Archive for May, 2010


Graffiti and some amusing pictures from our trip (Part 2)

May 10, 2010

One of the picture highlights of the trip was this little gem. After having translated the latest edition of their paper to distribute at the conference, during the closing ceremony members of the Turblence collective were confronted by a number of  policemen running towards them. It seems they were all keen to have a look at the latest ‘ideas for movement’, and some moments later were seen avidly scanning its pages.

While others utilised copies as much needed shade from the strong afternoon sun.

After the lengthy speeches of the closing ceremony, we went and relaxed at the Red Tinku‘s social centre, the buckets of chicha nicely washing down an evening of music, performance and dancing. Here’s a piece of graff adorning the wall of the women’s toilet at la Red Tinkuna.

And here’s another on an outside wall.

A couple of days later, during the march of the CSUTCB through Sucre, we spotted this piece on a wall heading out of the centre.

As well as being the official capital city of Bolivia, Sucre also boasts a number of dinosaur footprints still embedded into rock  just out of the city. A byproduct of this seemed to be numerous giant figures of dinosaurs on roadsides, and these figures on a rooftop near to the venue of the congress.

While a similar photo already exists on our post about May Day in La Paz, here is a close up of the Ministry of Work’s re-decoration.

A novel take on the usual black and white road markings was seen later along the May Day route.

La Paz is also home to the beautiful space that is run by the anarcha-feminist group Mujeres Creando, with their giant wiphala adorned with lesbian, gay, indigenous and queer positive messages.

one message reads: "you have to be brave to be queer"

It was only on one of our trips to the bus terminal in La Paz that we noticed just what a state democracy is really in, one man chuckling “House of Dictatorship” as he walked past.

'House of Democracy'

And the pictures we didn’t manage to get? The live close up of Hugo Chavez picking his nose on one of the big stadium screens during the closing ceremony, the May Day in La Paz including Coca-Cola workers all marching with half drunk bottles of the bad stuff in their hands, and the stencil of Che Guevara wearing a toque above the words ‘Chef Guevara’ are some that spring to mind.


MayDay in La Paz- dynamite and demands for higher pay.

May 8, 2010

The pollution and the altitude in La Paz combine to make breathing even on the flat a challenge. The city is dramatic, clinging to the steep sides of mountains. After dumping our luggage we headed out to look for the May Day demonstration that had made its way down from El Alto, the young sprawling city which has grown to be Bolivia’s 4th biggest city in the last 50 years. We headed to the square that the march was heading to, and saw various different types of police officers waiting with shields and tear gas. It didn’t take long to find the march approaching the centre, as it was accompanied by fire crackers, marching brass bands and chants, El Pueblo Undido- Nunca Sera Vencido! (the people united will never be defeated!)

The march was split into different groups of workers, the fabriles or factory workers who are generally more critical of the government, and the venderdores, or sellers. This resulted, at times, in there appearing to be two consecutive marches happening within the same area of central La Paz.

We got talking to Ricardo one of the workers from a large garment factory in La Paz who export the majority of their products to the US. “We are here today as a protest, the government is offering a 5% pay rise, but this is not enough, we are demanding 12%.” Alongside the demonstrations there are currently 12 people from high up in the unions who are on hunger strike to support the demands for the higher pay increase. And another 50 from Cochabamba fabriles union.

As we passed the Department of Work, a middle aged woman on a megaphone shouted out the many ways the government had let down workers, as the building got pelted with numerous pink paint bombs.

The sound of firecrackers ricocheted off the high buildings, but paled in comparison to the booms of the dynamite that sounded as the march rounded onto the main street, El Prado. One man joked with us, “well that’s one less car,” but there was no evidence that the dynamite was being blown for anything more than powerful sound effects, and maybe a reminder of the historical power that the mine workers have had in this country. A commotion outside the FTSB, Union Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia, sent a ripple of nerves through the crowd and blinds on shops began rolling down as the marching Pacena woman, in their full traditional dress, ran around the corner and up the hill in the opposite direction.

Despite our earlier expectations of heavy policing and the possibility of tear gas, it was amusingly clear that ice cream sellers were a lot more prevalent than police. After a brief time moving with the young anarchist block, the march seemed to dissipate and everything was all over by lunch time.

However, when we were due to leave La Paz the next day there was a huge detour, some said because of road blocks and strikes. Buses, lorries and colectivos wound through dirt tracks along the sprawling outskirts of El Alto, seemingly lost.

