September 2008

A few more links on Bolivia that you may find interesting to read. Some may be a little out of date now – I meant to be writing more this week but have been ill. I’ll keep adding to this as I find more over the next few days.

BOLIVIA:”Twenty Families Are Obstructing Governability” By Franz Chávez. Some background and analysis of possible solutions.

It is precisely this avalanche of votes, the greatest proportion won by a president since the restoration of democracy in 1982, that raises questions for sociology Professor Joaquín Saravia, who told IPS that “The government appears insecure, because it has overwhelming social and political support, but this has not translated into real control of the country, which is alarming,” he said.

The head of the governing Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) parliamentary group, César Navarro, said that democratic changes being promoted by the government are resisted by the elites, who are accustomed to lives of privilege and benefiting from the state.

Elite Backlash, by Nick Buxton. Commentary on Monday’s conflict, including a translation of an account from Bolivia.

What they nearly always fail to mention are any of the following facts:

– that the opposition is led by business elites and big landowners who have spent vast amounts of money, tactics of intimidation, and violence to push the message that regional autonomy will improve people’slives
– despite this fierce campaign and the almost complete absence of central government, the opposition’s popular support is still limited to the cities whilst the central government’s support grows ever more
– that the central government’s nationalisation more than doubled the revenues for the Eastern regions
– that the Right who fought the Constitutional Assembly for a year saying everything had to be approved by two-thirds suddenly don’t want any further popular votes now that two-thirds backed Evo in a referendum in July

Definitely worth reading, this is the reaction of the Center for Juridical Studies and Social Investigation, the organisation whose building and records were destroyed on Monday. “Violent Groups Take Over Human Rights Organization In Bolivia”.

The offices of CEJIS, along with its personnel, were attacked more than 15 time in the last five years. In the last months the institution suffered two attacks with molotov cocktails (in November 2007 and last August). In its 30 years of work, CEJIS has provided legal assistance to indigenous, landless and peasant organizations in the process of titling their lands and territories. It has been a permanent ally of the social movements in the legal codification of their rights in national legislation, and advised and accompanied the progress of social organizations in the Constituent Assembly. This work has implied a permanent risk on the personnel and offices of CEJIS, threatened by the sectors of power that have historically controlled the region of Eastern Bolivia, who now feel menaced by the advance of the rights of the most marginalized sectors of our society.

As always, for ongoing analysis check out Jim Shultz in Blog from Bolivia (in the links to the right). In particular he reported last night on one piece of good news and potential hope for a solution other than civil war:

Tarija’s Governor Heads to La Paz for Negotiations with Morales

The one good piece of news today is that Tarija Governor Mario Cossío announced that he was headed to La Paz this afternoon to open a negotiation on the current crisis with the Morales government. Radio Erbol also reported that Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas has endorsed the negotiation effort. “I am completely convinced that this is the last opportunity to begin a process of reconciliation and leave behind the process of confrontation,” Cossio told reporters.

His piece from yesterday (Friday 12th) is worth reading in its entirety.

The Gringo Tambo blog reports on “8 dead in Pando overnight”, giving a brief summary which links to an article in Spanish:

Again according to La Razón, eight people were killed in Pando in “armed clashes” between autonomistas and masistas. Venezuela is threatening to intervene. Brazil and Argentina have said that they will “not tolerate” a coup and that they fully support the Morales government. Meanwhile, Evo is mobilizing military and police troops. No word yet on what is happening today. From what I understand things in Santa Cruz are tense but calm, with members of the UJC still occupying buildings.

Following that, there is more historical background on these clashes from the political scientist blogger Miguel Centellas.

The sad thing here is that these are not military units, which should be the forces (along w/ the police) used to restore state authority. The consequence—assuming they actually do march on Santa Cruz & other opposition-controlled areas—will be a higher casualty count. For all their bravura, Ponchos Rojos (like the UCJ) lack military discipline & training. That means their clashes will be bloody, like the clash in Pando that left at least 8 dead & 80 injured.

Miguel’s summary post from this morning is also very useful, describing the Bolivian military’s reaction to Venezuela’s ‘offer’ to send their army into Bolivia to defend Morales at a time when the US ambassador has been forced to leave the country for interference in Bolivia’s affairs.

Via Overthinking It (my new favourite blog) I just came across Chris Marcil’s blog following his attempt to read the entire Harvard Classics. Marcil is a comedy writer, better known for penning such pop culture classics as Beavis and Butthead and Frasier than for his knowledge of Cicero, Byron and their ilk. The result is an idiosyncratic combination of humour and intellectual analysis that makes for great reading. For example his thoughtful comments on Darwin are particularly apt at a time when stooopidness seems to be making another attempt to spread beyond the US to the UK.

