Losing my anonymity

By Published On: October 24, 2006Categories: Living in Bolivia1 Comment on Losing my anonymity

The one place I didn’t expect to be at midnight on Tuesday was on a Bolivian chatshow.

Yet there I was, my balding head lightly dusted with blusher, watching as host John swiveled around from his main desk to beam a brilliant smile to me and a number of other gringos.

We were there because we along with sixty other foreign residents in Bolivia had marched earlier that day to the US embassy alongside the families of those who had lost loved ones in a massacre authorised by then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in October 2003.

When I arrived in Bolivia, I knew it was prompted by an attraction for the lively politics of this country, but I had an unwritten rule in my head that this was not my country so my involvement would also be a backseat learning one, only actively campaigning outside to help create the political space for Bolivians to take their own decisions.

Yet on 17th October, I stuck my head above the Bolivian public parapet by helping to organise a march in the capital city and then talking to the media about it. What had happened? And more importantly what should I learn from the experience?

Several months ago, a number of us together with the Comité Impulsor which leads the struggle for extraditing Goni, proclaimed 17th October as the International Day of Action in Solidarity with Bolivia in order to try and bring together activities around the world in support of the families struggle for justice and to demonstrate the existence of an active community worldwide supporting social movements struggle for social justice in Bolivia.

Out of this melée, an idea was thrown out of doing something in La Paz targeting the embassy and showing that there was international support for the case within Bolivia. It was shared with the families and the Comité who were overwhelming in their support. "This is hugely symbolic and politically powerful," said Monica Mendizabal, " because the families often feel alone in the struggle and because you are marching alongside indigenous brothers and sisters who were killed in what was also a racist massacre."

All those who died in September and October 2003 were indigenous: a massacre ordered by a pale-skinned President who lived most of his life in the US, who was renowned for his terrible spanish and was called "the Gringo."

There were lots of reasoned questions and some doubts about being public in Bolivia, but the sense that this was the right thing to do was overwhelming. We were committed.

So on Tuesday morning we lined up in black carrying crosses for the 60 who died together with the families in a square two blocks from the US embassy. My cross was for German, a builder who was returning to his house after unsuccessfully looking for work and was killed instantly with a bullet to his head leaving a wife and two children.

We walked silently as the families shouted out demands for justice. The air weighed heavily with grief and responsibility. As we arrived at the embassy, the raw pain crackled the atmosphere as some of the families hurled their hurt at the impassive police and dour embassy walls. A young man in an aching tirade shouted his anger at the US for continuing to harbour a man who was responsible for his brother’s death.

We read out the names of all those who died, handed out flowers to the families and laid down the crosses at the black shiny military boots of those guarding the embassy, a potent symbol of the military repression that tried and failed to cow the people of El Alto.

As we held a minute’s silence, an elderly woman and mother in a black shawl and wrapped in grief in front of me seemed not to notice. She continued to weep, crying out pain and anger in a low blur like an evangelist speaking in tongues . I shyly touched her shoulder as a gesture of support and felt my own tears well up.

As Juliette described it, the march was one of the most "profound and visceral acts of solidarity I have ever participated in."

Yet that night, it was caught in the glare of TV cameras, looking not for intangible senses of shared grief and humanity, but soundbites. My feeling is that we probably all looked a bit stunned.

Before coming on to the show, we had listened as three family members recounted their own stories of losing wives and brothers. One man had been left in his words to be "father and mother" bringing up eight children. A young woman, Ximena talked about how the pain of losing her younger brother is still with her every day as she wakes up.

Host John on the show was keen to know what the families thought of having foreign residents marching with them. They politely thanked us for our presence but moved swiftly on to their impassioned demands for justice. Quite rightly, one day of gringo participation is not enough to make up for three years of grief and the fact that Goni continues to live relatively unchallenged in Maryland, Washington.

Yet John was back: "So what was it like marching? Let’s have a look at your banner" he asked us keenly. We did our best to bat the questions back saying it was not about us but the families, but in John’s eyes we were clearly the news.

Fortunately, the next day, news coverage seemed more balanced. There were photos of our march, but also a more detailed account of the activities of many groups across the country from trade unionists to politicians all repeating the demands for justice for the families. Best of all for me, was the news from the Comité that they had received phone calls from Bolivians who having seen gringos participating said that they wanted to make sure they were involved in the fight for justice. The office of the Comité buzzed with a renewed energy and focus.

In retrospect, there is no doubt that I would still march if I was given the opportunity again. We were in Bolivia, but the target was clearly the US – we were acting as global citizens to hold our Governments in the North to account for their blocking of justice within Bolivia.

Moreover the experience has made me more determined than ever to find ways to support the families in their struggle. But it also made me more conscious of the double-edge to racism in Bolivia. It gave us an unprecedented voice on 17th October that we used to show our support for the families, but it is still part of the same currents that made indigenous people expendable to a US-bred President three years ago.

It also reflects a trend of media worldwide, who in their hunt for a new angle, move on from the principal protagonists to other people – something we have seen in so many worldwide campaigns where celebrities occupy the media space built by others.

Perhaps most importantly I have learned the dangers of getting carried away by our campaigning actions. I felt moved and hugely impacted by the experience of the march – doing something on an issue can easily feed the ego, after all what can be better than doing something "good"? Who hasn’t felt themselves buzzing with energy after a huge march or demonstration on an issue that concerns you?

But talking to the families just before the show made me realise that when I woke up the next day pondering on a successful action, I needed to remember that our march did nothing to sate the pain of the families of those who lost loved ones. They still wake up daily with the numbing sense of loss. Goni and his ministers still wake up in their comfortable homes in their US protected by an administration that admires and believes in them for facing down "dangerous" protests. And none of those principally responsible for the deaths and injuries has been held to account.


One Comment

  1. Harrison October 29, 2006 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    Didnt realise you were on a talk show Nick, interesting and intimidating. I think the coverage was pretty balanced the next day as well, which is a credit to the Bolivian media.
    I find it interesting though, that the long shadow of Gonzales continues to hang over the country. Take the fact, for example, that he sold the largest mine in the country to Glencore a couple of years ago. Glencore’s owner is Marc Rich, who was notoriously pardoned of federal crimes by Clinton as he was leaving his Presidency. Not the most solubrious investors.
    P.S. I’ll be back in La Paz Monday, meeting possible?

Leave A Comment