Eventually our bus re-found its bearings and we arrived to the small Lake Titicaca town of Copacabana that was nearing the end of an all weekend fiesta. While some had already packed up their brass instruments, drums and costumes to make their way back to other areas, there was still a throng of people on the streets and many watching videos of the dancing and performances some hours before.

Despite what began sounding like bad karaoke booming out from opposite our hostel until the wee hours, we woke up early to make the two hour boat ride across to the Isla del Sol. Known in Inca mythology as the place that the Sun was born, aside from the growing tourist trade and the fairly recent addition of mainline electricity, it appeared that little has changed on the island for centuries.

There are no cars, the etching of terraces and small scale agriculture across the hills. Broad beans, maize, potatoes, herbs and quinoa are grown on small parcels of land, and water is brought to the houses high up on the hills by small donkeys.

In what was the most tranquil setting we had been in throughout the whole trip, the peace was occasionally spoilt by annoying gringo tourists. Numerous gap year students and those taking ‘career breaks’ so as to be able to ‘do’ continents like South America, many seemed to be there for the sole reason of cheap drinking. They seem so unaware that their position of wealth and privilege, and indeed their political and economic freedom of movement, relies on centuries of exploitation that have created the resulting poverty which means that local plumbing systems may not be what they are accustomed to!

Despite this we did find peace, sights of stunningly light blue waters and incredibly complex constellations in the night sky. We were even lucky enough to find some local folk who hadn’t yet been jaded by the more obnoxious tourists, and who filled us with stories of the island’s past as well as its present.

This beauty and tranquillity made the return via El Alto even more striking, this is where people who are leaving the fields behind often end up. As far as the eye can see in the distance the new city of El Alto stretches in to the Altiplano. Fried chicken joints break up hastily constructed breeze block houses with big metal gates and bare lightbulbs. Dogs run around among piles of burning rubbish and colectivos drop people off still resplendent in their bowler hats and sparkly shawls.

We saw a sign on the dual carriageway that snakes up from La Paz to El Alto, a government sponsored anti-migration advert, showing people crammed on to the back of a lorry leading to a far off and unappealing land, “Don’t go, you don’t know what you’ll find” it warned.

Our time in Bolivia has left us with so many questions. With the complexities of the problems that exist here, how could any government of any leaning really go about resolving the contradictions? No matter how the Evo administration may be trying we are sure from speaking to friends here that to call out the current governments contradictions, the differences between their rhetoric and their actions, is crucial. As we sit in Cochabamba airport preparing somewhat sadly to leave, the questions of how we will summarise and evaluate all that we have seen, learned and heard here buzz around our heads. This is our last post from Bolivia, but we will post more as things settle in our minds.


Report from the Campesino National Trade Union Congress, (Part 2)

May 5, 2010

Before we could take part in the second day of the CSUTCB campesino congress, we had to get our accreditation as ‘journalists’. This involved being taken past some Policia Sindical (PS) or Union Police by a friend, each of them scrutinising us closely, and then sitting nervously for an hour in a huge hall waiting for our passes to come back to us. The PS each had sticks and we certainly didn’t want to get on the wrong side of them. There were very few press people present, and most cameras were taking commemorative pictures of people under the Evo banner.

As soon as we got our passes we made our way outside, relieved. We got chatting to one of the (PS),  Javier from Oruro, about their role. He explained that this was a custom from indigenous communities, where there is autonomy from state police and the PS work as a form of self-regulation. At the congress male and female PS from all the regions had organised into groups with a captain and sub-comandantes. Their main role was to make sure that there was no-one there who shouldn’t be to make sure it was a fair vote,  and to prevent any trouble from breaking out. “We are aware of our cultural idiosyncrasies!” he said, explaining that people outside who had been drinking would be stopped from coming back in.

We asked Javier about the significance of being in Sucre he said, “When I saw the humiliation that happened in Sucre in 2008, I felt as if it was happening to me.” Until that same day nobody had faced trial although now proceedings are beginning against a few of the perpetrators. He had attended the climate conference and while he found it very positive event overall he pointed out that indigenous participation was high, whilst the middle classes and students were noticeably absent. A possible indication of which sectors of Bolivian society are supportive of the government’s policies.