Last night I went over to my friends’ house, and saw TV for the first time in months. She had heard about blocados up in El Alto so was tuned to the news to work out if the rumours were true. But all we saw was reports on Santa Cruz. For the last few months I have been repeating what everyone in La Paz knows – things are calm and peaceful in the highlands because all the violence this year is in the South. But for the first time I actually saw what this looks like.

Each channel we switched to was showing the same thing. Crowds of young men dressed in shorts and t-shirts, some with surgical mask on their faces but many with nothing covering their wide grins, attaching buildings with sticks and stones. The sound of glass breaking and clouds of curling black smoke above, a tear gas canister being kicked down the street by a teenager who gives it one last aim at a small huddled group of riot police. The rocking camera follows the shouting young men into the building, into an office. It picks out groups pulling stacks of paper out of filing cabinets, yanking computer screens off desks, ripping even the chairs and the telephones out and carrying everything into the street. The beam of the camera rests on two young men, perhaps in their late teens but certainly no older than 21, as they lean over an opened computer on the desk, pulling out wires at random. Their backpacks bounce on their backs as they run out to join their friends, and somewhere in my head I wonder whether the bags show they came prepared or just straight from school. Behind them a boy of about 12 is riffling through a cabinet in someone’s desk.

Outside in the street again. Everything is set alight. Desks, screens, telephones and endless stacks of paper make up the bonfire. A shot of the outside of the building, and half its windows are broken. Out of them more paper flutters to the ground through the rising smoke. The crowd is cheering and shouting and suddenly the camera picks out another young man, but this one is in army fatigues. He is curled up on the floor with his hands around his head as a growing crowd takes it in turns to kick him till the blood runs. His uniform is torn, and as he is dragged to his feet and turns to the camera we see a blank expression of fear and utter confusion. His soft brown skin traced with blood stands out in the sea of white faces around him, but like them he is barely out of his teens. The camera cuts to three men marching through the streets, green and white flags held high and one with a gun slung over his shoulder. The crowds part to let them pass through, cheering them on as they hold their heads high and faces stern for the mass of television cameras.

The building being destroyed was a government building responsible for dealing with land reform. In the same day other government buildings were destroyed in the same manner, along with the offices of Entel (a telephone company), and Canal 7 (a television station). Soldiers in Bolivia are conscripts, but the rich can usually buy their way out so they are predominantly young, poor men from the countryside. The young men attacking the building are members of the Santa Cruz Youth Movement, the ‘Autonomy’ movement’s foot soldiers. The green and white flag is the flag of Santa Cruz, in contrast to the red, gold and green of Bolivia.

What other images did we see?

Older men with round white faces standing in the plaza talking fast and furious into the expectant microphones. Morales is a dictator he says. We are men and women standing up for our freedom. We will stay here in the plaza all night holding our peaceful vigil. Another reporter shouts out a question and he turns. We go back to the studio, and then cut to another plaza a long way away. Outside the presidential palace in La Paz another crowd is gathered. Trilby hats and darker faces – the men have come from the highlands to the city to tell Evo he needs to use a strong hand against the right-wingers in the South. At the bottom of the screen they are described as ‘indigenous vigilantes’. The camera pans to the large crowd standing on the steps of the Plaza Murillo, facing the palace and chanting “Strong Hand! Strong Hand!”

We cut back to images of youths in the streets of Santa Cruz. They are kicking a police motor cycle in the street, eventually setting it alight. Then we go to an interview with someone who says that the governor of Santa Cruz has been paying the police not to intervene. Another cut to lines of people queuing in El Alto to buy cooking gas. The department of Santa Cruz contains the gas supplies, and their blocados are finally taking affect. There is not enough gas in the cities for people to cook with. A minister appears who says that his aim is to have gas lines connected directly to people’s houses to avoid this problem in the future. He asks for patience for another year – after all, in the previous 25 years of government no-one even considered this idea. I make a mental note that we only filled our gas canister a week ago, but that the previous one had had a leak and run out far too fast. We need to be more careful. My friend sitting next to me suddenly notices the minister is wearing a Che tie.

I’m watching all this with my two good friends: Anna, who is a liberal and a passionate Obama supporter from the US, and her long time boyfriend, Eduardo, a Bolivian anarchist. Anna is furious. Why aren’t they doing anything? What is Evo doing? Why don’t they send the army down there to arrest those men? How can they get away with doing this so blatantly, so publicly? It’s all there on the camera!

