Issue - October 2007

October 2007

In this issue, Linda Quibaa invites you to read about French language in Cochabamba. If you have plans to travel, do not miss the article by Lucy Witter on the Salar de Uyuni. And Walter Sanchez, from the Archaeological Museum talks about the Inca more...

October 2007

A Matter of Protest

A bird’s eye view of what induces Bolivians to trade in a ‘lie-in’ for a protest banner. Amy Stillmam learns what brought this.

By: Amy Stillman
Projects-Abroad Volunteer
St. Andrews, United Kingdom

Groggily stumbling out of bed, I found myself gaping at the view greeting me from Plaza de Colon at 9:00 am. I was shocked to see the faces of dozens of Bolivians occupying at least four blocks around the plaza marching down 25 de Mayo Street. Normally on a Friday, particularly a Friday that is the first day of my trip in Bolivia, nothing could remove me from the comfort of my first night in a clean, cushy bed after four days traveling. Nothing of course, except the booming voices of marchers chanting slogans outside my window.

After spending two weeks in Cochabamba it has become apparent that my experience that first day was in fact neither remarkable nor rare. Bolivia is a country in which the people “are doing politics even when they are not,” explained Leny Olivera, the project coordinator of the Democracy Center organization in Cochabamba.

This degree of political awareness is particularly unusual when compared with the lack of politically active movements in the Western world. As Melissa Draper, the assistant director of the Democracy center expressed, the amount of demonstrations that occur in Bolivia are rarely displayed in the US unless they are connected with elections, war, or in the case of major events. Even while engaging in the always enjoyable activity of people-watching, it is impossible not to notice the amount of Cochabambinos sitting in Plaza 14 de Septiembre with their heads buried behind the headlines of ‘Los Tiempos’ or ‘Opinion.’ In order to dig deeper into the causes behind this trend, the Cocha-Banner spoke with the members of the Democracy Center, Leny Olivera and Melissa Draper, as well as attending a local protest in Cochabamba.

The Democracy Center is an organization that promotes citizen-awareness, as well as research and reporting about Bolivia aimed at a foreign audience. It was founded in California by the Executive Director Jim Shultz in 1992, though it relocated its base to Cochabamba, Bolivia in 1998. Prior to her involvement with the Democracy Center, Melissa Draper worked in both Bolivia and India with grassroots women’s organizations, while Leny Olivera has been involved with Bolivian youth organizations and social movements for more than ten years. When asked about whether civilians in Bolivia felt a strong pull to engage in political matters, Melissa responded from her own experience as an outsider entering into the realm of Bolivian society. “It’s really impressive to see how Bolivians are so engaged in politics,” she explained.

“Everybody knows what’s going on. Everyone’s interested in the smallest details in regional and national politics. Coming from the US it’s quite a contrast.” Both Leny and Melissa agreed that this phenomenon is attributable to the fact that within Bolivia, politics is a matter of survival. Many problems in Bolivia both socially and economically center around “something urgent” according to Leny, and without an active civil society there are very few means for inducing change through the government.

Moreover, after the January 2006 election of current president Evo Morales the elements of Bolivian civil society appear to have taken on a new dimension of complexity. When asked whether political activity amongst Bolivian citizens had increased since Evo Morales assumed office, Leny explained that it depends on the group in question. While previously politics were drawn along the lines of who was in the government and who was protesting against it, “now it is more complicated,” according to Melissa. The “Left” is too often used as an umbrella term for the numerous and varied social movements, indigenous groups, and organizations that can either support Morales or demand greater rights from the government. As Leny stated, “There is a great diversity among social movements and indigenous groups, and not all are affiliated with Evo Morales’ political party, MAS.”

