Before I came to Bolivia, I was determined to put my experience in a historical and political context that I could cleanly understand. One of my teachers from school had seen me at his open summer classes and, upon learning I was going to Bolivia, he offered me a massive stack of copies of articles from various well respected publications such as the Economist about Bolivian politics. Once I got to reading them though, I was frustrated by the overwhelming orientation towards the United States, and the blatantly white perspective. I entered this trip with the goal of learning about and understanding Bolivian history and politics from Bolivians themselves, and so I made this the center of my ISP.
For my ISP, I went to a research library and read a collection of articles reporting on the controversial referendum 21f, which asked whether the people would allow Evo Morales to run for president again beyond his constitutional term limit. The decision was narrowly a no. But the government decided that this was due to a “campaign of lies” about Evo’s mistresses and that it was against human rights to prevent someone from running for president if more than half of the country wanted him to run. Therefore, the decision was overruled, and Evo will be running again this fall. I also was lucky enough to have a series of interviews with people who have worked for Los Tiempos, and I was able to learn a lot about the relationship between journalism and the government here.
I cannot emphasize how little I truly understood coming here. In Bolivian culture, and pervasive in its politics, is the story of struggle and pain. Bolivia has been marked by colonization, dictators, and discrimination. It is defined by the struggle of the indigenous people, of miners and farmers. In 2000 and 2003, in the Water and Gas Wars, Bolivians had to march in the streets for access to basic resources and were shot at and killed by their own government. That pain is still recent. And that colonizing force is far from gone. In fact, Carlos Mesa, the vice president during the Gas Wars, is running against Evo this fall. Because of this history, Evo is more than a man. He represents a mental revolution that took place, in which the Quechua and Aymara felt safe enough to be proud of their identities, in which miners and farmers were shown they deserve to be treated with respect.
But within Evo, and within all of Bolivian politics, lies many contradictions. Evo represents the indigenous, but is actively destroying the indigenous lands of the lowlands that are protected within TIPNIS. Furthermore, there is a lot to question about his anti-capitalist sentiment, as within that same area, he has given away the protected lands to foreign oil companies. He is slowly coming to represent the people less, as seen in 21f. As I learned from my various interviews, free press is increasingly under attack, as many newspapers are government subsidized and can no longer post about corruption or criticize the government. There is also a proliferation of propaganda and misinformation, and despite having “primaries”, televised debates were made illegal. Obviously, this is scary. There are problems here.
But what people from the United States or anywhere else don’t understand though is that complexity. We swoop in from the outside, in Operation Condor style, and tell Bolivia that they are childish. Can’t they see that they are being tricked into a dictatorship? That Evo isn’t their only chance for representation? In those articles I read before the trip, everything was about the threat to democracy and free trade. But here in Bolivia, many of these “democracy movements” are lead by the white upper class and Mesa supporters. What indigenous Bolivians see in the movement towards democracy is a movement to the past, back into the Gas Wars and years of poverty, discrimination, and fear. Can you blame them? Mesa was quite literally the man behind the tanks and bullets that attacked them not even 20 years ago. Here, in El Alto, where this struggle took place, you can still feel that fear. Bolivia is built on that history of struggle. And, given the choice between the first hope they had seen in years and reopening the scars of the past, they will choose hope. Hope, with all the strings and dangers attached.