We wait, along with the camera men and the crowds looking up at the lights in the windows of the presidential palace, hoping to catch Evo Morales’ speech in reaction. We wait, and nothing happens. We argue backwards and forwards about what he could do, but eventually Anna is frustrated and asks us to turn the television off. We go out to eat.

Over pizza we discuss the options. The governor of Santa Cruz is paying off the police, so Evo should send the army. If he sends the army then he will be accused of acting like Goni, the last president, who sent the army against the crowds of protesters trying to throw him out of office. People died, and Evo can’t be seen to be comparable. Anna thinks the international community should get involved – if the soldiers are from another country then he won’t face that accusation. Eduardo disagrees. He has to use the army. He is the state, and this is what the state does to enforce it’s will – it uses violence. But Evo is reluctant, because he wanted to do be different, or maybe because he knows he is in an impossible position. Could they dialogue?, Anna asks. They say that the last time Morales and Ruban Costas, the governor of Santa Cruz, met, Costas ripped up a cheque Morales was giving him in an official meeting and threw it in his face. He calls Morales a monkey. They say his personal land ownings are larger than the entire department of La Paz. How can you ‘dialogue’ with that kind of racism, that kind of entrenched interest in maintaining the status quo?

Anna is frustrated because to her it makes no sense that there can be no reaction. But for me, and I think for Eduardo, there is something more complicated going on. We all have reached a point of stalemate – Evo can’t react with force against the violence without replicating the reaction of Goni and being accused of being the same.

The images I saw on television were familiar. Riot porn. We on a particular part of the left have seen similar images before and have viewed them as resistance and rebellion. Indeed, in 2003 and 2005, when it was campesinos and miners marching through the streets of La Paz and overthrowing Goni, we cheered it as a great victory of the people over the oligarchs. I still believe it was, but the absolutely crucial problem now is that the oligarchs are using the identical tactics to achieve the opposite politics.

Where does this put us on the left, those of us who have supported Evo? I would never have though I would find myself in the position where I would be distressed by the burning of the government, sympathising with the riot police, and advocating sending in the army. This is a very weird position to find myself in.

The paradox of Bolivia, Eduardo argues, is that we have seen it as a revolution when it is not. I also am beginning to see it as this. Evo took power through the ballot box, and although he is indeed a different type of politician, he sought power through the existing system and became the state. The power of the state comes through the use of violence, and the legitimation of elections. While 68% of the country support Evo, there is still a minority, and if they don’t accept the rule of law then the state has no means to enforce it other than through violence. We believed in Evo as if he were something different, and by his reluctance to send in the army perhaps he is proving he, too, still sees himself as different. He still thinks he is not the state. But he is, and ultimately he will only be able to keep hold of his power by using the weapons of the state.

There is one last piece of pizza, and I let Eduardo and Anna split it. Anna thinks that they should let Santa Cruz burn. If they want to destroy their infrastructure, let them! The international community will not support them, and Bolivia relies on Brazil and Argentina to buy its gas. Isolated and without infrastructure, cut off from their customers, they will soon give in. Eduardo dismisses the idea. They would build new institutions. It would serve as an accusation that Evo was trying to starve the people. Evo wanted to be head of state and he is – now he must act like one and crush his opposition. This is not a revolution – whether on the left or the right, he still has to act like an overseeing power that imposes its will on the minority who don’t agree. Anna gets angry. Anarchism is not a viable solution, she says. You really think that is the answer?

And here is where Eduardo and I are stuck. We believe in anarchism, but support “realistic” alternatives in the belief that it is unlikely that we are going to be able to bring about the kind of world we would rather see. So we supported and still do support Evo. But now the opposition are using the same means of resistance to the imposition of state power that the left used 3 years ago, and we have a problem. Evo is the state – he sought and gained power through the existing systems of electoral politics backed up with the legitimate use of violence. The fact that he gained power through acts of violence that directly challenged the state’s monopoly on violence only complicates the matter further, in that now he is trying to be a state at a time when the legitimacy of the state remains in question.

The cracks are beginning to show. We have supported compromise in order to be realistic, but the compromise is not viable. We have looked to Bolivia as an alternative, as a place where radical and positive change can really come about through the ballot box. We have swallowed all our objections and criticisms to this form of politics in the hope that it would work. Now when that support involves us advocating sending in the army to crush the resistance, when the only way we can convince those who oppose us is through violence, it causes prickles of unease. That unease is only going to grow. Can we – must we – go back to believing another world is possible?

