Two worlds

By Published On: June 2, 2005Categories: Indigenous peoples8 Comments on Two worlds

"A wash, cut and blow dry. Well that would come to between 55 to 60 Bolivianos (about £4 or $7)," said the slightly camp but not especially friendly hairdresser.

Ok, so no surprises there. Except that the quote was for an imaginary poodle that I pretended to own when I curiously went into the dog’s hairdressers for a quote.

The canine coiffeur can be obtained just five minutes from where I am currently staying with a friend of a friend in the south of La Paz.  The cost is almost five times what a third of the population of Bolivia earn in a day.

Just beyond the poodle parlour is a street that could easily be London full of coffee shops, shopping malls, fashion boutiques and more 4x4s than you can see even on a good day in Chelsea. Rich Bolivians interspersed with the occasional gringo stroll contentedly through the streets wearing the latest designer shades and American fashion.

The only thing that was a bit unusual were the amount of windows that were covered by newspaper – hurriedly pasted up as rumours spread that the marches for nationalisation of gas were on their way down to the rich districts of La Paz.

The demonstrations have yet to make their way down, so the windows remain untouched unlike some banks and buildings up near the centre of town which got smashed in protests on Tuesday night. But the newsprint can’t paper over the huge gulf that exists between people in Bolivia.

Photo: Indymedia

The visual contrast between rich and poor has been starker than ever this week, as the traditional centre of wealth in La Paz has been taken over by those who have for a long time been excluded from Bolivia’s resources.

Surrounded by banks, government buildings and tourist agencies, residents from poor neighbourhoods in the adjoining city of El Alto have joined coca-chewing miners, weather-beaten Aymara men in deep red ponchos, indigenous women with swirling skirts and bowler hats, and teachers from schools across the city to call for nationalisation of gas.

Many have made great sacrifices to take part in the protests. Iriano, a miner had travelled six hours to join protests on Tuesday: "It is not easy for us to come here, but we came because we need reclaim these resources. We have been robbed for centuries and our government is robbing us again.”

In El Alto, a general strike for almost 2 weeks has had a serious impact on many of the small businesses that operate there. Today all the minibus drivers and taxis sacrificed a day’s wages as a general transport strike took place across La Paz. Of course, not everyone supports the protests and some are tired after 3 weeks of intense protests on the gas issue, but most people I have talked to on the streets have expressed support for nationalisation.

Behind this sacrifice and the protests lies a more profound challenge to the gulf that lies between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. It was summed up in a banner on one of the marches on Tuesday:

"The time of the Q’aras is past. It is the time for the T’aras."

Gilberto, a construction worker in El Alto, who sported the placard explained:

"The Q’aras is an aymara word for the elite who make up 25% of the population and have who ruled for themselves in the 179 years since Independence whilst the majority, the T’aras (said with a click against the palate) live in misery. The gas law is part of this. They are selling themselves to the multinationals. We need to reclaim our resources for all the people."

The marches and protests and the radicalisation of demands by popular movements for nationalisation represents a fight back by those excluded from wealth and power for so long.  The shift explodes around issues like the gas, but has been taking place with increasing impact on Bolivia’s politics for the last few years.

It was reflected in the elections in 2002 when a party, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) representing campesinos and indigenous peoples came second and almost won the Presidency. 

In 2003, the largely indigenous population of El Alto played the key role in bringing down the Government of Sanchez de Lozada in the first stage of the "gas war." Recognising this growing force, the new President Mesa promised the recuperation of gas resources and an assembly to design a new constitution.

Neither have yet been delivered, which could go some way to explaining the anger and uncompromising attitude on the streets in La Paz. Again and again on the streets, I heard less about gas and more about the Government continuing policies of decades, of "robbing the country," "enriching themselves" , "leaving people in misery."

Yet before they have even taken power, the other world is fighting back. In La Paz, demonstrators are dismissed as trying to cause sedition, and papers talk mainly of the destructive effects of the marches and strikes on the Bolivian economy. Politicians openly encourage President Mesa to take a "firm hand’ against the protestors ie use violence which thankfully he has refused to do.

