Like the classic Christmas gift that you can dip into between Boxing Day and New Year´s Eve, today´s post is something of a selection box. It´s been two weeks since I broadcast any musings, two weeks in which La Paz has continued to entertain and fascinate. Two weeks in which Christmas has come and gone with much more of a business-as-usual approach than it seems to at home. Two weeks in which the rain has become more and more frequent and the hot sun less and less so. Two weeks in which I´ve seen El Alto´s famous wrestling cholitas. Two weeks in which I´ve got to hear more of people´s take on Evo and the ´revolution´. Two weeks in which White Christmasses across Europe and grounded planes have, or should have, brought climate change to mind – while here just yesterday the price of petrol and diesel jumped between 70% and 80% when the Bolivian government plumped for the free market, saying that it was no longer prepared to subsidise an industry whose product was mainly flowing out of the country in the hands of illegal profiteers.
After a ten-year price freeze Morales´government on Boxing Day gave its most unpopular gift yet to the nation when it ended the state subsidy of petrol. Mass strikes by bus drivers are messing with people´s ability to get to work or make plans for New Year, though life seems to be going on as usual inside the heavily congested streets of La Paz. We are waiting for the knock-on effect on prices; not just of transport but on food and all goods, which will have to incorporate the increased costs of production and distribution. Tonight Morales will give a key speech that will determine the level of disruption by transport unions and associations in the coming days.
At breakfast this morning with my cohorts from Bolivian Express magazine a new arrival from Australia asked the seemingly innocent but exceedingly controversial question: ´so, what do you think of Evo Morales?´. Given what I´ve just related, it´s not an especially favourable week from the government´s perspective to be pondering such a question. Of the three young Bolivians around the table, two considered Bolivia´s first democratically elected indigenous president to be a mere figurehead for an ´Andean´ branded government of rather superficial identity politics, whose supporters were manipulated, and which in any case had changed little in reality inside the country. The third, however, concurred more with views I´ve heard expressed from both foreigners and Bolivians here that Morales´ government represents a genuine change from the domination of white (i.e. Spanish-descended and upper class) governing interests that have controlled Latin America for much of the last four centuries. Morales was re-elected for a second term last year with a 63% majority – a figure politicians in Europe dream of – and has installed women in parliament in unprecedented numbers, redristibuted land and increased the welfare state. While Bolivia remains an incredibly poor country, he has also been either fortunate or canny in helping her keep out of the economic storm that has engulfed so many others. That said many are furious at his nationalisation of Bolivia´s crucial energy industry, at the cutting of diplomatic ties with the United States, at closed market policies that decide what crops farmers must grow, and at his attempts to change the constitution in order to stand for a third term.
One of the touchiest and most crucial subjects of debate and political manouevring here is the issue of coca. Evo is a former coca farmer and his refusal to engage in the US´s total eradication programme (currently proving so wonderfully successful in Mexico), in order to support legitimate coca commerce that supports many poor campesinos here, is one of the reasons why the two countries no longer have diplomatic ties (and Bolivia doesn´t receive US aid). I will be writing much more on this soon.
The coca plant is a feature of daily life here in Bolivia and has been for centuries. The leaves can be bought for a song by the bagful, for use in tea or simply to chew (bitter as anything by the way). Coca candies are available in jars in the restaurant underneath my flat. Its reputed properties, much as with marijuana, are manifold and range from nutritive benefits to combating altitude sickness to anesthesia. In Andean (pre-Hispanic or pre-Colombiano) culture, coca – partly because of these properties – also has major spiritual significance. Thus last Monday, when a lunar eclipse happened to fall the day of the summer solstice (yes, summer over here), I spent the night awake in Tihuanaco, a couple of hours from La Paz. The ´Machu Picchu´of Bolivia, the Tihuanaco were an ancient pre-Incan culture whose stronghold was in these extensive but fairly dilapidated ruins. The archeological site holds great spiritual significance, and so at 6am on the morning of the 21st (having failed to see any eclipse action through the thick clouds), we joined with a dozen or so locals to pay our respects to Pachamama. Having listened to various speeches in Aymara and added our tokens and blessings to the offering pile, which was subsequently set ablaze, we clasped hands and exchanged good wishes with each other, and took a handful of coca leaves to chew. Representatives from the local government, wearing their official jackets and with their mobile phones going off intermittently, were guests of honour at the ceremony. This, I feel, may not have been the case prior to Evo.
At any rate it was this more pagan event, in recognition of the changing seasons, that marked out midwinter for me, Christmas passing by uneventfully when the heavy rain interfered with plans to spend the weekend on the Isla del Sol. Driving back in the bus on Christmas Day to La Paz we passed scores of people sitting in the rain at the side of the road – mostly women and children – hands and hats held out hopefully for some extra seasonal generosity from those inside the vehicles. These are the poorest whom the current government has promised to dignify: they have a heavy task on their hands.
Find out next week about the fallout of the fuel fracas here. It´s set to be an interesting start to 2011 here in Bolivia…