domingo, 19 de agosto de 2007

The other sides to Bolivia

Santa Cruz

I was headed to Santa Cruz, a region that is the size of Germany and the richest part of Bolivia. I had been here before but the visit was so brief that I didn’t really get to know the place or appreciate why everyone said it was so different to the rest of the country.

The peg for my visit was a military and campesino parade the next day. Because Santa Cruz is the right’s stronghold, and because of bad feeling between el Oxidente and el Oriente and because of something that happened fifty years ago where Indigenous mercenaries came and raped and killed and so on… there were predictions of violence.

Maybe I wasn’t prepared for the Cruzeños. On my first night two lads responded with shock when I told them that I had been in La Paz and Sucre and no one had hurt me. ‘In some parts of the Oxidente they would look at you and because you are white they would kill you!’ They told me I should be careful at the march because people from the Oriente were savages… and then proceeded to divulge how certain radical groups were arming themselves and preparing to defend Santa Cruz when the time comes.

Another comment I remember is a taxi driver turning to me shiftily after a rant about the terrible dictatorial politics of the MAS and how Santa Cruz should be autonomous if not independent and said ‘the thing is, the President is an Indian.’ That is for a lot of people, the real issue.

As it happened the march went off without any trouble at all. It was quite a moving display of Bolivia’s diversity, with polished, uniformed men kicking their legs high as they filed forwards, and humble campesinos in traditional dress plodding forward in front of thousands. Ant these Cruzeños were the ones you don’t see so much. They came from the rural areas and the poorer urban areas and had darker skin.

Morales and his government called it a victory and said it put the right in Santa Cruz to shame. Meanwhile the Cruzeños, most of whom had not attended the march and carried on with their normal working day, said it was evidence of how hospitable the region was and that they had won because they had not responded to the provocation.

I was struck then by how desperate the media is here, especially television. There is one channel that broadcasts as though the country was in revolutionary Utopia and there really is nothing to worry about at all. On the other five channels they talk about crisis and are we headed for civil war and show pictures of previous violent troubles in 2003 in particular. I was interviewed as an international journalist too, by a television reporter whose questions were do pointed I felt more like a diplomat than a journalist, ‘how do you view the crisis Morales faces? What have his major errors been? You have just been in Sucre, were you shocked by the violence?’ and so on. I found this frustrating. How was I, or anyone else meant to get an idea of what was going on without real news, I mean, with only propaganda to rely on?

A very nice, though undoubtedly right leaning economist was my guide in Santa Cruz. I interviewed a lot of the key people here, because they don’t like to talk on the phone as there conversations may be recorded by the Government. They have some genuine concerns about the way the country is being run, and doubtless Morales has been shortsighted in addressing his base support and neglecting to the point of excluding people that do not fit in to this group and in particular the middle class. But what I noticed is that they repeated the same arguments I had heard from the youths and the taxi driver and on the television, just in slightly more sophisticated terms. And I felt as though there was a degree of protectionism and selfishness about their arguments too, and a definite disdain for those of a darker skin tone who live in the highlands or rural low lands.

There is racism on both sides. I have heard people in the Oxidente talk about white ruling class and how they want to take all the wealth for themselves and so forth. These people really do not understand each other, and that is a problem in a country as diverse as Bolivia. There are 36 different Indigenous nationalities here, that have different customs and traditions. Then there are Mestizos and people of European ancestry, then there are the poor, the rich, the rural farmers, the tropical farmers, the highlanders, the Pacenos (people from la Paz) the Chucisaqeños (from Sucre) the Cambas (from Santa Cruz), the people who want more autonomy, the people who want revolution… I could go on. This country is divided and those divisions are not showing any signs of disappearing.
I feel frustrated sometimes about how people do not work together for the good of their country or their political movement. So for example there are members of the MAS in the Constituent Assembly supporting the Sucre campaign, even though their leader wants it left to one side to be worked out later. This is a developing country, and I guess politics and structures are still part of what is lacking and what will come in time.

The whole capital issue is just bizarre to me. When you ask people why they want the capital here they say, ‘because it should be ours and we will get more money and more work in the region’, and when I say ‘yes but wouldn’t you still have to pay for all the problems caused by moving from La Paz and wouldn’t that cost La Paz too’ they say ‘La Paz has had its turn. I can understand people wanting to decentralise, La Paz has perhaps had all of the power for too long. But moving the capital is like bulldozing a part of the same country and economy… I am not sure if I am explaining myself well, but what I means to say is that Bolivia is divided and everyone seems to be fighting for their piece of the cake without thinking of the bigger picture. How can a country as weak as Bolivia even begin to get stronger when its people are so busy fighting amongst themselves?

Last week Morales tried to force the Constituent Assembly to leave this issue to one side. In a vote the majority of MAS members decided the Capitalia was not an issue they were going to deal with. People are furious about the way the decision was taken and there have been mass demonstrations in Sucre, hunger strikes, tyres and dolls representing Morales burnt in the street. And when you hear the campaign protagonists they recite the same arguments as I heard in Santa Cruz, about how we must defend democracy and how Evo Morales is a dictator and so on. And there are the banners saying ‘Santa Cruz is with you Sucre’ or ‘Beni gives you its support.’
It is clear to me that this issue has been more or less planted by the right and is part of a strategy to block the Assembly and ultimately bring Morales and his government down. Maybe that is just the way politics works, but I am still struggling to understand why ordinary people support the campaign, and do not see that they are being manipulated. And I don’t mean to get annoyed, because I realise that as a journalist I must be independent, despite the directions people here try and pull me in. But it just seems to me there are much bigger problems in Bolivia and much more interesting things to criticise Morales about.

The weekend with Che

There was some relief though. Having had some interest from a Newspaper about a story relating to Che Guevara, I had contacted the Che Foundation and headed to Vallegrande where Che died, for the weekend. With me, was Chato Peredo, a former guerrilla fighter and the brother of Inti and Coco who fought directly with Che. I knew I would like him when, ten minutes into our three hour journey he put Harry Belafonte on. Chato made us stop for sweet biscuits, wore an old army jacket and asked me which George Orwell books I had read. I liked him a lot, a felt at home.

The weekend was inspiring. Chato had great stories to tell about being arrested and hunted down by the dictatorship, about his brothers and the few times he saw Che. And all over town locals had something to say, pictures in their homes, little alters. They sit mass for Che her, he is like a Saint and people believe he performs miracles. And I am not exaggerating when I say that you can definitely see Che’s face and distinctive hat in the hills near La Higuera, where he was assassinated.

In the hospital where his body was taken and washed there are now Cuban doctors working, as part of Cuban-Bolivian cooperation. The laundry room is full of graffiti that has been left there as an expression of the people. It is true too that in the photo taken in there, Che looks alive, or as locals say ‘like Christ.’ Whatever he was certainly a man with great ideas, courage and am I allowed to say this… good looks. I did have to check myself with all these pictures of him in the villages. ‘Think about the state of the world and Che’s legacy woman not what lovely eyes he had you superficial eeejut.’

Maybe that is where I have been going wrong in my love life… looking for Che who is a) dead and b) probably horrendously high maintenance. Stop now Kika, you are Chepheming.

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