The International Writers Magazine
: Bolivia

James Skinner

spent my honeymoon in La Paz, Bolivia; the forgotten and poorest country in South America. No sooner had I placed the ring on my fiancée’s finger and the Catholic priest blessed us with a sort of ‘go forth and multiply’ finishing sermon, that I received a telegram (the Morse code was still in style) from London HQ telling me to pack my bags and head for the Altiplano.

After a smooth flight from Santiago, Chile to Arica followed by a bumpy one in an old 1946 DC3, my wife and I arrived at the Bolivian capital’s airport, 12000 feet above sea level. The medical authorities had warned us not to over exercise for the first couple of days in order to acclimatise our bodies to the rarefied atmosphere. Big deal! Nine months later, our first daughter was born in one of the local clinics. To this day, she is still proud of her Bolivian nationality! We eventually lived there for just under three years.

Bolivia was, and I imagine still is a fascinating country. It is the fifth largest in South America, very rich in minerals including oil and gas and yet heavily divided both physically and politically. It has a range of mountains between it and the sea and is itself sundered by another range locking its high arid Altiplano from the fertile yet undeveloped eastern semi-tropical lowland. The majority of the population is made up of Aymara Indians who hardly speak Spanish whilst the wealthy minority that have controlled both the government and the economy for years are descendants of the few straggling Spaniards who ventured away from ‘El Dorado’ back in the XVII century.

Bolivia is also one of the world’s largest coca growers, the raw material for cocaine.
I remember one day, when I returned from work I found my wife shivering at the entrance hall clutching our newly born in her arms and pointing in the direction of the huge kitchen of our apartment. ‘What the hell’s the matter?’ I asked sheepishly. ‘There all in there; sitting on the floor; munching away and spitting all over the place.’ I ran through the hall and into the kitchen. Sure enough; our local ‘maid’ and another three women were sitting crossed legged in the middle of the room. A huge shawl full of green leaves was sprawled out in front of them. Each in turn, in a sort of ritual, would pick up a few and after a couple of chews, would spit out the frothy remainder on to the floor beside them. This went on for about an hour until the ‘guests’ bid farewell and our ‘employee’ would get on with her chores.

Hence was our introduction to the centuries old custom of coca-leaf chewing by the Aymara Indians; a social gathering event no different to the Anglo-Saxon tea or coffee drinking sessions taken during our own leisure breaks. In those days, the Bolivian coca farms were part of the local agricultural landscape. It wasn’t until international heavy drug trafficking came on the scene, decades later, that Bolivia joined the ‘most wanted’ list of suppliers and hence part of the US campaign against drugs. The coca growers were in for a rough time.

Reverting back to the economy, it is worth mentioning that Bolivia was at one time one of the world’s largest tin producers. That is, until the early 1980’s when the tin market collapsed. Despite reforms, tax changes and other modern political niceties to try to control the economy, Bolivia fell back into yet another period of social unrest. In the meantime, multinational oil companies began to exploit the country’s rich oil and specially its gas reserves. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. All this was going on whilst the USA was cracking down on the Latin American drugs trade. The majority of the Aymara population was being hit from all sides. That is, until around four years ago, when a young ex-llama herder turned coca grower called Evo Morales entered Bolivian politics.

In 2002 he led the MAS (Movement towards Socialism) party and presented himself as candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections. His electoral pledge was simple. He would nationalise the gas industry and legalise the coca growing. Dynamite for the Bush administration! Thanks to blundering statements made by the US Ambassador such as ‘threatening aid sanctions’ should his party win, Morales’ popularity rose and he reached an astonishing second place. Trouble is that from then on he created havoc in the country arousing populist sentiment, causing street demonstrations and other economic paralyzing events.

Over the next three years however, his popularity grew out of all proportions. On the 19th of December 2005, Evo Morales won the Bolivian presidential elections and became the first ever Aymara Indian to head the government. Although this time Washington kept silent, the damage had been done.

So what does the geo-political structure of Latin America look like now with a new ‘left-wing’ Marxist leaning president? Chavez of Venezuela and Kichner of Argentina have both publicly condemned the US’s imperialistic approach to Latin America’s problems. Lula in Brazil, as I stated in another report, sits on the fence. But Evo Morales has gone one step further. He has publicly called George Bush a ‘terrorist’ for ‘illegally’ invading Iraq and that his country will ‘join’ the ‘anti-imperialistic’ movement already started by Cuba and Venezuela. On the economic front, he has set the ball rolling by promising to nationalise the oil and gas industry and, true to pre-election promises, he intends to legalise the coca growing industry.

So what are you going to do about it George?
‘This new Bolivian president has called me Condescendence!’ said Condy Rice, ‘who does he think he is?’ George chuckled, ‘doesn’t matter. The worst part is that he’s gone to see Castro and next stop Spain to meet up with Zapatero, that European left wing pain in the butt. I don’t like it!’ ‘But what can we do, sir?’ ‘Nothing, Condy; there’s nothing we can do without starting the whole 1970’s mess all over again. I don’t want a new ‘dirty war’ down south.’ ‘But Sir, he’s insulted us!’ ‘Shucks woman, who cares. We’ve already got plenty from the Europeans and the Arabs, so what’s a bit more garbage thrown at us from our Southern neighbours.’ George finally burst out laughing, ‘let the oil companies and the drug enforcement guys do our dirty work.’

So there we have it. A new era of extreme left wing socialism has crept into the Latin American continent, yet again. First step is the take over of power followed by rabble rousing and anti-American rhetoric. Next are the nationalisation programs that include expropriation of land and natural reserves followed by cancellation of private multinational contracts (read the big oil companies). Finally it will be the handing over of the country to the ‘people’. By this time Wall St. has got its act together and sent in the 7th Cavalry. Enter the CIA. The whole shebang starts all over again.

It is rather ironic that the original trouble maker in the last century, ‘Che’ Guevara was caught and killed in Santa Cruz, Bolivia way back in 1967. His legacy lasted for thirty years and caused terrorist and counter-terrorist mayhem from Mexico down to Tierra del Fuego. It finally came to an end with the condemnation and trials of various military governors such as Pinochet of Chile and Videla of Argentina. Yet Castro lives on and although his ‘child prodigies’ have passed away, it appears that his ‘grandchildren’ offshoots are resurrecting the dead to have another go at changing Latin America’s social habitat.’
© James Skinner. January 4th 2006.

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