The last few week have been spent in the slow lane over here on the wrong side of the world. Most days I am taking Spanish classes, going to the gym (well, almost everyday), watching a lot of Buffy, slowly working my way line by line through Strathern’s The Gender of The Gift, and spending too long on the internet. Having realised that my Spanish was not yet up to the task of doing the research I wanted to, I set aside the last month of this year’s trip to taking classes and actually doing all that verb conjugation and vocab practice I don’t usual have time for. Its been oddly peaceful, which is handy because as soon as I get back to Chicago next week the world will explode again.

My Spanish teacher is a rather nervous young woman. We are getting to know each other quiet well, though I tend to find that’s often the case with such classes: you spend an inordinate amount of time having to talk about your personal life or express your personal opinions. We have argued over Bolivian politics, discussed our views on globalisation, ranged over my thoughts on my colleagues, my family, my love-life, my research and my recipe for moussakka. It makes me a little uncomfortable. (especially the moussakka part)

It doesn’t help that we’ve been covering the subjectivo, something that doesn’t seem to exist in English but is used to express doubt or opinion in a sentence. So I end up with exercises like the following:

Express whether it is/is not important/just/necessary that:
– we have much work
– parents discipline their children
– we help the poor
– children respect their elders
– there is contamination in the air
– that Man is civilised
– the US helps other countries
– the US makes peace with Russia

(Yeah that last one was a bit of a give away about the age of the textbook.)

The pedantic anthropologist in me can’t help but squirm. Alas I can’t give “well that depends on the context and how you define the concept of justness or civilisation” as an answer every time, even if I do use the subjunctivo to say it. I know, I know – they are just exercises. But until my Spanish is good enough to explain the concept of cultural relativism, these exercises are going to be tricky.

The number of personal questions can tend to make you start feeling like you’re in a therapy session. I remember one doomed introductory German course I took as an undergrad where even the basic statements, coming as they did at a rather complicated time in my love life, reduced me to tears. My poor study partner soon learnt to stop asking the marital status question and to stick to asking how many brothers and sisters I had.

Last week we were using a lot of airport based vocabulary, and I ended up trying to convey my airport rant (see a few posts below) in Spanish to my poor teacher. She got an even more confused and blabbery version than I wrote down there, given that it was in Spanglish. Recently airports and the mystic alchemy that is buying plane tickets has been somewhat on my mind though. Having followed the various rules for finding the cheapest fare (look before a tuesday because that’s when the prices go up, don’t use the same website too often for the same fare because they raise the price depending on how often people search for it, check out the secret student discount fares on the secret student website, pick an odd day to fly, stand on one leg bathed in the light of the full moon singing “she’ll be coming round the mountain” backwards while searching) I finally found a flight. And then of course it went up by $100 in the space of the 5 hours I was waiting to hear back from my relatives in the UK.

(Here’s an interesting maths question while we are on the subject. If a flight on Virgin Airlines between Chicago and London is advertised on the first page after searching as $630, but then when you click on the link to buy it, the cost break down on the next page is $288 fare each way, $462.31 tax and $750.31 in total, how much of the original price was tax, how much fare, and how much bullshit?)

But I brought it anyway. Sadly I was too late to make it back to the UK in time, and given that airlines don’t even like to give refunds when its their fault, I don’t think I will be getting my money back. So all I can hope for now is that the funeral can be arranged to coincide with the flight I brought. Its left me a bit up in the air about where I’ll be once I leave Bolivia – another reason to savour the calm here this last week.

The thing about a language class other than a normal conversation is that you the student tend to do most of the talking, rather than the teacher. So they get to learn a lot about you, but its hard to gauge what their personal reaction to your opinions is as opposed to their professional assessment of your grammar. The last class I had ended with a discussion on Bolivian politics in which I asked my teacher to tell me what she thought instead. She started to tell me how corrupt Evo Morales is, and how he is ruining the country, how the poor people in the countryside need to be taught and led because they can’t make decisions on their own in their best interests. Makes me wonder what she thought about my inarticulate replies to her questions on globalisation, international travel and politics. And makes me a bit more reluctant to try and express myself and my personal opinions in the last few classes.

Looking for love can be hell. This strangely poignant story of a 67 year old woman working the personals really got to me for some reason. Perhaps because I think she’s still braver than I am.

Facebook is usually my networking and gossiping space, rather than for conversation, so I’m transplanting a mini-discussion that got going there over here.

