I once read a quote that said if you wanted to avoid a nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War, then you should move to Bolivia. Indeed, this quiet Andean nation has been historically associated with little excitement beyond its coca production, its concentration of indigenous peoples, and its unpredictable politics. As Howard Zinn notes in his book A People’s History of the United States, however, “The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.” The ramifications of the Spanish conquest of Bolivia over 500 years ago cannot be quantified or completely understood. But Bolivia today is an idiosyncratic country, and my experiences in Huacareta, a small town nestled in the Chaco Mountains, illustrate the political and economic complexities that lie ahead. Working with thirteen Guarani communities in this impoverished, rural community, I have developed a new level of respect for Zinn’s observation.
When I arrived in Sucre in mid-March, I immediately noticed the ubiquitous graffiti protesting President Evo Morales and his party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). After witnessing numerous pro-Sucre rallies and hearing university students chant “Sucre se respeta carajo!” I concluded that Sucre is still reeling from the violent riots of last fall. The reality of the riots, which I followed through brief news articles and civilian videos on YouTube, became clear to me after coming across the still barricaded and vacant police stations. The police emptied the prisons as the rioters forced them out of the city, and the criminals continue to roam the streets. As a result, this tranquil city is now more dangerous than it was before. The police have returned, but they operate with a breath of hesitation. After a week in Sucre, I departed on a long and exhausting journey to Huacareta with two colleagues.
Huacareta is a small pueblo nestled in the Chaco Mountains in the Department of Chuquisaca. According to the 2000 Bolivian Census, the municipality (the equivalent of a county in the United States) of Huacareta is characterized by an 89.5 percent poverty rate, 55 percent unemployment, and 34 percent illiteracy. Over 40 percent of the population identifies as indigenous, with the majority most likely being Guarani. There is also limited access to electricity and potable water.
The journey from Sucre can last anywhere from fifteen hours to two days, depending on the conditions of the unpaved roads that traverse in and out of the rough and dry mountains. One of my first observations of Huacareta was the refreshing absence of mobile phones. Most residents rely upon the local telephone center to receive and make calls. There is also the unfortunate reality of the less-than-secure access to food. Lacking a kitchen in our office, my colleagues and I happily frequent the local restaurants, allowing us to experience local cuisine and aid the local economy. More than once, however, my colleagues and I have struggled to find a restaurant willing to serve patrons because the restaurant vendors could not afford meat, vegetables, or cooking oil. Inflation is on the rise in this country characterized by widespread poverty, and many Bolivians can no longer afford basic goods.
The nation’s political conflicts seem to be amplified in the campo. Last month, a road blockade near Camiri, in the department of Santa Cruz, was finally lifted after several weeks of conflict between protesters and government forces. Unlike previous road blockades, which were organized by the campesinos, this one was executed by the wealthy landowners of the area in protest of the land redistribution policy of the Morales government, which has transferred idle lands to peasant ownership. This blockade had a direct impact on our own work with the Guarani communities.
In April, the German financier of the project was scheduled to meet with several of the Guarani communities. Just days before her visit we received notification that many residents of the communities would be on their way to Camiri to support the government forces in their land redistribution efforts. Receiving this information just outside of Totorenda, a small village near Huacareta, I found myself unnecessarily excited about the prospects of being in such close proximity to these political conflicts.
In fact, upon first arriving to Huacareta several weeks ago, I was informed that the landowners were already armed and prepared to confront government forces, and on April 14th, several news sources reported that ten indigenous Bolivians and a Uruguayan journalist went missing because of a suspected ambush by landowners. As I contemplated these developments, I realized that, in my excitement, I had objectified the politics of the area. The residents of Bolivia, however, have to live them. It was only after this realization that I observed graffiti near the plaza of Huacareta stating “¡Mueran los patrones!” (“Death to the landowners!”).
Reflecting on my time in Huacareta, there have been two moments that continue to resonate in my mind. The first experience exposed me to the realities of a limited education and the second to the disparities in access to health care. One afternoon, my project coordinator asked if I was willing to conduct an interview with a community elder in Totorenda in order to collect data for the project. I happily agreed, believing this was a chance to exercise my Spanish and meet someone new. Unable to spell the elder’s last name, however, I naively asked if he would be willing to write out his name for me. I grew embarrassed as I watched his pencil flutter over the paper as he hesitantly tried to determine the letters in his name. It had not occurred to me that he would be unable to do so.
