Back from the Dead

Today’s the day that the t’anta wawas are out in force in Bolivia’s homes and cemeteries, being circulated among family, friends and mourners. Like a dear difunto, too, this blog is back from its hiatus – it was a PhD/rest of life knockout round (everyone who has ever done one knows what I’m talking about; the last six months when you may as well throw your phone away for all you see your friends, along with all your clothes, since you hardly ever leave the house or the library) and my life rested against the ropes, taking a few blows so as to come back and finish the PhD off in the final bout. I’ve not got a lot to tell you today, but resuscitation is a process rather than an event and you haven’t heard the last from this ñatita. Hasta later, as the bolivianos londinenses say.

Oh hey you guise

*shuffles feet and looks at the floor*

So, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted here since October. But don’t worry, this blog ain’t dead, it’s just asleep. I’ve got this thing called a PhD to finish, so I’ve been paying attention to that and to earning a living rather than scouring the Bolivian papers for items of interest. My thesis is due in in a matter of weeks and once it’s bound and sent to the examiners we’ll celebrate with a few chelas and a pique macho. Promise. See you on the other side.


Following Bolivian politics engenders something of a thick skin when it comes to political ridiculousness, but the Vice-Presidential candidacy of the former governor of Pando is still good for a walloping great WTF!?! I mean, the voting public has gone for some unlikely people over the years, but I’ve yet to hear of a successful electoral campaign that was run from jail.
Continue Reading »

I was just having a go at translating bits of the new Bolivian constitution into English, as you do, when I was struck by the lengthy and impressive inclusion of all of Bolivia’s indigenous languages, totalling 37 – which, I gather from Ned Thomas of the Mercator Institute (interesting blog here), is about the same as the number of small or minority languages spoken across the whole of Europe.

Article 5. The official languages of the State are Spanish and all the languages of indigenous and peasant First Nations and peoples, which are: Aymara, Araona, Baure, Bésiro, Canichana, Cavineño, Cayubaba, Chácobo, Chimán, Ese, Ejja, Guaraní, Guarasu’we, Guarayu, Itonama, Leco, Machajuyai-Kallawaya, Machineri, Maropa, Mojeño-Trinitario, Mojeño-Ignaciano, Moré, Mosetén, Movima, Pacawara, Puquina, Quechua, Sirionó, Tacana, Tapiete, Toromona, Uru-Chipaya, Weenhayek, Yaminawa, Yuki, Yuracaré and Zamuco.


Pichikatero journalism

PJ O’Rourke joked in his book ‘Holidays in Hell’ that a certain hotel in Albania was highly rated by journalists for the fact that the cocaine on sale in its nightclub was no better or worse than in London or New York, and that the reception staff were amenable to disguising bar tabs as laundry bills for those on expense accounts. If only he wrote for the Guardian – more unlikely things have happened, come on – he could have put the blow on his expense account as well. It looks like Jonathan Franklin has.

Franklin’s article in the Grauniad adopts a scandalised tone to expose the world of cocaine lounges in La Paz, painting a picture of small salons of depravity filled with moneyed Euro-American tourists paying to get high. The title of the piece is ‘The world’s first cocaine lounge’, which you could say was the first indication that the hyperbole of the article doesn’t quite live up to reality. World’s first? What, really? Has Mr Franklin ever been backstage at a music or film industry awards do? Has he ever been to some of the wilder parties in Bogotá, or even L.A? Not that I have, mind, but it doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to deduce that discreet nightclubs where a line or two is available alongside your drinks as a main feature of the place is hardly a global novelty.

But let’s not let that get in the way of a pleasant moral-high-ground buzz. There’s a whole wrap of misinformation to get through, so let’s start chopping.
Continue Reading »

So much to write about, and so little written! Compadrit@s, van a disculpar that I have left the t’anta wawa’s oven without a flame for so long. There was a housemove, and a concerted thesis-push involved. But there’s been plenty going on in Bolivia and even here in the UK where this last weekend, I had the pleasure of accompanying Bolivian ambassador to France, the legendary folksinger Luzmila Carpio, to a festival and conference in Wales. The El Sueño Existe festival has been held in Machynlleth, Powys every two years since 2005 and honours the life of Victor Jara, the Chilean popular singer executed in the coup of 1973. It brings together Welsh and Latin American musicians and leftists and all in all seemed a very enjoyable and thought-provoking jamboree, with some serious conference sessions counterweighing the musical celebrations. There was a lot of useful talk talked about minority language rights, revindication of colonised cultures, the right to culture and identity through language and even some more-than-verbal exchange through the medium of music. Dafydd Iwan of Welsh-nationalist party Plaid Cymru was in attendance and gave such a rousing performance of some of his self-penned Welsh-rights folksongs that I almost texted an SNP apparatchik friend advising him to teach Alex Salmond to sing – there’s something about the passion of song that transcends as well as augments political discussion. We also had an entertaining and inspiring visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology, a research and education institute that’s almost like a big clever sustainabilty theme park. Many thanks to the lovely people of Machynlleth for such a productive and peaceful stay.

