Into Bolivia – Kittens and teargas
Sucre: Unlike the majority of illegal aliens crossing the Bolivian-Brazilian border, we’re on the Bolivian side.
The day begins properly enough. We drive west through the Pantanal – stopping just once when our bus gets a flat tyre – to the attractive border town of Corúmba, with its pretty main church and its reputation for people smuggling. From there, it’s just a couple more local buses to the Brazilian border, where we stamp out and walk the 100 metres to the Bolivian side. Here, things are rather different. The immigration office is closed for a start, and when I manage to rouse the border’s lone military policeman from his chair in front of the telly (where he’s predictably glued to the football), he sighs and says that probably the immigration office will open in a while and veers me onto the more interesting topic of how England is faring in the World Cup. Meanwhile, cars drive back and forth between the border posts.
Pleasantries concluded, I inform him that two alcohol-swigging vagrants sitting on the pavement have just told me that the border is shut until tomorrow at 8am. Sighing, the policeman ambles over to the two men and asks them about the immigration official, before retuning to his chair in front of the footie. “So?” I ask.
He looks up, bewildered. “The stamp for my passport,” I remind him.
“Ah, yes. It seems the vagrants know more. Can’t you come back tomorrow at 8 because Evo has declared a four-day national holiday to revere the Sun God (it being solstice), a god very dear to the highland tribes.”
This is my first brush with Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, and frankly, it’s quite annoying. After a few hours’ difficulties – due to the ‘death train’ on which we hoped to travel being cancelled for the Sun God, and buses likewise – we eventually leave the small, dirty border town of Quijarro. We arrive many many hours later – Scrabble on Nick’s iPhone is our respite – at the smart city of Santa Cruz.
This is Bolivia’s wealthiest city in a country where 80% of the people live below the poverty line and infant mortality is a high 45 in 1000 births. Santa Cruz is peopled by an unlikely mix, from SUV-driving businessmen to overall-wearing Mennonites – less indigenous compared to rest of Bolivia and far less fond of Evo. Here, in the region where most of the country’s natural resources are found, a right-wing majority is fighting Evo’s reforms all the way. Battles on the streets of this ordered city left 11 dead and 50 wounded in 2008 after Evo tried to redirect to the state the wealth generated from the regions gas exports to Argentina. Santa Cruz and the lowlands continue to call for a separate state, distinct from the impoverished, indigenous western highlands.
Evo’s response has been firm – after the 2008 skirmishes he expelled the US ambassador, Philip Goldberg, for allegedly backing the separatists, and last year, Evo and his allies went on a much-advertised hunger strike to protest a move in the Senate to reduce the number of indigenous-held seats. A few months ago, after the December election in which Evo was re-elected in a huge landslide, three men were shot in the streets of Santa Cruz for plotting to assassinate Evo.
Walking around this sedate city with its elegant brick cathedral, its theatres and international restaurants, chess in the main square (people crowding to watch two exciting end-games), it’s hard to picture violence or rioting.
Arriving the next evening in Sucre, such things are a little more obvious. Violent protests throughout the day have left the air humming with acrid smoke and stinging teargas. The streets are black from where tyres have been burned and we pass their coiled wire carcasses around the main square. Sporadic shouts of political slogans and rock-throwing by mainly student protestors (three journalists covering the protests have been injured) are followed by a police chase and then the toss and hiss of a teargas canister. I’m still adjusting to the altitude (we’re above 2700 metres), so the additional noxious fumes are not helping.
Again, the ‘problem’ is Evo’s attempts at constitutional reform towards a government more representative of and fairer to its indigenous majority – its supporters call themselves the Move Towards Socialism. A part of this is Evo’s move towards decentralisation – 12 of the country’s municipalities voted for indigenous self-government last December and last month plans were put in place to formalise this tricky move. Sucre did not vote for indigenous rule.
The protests here in Sucre are about the suspension last week of the popular, democratically elected mayor, Jaime Barrón on charges of public incitement of racial violence, harassment, threats and torture. Barrón, an academic, magistrate and former rector of the renowned University of San Fransisco Xavier in Sucre is vocally anti-Evo, but the reason given for his suspension is his alleged role in a racist mob attack two years ago on a group of 11 Quechua peasant farmers who were stripped naked, humiliated and beaten in Sucre’s main square. The shocking event which involved the deaths of three students, brought into focus just how ethnically divided this country is, and how racist despite the election of Morales, a descendent of Quechua and Aymara Indians – prior to his political elevation he was a llama herder and coca cultivator in the western district of Oruro. Until the 1950s, indigenous people were not even permitted to walk in the main squares of Bolivia’s cities.
Barrón’s supporters claim the charges are invented and that the suspension of their mayor is undemocratic, the charges against him are baseless and add up to more evidence of Evo being an ethnocratic despot. Sucre has important gas reserves that the government wants to control. Barrón is white and a right of centre politician who supports privatising industry here. Many think he plans to sell off the remaining half of Sucre’s biggest factory, a cement works, whereas Evo would rather the privatised half was returned to state ownership.
Troubles aside, Sucre, the ‘white city of the Americas’ and Bolivia’s cultural heartland, is a stunning conglomeration of terracotta-roofed one- and two-storey white buildings nestled next to the cordillera. Women in traditional dress walk the tree-lined streets and squares.
The coffee is excellent here – grown in the hills outside – the vegetables and fruit are plentiful (finally, in South America, we can eat vegetables!), the climate is great even in winter. We’ll stay put a little while here and improve our Spanish – and try to get legal with an entry stamp in our passports.