, the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia threatened to cut Bolivian aid programs if Morales was elected. The U.S. administration has called him a narco-terrorist and a threat to democracy.

As it stands, Morales was elected by a 54 percent majority in an eight-man race. He is the first indigenous president in South America, in a country with at least a dozen political parties, over thirty indigenous groups, and hundreds of social movements and unions devoted to diverse causes from the plight of household workers to miners.

Last September, during a relatively small protest in the capital, the bus driver’s union went on strike to protest the streets being rerouted for repairs; then the teachers went on strike to protest the lack of transportation. The subsequent march was led by the transportation sector, followed by those teachers, and the teachers followed by the organization of parents, protesting the protest of the teachers. At night on television, businessmen denounced the strikes because they were hurting sales and shipping. This is a society that not only pays attention to politics, but also participates. Everyone has something at stake and change is often immediate and hard.

*  *  *  *  

If indigenous Bolivians are producing more coca than the US is comfortable with, the reasons for the surplus need to be considered in context. If coca is considered in terms of their circumstances, of their cultural history, then a litany of questions need to be asked: Why should farmers be compelled to find alternative livelihoods when coca is a traditional crop and profitable when other crops are not? Why does a nation so rich in natural resources have such a high rate of poverty? Who has the right to manage these resources?

Why should an indigenous majority live under an inherently Western system, and what does it mean to be sovereign? For whom?

It’s easier to cut down coca and tally up acres. Bureaucrats love statistics, so for many in the U.S. government and international press, “coca” seems to have become a sound bite to sum up complex, centuries-old social and political problems. Morales doesn’t see it this way.

“They [the U.S.] need to understand that the coca leaf itself isn’t a drug. Our indigenous communities don’t process it into cocaine; it’s a tradition and a way of life that is our right as a sovereign country to preserve,” said Morales.

“I’ve been hated, mistreated, humiliated, and thrown in jail,” he said. “For what? For defending my people, for defending our rights.” Morales waved a hand behind him toward the French doors. “Fifty years ago I wasn’t allowed in that plaza. A generation ago indigenous people were not even permitted to learn to read and write,” he said. “I spoke Aymara until I was seven. Then we moved to the city and I had to learn Spanish. I was ashamed to speak because I didn’t know how. When I opened by mouth everyone called me indio, or simply ugly and stupid,” he said.

Today his Spanish is rich in tone if imperfect, heavy on certain consonants, and by turns warm and abrasive. He no longer speaks his first language, Aymara, well enough to address public audiences, nor does he speak much Quechua, the predominant language of Chapare where he moved in his late teens.

When Bolivians insist on preserving coca, in many ways it’s a larger discourse about a complex cultural heritage the tensions of which are reflected everywhere at large and at small, even in the president’s speech. The lack of Quechua and Aymara describes the saqueo of colonization, a difficult word to translate, for it literally means plunder, but refers not only to possessions, not just land or water or minerals, but to all the intangibles of ownership, to self-determination; sovereignty.

Like the wish to reclaim the sea, coca is a memorial. It’s also a protest; unlike the sea, the Bolivians still have their coca, and they don’t plan to give it up.

*  *  *  *  

A coca plant is several feet tall, slender, with oblong, intermittent leaves. It’s harvested three or four times each year, dried on tarps, packed in roughly fifty-pound bags, and transported to any of Bolivia’s legal coca markets. A portion will also be sold on the black market for processing into cocaine.

No one, including coca farmers, denies that some coca goes to cocaine, and the tin crash and migration to coca-producing regions did not by accident coincide with the decadent 1980s of the West. But, according to a 2006 United Nations study, of approximately 390,000 acres of coca grown in the Andes, fewer than 75,000 are grown in Bolivia. Of those at least 30,000 acres are for traditional use. At most, Bolivia could be contributing to 10 percent of total illegal coca production, and virtually none of it reaches the United States market.

