Tuesday, January 9, 2007
Thoughts on Bolivia
The above picture is Nevado Illimani, a 21,000 plus foot peak that stands watch over Bolivia's capital, La Paz.
One often hears Bolivia described as the Tibet of the Americas. While similar to Tibet in its wind blown, high plateau landscape, the attitudes of the respective peoples towards their conquest have been polar opposites. The Dalai Llama’s acceptance of his country’s fate is in stark contrast to the seething anger of Bolivia’s indigenous.
The majority of the population dwell on the 10,000-13,000 foot altiplano. The Andes are at their widest on this jaundiced, oxygen starved plateau. It is flanked to the West by a double phalanx of volcanic ranges and the Atacama desert. The latter has the notorious distinction of being the driest place on earth. It is fifty times drier than Death Valley. Some spots have not received a drop of rain in forty years. A 2003 study suggested that the land was as lifeless as Mars.
To the east of the altiplano are a series of ranges rising and falling into humid lowlands. To the north, Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real combine to prevent any intermingling between the altiplano and the Amazon basin. The Mediterranean blue Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable waterway at 12,500 feet above sea level. Indigenous tribes dwell on islands constructed out of reeds and fish for giant lake trout from Viking-esque reed boats. Incan legend holds that the Island of the Sun is where Con Tiqui created the earth.
The granite, glacial massifs of the Cordillera Real erupt from the earth to the north and east of Lake Titicaca. Many of these behemoths tower over twenty-one thousand feet. The range drops precipitously into the Amazon rain forest, hurtling into that abyss of green.
62% of the country identifies itself as indigenous. The percentage is much higher in the altiplano, where the Aymara and Quechua speaking peoples have preserved enormous swaths of their culture against the conquest.
The Aymara speakers are descended from warlike tribes centered near Lake Titicaca. Eighty years before the conquest an Incan spread the empire north to the current Colombian/Ecuadorian border and south into northern Argentina and Chile. A series of emperors were known as the Incans, and the speakers of the Quechua language became known under the name of their ruler. Quechua speakers came to live in Bolivia when Incans colonized their new possessions.
With the arrival of the Spaniards, the indigenous were forced into a semi-feudal system. Conquistadors were given labor rights, and labor drafts sent them into the bowels of mines for weeks at a time.
Uprisings against the Europeans began during the conquest and continue to this day. In 1780 an indigenous army under Tupac Katari captured the area between Lake Titicaca and La Paz. An eight-month siege ensued. Approximately half the population starved or died fighting. The rebellion occurred shortly after a similar siege of Cuzco by Tupac Amaru. Deceased rapper Tupac Shakur renamed himself in honor of the anti-European forces.
This anger, this sense of having been cheated for the last five hundred years, is an overwhelming trait in the Bolivian people. As opposed to tropical neighbors who live in a paradise of mangos and fish, the majority of Bolivians were born on a barren, thin air plateau where only potatoes and quinoa willingly grow. The past five hundred years saw their rich and intricate culture assaulted by a force seeking to create a European style feudalism in America.
Evo Morales, a forty-seven year old full blooded Aymara and leader of the coca growers union, was elected President in December of 2005. Known simply as “Evo,”he was the son of a poor llama herder on the altiplano. Four of his seven siblings died as children. In one popular story he and his father were traveling across the altiplano. Buses would go by and the occupants would throw orange or banana peels out the window. The young Evo would eat the bits of flesh remaining on the peels. He himself that one day he would be ride on such a bus and eat exotic fruit.
Coca production became lucrative in the 1970’s with the rise in popularity of cocaine. Evo’s father heard of a gold rush in the Chapare region, and relocated his family there. The chewing of coca has been an integral part of Andean culture for centuries.
The Spaniards accepted it when they saw that it substantially increased the productivity of their workers. When the leaves are placed in the mouth and mixed with a base, a mild stimulant effect occurs. It alleviates hunger and the crushing effects of living at glacier level.
While hiking the Andes and the Amazon, my guides insisted I offered a few leaves to Pachamama, the goddess of the earth, before stuffing a handful in my mouth.
I found the coca leaf to be a much more gentle stimulant than coffee, Argentine yerba mate, or even green tea. The coca leaf does not produce the roller coaster ride of elation and despondency I experience with coffee. Rather, it is a sustained energy that relieves the draining effects of altitude.
The drug also happens to be the raw ingredient for cocaine. The leaf is chopped up and the active chemical concentrated using an assortment of wonderfully healthy substances such as gasoline and acetone. One would think that diced up organic spinach treated with the same chemicals would also produce a noxious substance.