Mientras tanto, in Bolivia election year is heating up! It looks like the opposition may crystallise its resistance around the candidacy of Victor Hugo Cárdenas, although at the moment the election is a 14-horse race, including the well-known figures of Samuel Doria Medina and (yawn) Manfred Reyes Villa, for whom apparently running for President is a habit he just can’t kick. There have also been some ugly incidences of the not-so-democratic opposition making itself known again in the form of letterbomb attacks against civilian targets. Well, if you can’t get elected, you can always attack the people who will, right? Violence is a loser’s game. More soon, my friends, more soon.

More sad news

Remember the awesome multilingual rappers from Wayna Tambo radio, Ukamau y Ke? Yes you do. They were the ones putting an Aymara spin on hip hop (pun fully intended).

I was saddened to find out today that Abraham Bohorquez, one of their key rappers, died recently after being run over on the road – although the causes of his death are still unclear. La Mala Palabra blog has a great post about his all-too-short life here. He was born and brought up in El Alto, but emigrated to Sao Paolo in search of work at the age of 11, and when labouring in the textile sweatshops there got hooked into the hip-hop scene of the favelas, where kids rapped in Portuguese about racism, struggle, work and life on the streets. He brought hip-hop back with him to El Alto and started off rapping at open mikes, becoming one of the first people to throw down rhymes in his native language, Aymara, and the group went on to garner significant acclaim and interest from all over the world – for example this NYT article . There’s even a piece that he himself wrote here. In his own words:

We can’t, and don’t want to, talk about the same things as American rappers -sex, cars, gold jewellery. We talk about our poverty, our people and our fight against imperialism. We want to wake up young Bolivians. Politics got too corrupt and it needs to be talked about in a fresh way so that young people are interested.

In the same article, he mentions opening up for Manu Chao in 2006. I was there, and I can tell you, they were great. Politically-attuned indigenous hip-hop is one of the freshest and most exciting indicators of a class of young, urban indigenous people proud of their roots but also engaging with other currents of culture from around the globe. It’s a sad day for hiphoppas in La Paz, El Alto and all around the world. QEPD.

Edited to add: after my last post here pondering the bad side to the Bolivian press and the way the government has chosen to deal with them, a colleague emailed me to point out that the newspapers aren’t always bad, but that the media includes TV and in Bolivia the TV is terrible, hysterical, counter-productive and racist. This turns out to be precisely the message of Ukamau y Ke’s latest track. Check it out, it’s really very good. What a horrible unfair shame to have lost such a sharp, talented young guy.

First of all, you should know that those mercenary guys probably were working for the opposition leaders in Santa Cruz. We know this now because a huge interview just appeared with a man who was in their sordid wee gang and has just turned grass. Otto at Inca Kola News has turfed up the story for the anglofono world and translated enough into English that you can get an idea, and if you read Spanish the rest is online too. One quibble: it’s appearing in the state-run newspaper Cambio, which was launched earlier this year as a deliberate offset to the anti-government tenor of most of the Bolivian press.

I don’t know what you think of state-owned media. Myself, I spend way more time reading the Bolivian newspapers than anyone should, and there’s a perceptible right-wing (or at least anti-left-wing) bias which isn’t helped by the government’s hostile relationship with the papers. There’s no doubt that some sectors of the press are nothing but bought-and-sold anti-MAS mouthpieces, but a lot of them aren’t, and they’re not all to blame for how much Evo seems to dislike them. The MAS’s attitude to media management seems to amount to: since it’s not possible to shut them down, shout them down. This fortnight’s news contains plenty of examples: journalists condemn lack of press freedom, the government talks about research (carried out by third parties) which shows that people trust the press less than they did five years ago and there are ongoing rumbles about the government’s court case against La Prensa. According to this report, Evo hasn’t met with the domestic press since January and only does press conferences with foreign journalists. How is that patriotic? This is the same leader who said in his inauguration in Tihuanaco, ‘I will commit errors, I ask you to correct me if I make mistakes’. He was specifically addressing fellow indigenous leaders, but it would have been more heartening to believe that he was addressing civil society as a whole. Which begs the question, is Evo still as radically accountable to civil society as he once claimed to be? And if he is, then why aren’t the press accepted as the legitimate nosy parkers of civil society, controlling by reporting critically and informing the public? Something’s broken here and I don’t know if it’s the government – which has been criticised by former allies recently for drifting from its platform of accountability and direct democracy – or the bad behaviour of the press.