The majority of growers bring their leaves to a legal market, where coca is bought and sold for its traditional purpose: to be chewed or prepared as a tea. To chew coca, one removes the stem with the teeth or by hand, takes a bite of ash catalyst, and forms a ball to tuck in one cheek. It tastes like the smell of cut grass. The mouth goes slightly numb and the chewer feels alert and refreshed, as if from a nap and a good espresso. In its raw form, coca is a mild stimulant that counteracts fatigue, hunger, headache, and thirst. Andean indigenous people have used it for thousands of years.

The problem, in the mind of the Bolivians, is not coca itself but the illegal demand for cocaine. The Morales government agrees that cocaine must be eliminated, but it should be done by the Bolivians on their own terms, through a joint program of eradication of illegal coca and cocaine, and the industrialization of legal coca for chewing and for manufacture into teas, flours, skin creams, liquors, and other sundries, and the development of viable alternatives to farming coca. “Zero cocaine,” says President Morales, “But never zero coca.”

In Chapare, a standard response to inquiries about cocaine is: “Who’s responsible for alcoholism? The farmer that grows the grain? Or the man who makes it into beer? Or the man who gets drunk?”

*  *  *  *  

The Six Federations of the Tropic is Chapare region’s largest coca growing union. Morales rose to power here after his family migrated from Oruro department during a drought. His first post was Secretary of Sports. To this day, the president is a serious athlete, and during one meeting he wondered aloud at the possibility of using the main hall of the palace for racquetball. “It’s big enough,” he said. “But I don’t know about the floor.” The President had doubts about the ability of the parquet to give the right bounce.

He continues to play raquet regularly and also keeps his leadership post in Chapare, arriving last February via helicopter at the biannual Six Federations meeting.

“Some people said that when Evo Morales became president, he’d forget about his bases,” he said in February, after apologizing for tardiness. Morales has a habit of switching between first and third person, as if he himself doesn’t quite believe the scale of his public figure. “That isn’t how it is. I’m here because of you, and this is not something Evo Morales will forget.”

“They say a lot of people love Evo Morales.” He paused and nodded sagely, then grinned. “Yet I can’t get a girlfriend,” he said. The assembled coca growers roared.

In Chapare for a few months after the elections, you could still take a collective taxi and hear other passengers discussing an impromptu meeting tomorrow with “Evo.” Then you’d realize they were talking about the president. His continued presence immediately struck me as both admirably egalitarian and a conflict of interest, and perhaps it indicates the greatest challenge Morales faces. This is a man who must find a way to honor his own history as an indigenous campesino, while serving as the president of an ethnically and politically diverse nation.

How, his position asks, does one look to the past and future at once?

*  *  *  *  

Chapare settlements tend to be rustic, forgotten outposts, the Wild West with palm trees and plastic sandals, though here it’s the Indians who run things. Apolonia Sánchez’s town is no different from others in the region. Apolonia has one legal cato of coca five miles outside town. Her house is a cement garage with a door of sheet metal that pulls down on rollers, and she supplements her coca income as a seamstress, working in the shade before a Singer, a beautiful anachronism of painted metal and wood.

Apolonia, a Quechua, is the secretary of the women’s branch of the Six Federations, Pretty and clear-eyed, she is the sort of woman who abates tension. I’ve seen her break up angry mobs twice, once on the way with an infected spleen to the city doctor and both times without raising her voice.

“Leo’s getting a bit plump,” she said last spring, holding up a blue skirt she’d been sewing for her friend and neighbor Leonida Zurita, who also happens to be a counselor to President Morales. Like many in Chapare, the two women experienced the violent eradication of the nineties first-hand.

“I was here when they began cutting and burning; we both were,” Apolonia said. The special eradication forces “came and cut down my all my coca, even the plot I was allowed to keep. We left the farm and went to town. You had to; you were hurt if you remained. The braver ones, those that stayed during eradication of their crops, they were beaten or even killed.”