In the East of Bolivia, strong business interests are driving forward demands for regional autonomy in Santa Cruz and Tarija due to a fear of losing control of "their natural resources." Their Cruceno campaign has successfully mobilised a strong regionalist (and at times separatist) sentiment from all classes of society.

The backlash was visibly shown today when a right-wing Cruceno group viciously beat up a group of landless and campesino marches in Santa Cruz. Meanwhile in La Paz, one of the demonstrators demands is for a rejection of autonomy which would merely fuel regionalist sentiment further.

In Bolivia, two worlds are clashing together.

For me, it has been inspiring to see those who have been excluded from power taking to the streets and fighting for their rights. But I feel the backlash could be an increasingly brutal one. In the fight for Bolivia’s future, I fear it may be torn apart.



  1. Alvicho June 7, 2005 at 2:17 am - Reply

    As usual, Europeans do not have a clue about what is going on in the third world, still ravaged by their colonizing complex.
    The “rich” neighbourhoods in La Paz hardly resembly West London. The existence of three coffee shops and a number of boutiques and fashion shops selling discount clothes from past seasons acquired through smmuggling does not resemble Oxford and Regent street at all. Also, last time I saw, there where no families sleeping on the street or beggars in Bloomsbury.
    Unless, of course, one has strong Stalinist views, that is.
    Evo Morales is not a leader trying to get rights for an oppressed group of people. He is, as all Latin Americans know, just a populist leader who shifts his position whenever he cans in order to manipulate a poor, desperate mass of peasants and miners who basically believe that they will all be driving German and Italian cars as soon as the energetic resources are nationalized and the new constitution is drafted.
    That there exists poverty and inequality in Bolivia is undeniable, but that Evo Morales is righteous leader and not an Hugo Chavez bastard is not so straightforward. Indeed, what Morales is seeking with the Constituent Assembly is nothing but gaining absolute and uncontrolled power. That is why he opposses regional autonomy so much.
    SO, yes, Bolivia is heading to a bloody and racially charged civil war, not in spite of Evo Morales, but because of him.

  2. Orgulloso de ser Boliviano. June 7, 2005 at 2:28 am - Reply

    And as usual, the fact that a “right-wing Cruceno group viciously beat up a group of landless and campesino marches in Santa Cruz” receives in these blogs much more attention than the fact that indigenous protestors in La Paz are violent, beating up people walking to work, burning their working uniforms in some cases and the ties of those who use them in other, attacking those who do not want to take part in the protests, stealing whatever they want in street markets and sexually harassing women who they perceive as being “white” or “rich”.
    And before making your conclusions about me being a rich Santa Cruz landowner, just know that I am just a student from La Paz, who has not been able to keep on studying for a better future, because of hte protestors.
    SO, to all people reading this blog: Don’t. The information displayed here is too skewed to give you all a fair view of what is going on in Bolivia.

  3. Gabriel June 7, 2005 at 8:33 am - Reply

    I agree with all the comments about this blog. It is extremely biased and only shows one side of the coin.
    I would assure that the great majority of the indigenous protestors have no idea what nationalization or ‘asamblea constituyente’ is – the only reason they are in La Paz is because they made them go, or otherwise they would be punished by their leaders and thugs. Why not ask, if they are supposedly extremely poor, where did they get the money to go to these protests? who is financing all of this?

  4. Boli-Nica June 7, 2005 at 11:30 am - Reply

    The writer of this Blog biases and all, does show the very weird disconnect between both sides on this issue. La Paz and El Alto are another world.

  5. JD June 7, 2005 at 11:58 am - Reply

    This is a much too biased blog to be taken into account. The levels of inequality, statistically speaking, are worse in Brazil and Venezuela, among other countries. Inequality does exist, the “traditional parties” have been not been able to tackle the problem, but by reading this post one gets the wrong idea. The photos are interesting, though.
    So I agree with most comments on this post: Read something different than Galeano, Evo Morales is a Chavez wannabe, the protestors have been coerced into marching, and are becoming more and more violent.
    Conclusion: sorry, but this post is not right at all.