And let’s face it, the press have hardly been upright keepers of the moral tone all this time. Reporting of the Pando massacre was particularly patchy back when it took place, because of links between those accused of carrying it out and newspaper owners. Even Reporters Sans Frontieres have criticised elements in the Bolivian media for inciting hatred, urging responsibility and restraint as well as reminding us that several attacks on media installations (TV channels, newspaper offices) were carried out by right-wing thugs in Santa Cruz. The newspapers tend to reflect the interests of their owners, like anywhere in the world, and since they are comparatively expensive to buy, it’s my experience that they’re not widely read among working class and rural people, so there’s no sense of writing for that audience or indeed reporting on rural life except in colourful culture and tourism supplements. There are major swathes of the population who are not considered newsworthy, and endless glossy magazines reproducing stock images and stories from the foreign press, featuring people who look nothing like most Bolivians.

Anyway this is all a roundabout way of saying that, when possible, I don’t get news from state sources like Abi, Radio Erbol and now Cambio. It’s not that I think they’re Pravda and Evo’s a big nasty censor, but neither do I think Evo has been particularly mature in his attitude towards freedom of the press. Like a lot of things in Bolivia, it’s difficult to stake out a position between ‘The MAS are authoritarian, press-smothering dictatorial Stalinists!!1’ and ‘The press is so far in thrall to the right wing that it’s not even bothering with’. When I tell people that I filter and compile stories from the Bolivian media, they often react with skepticism if they know the country well. A certain well-known filmmaker’s reaction was swift and brutal, ‘No hay periodismo verdadero en Bolivia’. I disagree with him, but I can see how he got that opinion: what with nasty incitement-to-racial-hatred stories and clear facts about newspaper ownership among opposition politicians, it’s easy to conclude that the papers have all got it in for the government. But then every government assumes that the press are gunning for them, unless carefully controlled, and my own government has been a black example to the whole world in how to prioritise the management of messages, rather than formulating policies of substance. At least their cynical management of the press suggests a bitter respect for it, though. In Bolivia, respect for journalists and journalism seems thin on the ground, and that’s a sad thing given how important the smooth functioning of a free press is to any healthy democracy and the professionalism and vocational zeal of many Bolivian journalists. But it’s also up to the press to earn that respect: perhaps they could start doing so by giving equal column space to attacks on indigenous people by right-wing youths as well as brutal examples of justicia comunitaria, or not reposting, verbatim, press releases by nakedly poltical lobbying groups like the Human Rights Foundation, now discredited like whoah. I don’t know. But the constant government-press feuding makes my life more vexing, because sometimes the only good material is on official sites, and like a proper hack (and activist), I never quite trust the official version of events (“Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” etc) like the above. Please do discuss in comments, I’ve got no solutions, just a vague and scratchy sense of discontent.

ETA: more on this from la Razón.

Let’s start with the bad stuff first, shall we?

A video report telling us that large landholders don’t like the new agrarian reform much. You know what? British MPs don’t like the new focus on their expenses much, either, because it shows some of them to be grasping, out-of-touch toerags who think they’re above the reach of the law. Much the same thing’s happening here. Just let me say it again: Bolivia’s latest land reform is moderate and reasonable. It doesn’t confiscate land from anyone who can prove that they acquired it legitimately, and who isn’t committing human rights abuses on it or using it only for property speculation. It limits new land purchases to 5,000 Ha, which if you think about it, is an enormous stretch of land, and it’s not retroactive.

The misrepresentation of the land reform isn’t really what annoys me about this, though. What gets me is the airtime and attention paid to the viewpoints of people who are already amply represented in the foreign media. Ron Larsen is an appealing character to feature, because he’s a hero to those who see the Morales government as barbaric, xenophobic expropriators of foreign investment, and a ideal bad-guy figure to the Bolivian press (and whisper it, government) who seize on his (no doubt carefully cultivated) cartoonish cowboy persona – north American, wealthy, cheerfully racist and closely linked to the autonomista leadership in Santa Cruz. He’s probably being interviewed because his estate was most prominently highlighted as the place where many Guaraní people were living in conditions ‘analogous to slavery’. So why not interview some of the people who were analogous to slaves, eh? One of the many human rights abuses shown to have been committed in Alto Parapeti was that the serfs living there weren’t allowed to speak with journalists or human rights organisations, but that particular right doesn’t matter so much if the press don’t take an interest in talking to them anyway. By giving interview time (and a sympathetic airing) to Larsen and to a representative from the government, but not interviewing any of the serfs of the estate, it denies them a voice, leave them as background and end up perpetuating the silent Indian stereotype which is so infuriating.

