Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Back to Bolivia

For my last stint in South America, I returned to the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, to the sprawling city of El Alto. I decided to rent a room in the neighborhood of Senkata ($30 a month, no bathroom) and get to know the built environment and people a little better than I had on my previous visit ( I was really curious to better understand the built environment of a city that has been termed the ”Rebel City.” Because on the surface, there seemed to be nothing rebellious about most of the housing.

It was a bit of tense time, as the country almost fell into chaos, after Bolivia’s own ‘9-11’, when almost thirty people were killed in a clash between supporters and detractors of President Morales and his attempts to shift revenues from the wealthy lowlands to poorer highlands. For background, see
Immediately after the massacre, President Morales expelled the US ambassador (accusing him of helping orchestrate a coup) and the State Department ordered all U.S. Citizens to leave. So, heading back to such a country and to a city that has consistently rebelled against neoliberal and privatized interests, I, of course, did have some question about how I would be received. But, as in most places, the policies of the government are often very different from the people themselves, and I was received with nothing but sheer warmth, even from the city authorities. But, the intense political climate did shape a number of my experiences there.
On October 20, tens of thousands of people converged on La Paz to demand Congress to ratify a new constitution. Many of them had begun walking form Oruro five days earlier and we had been hearing about it for many days. Here were some of my reflections immediately afterwards:

The massive march came through today. It is huge. Even by 7 am, people were scurrying around, trying to meet up with folks, and participate in the mass that eventually would descend into La Paz. There was so much indiginous dress and wimpalas (indigenous flags). There was a serious energy with everyone jockeying, slowly filling up the roads, as trucks and vans trying to continue with the everyday work battled through. A neighbor went to take his kids to school. They came back, no school. A guy selling DVD’s about the massacre in Pando came through. Finally, Evo made his way through. The crowd surged around him, chanting, “Evo, Evo.” Behind him were tens of thousands of Bolivians, mostly indigenous Aymara Indians who had been walking for 5 days from near Oruro. They don’t have Nike’s here, and the local health workers are out helping hand out water and deal with foot injuries. Everyone has their radio on. The announcers are speaking with excitement like a football match. There is a spirit of festivity, but also determination and antagonism with a number of groups highlighting the recent massacre in Pando. There is music, there is every type of traditional dress you could imagine. It feels like an independence day, and I guess in some ways, it is almost like a new independence day for many of these folks, as they are pressing for congress to ratify the new constitution. You can’t help but moved by the solidarity and power among such people here. I was standing on an overpass over the main road, as far as I could see in both directions were people marching.

The march essentially shut down the city, as other people came in from all over the country from all directions. By far, the greatest amount of people were descending from El Alto through La Ceja (on the rim of the city). The sight of tens of thousands of people descending from the altiplano down into the city of La Paz is quite extraordinary. People ended up staying in Plaza Murillo overnight, all the schools shut down and housed the tens of thousands of people.

In La Paz, there was a lot of grumbling about the march (especially among middle class), how it is messing up all the transportation and everything. They were saying they heard that Evo had paid everyone Bs.100 to participate. It is a little weird to see how integrated the government is in political stuff like this. The entire municipality was out marching, and supporting people. But, not everyone is for this, and it is clear who this government is supporting. And Evo is getting a lot of power from them. It is a trip how the altiplano and highlands filters down into the city to fundamentally disrupt that way of life.

On October 21, Congress ratified the new constitution. I was eating lunch and they were showing a huge party on the TV in Plaza Murillo. I could hear horns honking outside. And then, there were more and more flares and firecrackers. I happened to call the cab driver who picked me up at the airport on my arrival, as we had hit it off and he was building a house nearby. He said they were going to celebrate the new constitution by drinking beer, and he wanted me to join them. And so we shared a Pacena (bolivian beer) and celebrated the new constitution. They were excited. They said there would be no more racism and discrimination against Indians. Schools are being required to teach Aymara, Quechua and English. Even Elhoy’s (a neighbor) daughters can speak Aymara. I asked him about it, and he said they were learning it in school now, ever since Evo came to power. Everywhere around in El Alto are signs up for new schools and housing. There is a lot of hope and dreams about the future for people here. There is a band of zamponas and drums playing furiously down the street celebrating what people here are calling the new Bolivia. The sounds drift as in a village on the Altiplano, yet they bounce and reverberate among the new, yet unfinished multistory buildings.

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