Javier explained that the effects of climate change are already being felt in the Oruro region; less predictable seasons, heavier rainfalls and longer winters. New diseases have been brought by mosquitoes, which they had never had at that altitude, and there is a new plague of hares that are menacing the crops. “Mining has drastically damaged the local water systems, livelihoods from fishing have been destroyed, the water is contaminated and livestock are born with deformities…  Whether the mines are nationalised or not, the pollution is the same.” Unfortunately our chat was cut short as he was called off to a meeting.

After a lot of ushering by the PS, by about 4pm things eventually got started, but it became clear all was not going well. A Cochabambino friend explained that the delays were, “pure politics.” The main aim of the congress was to elect a new president and officers for the following 5 years. Once all the regions were present and sat where they should be, separately from each other around the hall, they each proposed one representative. There were disagreements between the West and the East of the country over the candidates and accusations that the Paceñas (people from La Paz) had brought too many people with them in order to influence the voting. One key decision was how the voting would be conducted. The options were secret ballot, lining up in front of a favoured candidate, or raising the hand and shouting – the latter coming out as the the preferred option.

We soon realised that the internal union politics were not really for us to engage with. Cristian Dominguez, who we had met in the UK and Copenhagen and who had invited us to the congress, was up for re-election and so was busy negotiating with different delegates for their support behind the scenes. The problems faced by campesinos were not being discussed, but instead the complicated regional politics of this trade union and the wider country. Whilst it was an interesting experience, we ultimately left feeling that it was a lot of the same old power politics and not the more directly democratic model that we  expected to find.

The next day it was reported in the papers that there had been a major breakdown in the meetings. A fight had broken out on the stage and the conflicts over candidates had prevented things from moving forward, with the current representatives relocating to continue the meeting. The tensions seemed to be a result of differences between those loyal to the government and those not. It was suggested that any dissenters of MAS were excluded from the congress. The role of the CSUTCB has been key to Evo’s rise to power, but it appeared that now with MAS in government, the union itself may face regional fractures.


Graffiti and some amusing pictures from our trip (Part 1)

May 5, 2010

So on our first full day in Bolivia we couldn’t resist but go and visit the biggest statue of Jesus in the world (so we are told), or “giant jesus” as we lovingly referred to him. While originally this had been a jokey request from a loved one back home, a demand for a photo of us at his feet, we were all in fact quite keen to make the journey and take a look for ourselves. So a hot walk and a short cable car ride later we there at the top, admiring the outlines of breeze blocks still present in the original construction. Jokes aside, it was a great place to get a full view of Cochabamba and its surrounding areas – a moment to take a deep breath before the hecticness of the conference began.

Jesus warning - "danger, avoid being a victim"

Cochabamba has a great array of political graffiti, stencils and murals. This piece is on the corner of the Plaza Principal, a key area of organising during the Water Wars and still to this day a site of mobilising and protest. Only the day before we headed out of Cochabamba there was a protest outside a government building very close to this mural, as residents from District 9 tried to hold the municipality to account for still not having met promises relating to water supply in their area.

"The Water is the Peoples"

During the march on the first day of the Feria del Agua, marking 10 years since the Water Wars we saw a whole selection of political graffiti and messages along the route as well as adorning the walls of the venue, Complejo Fabril. We also watched as pieces as were being made (there’s a photo in an earlier post) and have since been lucky enough to meet some of the awesome women who were responsible for them. Here’s a selection of what we saw on the day.

"The Water Is Ours - Dammit!"

"Mother Earth is not income. It's not for sale. It's not for rent!!"

"Capitalism = Death"

"Death to the State"

"Neither God, Nor Master, Nor Political Party"

Chewing coca leaves here is akin to having a cup of tea back in the UK. The beginning of the conference working groups, meetings and the inauguration of the CUSTCB congress have all included opening rituals and the sharing out of coca leaves amongst participants. Despite ongoing denial, it’s commonly known that the original recipe for Coca-Cola involved coca and in this vein Bolivia has its very own product on the market. Coca Colla (do you see what they did there?!) is available in the major cities of the country, and this specimen was spotted on the floor of a side event during the conference. Unlike its widely known competitor, this one proudly states its ingredients on the bottle.

In a similar vein, the closing ceremony of the conference included the most unusual mascots we have ever seen, who we have since named “Daddy Coca Leaf” and “Babby Coca Leaf”. While different indigenous groups paraded around the arena performing traditional song and dance, our coca leaf friends amused people on the field and made us smile from ear to ear.

More to follow….