The second defining moment for me came in the course of processing data about the families of the thirteen communities. In one particular entry, I was intrigued by the lack of a reference to a father. I was stunned to learn that the father, twenty-three years old, had passed away from Chagas, a preventable disease. He and his family unfortunately did not have the resources for medical treatment. In fact, most families in these communities are forced to either borrow money or sell off livestock in the case of medical emergencies, which typically involve preventable illnesses. These two incidents introduced me to the fact that the difficulties of life in the campo are not necessarily visual, like tattered clothing or an unsafe dwelling.
The most difficult challenge, for me, has been the realization that what I consider to be scholarly interests in Bolivia are, to the Bolivians, the realities of everyday life. I am most in awe at the sense of drive and passion Bolivians have for addressing the social injustices that continue to affect many in the country. I am envious of the formulation of political discourse, the engagement by Bolivians at all levels, and the care Bolivians have for their country. I am fascinated by the non-violent methods utilized by the indigenous peoples and the campesinos in their protests as they successfully managed to paralyze the country politically and economically in their efforts to highlight the injustices of poverty and discrimination that they have suffered for generations. Such injustices have politically empowered the Morales administration to pursue its political goals of land redistribution, the nationalization of the natural gas resources, and the drafting of a new constitution.
Many towns in the campo of Bolivia welcome visitors with Evo Cumple signs, meaning that President Morales is realizing his campaign promises. It is difficult to assess the structural changes in the lives of rural Bolivians, who are typically peasants or indigenous peoples. It is no doubt that life is difficult in the campo. The frequent turnover by people like me wanting to dedicate their work to improving conditions in the campo certainly does not help. In one Guarani community, Itaquise, two different technicians have cycled through its local development project, each one deciding to leave the project for personal reasons. A third arrived with me, but he returned to Sucre the following day after learning of the extreme poverty and harsh conditions of the community. The inconsistencies these communities face explain the frustration and growing distrust of technicians and development officials shared with us by the community leader.
It is very easy to feel distant and disconnected from La Paz, let alone the United States, while living in a town like Huacareta. I often forget that the United States is also experiencing political activity. Yet, the politics of the USA cannot compare to the volatility and unpredictability that has come to define Bolivia in recent years. In this visit to Bolivia, my third since 2004, I have felt an overt division that did not manifest itself in my previous visits. A poll released last month by Ipsos Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado suggests that 41 percent of the country supports the revised constitution proposed by the Morales government, while 41 percent opposes it. The riots in Sucre last fall illustrated discontent with the new constitution and with Morales generally. Residents of Cochabamba, a stronghold of Morales, initiated a new campaign to collect 172,000 signatures to revoke the mandate of the nation’s first indigenous president. On May 4th, the department of Santa Cruz controversially voted for autonomy, despite a ruling by the National Electoral Court that such a move would be beyond the legal scope of the individual departments. The departments of Beni and Pando will echo this move on June 1st and Tarija on June 22nd. The department of Chuquisaca has also been roiled by controversy regarding its prefect and will be voting in early June.
The question of food security has also become politicized as the Morales government prohibited the exportation of cooking oil, made from soybeans, in an effort to lower the domestic cost of cooking oil. The ban on exportation has since been lifted. Morales stated that any such product prepared for exportation would be treated as contraband. The department of Santa Cruz is rich in soy production and the manufacture of cooking oil, and is said to export 85 percent of the oil produced. One cannot help but speculate whether this was an attempt by the Morales administration to strike economically at the heart of Santa Cruz because of the pending referendum on autonomy. Protesting the decree, many of the manufacturing plants in Santa Cruz have decided to strike, and in response, Morales has threatened to nationalize the cooking oil industry.
Despite these conflicts, Morales remains popular. In a March poll released by Ipsos Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado, Morales had a 56 percent approval rating with 40 percent of residents disapproving of his performance as president. The poll, conducted in the cities of El Alto, La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz, came as a surprise to me, considering the anti-Morales mobilization occurring around the country. Certainly Bolivia is at a critical point in its history. The votes for autonomy and the impending vote on the new constitution will surely divide the country, perhaps permanently. The clear lack of respect for opposing views in the conflicts Bolivia faces makes it difficult to assess the outcome of these political crises. The country is divided and racism has clearly spiked. As a student and an activist, I find this to be an exciting time to be in this wonderful country. I must also remember, however, that these uncertainties and divisions translate into a reality for the Bolivian people, a reality that is particularly delicate in the campo, where a slight rise in inflation may determine whether a family eats or goes hungry.
The only conclusion I can offer thus far in my stay is that Bolivia faces an uncertain future. I can only hope the conflicts are resolved non-violently and democratically, and that the discussion of the conditions of the poor campesinos and indigenous peoples does not become politicized in an increasingly virulent political conflict.