It has been just seven days since the Bolivian Ministry of Health confirmed the first two case of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in the landlocked South American country, on Tuesday, March 10. The announcement, and the attempts of two patients to seek treatment in the lowland city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra set off a wave of panic in that metropolis, marked by (as best I know, globally unprecedented) protests by doctors, health workers, and neighbors seeking to deny treatment to the infected individuals. Cooler heads prevailed, and treatment sites were eventually proposed. Channeling the panic, several national legislators proposed criminal penalties for either blocking treatment or arriving and failing to quarantine.
Meanwhile, the small highland city of Oruro experienced community transmission of the virus, which now has seven cases (one of them is linked to travel from Italy). Oruro then led a wave of departments and localities in taking community-wide measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Oruro department’s “quarantine” measures are scheduled to last from March 16 to 31.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which visited Bolivia November 22 to 25, has released a visually and emotionally arresting video that highlights the testimony of survivors of the Bolivian government’s massacres of protesters in the town of Sacaba and the El Alto neighborhood of Senkata. The video interweaves survivors’ pleas with crowd shouts for “justice” and does far more to humanize the participants in protests than nearly any coverage in the mainstream Bolivian press. (Click on “CC” for English subtitles, and on “vimeo” to see a larger version.)
The Commission’s report on its visit, currently available only in Spanish, includes extensive discussion of these two massacres. What follows is my translation of a relevant portion of their text:
Massacres and murders
In the context of the crisis, and as of November 27, the IACHR received news of 36 people who lost their lives in Bolivia. During its visit, the IACHR delegation received abundant information about two massacres committed in Sacaba and in Senkata, on November 15 and 19, respectively, in which at least 18 people lost their lives.
The Sacaba massacre occurred on November 15. The Commission received information from witnesses, according to which members of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba arrived in a peaceful demonstration to the Sacaba municipality, demanding the return of Evo Morales to the government and recject the interim government. At the Huayllani bridge, located at kilometer 10 of the highway from Cochabamba, the combined forces of the Police and Armed Forces had established a security cordon. At the moment the demonstrators attempted to pass through, they were first contained and told verbally that the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) was on its way to mediate; nevertheless, according to information received, a few moments later the police and military agents would open fire against the civilian population gathered there, which they also would attack with tear gas, beatings, and kicks. In these acts, nine people were killed: Omar Calle, César Sipe, Juan López, Emilio Colque, Lucas Sánchez, Plácido Rojas Delgadillo, Armando Carvallo Escobar, Marco Vargas Martínez, and Roberto Sejas. Numerous people were wounded, including by bullets, who were received by various hospitals in Sacaba and Cochabamba.
The commission takes note of the existence of different versions of how these events unfolded. On one hand, some state authorities, including the Forensic Investigation Unit (Instituto de Investigaciones Forenses; IDIF) and the police command, have accused the demonstrators of having shot one another, proposing reasons such as the caliber of the bullets that were recovered from the bodies of the dead and wounded. On the other hand, the numerous testimonies received by the IACHR are consistent in indicating that the demonstrating people were unarmed, advanced peacefully by their own initiative, and were attacked with fire arms, teargas canisters, batons, and other weapons by the security forces, in a sudden and surprising manner. Security force helicopters participated in the operation, as even the Police Commander of Cochabamba testified before the IACHR.
