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Monday, March 10, 2014

Bolivia: Every Day a Protest

I sat having a light lunch today in a restaurant about a block from the central plaza in Santa Cruz de la Sierra (chairo con arroz y huevo y platano frito) as a light rain fell on the red tile roofs of the buildings all around and the cobblestone streets below. Sticks of dynamite had been exploding in the distance off and on during the morning, but I hadn't really given it that much attention. Street protests are daily and ubiquitous in Bolivia, and they are frequently accompanied by campesinos using their favorite instrument of aural torture: small pieces of explosive usually limited to mining operations.

Soon the marchers began to walk by in front of the window where I was seated: women, children, elders, young and old men -- hundreds of them, all rural campesinos. Whether they were from the highlands or lowlands I couldn't tell, but they were demanding land, so I think it was the latter. Many carried the national flag, and others the whipala, the country's second flag, and a symbol for the multi-ethnic, plurinational nature of the country's population.
Street protests have a long history in Bolivia. For 200 years, it was mostly indigenous protesters against the white-dominated government in La Paz. In 1952, the year I was born, the miners and the peasants rose up and defeated the inept and corrupt military, in three days. Now, however, the situation is much more complex. The country has an indigenous president, Evo Morales, whose government and party have dominated the country since he came to power following nationwide anti-government uprisings in October 2003. Evo has not governed in favor of all indigenous groups, however. Those in the lowlands near the Argentine border especially have organized protests against his government.

There is also a widespread feeling among many members of the lighter-skinned middle class, and especially the white upper classes, that this government has been exercising reverse discrimination to balance out history. Many are afraid to criticize the regime. Others are benefiting economically from Evo's pro-capitalist economic policies (he's a socialist only in name) and keep their mouths shut.

Today's protest included what I would estimate to be about 1000 people, marching into the central plaza of the country's largest city.  Whether their protests were heard by the government in La Paz is not known. They were heard by the those nearby, however. Loud and clear. Meanwhile, the monsoon-style rain continued into the afternoon, drenching protesters, pedestrians, workers, street vendors and tourists alike. Just another day in beautiful Bolivia.

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