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Dispatch From Bolivia

The Good, the Bad, the Miraculous, the Sensational and the Plain Weird

by CHELLIS GLENDINNING

Chaupi Molino.

The vernal rainy season hath begun, and I am learning that each climatic condition has its pro´s and con´s. Now is a time of extremes. One day is raining burros y chanchos with a temperature of 45 F., the next it´s blisteringly sunny and 85. From the day I arrived in Bolivia, my sleep patterns changed. For my entire adult life I have arisen at 8 a.m. On Day #1 it became 6, now is migrating to 5:30 so I can be up with the birds. Between waking and writing to you this rainy morning, I was in my camouflage jacket moving things out of the rain and checking the water pump.

Summer promises surprises: soon I will no longer be able to drive the Jeep to the house, but will have to leave it on the other side of the river, cross the foot bridge, and walk in through the huertas. This may sound all very romantic to you–but it means carting, with my fragile ankle and questionable back, groceries, books, tools a kilometer to the house. So like a squirrel I´ve been buying up cans of tomato sauce, corn, marmalade, plus bottles of water–and stashing them for what promises to be a Very Near Future. Plus, the environ has now mutated into a festival for six-and eight-leggeds, including armies of ants that devour every plant along the march. Oh, and hundred-leggeds. If you thought that occasional four-inch centipede was discombobulating, you ain´t never seen a Real Centipede!

On the other hand, during a thunder-lightning storm, the electricity goes out–and in the dark there is nothing to do but feel. Exhilarating, like being in love. The rain also brings cool, green, gray—and quiet. By contrast, the fields are gay and full of vegetables. As a trial we gave a scattering of New Mexico arugula seeds its own plot, and sprouted in magic time the very first arugula Bolivian soil has ever seen. Finca-owners Ximena and Esteban took the leaves to the supermercado where they sell their lettuce, and BINGO! First day: big success.

My entry into the village is sprouting too. The task presents a stretch. Picture dirt-encrusted, coca-chewing, Quechua-speaking campesinos with woven aguayos full of twigs and coal on their backs–and you get a sense of the challenge. A start of a role has been forged by driving neighbors to Sucre or carting them with their bulging aguayos down from the highway to the village. My relationship is also being shaped by fun with four-year old Alex and six-year old Anai, whose job is to shoo birds away from the tomato patch. An unexpected event is that the family has asked me to be madrina to Alex.

Too, neighbor Javier and I have sparked a friendship, and he confessed—under the influence of some fortifying chicha he drank before coming over–that he was afraid I would be snotty and racist, which is how the city people who build weekend cabañas in the valley tend to be–not in Chaupi, though, for things here are a tad on the undomesticated side for those folks. He also told me, with candor and vulnerability: “Somos differentes.”

Slowly I learn. The village is organized by the one dirt road that passes through: what´s on the hill side is communal, private on the river side. You can walk through anyone´s terrain and pick from their fields as long as your intention is private use. The women know the herbs and are re-learning how to weave. Hard, physical work is valued. (Which reminds me of a comment an Orureño made in Cochabamba. He asked me what I do. I said “writer,” and he threw up his hands in disdain, “You mean you don´t do nothing!”)

A bone-setter curandero is among us, some 80 years old, no one knows for sure, and every day he hikes to the river to collect herbs and branches. The community is constantly holding reuniones to decide collective matters (sheep, what to do if Evo visits, marauding pigs, the acequia); these go on forever as everyone has to get a word in. Esteban is the mayor, and once he had to go out and shoot seven wild horses because they were destroying the huertas. An NGO offered 500 olive trees to the community; the people rejected them because “it would look like we don´t have goats.” I wish I had a camera; words will have to do: an “electrical pole” in the center of town is an old, termite-eaten board leaning against an adobe wall with wires resting across the top end.

Chaupi Molino.

 

Speaking of electricity, I had an idea. Thinking of regional writing like post-civil-war Southern, North Beach Beatnik, 1920´s Parisian, post-Hiroshima Japanese, etc., I have been distraught with the lack of cultural community here. It´s not like Cochabamba and La Paz, which are centers of new Bolivian writing; we barely have bookstores here. So I thought why not a literary magazine to display work, fertilize, and launch an identity of Chuquisaceña literature? I am completely confident that many writers are here, just disconnected. It turns out there was a cultural flourish in Sucre in the 1970s. And as small worlds go, Esteban´s brother Mimo Pacheco won the national novel prize a few years ago.