Andres Schipani, on the other hand, has provided us with a story which does call on indigenous voices, and makes the Guaraní people of Alto Parapeti more than mere scenery. In this piece for the BBC, he actually goes and talks to some of the people kept in conditions of servitude on Larsen’s ranch. Their stories are distressing, but inspiring, and the statements from Victoria Tauli Corpuz, representative from the Un Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues are worth your consideration. She has this to say:

We find this situation of domination and violent rule of the landlords over the indigenous people unacceptable … we think this is a gross violation of the basic political, social, economic and cultural rights

She’s also on record as saying that the Cruceño Autonomy Statutes of last year ‘promote, conceal, strengthen and reproduce the practice of servitude’.

Fellow travelers of the autonomy movement in Santa Cruz should be well aware that their political aims are determined by business interests, not popular ones, and that these are the autonomy statutes which were ‘approved’ in bogus, non-recognised, privately-funded ‘referenda’, so no-one should really be taking them seriously anyway. Even so, there are still those who are inclined to be sympathetic to any region trying to break away from the OMG!eebilmarxistdictatorship of Evo Morales, and hopefully this announcement, as well as April’s assassination plot, will make them wake up to a fairly basic truth: it’s not a good idea to give massive feudalist* landlords control over their own pet autonomous Ministry for Agriculture, let alone their own organisations for the defence of human rights. Do you think someone could send a memo to the folks at WorldFocus.org?

*Alright, Jarrett, you win that one.

We’re approaching the 147th anniversary of the death of Juana Azurduy de Padilla, who is my second-favourite female military commander in Bolivian/Alto-Peruvian history. (The first is, of course, the Aymara leader Bartolina Sisa, who was busy leading an armed insurrection along with her partner Tupaj Katari in the year of Juana’s birth. They were both executed by the Spanish after laying siege to La Paz). Lieutenant Colonel Azurduy has been in the news a bit, lately, probably owing to this. She’s a national hero, after all – not merely a national one, for that, but a continental one, being feted in Argentina as well.

Look at this rather wonderful portrait of her. Would you get in a bar fight (let alone a transcontinental war of independence) with this woman?

You’d be very foolish to do so. She commanded a guerrilla army of several thousand against royal troops and was quite decisive in laying out the frontiers of Bolivia. (Well, before the borders were monkeyed around with by losing wars against every neighbouring country over the next 120 years, anyway). You can some rather romantic accounts of her life in Spanish here and here. To summarise: she was sent to convent school for being a hellraiser, kicked out for being a hellraiser, went and married this Padilla guy, had four children, fought several decisive battles during 1812 – 1817 in the revolutionary wars of Alto Peru, specifically in the area of Chuquisaca, which is now Sucre, was recognised by Sucre and Bolivar as a major military hero and lived to be 82. She is said to have spoken Quechua and Aymara as well as Spanish: certainly fluently enough to command a batallion of up to 6000 indigenous troops. Her four children died during her military campaigns: she became pregnant again and engaged in battle with her daugher in utero, handing the kid over to a nurse as soon as she was born and returning to combat.

Then I noticed that as well as having a little parade of horsemen in homage to her around Sucre, the government’s extended its recognition too, by naming something after her. To be more specific, they’ve introduced a new payment aimed at helping to reduce maternal and infant mortality. This is all very laudable, but possibly not too thoroughly thought through. Let’s recap: Juana Azurduy de Padilla was fearless, bloodthirsty, a good tactician, a capable commander and handy with a sword. In other words, she was a badass. Devoted mother? Not so much. My own mother, with whom I went to the Casa de la Libertad in Sucre, commented as we stood looking at that painting, ‘You get the feeling she saw these endless children as a bit of an inconvenience, when she would have much rather been off fighting wars.’ Now, I wouldn’t want to impugn a revolutionary hero, but neither would I want to belittle her. If you’re going to name something after Lt Col. Azurduy, name a military installation. Name a tank. Name a batallion (Argentina have). Name a country – Bolivar apparently said that the altoperuano republic should have been named after her, not him. Don’t name a fricking child health programme. That’s a bit like the Harold Shipman Pension Supplement, isn’t it? Or like appointing Tony Blair as a peace envoy to the Middle East! Oh, wait…

Look, Bolivian government. Your history is full of heroic, badass women. They accomplished things far beyond making sure that their bairns grew up healthy and bien cuidado. So why use their names only for things associated with childbearing? That’s not just patronising and sexist in the here and now, it’s also revisionist. It’s a great idea to try to reduce Bolivia’s alarming level of infant mortality, but in the words of Zaphod Beeblebrox, plus ten points for altruism, minus several billion for good thinking, yeah?