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.

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