Wednesday, August 08, 2007

a gathering of the people

This afternoon I was sitting in a coffee shop when I suddenly saw blocks and blocks of average-looking people, probably indigenous, walking down the Avanza, a main street heading north toward the airport. I didn’t know what they were marching for. I couldn’t see any signs clearly, and I’ve learned better than to approach for pictures. They appeared pretty normal and peaceful, but every so often they let off loud, smoky firecrackers, which scare me, because I can’t tell if they are gunshots or an explosion. Many walked with umbrellas, others had shawls. Some held the hands of small children.

Amidst the bangs and the booms, the other people continued on with their lives. The car attendants guided cars into parking spots and provided quality washes while the patron was away, in return for a better tip. Upperclass patrons drank coffee and fruit shakes at The Alexander CafĂ©, many taking advantage of the free wireless with their notebook computers. The traffic was blocked on the protestor’s side of the road, but continued going the other way.

I was impressed that the protestors could attract so many people, but I didn’t think they did a very good job at carrying signs, or otherwise making it clear what they were marching for. It’s almost as though they just want to take a group walk through town, making a little noise along the way.

Within several minutes, traffic had resumed and except for the distant bangs, it was almost as though they’d never passed.

Later, when I took a taxi down the Avanza, we could see them up ahead. They had walked several kilometers and were blocking the road, a little further on from where I was headed. The taxi driver told me the are entrepreneurs who work as distributors of coca leaves – the raw plant that cocaine is derived from, but is a common thing to chew on here. I thought it was part of an anti-drug effort. But the driver said no, just that the coca farmers will now sell their products directly instead of through these people. These people aren’t going to be able to renew their licenses. I don’t understand the details, but they were clearly unhappy about this.

Yesterday a large military parade took place in Santa Cruz. There was a lot of contention surrounding the parade, because the President Evo Morales came to town for it, and because he combined it with a march of indigenous people. The government paid to bus in indigenous people just to participate in the march.

Some in Santa Cruz were going to declare a day of civil disobedience in protest. But in the end they decided not to and everything went fine. People were wary none the less though. Luis and his family didn’t travel over the holiday weekend, for fear of a road blockage. A taxi driver told me that the cambas (the locals from the east) are afraid of the President, and the President is afraid of them.

I didn’t understand the relation between the indigenous people and the military parade. In the evening, I had a long and illuminating talk with my roommate Renata, a 30-year-old professional from La Paz. She is one of the only people I know here who seem to support some of the President’s policies. She makes a special effort to buy only Bolivian manufactured clothing, to support the local industry and she told me Evo won the election in Santa Cruz as well, regardless of how people talk about him.

She said that the indigenous people were subject to severe racism over a long period of time, that in the past they weren’t even allowed to attend a military school. So that is why he asked the indigenous people to march as well, to celebrate their progress.

As our conversation continued, Renata lost her supportive posture and began to criticize the government more. She told me that Evo brought into power those like him, who are uneducated, indigenous, and full of resentment of how they’ve been treated in the past. But instead of trying to give opportunities to those who faced discrimination in the past, they want to punish the others.

Renata said that in La Paz, the government officials frequently criticize those who live in the Sur, which I gather is an upper-class area.

“They act like it’s all privileged people and foreigners, but I live in the Sur. They don’t recognize that it possible for a middle-class family to live there, to want to live there in order to give their children better opportunities,” she said.

She told me that the emphasis on clothing has reached such an extreme that people are judged based on their dress rather than their skin color. “Because we all come from mixed blood, it’s hard to tell who is really indigenous and who’s not. You can’t look at one person and say they are more Bolivian than another, because we are all mixed. So they look at dress. They hate suits and ties, because they see them as symbols of capitalism. And if a group of peasants is marching in town, they can cut off the tie of someone passing by. They can get quite unruly when together as a group.”

She said she’s disappointed that Evo did as all the others did and brought his own people into office. “These are people who are uncompletely uneducated and who know nothing. They want to make Quechua the first language of study, and only after that, English. I have friends who know a lot more and can’t find a job. And I see these people occupying high office and it’s shameful.”

She said people are worried about Evo making the country Communist and she worries about the regions fighting amongst themselves. Because of these concerns, she says, a lot of people are leaving.

Evo only has two years left in office, but she doesn’t see a possible opposition leader. “We have no leaders,” she said. “One needs to be trained in how to be a leader and we don’t have the environment here for that. Evo himself is a product of an indigenous leadership training program sponsored by UNITAS. And one needs to have their group, the people who will support them.

“At the time of the last election, we had the choice – to vote for how things had always been, or to vote for a change. Evo was the only one who offered a chance. And so many people decided to try for a change, even though they weren’t sure what they were going to get. Because they thought it would be better than continuing in the same path.”

She’s an interesting person – intelligent, passionate, cultured, open to new ideas. She’s hesitant to marry because she doesn’t want to give up her independent life. She is a leader at work and works hard, but also likes to party. I once left for the airport at 5 a.m. and tripped over her passed out in front of the front door. She’s so focused on her own success and advancement that she didn’t even notice the paucity of women in middle and upper management in the institution until I pointed it out to her. Unfortunately she’ll be going back to La Paz later this week. I think I could learn a lot from her.

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