I have fallen so much for Bolivia that it’s hard to say what I like most. But the lively political and social debates, the culture of discussion, the broad interest in questions that concern all of society, the readiness to get involved personally, all of that plays a big part. As a homo politicus, I feel very good here.
One interesting aspect of political and social protests are the somewhat ritualized forms, which progress in several stages and in mostly peaceful, friendly and civilized ways. The first stage is the blockade or roadblock (bloqueo). There are roadblocks every day and unless they pop up spontaneously, they are announced in the newspaper below the weather forecast, so that one can prepare for detours and delays.
Today in Cochabamba it looked like this:
Women with beautiful costumes and fancy hats sit down in the middle of the road and occupy the intersections around the building against which the protest is directed, blocking all traffic. They spread out their blankets for the children to play or sleep. Soon, mobile vendors appear, offering food and drinks. Some people hold up handwritten signs. (Today, the protest was about some school.)
This happens every day and it’s widely accepted. The police don’t break up the roadblock, they just regulate the traffic. Today, I only saw one motorcyclist who wanted to cross one of the blocked intersections. The women shouted “No paso! No paso!” (“You can’t pass here.”) and he turned around. I rarely hear anyone complaining about these roadblocks, and if so, they are arrogant snobs (“because the peasants had another stupid protest, my chauffeur couldn’t take me to the manicure today”). Sympathy and solidarity prevail.
Somewhat more serious and consequential are the roadblocks by professionals with big cars: truck and bus drivers.
They block whole highways and thus cut off one part of the country from the rest.
Such protest may well take a few days, meaning that you sometimes have to stay two or three days longer than planned in a city, because there are no buses going out anymore. In 2010, Potosí was blocked off for almost three weeks. Because the city lies in a dry mountain region above 4,000 meters, food became scarce. Locals and tourists were trapped, because the runway of the airport was blocked with stones too.
It wasn’t that bad in Cochabamba today. In front of the building housing the school authority, there was a tightly packed crowd of people. The gate was guarded by soldiers, but the mood was not tense. The protesters simply wait until someone from the government gives in and talks to them or meets their demands. From time to time, loud explosions erupted in the street, but these were only from the fireworks without which no protest in Bolivia would be complete.
Because this is an everyday occurrence in Cochabamba, I didn’t hang around any longer. I wanted to go to the only post office in a city with 600,000 people (a protest for more post offices would find my support) to mail your postcards. The post office was open, but the counters were closed and the staff sat on chairs in a big circle in the hall. A handwritten sign explained the reason for that protest:
The interesting thing was that customers who came into the post office held speeches in support of the protests, received applause from the strikers and then left. Nobody was egoistical enough to believe that their own package or their registered mail was more important than the payment of outstanding salaries.
Just around the corner from the post office, at the Square of 14th September, there was the next protest. For two months, disabled people have been camping and sleeping here, demanding a monthly support of 500 bolivianos (73 dollars) and more wheelchair-friendly city planning.
Because these demands haven’t been met yet, the next step on the ladder of escalation has to be taken: marching to La Paz, a ritual with a long tradition. In August 1994, about 5,000 coca farmers marched from Villa Tunari to La Paz after Evo Morales had been arrested. Once released, he joined the march. In 1998, Morales lead another protest march of the coca farmers from El Chapare to La Paz. Meanwhile, Evo Morales is president and now regularly has to receive marchers from all corners of the country in La Paz. Currently, the wheelchair riders are on the way from Cochabamba. That’s a distance of 350 km, and they have to cross a mountain chain with 4,000 meters of altitude.
The wheelchair faction was also particularly creative and brave and found a new form of protest, which will henceforth be copied with admiration by other groups: They hung themselves from bridges.
Travelers sometimes ask about roadblocks in a worried tone, wondering about the safety of traveling in Bolivia. In fact, Bolivia might well be the safest and most peaceful country in all of Latin America. I would worry much more about a country that has no protests. There is no reason to stay away from these protests either, because these are exactly the events where you get a good impression of the political dynamic. (Violent crackdowns of protests, which used to be the norm, hardly happen nowadays, and the six people who burned to death when the city hall in El Alto was set on fire were a tragic exception.)