A new friend, Philemona Winstanley from England, has a history of starting magazines. She ran the first punk rag in L.A. in the ´80´s, Slash, and now Inti, a magazine by/for street kids. So she got on board. At the Cuban cantina (the place to be, two cramped rooms and a Che-loving dude serving undrinkable mojitos), we met up with the editor of Correo del Sur´s arts insert, Alex “Negro” Aillon, and his comrade from a cultural pilgrimage to Comandante Chávez´s Venezuela, Weimar. They have joined us. Too, the Correo designer promises to apply his artistic talents for free. You know how sometimes you have to push and push to get something going? Well, this is a project whose time has come.

 

And whither Bolivia?

From the inauguration of Evo Morales–which I attended on the suggestion of Tom Hayden in January 2006–until 2013, I have had the opportunity to witness the Making of a (centralized) Socialist State. One of the earliest events was the military take-over of privatized petroleum and natural gas fields, then nationalization of telecommunications, airports, and the electric grid. Alongside these events came the launching of State-run industrial projects like lithium production, the building of Hoover-sized dams and mega-highways to link Brazil to Chile for global trade, laying of pipelines to Argentina, etc.–in a kind of socialist trickle-down strategy so that clinics, bridges, and sports fields can be built and computers handed out to children. Just now the government is offering free change-over from gasoline to natural gas, a task that would normally cost $600 US per vehicle.

Too, we have seen a build-up of bureaucracy. They hand you a long list of t´s that need to be crossed, but a good half of the requirements is not even on the list. So when you arrive, after running all over town to amass your papers and standing in what-could-be a six-hour line, you are told ¡Oh! you lack this and that. Every page, every signature, every breath has to be accompanied by a memorandum and be notarized. I estimate that 10% of bus travelers are people going from one office in one city to another carrying paperwork for this or that official procedure, a boost for transport companies. Ximena has taken the red-eye to Tarija 30 times to try to get her social security payments—without success. It´s an eight-hour trip, although being Bolivia, once it took 20.

We have witnessed popular rejection of aspects of this brand of cambio in uprisings by indígenas, doctors, factory workers, truck drivers, teachers, police, taxi drivers–with national blockades of traffic, strikes, marches, and a few deaths. We have also seen State-sponsored violence: in the 2011 police crackdown on peaceful indigenous marchers from the Moxeño, Chimare, and Yurakerés tribes who were protesting a superhighway through their constitutionally-protected nature reserve, the Territorio Indígena and Parque Nacional Isibro Sécure (See “The Repression Strengthened Us,” www.counterpunch.org, December 30, 2011–January 1, 2012); in the 2009 execution-style matanza of right-wing opposition leaders; in justice procedures that never seem to manifest, about which even the human rights commission of UN is calling for resolution; like that.

A recent case is that of 75-year old engineer José Maria Bakovic who had worked for the World Bank years ago and later as national director of the Bolivian road department. He was ordered to court for 76 charges that those who know him (from all political spectra) refute. Despite doctor´s orders to not travel to La Paz (the highest, most ozone-less city in the world) due to a serious heart condition, he wanted to clear his name rather than flee. The room for processing was set, many say purposefully, on the top floor of a tall building–with no elevator. Already at an altitude too high, the man huffed and puffed up the stairs. Because of this, he was a few minutes late. They threw him in jail for being late, and he died of a heart attack. The outpouring of outrage from all sectors, including former presidents and journalists, was fervent.

Many believe that vicepresidente Álvaro Garcia Linera provides the Marxist brains behind the cambio. In fact, he is part of a group of intellectuals called La Comuna. The working concept is that an untouchable, centralized State is required to direct the decolonization process and the establishment of a classless society; that it will take 100 years to make the transition so the State must rule the process. They also seem to abide by Saul Alinsky´s canon of organizing: if one person/group is still hurting, first and foremost assistance goes to them. Ergo: we find the source of the objection that all the government´s money is going to campesinos and none to other sectors. For example: the government´s ignoring of requests for salary raises in the midst of inflation by transportistas, teachers, etc. Or the gassing of los discapacidados in their wheelchairs when they arrived to the capital to appeal for a minor increase in monthly welfare.

By contrast, ex-La Comuna member, academic Raúl Prada, doubts the efficacy of Marxist ideas in today´s world and believes in a decolonization process that is low-tech, low-hierarchical and guided by members of communities, and fosters food sovereignty based in communal land sustainability. His departure from the group echoes that of various government officials since 2006–and reiterates the archetypal dynamic between centralized and decentralized.

So it goes. The good, the bad, the miraculous, the sensational, and the plain weird. From whatever angle, it´s all a mad, mad, indecipherable marvel—and it´s an honor to be here for this slice of History.

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