Photo by Lea Aschkenas
IN THE SUMMER of 2011, intrigued by the left-leaning presidency of Evo Morales and wanting to learn more, I arranged a two-week trip to Bolivia. Instead of flying to La Paz, I flew south to what I anticipated would be the quieter colonial capital of Sucre. But my arrival coincided with the start of what is probably the least tranquil week of the year there — the week leading up to the country’s August 7th Independence Day, filled with endless city-wide fiestas.
In the Recoleta district I encountered Feria de Alasitas, a traveling fair that filled up the Plaza Pedro Azures with rows of teenagers playing fussball while vendors hawked everything from handcrafted jewelry and alpaca sweaters to Triple A batteries and travel-sized packets of Kleenex. The smoke from roasting potatoes and sausages wafted through the crisp winter air while stalls selling cheese empanadas and chocolate-covered apples, fluorescent pink jello, and chicha de mani (a peanut and fermented quinoa drink) spilled into the streets, transforming them into pedestrian malls. And then, a few blocks northwest of the feria near the Plaza 25 de Mayo, the party picked up again with morning-till-midnight marching bands (of uniformed school children, of soldiers, of rubber-nosed juggling clowns) parading past my hotel and lining Avenida Aniceto Arce for as far as the eye could see.
Parque Bolívar, a rectangular expanse of green so far from the center of town that it ran off the edge of my map, seemed like the best way to escape the commotion. Without the crowds, I could make out the political graffiti that decorated many of the walls, calling for an end to electoral fraud, demanding justice for the victims of power-hungry politicians, insisting on the expropriation of transnational companies.
While Bolivia is South America’s poorest country, it is also one of its most organized when it comes to populist movements. In 1952, after centuries of Spanish exploitation of Bolivia’s silver and tin miners, the indigenous workers rebelled and their revolution resulted in a nationalization of the mines. More recently, in 2000 when the World Bank ordered the Bolivian government to sell the city of Cochabamba’s public water company to the U.S.-owned Bechtel, Cochabambinos took to the streets, protesting the proposed utility price hikes with strikes and transportation blockades until Bechtel was expelled. In 2003, similar protests by La Paz’s indigenous Aymará over the foreign sale of Bolivia’s natural gas resources ultimately pushed out the pro-privatization president and his similarly-minded successor.
When I arrived in Sucre’s Parque Bolívar in August 2011, I happened upon another, albeit related, historic protest. This one, though, was twofold with the objective of halting not just Bolivia’s but also possibly the U.S.’s history of granting impunity to powerful politicians. It was a quiet protest at the park entrance, across the street from the Supreme Court. About a dozen gray and blue domed tents lined a worn patch of lawn. Black, white and red banners flapped in the breeze alongside a Wiphala, the rainbow-colored flag of the Aymará and their indigenous compatriots....read more