  6. Boli-Nica June 7, 2005 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    “it has been inspiring to see those who have been excluded from power taking to the streets and fighting for their rights.”
    Ultimately how ‘inspiring’ is it that these people are pressing for ‘rights’- namely nationalization of resources- which in the end will result in further impoverishment?
    It is idiotic to assume that nationalization of the gas industry will result in anything but a fiasco for Bolivia.
    Some caudillos will get richer, but revenue received by the government could actually go down, if nationalization goes through

  7. Nick June 7, 2005 at 2:45 pm - Reply

    Wow, wasn’t quite expecting such a response to the article. Welcome to the blog world, I suppose… In some ways, it reflects the polarisation of views that is taking place in Bolivia as the gas issue explodes onto the streets and as people react strongly both for and against the protests that have wracked the country.
    Picking up on some of the points:
    1. The protests I have seen in La Paz have been largely peaceful and good-humoured. There have of course been skirmishes with the police by a minority and I have heard of some attacks against a few people wearing “ties” and against shop-keepers who have tried to keep businesses open. However as a gringo (therefore perhaps representative to many protestors of the rich world they are fighting against) I have been surprisingly warmly treated.
    Whatever, in terms of my own views as a pacifist I don’t condone violence nor do I like the attacks on people who are trying to make a livelihood, but that doesn’t negate for me the right for people to take a stand against the deep inequality in this country that has fuelled this crisis.
    In many ways, it saddens me that those who suffer from the protests are other Bolivians. As Jim Shultz argues so strongly in his post – – the real targets of the protests should be the international institutions as well as the companies who have created the context for this conflict, but they remain safely cushioned from the consequences of their policies.
    2. I don’t have yet have a position on the main opposition leader, Evo Morales. I have heard good and bad things about him, and have yet to come to my own conclusions. What is interesting is that despite being painted a dangerous radical, he has been one of the more moderate voices in these protests – after all his position is not even for nationalisation which is the overwhelming demand I hear on the streets.
    It also can’t be denied, whether it is mistaken or not, that his rising support in the last election was a sign of campesinos and indigenous people starting to take a more central place on the political stage.
    3. I also have mixed views on nationalisation. My basic principle is that these key strategic resources need to be developed for the benefit of Bolivians. From all the evidence I have read, the gas law up to now has failed to do that and it looks like the new law is equally flawed – But clearly a nationalised industry can be equally unaccountable and open to corruption as the current privatised industry is.
    For me one of the positive sides of the protests is that (unlike many countries with an extractives industry), there is at least a debate here which raises the possibility of holding companies to account. This could be used to create a nationalised industry which embeds principles of accountability and sustainability.
    The bigger problem again is the international picture. I don’t think Bolivia would be able to nationalise its industry without huge repercussions on the international stage as I make clear in the article. It is very difficult to reverse a poorly designed privatisation process that has created the backlash that we are seeing now on the streets. That doesn’t mean that Bolivia shouldn’t have the right to follow a nationalised model or that a public accountable model can’t be designed that would be far more just for Bolivia.
    4. I have heard lots of accusations that protestors are being paid or threatened to go on marches, but as yet have seen no real evidence. It is of course convenient for those in power to pretend that there is no real basis for the protests.
    However the scale of the protests, and the reasons cited by many of the protestors I have talked to have suggested the motivations have been deep-seated passions about the future of Bolivia. That doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be community pressure or that some groups are not helping to sustain the protests, but I don’t believe the protests would have had the force (or indeed the disruptive effect) if they hadn’t been driven mainly by a passion to see Bolivia’s resources used for the majority and not a small minority.

  8. eduardo June 8, 2005 at 6:27 pm - Reply

    It’s unfair to paint this blog as the only one that is biased. Most blogs aren’t meant to be journalism and to think that the author does not have an inclination towards a particular viewpoint based on cultural context, personal experiences and place in society is rather naive.
    What is important is to use all of the sources out there to form your own opinion. To say “don’t read this blog!” because it is not objective is missing the point. Show me a blog that is objective and is totally removed from the author’s particular inclination or point of view.

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