The “Right” opposition groups that oppose the Morales administration have also altered tactics to incorporate a wider range of strategies through greater public demonstration. Melissa attended a hunger strike in Santa Cruz in early December 2006 which was staged by the civic leaders of Santa Cruz, and various members of the “Medialuna” departments (Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz, and Tarija). The hunger strikers were demanding greater autonomy from the La Paz-based national government. Melissa reported that “this was not like any hunger strike she had seen before in Bolivia.” Hunger strikes are typically affiliated with protests at universities or within local human rights groups. This time the hunger strike was conducted by affluent, ‘well-to-do’ Bolivian citizens.

The tactics of the Right are not the only change affecting Bolivian society either; the growing divide within Bolivia has fueled greater civic tensions. This issue generated the violent confrontation between civilians that occurred this past January in Cochabamba. Leny explained that in the past, “all the confrontations in the country had been the people protesting against the government and the army, never among the people.” Since the January violence in Cochabama Leny has become more involved in non-violent means of protest.

She was invited to attend a three-week course in Vermont along with individuals from countries as diverse as Haiti, Iraq and India where she addressed some of the issues triggered by the January catastrophe. She says this kind of awareness by Bolivians will keep political and economic interests from dividing the country, something that she saw happen in January in a powerful display of racism and hatred. “Since that moment [in January],” Leny explained, “everyone is talking about how we need to find ways to avoid violence so that the people are never again exploited by political interests to breed hatred among Bolivians.”

Indeed, both women appeared to have high hopes for the progress of democracy in Bolivia. The fact that currently Bolivia has such an active civil society representing interest groups from nearly every walk of life implies that the government must take into account the diverse spectrum of Bolivian society. Such progress is demonstrated by the building of a new Bolivian constitution that must be approved by a consensus. However, while the Constituent Assembly appears to be a step toward development it should not be considered a panacea by any means, as both Leny and Melissa agreed that “the process became politicized” through measures such as the imposition of party-affiliation for all assembly members. As Leny stated, this meant that indigenous groups with no party affiliation “weren´t given the option to stand on their own.” While the new Constitution is still in the making only time can tell how it will affect Bolivian society.

In the meantime, the most noticeable form of civil action continues to be utilized by most groups in Bolivia to make their voices heard. This of course, is protest movements. In most cases groups use this strategy as a last resort when dialogue with the authorities appears to fall on deaf ears, especially when the group does not have the tools of education and contacts necessary to lobby for rights. Though it is evident that protests are not the only available channel by which people can reform governmental policies, it is perhaps the method that receives the most attention. The Cocha-Banner was able to explore this avenue of civil society by attending a demonstration organized by members of the group la Asociacion para la Defensa de los Derechos de los Animales (APPA) outside the Concejo Municipal building in Plaza 14 de Septiembre, Cochabamba.

The goal of the protest was to pressure the major (Alcade) of Cochabamba, Gonzalo Terceros, to approve an ordenanza that would make it illegal for circuses using animals in their shows to enter Cochabamba. The president of the organization, Liliana Perez, explained that the group was able to win this victory in Sucre previously with the support of many other organizations, and most importantly, the Constitution. Hence, she was optimistic that the demonstration would similarly affect the major in Cochabamba.

While the outcome of APPA´s protest in Cochabamba remains unknown, it is one among many cases in which Bolivians believe that the actions of the people can create change. This analysis raises some interesting questions in regard to the very nature of democracy. The fact that Bolivians seem more politically aware than the majority of western citizens is very likely a result of their rocky history with democracy in the past. Though if you believe that democracy is most truly represented by the direct will of the people then Bolivia appears to be moving in the right direction. After all, it is a country that does not often include a middleman between the people and the government. If for nothing else, it’s usually better to approach these things with a pinch of optimism. This can be particularly useful next time you find yourself staggering out of bed 3 hours earlier than you’re accustomed to after being woken up by the chanting of protestors outside your window!

Say hello to the french language
In South America, most people think learning French is not very useful. A Spanish teacher in Projects Abroad confessed to me that at university, teachers tell their students that French is the official language in only two countries!....
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