The Senkata massacre occurred on November 19. According to information received, a group of partisans of the MAS carried out a blockade around the oil and gas plant of the Senkata sector, in El Alto. That morning, sixty container trucks of gasoline and natural gas were allowed to leave the plant, after which the demonstrators had knocked down one of the walls on the perimeter of the plant, at which time they were contained by the firearms of the combined forces of the Police and Army. In these acts, nine people were killed by gunshots: Devi Posto Cusi, Pedro Quisberth Mamani, Edwin Jamachi Paniagua, José Colque Patty, Juan José Tenorio Mamani, Antonio Ronald Quispe, Clemente Mamani Santander, Rudy Cristian Vásquez Condori, and Calixto Huanacu Aguilar. Among those who were killed are several people who do not seem to have participated in the blockade, but rather were simply passing through the zone on the way to their homes or workplaces. There were also numerous people wounded by gunshots, beatings, inhalation of gas, and other related causes, who were attended in various hospitals in El Alto. Just as in the Sacaba massacre, some public functionaries, both forensic and police, have questioned whether the bullets that killed these citizens had been shot by the regulation weapons of the security forces. With respect to that, according to public declarations and those made before the IACHR, insistently reiterated by the victims themselves, these people were publicly demonstrating without violence and were the object of repression by state agents using firearms. There have also been public denunciations of the disappearance over various lifeless bodies of people who had died in the the same massacre, which would have been taken by state agents so that no one would have word of these dead people. In particular, cases of [such disappearances] denounced before the IACHR include that of a peasant woman, and of a girl around 12 years old, among others. The victims of this massacre consistently signal that the number of those killed is much more than the nine that have been reported up to now.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights emphatically condemns the massacres of Sacaba and Senkata, in which [the perpetrators] incurred in grave violations of human rights. According to the Commission’s criteria, these acts can be characterized as massacres given the number of people who lost their lives in the same way, time, and place, and because they were committed against a specific group of people. In addition, the patterns of the wounds that have been recorded offer serious indications of practices of extrajudicial execution. The right to life, protected under the American Convention [on Human Rights], is inviolable, and due to its essential character is the precondition for the exercise of all other human rights. The organs of the Inter-American System [of Human Rights] have reiterated that the use of force by the state must be bound by the principles of exceptionality, legality, necessity, and proportionality. As well, the Bolivian state is reminded that lethal force many not be used merely to maintain or re-institute public order; only protection of life itself and physical integrity against imminent and real threats is a legitimate objective for the application of deadly force by state agents. In this sense, the IACHR urges the [Bolivian] state to immediately and urgently implement mechanisms to prohibit and effectively impede the use of lethal force as a control measure for public order in cases of public demonstrations. The Commission also reiterates that firearms and their munitions must be excluded from control operations of social protest, and that police or military functionaries that may enter into contact with a demonstration should not carry fire arms or other lethal weapons. Additionally, the Commission urges the state to rapidly carry out its international obligation to investigate, judge, and sanction those responsible for these criminal acts.
Twenty years ago today, I joined a massive direct action protest to stop the World Trade Organization from making neoliberal economic policy into a virtual treaty for most of humanity. In time, my involvement there drew me to the movements in Bolivia that challenged the same policies, and to a decade of work documenting their capacity to overthrow governments in South America. Here’s a bit of how I followed that path… The following is excerpted (with some small revisions) from my forthcoming book The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia. Available in spring 2020 from University of Arizona Press.
You can get updates on the launch of The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia, and a monthly digest of writing and photography on Bolivia, social movements, indigenous rights, protest tactics, and revolution from Carwil Bjork-James. Sign-up here.
I first encountered Bolivia’s remarkable political upheaval as part of the movement against corporate globalization. The nongovernmental organization that had just hired me, Project Underground, was one of dozens of international solidarity groups weaving bonds among community leaders from the global South, American union workers, environmental activists, and direct-action protesters, in preparation for the Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. My first day on the job, I boarded a bus in Oakland, California, to bring about eighty environmental rights activists directly to the protest against the WTO.
Just before 7:00 a.m. on November 30, 1999, the N30 Global Day of Action, about two dozen of us formed three circles where Pike Street and Boren Avenue cross. In each circle, we linked arms through long tubular “lockboxes.” Sliding our arms into the tubes, and clipping our wrists to a concealed pin, we made circle a unit, breakable only at the risk of serious harm to the limbs concealed within. I got to know my coworkers while helping to occupy this intersection and thereby block the delegates from reaching the meeting. We shared the crossing with dozens of other protesters ready to link arms at a moment’s notice. Any delegates looking for a way into the Ministerial Meeting would have to push their way through us or another group of protesters ringing the Seattle Convention Center. By nightfall the first day of talks had been canceled, and Seattle’s mayor had declared a state of emergency. Surrounded by this display of North American resistance, long-skeptical delegates from the global South saw that U.S. and European negotiators lacked the support of their own people. Many African, Latin American, and Asian delegations then emerged as critics of the WTO’s plans for the seamless flow of capital and commodities, and the talks collapsed. The Direct Action Network, the coordinating body that orchestrated the blockades, mushroomed into a movement of tens of thousands of activists eager to converge upon summits of the powerful, including the World Petroleum Congress, Democratic and Republican political conventions, and the World Economic Forum. Seemingly overnight, challenges to the power and global reach of corporate capitalism became front-page news.
The collapse of the Ministerial Meeting led to cancellation of the Millennium Round of free-trade negotiations just as Bolivians were facing the real effects of corporate-designed trade and investment policies. The government had been aggressively seeking foreign buyers for public enterprises and utilities since 1993 and had found one for the municipal water company of Cochabamba in September 1999. The privatized company’s first water bills—some of them double or triple the previous rate—came out on December 1, 1999. Protests in downtown Cochabamba on that day coincided with the arrest of more than five hundred protesters—including me—in Seattle. By April three waves of mass protests had rocked Cochabamba and thrown out the foreign owners of Aguas del Tunari, restoring public ownership of the city’s water utility.