Apolonia’s husband left after eradication began, and she was unable to support her three children alone. Her two daughters work as domestic servants for a family in Santa Cruz, an eastern city prosperous by Bolivian standards. Her eighteen-year-old son, Rene, is still in Chapare where Apolonia hopes he’ll finish his education and help on the farm. Rene is tall and lean, with a bowl haircut circa 1991, and holds himself with the practiced torpor of teenage boys. A tattoo between his left thumb and forefinger says “Love.” He has a soft disdain of farm work which he mentions when his mother is out of hearing.

If she could choose, Apolonia would be on her farm every day. Whenever possible, she rises before dawn, washes and braids her hair, and packs lunch. She finds a ride to her land or walks the five miles. By six A.M. she’s in the field tending the coca plants.

Alternative development projects like USAID encourage farmers in Chapare to cultivate products like bananas, citrus, and yucca instead of coca. Apolonia has tried those crops. She keeps a few mandarin trees and gifts the fruit to visitors, but finds alternative development largely impractical. “I grow coca because it’s tradition. And because many of those other products don’t flourish, and if they do, they don’t sell. There’s no demand for bananas; there’s no way to get them to market, either. It’s difficult, because if you grow them they just rot,” she says, alluding to infrastructure problems.

Less than a month later we were stopped on the Chapare road because of a landslide. No one on our bus seemed surprised. Intent on getting to the market, the passengers disembarked and began walking. It was after dark. Rain dripped from the trees until the smells bled together, leaves and wet earth, sweat, gasoline and chicken manure. At some point everyone began to run, treading awkwardly through the expanse of muck and debris.

On the other side, members of her coca union gave us a ride. It was 2 A.M. As the car gathered speed, it passed dozens of farmers stuck in the jungle. Many sat on bags of produce that wouldn’t make it to market, and nearly all had a ball of coca in one cheek.

*  *  *  *  

As one leaves Chapare, the flora becomes scarcer, less flagrantly green, and the air changes so that by the time the bus arrives in La Paz at almost 13,000 feet, it’s thin and cold and passengers put on woolen socks and sweaters.

La Paz itself is tucked in a deep canyon below several snow-topped mountains that rise out of the flat plains like beacons. Only at the canyon’s edge is this impossible city seen, one thousand feet below, the skyscrapers of the downtown radiating outward, structures decreasing in height, increasing in number and humility. At the canyon walls, the buildings become agile feats of mud brick. Houses cling to hillsides where trees won’t root, and the streets pitch like roofs. During the descent, one reels at the panorama of city and the mountains, and at the tangible strain of car brakes.

Planes can’t fly in. La Paz is accessible only by bus or car from El Alto, the city cobbled together at the rim of the canyon. Up in El Alto the homes are made of brick, cement, and corrugated tin. During peak transit hours, the potholed streets are thronged with masses of people. Over 99 percent of El Alto is indigenous Aymara, and political demonstrations often come to a head here.

La Paz has one highway in and at best several secondary roads. Citizens in El Alto need only control those three or four roads to arrest the daily life and attention of the capital. This is where the indigenous leader, Tupac Katari, made his infamous 1781 siege on the city, during which he held its Spanish residents captive for over one hundred days until the colonists defeated and quartered him and sent his limbs to native strongholds to show their opinion of independence.

Abraham Delgado is a twenty-nine year old community leader. He’s nearly finished with a law degree, but spends most of his time writing essays and pamphlets, and organizing protests. Along with Felipe Quispe and others, he helped coordinate the uprisings that threw presidents from power in 2003 and 2005. Last June, Abraham took me to a solstice ceremony held in a plaza off the main avenues. People shuffled about in the gray dawn, stomping their feet and approaching a fire lit in offering for the Aymara New Year on which they poured pure alcohol from plastic bottles and scattered coca leaves for Pachamama, the Mother Earth of Andean cosmology.

