Culture Club

By Published On: April 16, 2005Categories: Culture1 Comment on Culture Club

Transvestites & Transsexuals for Trade Justice?! It definitely has a good ring to it, but as far as I am aware, there isn’t a group in the UK. At least, there aren’t any pictures of them at the all-night vigil for Trade Justice that took place last night that I could find on CAFOD’s website.

To be honest it was also a dimension of Bolivian life I wasn’t expecting to find in the capital of La Paz.  But last night, I found myself at a small packed theatre with several men tottering in unbelievably high platform shoes, silky dresses and fabulous make-up taking the star roles in a cultural night against TLC/ALCA (US-backed free trade agreements).

I chatted to Paris, the compere of the show afterwards, and found out that they are quite a famous Bolivian group called Familia Galan, who are involved in a political and cultural struggle for sexual diversity. "We would love to have a London member of the family," said Paris as he fluttered his amazing eyelashes. I tried to keep my response polite but suitably vague.

The theatre night has been part of an amazing series of cultural events against "free trade" agreements like TLC as part of the Global Week of Action for Trade Justice. In La Paz, there have been three cultural happenings in the streets, a mural competition called Walls that Speak, and there is going to be a concert tonight and a cultural fair sealing off the La Paz’s main high street tomorrow.

Across the country, there have been more cultural events as well as marches against "free trade" in El Alto, Sucre, Tarija, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.  Having helped organise similar events in the UK, I have been boggled by the logistics of organising it all, especially as the main organisers always seem to  look relaxed (and I can see no signs of them chewing coca leaves).

The cultural happenings in the square of Plaza de los Heroes in the heart of La Paz, in particular, have been a great opportunity for me to see some of the vibrant culture here and the interaction with the crowd.

On each occasion, the square was packed with street-sellers, shoe-shiners, passing businessmen, women in bowler hats and school kids on a lunchbreak with the strange hospital-like uniform they tend to have here. Behind the stage fluttered flags with the message "Bolivia is not for sale" against a backdrop of  La Paz’s steep-sided valley.

Each "happening" involved a mixture of music, theatre, stories and dancing. Some of it was strangely familiar. There is a dance here that is very similar to morris dancing in which men and women carry lots of ribbons and wave handkerchiefs and even on occasion circle a maypole. But unlike the UK, it doesn’t receive sniggers and is clearly not the butt of national jokes.

There also seems to a be a great tradition of story-telling here, often allegories to exploitation of Bolivia by rich countries like the US. Again, the crowd would go silent in the midst of the beeps of car-horns and rush of traffic to listen attently to the stories.

So why does culture play such an important part in politics of resistance here? Initially, I thought it was because Fundacion Solon (a political and cultural organisation who I plan to volunteer for) was one of the main co-ordinators of the week of action. That’s certainly partly true, but the sheer number of groups involved using cultural expression across the country, the overwhelming response to the art exhibition, and the spirit of the events suggested something more.

During a 2 day seminar on "Free trade and the new constitution" in La Paz, it became clear. The seminar was attended by 400 delegates – representatives of campesino (rural farmers) networks, small producers, artisans, students, unions, women’s organisations – from all over the country. Some of them were dressed distinctly in indigenous clothes from their region, some had mouths bulging with chewed coca leaves. And the discussion  was often focused on indigenous rights and defending a way of life from an imposed system of trade that will open up market to rich companies from the North.

It became clear to me that resistance against "free trade" is not just an economic fight, a struggle to protect small businesses and producers from an unfair competition. It is also a cultural battle against an increasingly globalised and homogenised largely-US culture of individualism, consumption and ownership.  The TLC (trade agreement with the US) threatens that as it will allow free access to US companies, with their cultural assumptions backed by huge capital.  A vision based on turning Bolivia’s amazing streets where small-scale street-sellers are everywhere to one dominated by the predictable big international firms (Starbucks, McDonalds, etc) that you see in every Western capital.

The report back from the workshop on "Work, earth, territories" summed up the divide and the struggle. For westerners, earth means property and ownership, a financial asset to be used to build houses, produce crops or to mine minerals and oil beneath.

Yet the delegate introduced the group’s feedback, saying that their whole discussion was based on an understanding that "Pachamama (deity of the earth) is our mother, the mother of our earth and environment, the mother of campesinos and indigenous people. We live because of her and therefore all her fruits are hers. By referring to earth, we are talking about life."

How do you reconcile that cosmo-vision with capitalism, or more specifically with a trade agreement that turns Bolivia’s environment into economic assets to be negotiated on?

In the words of Walter Chavez, a well-known Bolivian journalist: "Neo-liberalism is not just an economic model. It is also a cultural matrix which rejects community values, indigenous traditions, which promotes individualism and an American way of life." Which means that Bolivians are not just fighting against further impoverishment but about maintaining a rich culture and tradition.

When free trade threatens Bolivia’s very culture, it is not surprising that cultural expression – yes, even including morris dancing – is at the forefront of resistance.


One Comment

  1. MB April 21, 2005 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    That was excellent analysis, Nick. I might not agree with everything but was good, nevertheless. You are really studying the people there.
    I am impressed.

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