A elderly relative of mine is ill in hospital, generating a stream of emails and phone conversations from me to various family members back home. Sadly they are the horribly practical kind of conversations that go along the lines of ‘will he make it to Christmas, or should I drop everything and come home now?’. This is the kind of situation I have imagined having to deal with ever since I moved abroad, as I suspect every person who emigrates for some period of time does. One of those horrible cases where your normal sense of helplessness is compounded by being unable to do anything from a distance. There’s not much you can do other than send flowers and wait for someone closer at hand to make a judgement call.

Anyway, its looking like things are getting bad, so I started to browse flights last night with the aim of seeing how feasible it would be to go home for a few days before the quarter starts. And that’s what generated my immense shock at the discovery that taxes on flights have gone up an astronomical amount in the last few months. In some cases, the taxes were triple the cost of the flight! A non-last minute flight, even, is looking at being around $200-300 for the flight and $400-500 in tax on top of that. (And before anyone dares say to me that its not that much in pounds, I get paid in dollars. $800 is nearly two months rent, and over half of my termly wages for a graduate student teaching job.)

Partly the reason it seems so bizarre is the intensely annoying policy of not listing the tax as part of the cost. Something that, incidentally, makes budget shopping for anything in the US difficult if you are not particularly maths savy. On all purchases the price on the ticket is without tax, so its always more when you get to the till. Three years later and I still can’t make accurate guesses about how much the tax will be and so still get surprised at the till each time. Very annoying, especially if you are trying to stick to a budget. The only advantage I can see is that at least it makes it more obvious how much of the cost is, actually, tax.

Jim’s joke about my comment on the rise in tax on facebook was that it was socialism. Sadly I think that it probably is not. Tax is a sore point for me. On top of the normally high taxes here in the US, I get the ‘you’re a dirty foreigner tax’, which means that all my stipend and wage cheques in the US are taxed by a third. A third of my already below the poverty line income goes on taxes. And for that I get no health care, no decent public transport, if I had kids they would be in disgracefully bad schools and still have to pay for university, no free public cultural institutions… and so on. I do get a to help pay for a war though. And as a dirty foreigner, of course, I have taxation without representation because I can’t vote. Unlike in the UK, where you don’t pay tax until you reach a (admittedly very low) level of income, and students don’t pay tax at all other than NI, here its the rich who get out of paying taxes.

So yeah. While I’m in favour of taxes, I’m also in favour of them being fairly applied and spent on something other than a war. Each time I look at my pay cheque and my health insurance bill I get quiet bitter about the fact that this is not the case. Taxes alone do not make socialism.

But then back to airfares, because I’ve often heard the argument that I ought to be boycotting air travel because its damaging to the environment and a luxury. No doubt many argue that higher prices will serve as a deterrent and stop people flying so much. Well I disagree. Higher prices when there is no viable alternative will not make people stop travelling, it will just make it harder for poorer people to travel, and generate bigger profits for those in the loop. Travel should not be a luxury, in the same way that communication with the rest of the world (internet, telephones, mail services that work and so on) should not be a luxury. Luddite laments that life was grand when we all lived in our place and thought people from the next town were foreigners are something I will never have much sympathy with. Then again, the howls of derisive laughter over statistics that show Americans hardly ever travel outside their country are rarely balanced by approval that they are saving the environment either.

Air travel should be regulated, because its a disastrous and wasteful mess. But the answer is neither to make it more expensive nor to call for it to be boycotted altogether. I would rather see the moral outrage channelled into generating alternatives that don’t mean we all have to sit in our own backyard the rest of our lives, trapped in the jobs, lives and socio-cultural circumstances that fate happens to have thrown our way.

So lets think of alternatives instead. For a start, everyone who has ever had to do it knows that short distance air travel is ridiculous. It takes hours longer than advertised (a half hour flight involves at least 3 hours in waiting, delays and ‘security’), is – like all air travel – hideously uncomfortable and intrusive, and could easily be replaced by a more convenient, cost effective and environmentally sound alternative. If some of those taxes were being spend on developing train systems that made it actually possible to travel across the US by any other means than plane or car, then that would be a viable alternative.

Air travel is hopelessly inconvenient, stressful, and disorganised. It needs to be better organised and run for the purposes of allowing people to move around rather than for making profits. But there we run into that same old problem again, the one that begins with a big ol’ capital C. And we won’t get any closed to S for socialism through boycotts and taxes.

When asked by a judge at the beauty contest to name the person she would most like to meet, Camille replies, “I would meet Einstein because he never washed his hair, and nobody ever listened to him when he talked about a lot of important things that the military could have used in the United States.”

From a review in the NY Times of the otherwise uninspiring sounding “Queen Bees” reality TV show

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