“They call this ‘Heart of Jesus Square’, but this has always been ‘Heart of Tupac Katari Square.’ It’s where they displayed his heart after the Spanish tore his body to pieces. They [non-indigenous authorities] tried to call this place ‘Heart of Jesus’ to make us forget,” said Abraham. “Well, here we are.” Community protesters still use the same methods as Katari did “You just cut off the city; there’s nothing simpler or more effective,” Abraham said later. “We put a bunch of rocks in the road, concrete blocks, barrels, anything we can find. Then we sit by the side of the road and wait.” At night they light fires, talk, and sleep in outbuildings by rotation.

For decades, individual groups used protests and blockades to address specific issues, such as a farmer’s union needing more tractors or teachers wanting a wage increase. In 2000, something changed. In Cochabamba, near Chapare, the Bechtel Corporation tried to purchase the city’s water rights. Under the leadership of factory union leader Oscar Olivera, social movements came together and managed to stop the privatization. The action was arguably the beginning of a new united front seeking something bigger than tractors; Bolivians had demanded nothing less than control of their resources and institutions.

*  *  *  *  

In 2003, a pipeline was proposed to ship Bolivian natural gas through Chile, with which Bolivia has a 128-year-old grudge over that war for guano and the sea. In spite of having the second largest reserves of natural gas in Latin America, Bolivia is the poorest country in the region after Haiti. It’s always been foreigners who exploited the nation’s natural resources, taking the profits from the country along with the tin, silver, or the gas of today. Until a year ago, Bolivia taxed foreign businesses only eighteen percent of their gas earnings.

The proposed pipeline was seen as an economic and historical insult. Protests were staged across the country, and the government responded with force. By October 13, martial law was declared. In La Paz, there would be street-fighting for several days, and the episode would end with then-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s renouncing office and fleeing the country. By the end of the 2003 confrontation, which came to be known as the Gas War, government forces authorized by Sánchez de Lozada would kill about seventy people, many bystanders and children, and wound nearly 400.

Abraham hid at his sister’s house when rumors began to circulate about the government looking for protest leaders. He says when he came out, El Alto was already celebrating in the streets.

“But I said, ‘We’re not done, now we have to go after Mesa,’” he told me, referring to Carlos Mesa, Sánchez de Lozada’s vice president who assumed the presidency after he fled. “People wanted to hit me, because I wasn’t satisfied,” he said and grinned. “But later they showed I’d been right.”

Protests – of which Abraham was again a key organizer – threw Carlos Mesa out of office in June of 2005 after he was accused of capitulating to U.S. and corporate interests with regard to the gas issue.

On May 1, 2006, President Morales announced a plan to return control of natural gas resources to the state. The president appeared in a construction hat before a Petrobras refinery with the military assembled behind him to announce that Bolivia would significantly raise the hydrocarbons tax. Most Bolivians applauded the move, though Western business interests nervously adjusted their ties on the grand scale, and the foreign press even accused Morales of appropriating private business.

Morales, however, didn’t appropriate anything. Instead, the so-called nationalization pushed a renegotiation of contracts in favor of the Bolivian state. At the end of 2006, twelve major petroleum companies signed new contracts that gave greater shares of profits to Bolivia. For the moment the compromise seems to have worked, though there remains the double challenge of putting it into practice and maintaining not only the support of foreign investors but that of a diverse population often at odds with outsiders and itself.

*  *  *  *  

On August 6, Morales convened a Constitutional Assembly charged with overhauling Bolivia’s charter. Before the assembly began, the president likened it to a refounding of the nation. But once the 255 elected representatives met in Sucre, it was clear that the assembly would also mean revisiting several hundred years of history.

One dispute involved a mestiza delegate calling out a Quechua woman for speaking in her own language instead of Spanish; the latter replied by punching the former. Another resulted in a MAS delegate falling from the podium, hitting his head, and falling into a coma for several months. Between boycotts by minority parties and general strikes, it took six months to agree on rules of procedure.

