Saturday, April 21, 2007

Tear Gas in the Most Unexpected Places

The other night I went to a yoga class in the center of town. It’s a calming, peaceful experience, during which students lie on mats and the teacher moves on light feet while chanting om.

During this class, I had an especially hard time concentrating. First was the car alarm, that seemed to go off for a good twenty minutes. Then came the repeated sound of shots. No one else seemed to notice.

After class, we descended down to the first floor, into the courtyard of the building.

“Do you smell gas?” my colleague Maria asked me. Another student put her hand over her mouth. I did smell something.

When we opened the locked, heavy wooden door, leading out onto the street, we saw people filing past. Almost all of them held cloths against their mouths. Clearly, something was in the air we shouldn’t be breathing.

We walked across the street to the parking lot where Maria had left her car. The parking lot managers sat outside under a small awning, watching TV. It was a couple, who looked dirty and ragged from poverty, and two small toddlers. All of them, including the children were holding cloths to their mouths.

“What’s going on?” we asked. They told us there had been a protest and the police had used tear gas.

I later found out that it was students from the Rene Montero state university who were protesting. A nearby private university had started to build a new building on a piece of land that Rene Montero university claims belongs to it. The private university shows documents proving they bought it legally. Rene Montero says its not true.

During the construction of this building, the students were constantly interfering and trying to prevent its progress. Bit by bit, they finished it, and now want to put the
building into use.

“And so last night was the biggest protest of all,” said Oscar, my Spanish teacher.

“But tear gas is dangerous, isn’t it?” I asked. “And so many people who weren’t involved in the protest were breathing it in (including me).”

“Yes, it’s very dangerous. But what else can you do when people are getting violent. There aren’t many other good ways to disperse people.” He scratched his head for a minute. “Except in Chile. You know, there they use high powered water cannons there.”

In my short time here in Bolivia, I can see that violent protests are common. Passengers whose plane didn’t fly took over the local airport, then a travel agency. Road blockages are considered a common event. In other areas of the country, considered much more troublesome than Santa Cruz, protests and blockages disrupt work and trade. Before I came, one of our employees in Cochabamba lost his eye by being in the wrong place at the wrong time during one of these disturbances. The protestors, when shown are TV, are generally yelling and gesturing angrily, regardless of whether it’s a young man or an older woman.

I asked Oscar why there is such a tendency for anger and violence in the protests here. I respect that people stand up for what they think is right. But why can’t they do it peacefully?

He thought for a moment, then offered his analysis. “First it has to do with the fact that people here are really misused and mistreated. Those who have power have been very corrupt and have taken a lot from the powerless. There is a great resentment of the rich by the poor. Then there is the heat. When it’s so hot, people sweat, they become uncomfortable, and they get angry more easily. There is the traffic, which also frustrates people and makes them angry. And there is a lot of racism between the cambas (those from the east – more European) and the collyas (those from the mountains - Indian). They don’t like each other because they are different. All these things together can make people get upset easily.”

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