As international demand for cocaine grew in the 1980’s, Bolivia became a major supplier of the raw leaf and some refined cocaine. A global crash in the world mineral market devastated the state owned mines. The government brought balance by privatizing mines and laying off 20,000 employees. Many of the newly unemployed headed to the Chapare, a non-traditional coca region, to join in the coca leaf bonanza.
With the arrival of crack, cocaine was no longer a hip yuppie drug. The US government expanded its anti-drug campaign past its own borders, aiming to destroy cocaine at its biological source. The DEA supplied training and equipment in the burning of fields. Such eradication campaigns were met with rage. Though the most of the coca produced in the Chapare was destined for refinement, the farmers did not seem to care where their harvest went. They insisted that if cocaine was a US problem, it should be dealt with inside the US.
I think the solution is to eradicate the demand for cocaine in the US. This will not be accomplished through strict penalties. We need to let people know that they can be happy without pumping themselves full of drugs. There is obviously a void that needs to be filled. Let people know that they are unique creatures of God here to give something that no one else can give. Only then will this hellacious stalemate resulting in death and poverty throughout the Americas stop.
Evo began his leadership career by organizing union soccer games, and catapulted through the ranks from there. He emerged as a relatively unknown presidential candidate in 2002. US ambassador Manuel Rocha warned the Bolivian people that electing a cocalero leader would risk continued US funding. Evo’s popularity immediately soared, evidencing the anger against the perceived colonial monster.
He lost the 2002 election, but remained a leading figure in "Black October" of 2003 when President Sanchez de Lozada when the army killed dozens of proestors in El Alto, a slum of La Paz. He was elected in a landslide in January, 2006
One of his inaugural ceremonies took place at the ancient city of Tiwanaku. He appeared before the largely indigenous crowd dressed in a red poncho with a staff in hand. Adorned in necklaces of coca leaves and flowers, and donning a checkered emperor hat, he was inaugurated by indigenous priests. He declared that five hundred years of conquest were over.
Upon assuming office, he cut the presidential pay by 57%. He shuns the traditional suit and tie look for sweaters decorated with Andean animals. Evo has attempted to create a government of regular people as opposed to professional politicians. The consul in Barcelona is a former soccer player; the ambassador to France a popular singer. The head of the Senate is a school teacher in the countryside.
His first target was the vast oil and gas fields of Bolivia. For years transnational companies made hefty profits while the people saw little improvement in their quality of life. Leftist leader Oscar Olivera summed up the people’s rage: “As a result of corporate globalization, we Bolivians…have been stripped of our material inheritance and natural resources….The transnationals have stolen our….hydrocarbons…and our land.”
In May of 2006, Evo announced that the companies would have six months to sell at least fifty-one percent of their ownership to the Bolivian government at a set price or they would leave. In the months leading up to the October deadline things did not look promising for the Bolivian government. The companies were putting on their best poker faces over their threats to leave. If they indeed leave, Bolivia would be abandoned as a lower tier third world country with no real ability to extract or export its resources. And without extraction, the country would be destined for dire poverty.
At the last minute the companies renegotiated the deals. As oil and gas are in high demand in this world economy, other companies would have stepped in. It was a twenty-first century nationalization, using market oriented competition threats rather than Castro-esque land seizures.
A second target was the US driven campaign against the coca leaf. Acting on the premise that coca is not cocaine, Evo has moved to stop cocaine traffic while maintaining a space for coca production. He appointed a small time coca farmer and mayor in the Chapare as the vice-minister of coca. Evo ordered the halt to forced eradication programs several months into his presidency, instead promoting voluntary eradication and allowing campesinos to cultivate one third of an acre.
A third goal is land reform. Evo promised redistribution of large, unused tracks of land for the poorest. The measure passed in November. There is talk of landowners hiring private militias to keep out potential squatting campesinos. This ominously resembles the beginnings of Colombia’s interminable civil war, as Colombia’s paramilitaries formed to protect landowners from left-wing guerillas.
This final issue may bring about a civil war between the wealthier lowland provinces and the poor Andean ones. The talk of secession is commonplace. The lowlands, which contain the vast majority of oil and gas, do not feel responsible for the altiplano poverty.
Evo promised rapid change, and the people have little patience for traditional snail’s pace moves. In my two months in the country, it seemed that fewer people supported him. The threat of civil war loomed, and it was unclear how the nationalization would pan out. People on the fence began to question his ability to accomplish his goals without tearing the country in two.