Andres Schipani, the FT’s Andes correspondent, visited Bolivia, spending time in La Paz, Colquiri (a mining village around 150 miles southwest of the capital) and the salty desert of Uyuni, close to the Chilean border.
Why now? There aren’t many countries that can match Bolivia’s record of venal rulers, coups and indigenous uprisings. But this Andean country, the landlocked heart of South America, has experienced profound transformation since Evo Morales, a former llama herder and coca leaf farmer, became the country’s first indigenous president in 2006. Over the past six years, he has granted sweeping rights to the country’s majority of Amerindians, a majority that has been neglected for centuries (to give you an idea, serfdom was only abolished in 1945, and until early 1952 indigenous people were not allowed to walk around the square by the Presidential Palace).
Last month Morales was asked by his party to run for a third term in next year’s elections. But the president once known as the champion of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, has been digging and drilling the country. This is alienating a chunk of his political powerbase, with some indigenous protesters now voicing environmental and other concerns.
What were some of your lasting impressions? I have been to Bolivia many times in the past, but the ethnic, cultural and geographical diversity of the country always amazes me. It is also a lasting shock to fly across the Andes mountain range and then suddenly drop and land at an airport 4,000 metres above sea level. This is the case when arriving at La Paz’s airport stationed in the capital’s satellite city of El Alto – a terribly poor metropolitan area that sprawls across the altiplano, or high plains, and is Latin America’s largest indigenous city. With so much poverty, some believe the only advantage people who live here really have are the views, overlooking the rounded valley that hosts the capital. The downside, of course, is that after a hard day at work selling trinkets in the town centre, the indigenous women, or cholitas, with their bowler hats and layered skirts have to labour up the steep rutted streets back to their shacks or shanties of cinderblock bricks. To my mind, this suggests a broader truth about the country: it sits on top of a stunning wealth of natural resources but is on an uphill rocky road to development.
I was also mesmerised by the almost lunar landscape of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salty desert. Being able to wake up at dawn in the midst of it, completely alone, was simply sublime.
What were some of the most interesting things you learned? While the superficial impression from the outside is that all of the indigenous peoples -the Aymara, the Quechua, the Guaraní, and other smaller ethnic groups that comprise 60 per cent of the country’s population – are nothing but friends, the reality is much more complex. After 500 years of ruthless oppression, basically since the Spanish conquest, the fact that they have managed to get together to vote in block for Morales does not necessarily mean they like each other.
In fact, these groups have fought each other for centuries – even before the Incas were an Empire – and some of those ancient differences are now resurfacing, especially between Morales’ main backers, the western highlanders who live in the Andean plateau, and the eastern lowlanders, who live in the Amazon.
Tell us about someone you met. In Colquiri I met Severino Estakani, a miner who told me that Bolivia’s natural resources belong to the Bolivian people. That sentiment was echoed by some local Indian leaders. One of the main drivers of their resource nationalism is the sense that mining companies rarely leave a penny behind for developing local communities, let alone the country.
Meanwhile, in La Paz, I spent some time with Sabino Mendoza, an Aymara government official in his early thirties. Just like President Morales, Mendoza started as a hard-line unionist for the ever-combative coca growers union when he was a young teenager. He was recently beaten up by some of Morales’ foes because he is still a fierce supporter of the president’s “cultural and democratic revolution.” Mendoza is from a coca-growing region in the Amazon basin called Los Yungas, about 100 miles northeast of La Paz – until not very long ago, the only way to get there was via the world’s most dangerous road, the so-called “Death Road”. He is now studying part time for a law degree. Some have christened him the “Next Evo.”
An extract from Andres’ analysis, Bolivia president exposed by unrest of indigenous backers:
Since last year, sandal-clad indigenous protesters have been proclaiming their opposition to Mr Morales and some of his followers. Bolivia’s president was often cast as a champion of the environment and indigenous rights. Yet the controversy over a Brazil-funded highway crossing a pristine natural Amazonian reserve in the north of the country has caused a problem for Mr Morales, putting him at odds with his support base.
The disputed road is central to his drive to boost infrastructure and investment. It also holds strategic importance for coca growers of Aymara and Quechua origins, the president’s most loyal constituency. This has sparked clashes between them and other indigenous groups from the Amazonian lowlands, who believe that the area could turn into a safe haven for cocaine producers and traffickers. It has also exposed the government’s vulnerability to unrest from previously stalwart supporters.