“The assembly is like having put a patient on the operating table with 255 surgeons standing around, waiting to cut in,” said Eduardo Rodriguez, who has been sceptical from the outset.

Rodriguez was interim president before Morales and a former head of the Supreme Court, a weary man dogged by his own complications with the MAS government. He was accused of conspiring against the nation when twenty-seven Chinese missiles were removed from Bolivia by U.S. military during his term in office. Rodriguez is part of the old elite, a Harvard educated mestizo who wears suit jackets and drops Americanisms into his Spanish like sugar cubes.

“Ellos quieren jugar hardball?” They [MAS] want to play hard-ball? This is what he said to me one morning months later when our paths crossed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rodriguez acting worried over the missiles. He gives the impression of having a scholarly respect for the legal code and may well have followed it to the letter. But many indigenous people would argue that Bolivia needs new laws, and that judgments must be made for the past as well. Some old elites disagree.

*  *  *  *  

In late February of this year, Branko Marinkovic was inaugurated president of the self-christened Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, the most vocal opposition to the current government. The women’s arm of the committee, which is known around Santa Cruz as “The Dames,” arrived in matching white skirts and jackets, wearing clip-on earrings and pantyhose, green crepe paper flowers pinned at their breasts.

Green symbolizes Santa Cruz’s fertile land, and white “the purity of its people,” as the Committee offices explained later. About five hundred people were invited to the inauguration where Marinkovic, with his summer suit, tow-headed children, and leisurely manner seemed more a figure in a Ralph Lauren ad than a simple farmer. Marinkovic grew up here the son of Croatian immigrants. Today he controls 14,000 hectares of land. He is deeply concerned about Evo Morales’ land reforms and compares the situation in Bolivia to Rhodesia. One assumes that he can only mean Zimbabwe.

“We inhabitants of Santa Cruz are a proud race… and now is the time to defend our rights,” he said in his speech.

The Dames stood and raised their fists. They had been doing this throughout the ceremony. “Autonomy; autonomy!” they yelled in unison. The rest of the crowd joined in. After, they lingered for photos with glasses of champagne. They agreed it had been a good night for an event out-of-doors; next time perhaps the speeches should be shorter and there should be more canapés. The wife of the biggest cane farmer in Santa Cruz and a former tennis champion chatted gaily until the president’s name came up. Her face fell.

“Evo Morales is just an ordinary cholo, a mix of mestizo and Indian blood that made it big in the countryside, but never learned how to behave in the city. He leverages his Indian face abroad, winning people over by saying Bolivia is racist. There was no racism in Bolivia until Evo Morales came into office,” she said. “We never even spoke of it.”

Several weeks after the pageantry of the nationalization, Morales quietly announced the beginning of an “agrarian revolution” with a brief decree and a wave of bland television commercials. Even before the Morales administration, the agricultural department (INRA) had been titling unused state lands to indigenous communities, but under the new administration it also promises to re-appropriate unproductive or illegally held land for the same end.

The departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando hold the majority of the country’s natural gas resources, and they also hold most of the land the state is eyeing for redistribution. Not surprisingly, large landowners and businessmen in the region oppose Morales’ reforms.

These departments sit in the east of the country, geographically removed from La Paz, and in July they voted for greater autonomy. Terms of autonomy, however, are another of the issues to be voted on at the constitutional assembly. Opposition in the eastern region say that if they are not granted the terms of their autonomy—namely, control over revenues generated by natural resources and over the land reform—they’ll separate by any means necessary. The Civic Committee is dedicated to this cause, and armed militias have been set up.

As Amelia Dimitri, a soy producer and member of the Committee said soon after the land reforms were announced, “You all [MAS government] are provoking people in Santa Cruz to take up arms, because you’ve supported these squatters’ settlements. We will not permit this.”

