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Dispatch from the Andes

Surrealism in Bolivia

by CHELLIS GLENDINNING

A season has passed since I have checked in with you. My lack of communing is in part because I have been writing. I finished my first novel, called Objects, and am now working with a translator to submit a Spanish rendition to Bolivian publisher Plural Editores. It´s a madcap tale of an antique store in Cochabamba that sells artifacts garnered from revolutions and social movements.

I’m also writing editorials for Los Tiempos, a job that comes with a Friday almuerzo attended by a fine assemblage of writers, thinkers, a painter, the newspaper editor, a yoga teacher, etc. Then, on a trip south to the frontera with Argentina, I had the privilege to meet the editor of an anarchist magazine called La Letra Libre.

On that same trip I came upon a duo of books by the English Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn (1917-2012).  I had known of Hobsbawn through his work connecting the development of certain technologies with the success of empire, and now I am devouring Revolucionarios and Bandidos — taken together, a mirroring between rebellious folk who I’ve long felt share motive and bravado.

Meanwhile, Surreal Bolivia continues to test rationality. The height of southern-hemisphere winter saw a month-long uprising by doctors, and if you think you are ready to witness kindly men and women in white coats, with stethoscopes around their necks, breaking the Hippocratic Oath to hurl rocks at the police, then you are ready for the altiplano. Two weeks later, the police themselves demonstrated that, what with all the bloqueos, huelgas, and marchas by other sectors of society, they had not been inattentive to absorbing the finer points of technique. Wearing ski masks and brandishing their guns, they took to the streets, rampaged around in armed vehicles, hurled intelligence computers into bonfires, and burned down their own stations.

All the while, the memory from 2003 when military and police battled it out put the populace – and the Evo Morales government — on edge, while I was focused on the curious detail that the unpoliced city had become inordinately orderly and safe.

A real eye-opener was Independence Day. I bought a seat in the first row along the Prado and sat through three hours of the parade – which seemed less a people´s celebration of country-love and more a descendant of those displays for Stalin in Red Square. Grandstands. Flags. Brass bands. Baton twirlers. High black boots. Goose-stepping. Uniforms and hardware galore. A few tanks. A swipe by a fighter plane. And on and on.

The mission of wrapping my mind around this facet of the human experience is a fracaso, although I try. I do. I have no trouble attaining the aspiration to don military-inspired threads and have been known to drive an olive-colored Jeep. But, to truly understand, I direct myself inside the urge. Thanks to Robert Becker´s work of the 1960´s, I appreciate that meaning lies at the heart of human behavior, so at least I can grok that someone may feel something that I do not.

Meanwhile, all these goings-on are interwoven with festive theater pieces boasting dancers in neon-satin costumes resembling wedding cakes; indígenas acting out the Tinku battle in which whole communities claw at their neighbors until blood flows; pet dogs in little top-hats-sombreros-tutus-French-sailor-shirts-ponchos-etc.; the daily juxtaposition of narco-Hummers with ancianas begging for centavos; etc.

Yet, truly, I tell of such spectacles only as preface. The real surrealism resides with the government. Over in La Paz, President Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo crew keep themselves busy unfolding their vision of Marxist revolution. Hobsbawn helped me here. I confess that, although I was enmeshed in 1960s-style Berkeley Marxism, I received the hypothesis only via osmosis, not through the serious study that others undertook. And, with apologies, I am more the daughter of Lewis Mumford than of Marx: I ended up a Break-Down-the-Empire-Bioregional-Luddite-Eco-Feminist-Anarchist-Peacenik-Indigenous-Rights freedom fighter/intellectual with an affinity for Chicano culture.

What Evo et al. are up to is to dictate (a word I do not use lightly) the changes by wielding an all-seeing, all-potent State – with vicepresidente Alvaro Garcia Linera´s projections that in a hundred years, it will fall away and true communalism will be achieved.

The wielding ain’t pretty.

After September 2011´s violent SWAT attack on peaceful indígenas walking in flip-flops for three months to protect their cultures and sovereign nature reserve from industrial highway development, the marchers arrived in La Paz to the cheers of the largest gathering of humanity in Bolivian history. Just the same, it appears that the Morales government has paid off separate indigenous communities to attend what could amount to a trumped-up forum to approve development. He himself proclaims that, no matter what, the industrial corridor goes through and has even stooped to call the indígenas “savages.” After a second three-month protest was mounted, the police gassed and fire-hosed the marchers to keep them out of the public plaza in front of the government´s palace. Now the tribes have retreated to their lands where they are crafting fresh bows and arrows — and are forbidding the government to cross into their territories. Meanwhile, proclaiming to be the avant garde for the rights of Madre Tierra, the State has amassed its newly-formed Regimiento Militar y Escuela Ecológica to penetrate said territories. Fearing another violent attack, on 30 August, the Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente Boliviano asked the United Nations to intervene to protect their human rights.

(The government also gassed, fire-hosed, and beat the disabled when they arrived at the palace after a 100-day, country-wide wheelchair “march” to request upping their welfare to… $35 a month.)

As far as freedom of the press goes, that which the media has predicted would happen is indeed happening. Hidden in the otherwise laudable 2010 Ley Contra el Racismo y la Discriminación, mechanisms were set up for closing down TV/radio stations and newspapers not to the administration´s political liking, and in August 2012 three outlets – the news agency ANF, Página Siete, and El Diario — were called to court for what the government has judged “difusión e incitación al racismo” in reporting a talk by Morales. The head of the Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos has called the move “fatal” for freedom of information/expression, and the Asociación Nacional de Periodistas of Bolivia is demanding the matter be settled according to the earlier Ley de Imprenta, which would have the media itself evaluate reported infringements, rather than undergo a government court´s process that could lead to closure. On 29 August masses of periodistas attempted to mount a protest in the public square in front of the palace — needless to say, meeting up with police shields and batons.

Too, the government pronounced friend Claudio Ferrufino´s novel Diario Secreto “racist” and placed it on the banned-book list (along with some of the nation´s classics, including socialist hero Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz´s Los Deshabitados). The book is bawdy, but hardly racist — and it won the national Premio de Novela Alfaguara in 2011. In the news, Ferrufino then became the butt of a campaign to bar his editorials from the nation´s op ed pages; his essays openly criticize the government.

In closing, I am driven to resurrect a phrase from 1940´s filmmaker Preston Sturges´ Sullivan´s Travels to describe this earthly ride we share: “Cockeyed Caravan.” On a planet in deep trouble (as if weapons of mass destruction, constant wars, and eco-destruction were not enough), the lack of official concern for what Hannah Arendt called “the emergency of liberty” poses a surreal contrast to our struggles for justice and, for those who accept or herald it, the epitome of Erich Fromm´s wisdom: “That millions of people share the same pathology does not make those people sane.” To be sure, everyone is suffering now; no one is immune. So here I am, ending this letter from Bolivia with our enduring theme: Cariño Is in Need of Cariño Today.

Chellis Glendinning is the author of five books, including When Technology WoundsOff the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economyand Chiva: A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade.  She may be contacted via www.chellisglendinning.org.