*  *  *  *  

Not far outside the glass and tar of Santa Cruz, the road turns to dirt. The land is by turns parched and swampy, as if struck by fever and thirst at once. About eight hours from Santa Cruz, the rough track worsens, bridges turn to planks and the water below is still and shallow, broken occasionally by the heads of caimans. There are no human traces for the last hours, save the two-by-fours and some carelessly planted soy on higher ground.

But people eventually become visible through the tall grass, taking shape like 3-D pictures falling into focus. Five minutes later, the truck stops at a group of tents built of blue plastic tarps, saplings, and thatch. Here 200 farmers—men, women, children; many of them indigenous, and all of them without homes or land–set up camp on the edge of Bolivia’s Amazon Basin, waiting for the state to grant them the property. The group belongs to the Movimiento Sin Tierra, or MST, a social organization run for and by Bolivia’s landless.

Eulógio Cortéz, an MST leader of mixed Chiquitano and Guarayo indigenous descent, was part of the group that drove out to the camp in September 2006 with supplies. During the ride, Eulógio talked about the history of Bolivia’s MST while he hit his palm against the side of the truck, trying to kill errant flies. “It all began in Ichilo in 1999. There was a businessman illegally selling tracts of unused state land on the Internet. [slap] When the landless farmers found out, they mobilized [slap, slap] and decided to petition the state to give them title to the land. By 2004, the state had granted them the land, about 10,000 hectares. Today there are 150 families [… slap] living in Ichilo.”

He made one more deathblow and wiped fly detritus on his jeans.

Such land disputes are another legacy of the Spanish conquest. Indigenous communities across the country ended up debt peons because of taxes for the Crown, since they had no currency, much less Spanish tender. As a result, they became tied to the mines and the estates of landowning elites, working a patron’s land to pay their “tax.” For themselves, they were allowed to work just enough land to subsist. Even in 1950, 6 percent of the population controlled 92 percent of Bolivia’s arable land, and it wasn’t until 1952 that feudalism was abolished and some land returned to the indigenous people who worked it.

The Land Reforms instituted in 1953, however, managed to parcel up only a few estates in the altiplano and highland valleys, often allowing merely a hectare per family, further reducing indigenous land ownership and communal agriculture. The so-called reforms also failed to stop the elite back-slapping and the political favors and contributions. The subsequent illegal gifts made of state land by the dictatorships during the seventies and eighties took place mostly in the remote eastern part of the country where Santa Cruz would become the overwhelmingly Western boom town it is today. In the end, the 1953 Land Reforms changed little. The 2003 government census estimated that 87 percent of arable land lay in the hands of 7 percent of the population.

One year before, under the previous government, this same group of landless farmers gained legal title to another property. We’d seen it while driving through the swamp. Euológio had gestured out the window, pointing to where there’d been a school, a soccer field, and a sanitation system.

It looked like a neglected expanse of soybeans.

“A businessman had been illegally calling the land his, until the state titled it to the settlers. He hired a crew of civilians in Santa Cruz and told them to get rid of the village. They burned everything to the ground.”

*  *  *  *  

We left the encampment at dusk, driving through the swamp as the light turned indigo and the trees to silhouettes. Herons rose in flocks towards night places with the same air that couples slip out of parties. When we reached the first village it would be dark and long past supper. People would be standing in their yards before bed, and the driver was careful not to hit the skinny dogs lying in the road luxuriating in a day’s worth of warm sand. There’s a strange quantity of sand on the roads.

“This was never meant to be,” said Euológio. “Twenty five years ago this was all rainforest. They cut much of it to graze cattle and plant soy and cane, and when we began making claims for land, they cleared bigger swaths and scattered more soy, so they could say it was productive. It’s destroying the land. First it turns to swamp. Then it dries up.”

Everyone was tired and quiet, the silence broken only by the tinny strains of a love ballad on cassette and the wind.

*  *  *  *  

Bolivia can feel so remote, so much so that one can forget current events are often brokered outside the country’s borders. This past winter, I worked and travelled in the U.S. with Gustavo Guzmán, a Bolivian journalist known for his reportage of the 2003 government violence led by Sánchez de Lozada. After taking office, President Morales named Guzmán ambassador and assigned him the extradition case of Sánchez de Lozada, who today lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

In January, the Ambassador presided over a business luncheon given in his honor, with his wife Adriana, of Quechua and Aymara descent, who is a community organizer who participated in the 2003 protests. To my left sat a man who owns railroad interests in Chile, and oversees a microcredit enterprise in Bolivia. He calls the latter his “pet project and true passion.” He quickly latched onto me; he was that sort of American who assumes camaraderie in the company of non-Americans, the sort for whom passports are not travel documents but certificates of common ideals. His table manners were terrible.

“The microcredit is really what I enjoy,” he said. “But I’ll be honest. I’m worried about that country.” He paused to lean in further, using a teaspoon to skim the whipped cream off my dessert uninvited. “The Bolivians just don’t get it. We have perfectly fine credit rates, yet now they want to receive loans from the Venezuelans.” He said “Venezuelans” in italics and with contempt.

I asked him what his interest rates were.

“Ours are fair… about twenty-eight percent.” I told him I wouldn’t borrow money at that rate. “Well, we don’t have to,” he said. “We” was also italicized, here embossed in gold leaf like the place-cards.

The Venezuelan projects were offering a rate of eight or nine percent. “But, it’s very unsustainable.” He licked the last bit of cream from the spoon. “For whom?” I asked. “Oh for us.”

“The Bolivians might think it’s great, but what’s bad for us is eventually bad for them?”

“And what’s going on there, this Morales guy… Personally, I like Goni [Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada]. I consider him a friend, I don’t know why they threw him out.

“I don’t see why these people can’t forget about the past and just move on.”

*  *  *  *  

A month and a half later at the Vinto tin smelter, President Morales made a ch’alla, a customary indigenous sacrifice. President Sáchez de Lozada had privatized the smelter in the late nineties and in 2002 his company Comsur bought Vinto for about six million dollars. In 2005, anticipating the cost of legal representation to avoid extradition, the ex-president sold Comsur’s assets. Details of the sale are undisclosed but it’s rumored to have been sold for ninety million dollars.

Morales had recently nationalized the Vinto smelter, and the ritual was intended to bring good luck. So, there in one of the dim factories, he stood over a white llama bound with rope. Some equipment was still on and behind him ran a cascade of molten tin, the machines sounding at intervals.

The llama’s forelock had been drawn over its eyes and it kept still while Morales looped colored ribbon around its neck. Beside him the vice president answered a cell phone, instructed someone in the capital to sort something out, and crouched down to assist the president. Holy men and bureaucrats tossed alcohol, confetti, and coca leaves over the animal, and above us on tiers of scaffolding smelter employees drank more beer and began to chant. “Evo, Evo, Evo!” The head priest leaned over the llama’s neck, knife in hand.

Assistants caught the warm blood in metal soup bowls. The President, Vice President, and the Minister of Mining poured it over the machines, walking with the earnest concentration of young boys so as not to spill. The llama’s entrails and brain were cut out, it shuddered twice, and then died. Above, the workers’ voices rose and they poured beer and tossed firecrackers on the hard-hatted officials below; everyone sang Long live my homeland Bolivia, long live my heart and passed outside into the bright altiplano afternoon where a hired brass band took up the song.

“What do you think of Vinto?” a local journalist asked politely. “You know, this is where Garcia Meza ordered the military to burn what was left of Marcelo [novelist and ex-minister Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz],” he added.

We were watching a group of Quechua dancers who had appeared in front of the band. He raised his voice over the din of machinery and music, treating the information like any other local miscellanea.

The man yelled goodbye and went to greet the president, who was garlanded with coca and looped in ribbon, the tin smelter at his back.


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