Given the fast pace of events in Bolivia, my most responsive and up-tod-date commentary is available on Twitter, where I tweet as @CarwilBJ. However, it’s time for a brief summary of the disastrous, unfolding scenario.
President Jeanine Añez, a right-wing senator took power in a parliamentary maneuver late on Tuesday, November 12. A political unknown whose party Bolivia Dice No had received just 4% of the vote on October 20, Añez had a very limited mandate, both from the three-week mass movement that unseated Evo Morales and under the Bolivian constitution: restore public trust in the electoral system and convene elections within 90 days. Instead, Añez has presided over a rapid and deadly slide towards authoritarian rule that echoes the worst moments of early 2000s uprisings, 1988–2005 drug war, and the mass detentions that followed military coups in 1980 and 1981.
Three unmistakable signs of this disastrous turn have come this weekend:
The Sacaba Massacre: The mass shooting came amid police repression that wounded over 100 protesters at Huayllani Bridge, nine of whom were killed, in Sacaba (Cochabamba Department) on Friday. The shooting came about when military troops armed with guns replaced police who were keeping a coca growers’ march from entering the town on the east side of the Cochabamba metropolis. According to reporters on the scene, police teargassing touched off a two-hour confrontation. Security forces have claimed that some in the crowd had guns and fired them, showing several bullet holes in police windows. Journalists estimate that “nearly ten” police were evacuated from the scene for injuries; evidently, none of them have bullet wounds. The police have recovered a single shotgun and five bullets. Meanwhile their use of force was overwhelming, caused massive injuries, and ended nine civilian lives. Opinión offers the most complete initial narrative of the day (es).
Autopsies have confirmed that all nine people killed died from gunshot wounds; ballistic analysis was not yet complete as of Saturday. The dead in Sacaba are:
Armando Carballo Escobar, de 25 años, falleció por un trauma torácico penetrante por Proyectil de Arma de Fuego (PAF).
Plácido Rojas Delgadillo, de 18 años, murió por shock hipovolémico, trauma hepático y trauma torácico abdominal penetrante por PAF.
Omar Calle Siles, de 26 años, falleció por choque hipovolémico por hemorragia interna, laceración cardiaca por traumatismo y PAF.
Lucas Sánchez Valencia, de 43 años, falleció laceración encefálica y traumatismo cráneo facial por PAF.
Emilio Colque, de 21 años, murió por choque hemorrágico, laceración de órganos vitales y trauma torácico por PAF.
Juan López Apaza, de 34 años, falleció por shock hemorrágico, laceración aortica y trauma torácico penetrante por PAF.
César Sipe Mérida, de 18 años, murió por choque hipovolémico y traumatismo abdominal por PAF.
Marco Vargas Martínez, se desconoce su edad, falleció por lesión de centros nerviosos superiores, laceración de masa encefálica y trauma cráneo encefálico por PAF.
Roberto Sejas Escobar, de 28 años, murió por laceración de masa encefálica y traumatismo cráneo encefálico por PAF.
With at least 19 deaths, November has now become the deadliest month in Bolivian political conflict since October 2003, the time of the Gas War under Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Deaths in the current crisis initially occurred among civilians, but in recent days a clear pattern of military gunfire killing civilians has become the predominant cause of death.
Supreme Decree exempts military from prosecution: Saturday afternoon, Añez signed Supreme Decree 4078. Among other provisions, it exempts the military from criminal prosecution for actions carried out during the current efforts to “restore order” in the country:
Personnel of the Armed Forces who participate in the operations to restore internal order and public stability will be exempted from criminal responsibility when, acting in fulfillment of their functions, they act in legitimate defense or out of necessity.
El personal de las Fuerzas Armadas, que participe en los operativos para el restablecimiento del orden interno y estabilidad pública estará exento de responsabilidad penal cuando en cumplimiento de sus funciones, actúen en legítima defensa o estado de necesidad
While the decree technically reiterates the validity of exisitng guidelinse on the use of force, this exemption effectively eliminates any penalties for systematic human rights abuses, up to and including murder. Passing it the day after the Sacaba massacre only underscores how shameless and violent the Añez government is.
Crackdown announced on MAS-IPSP leadership: Today, Sunday November 17, Minister of Government Arturo Murillo announced he will detain MAS-IPSP legislators for “sedition” and “subversion” (effectively, for supporting anti-government protests), starting this week. The MAS-IPSP legislative delegation, who still hold a majority in both house (and won a continuing majority in the October elections) had emerged as a center of moderation and calm this week. On Thursday, November 14, they called for “mobilized sectors of social movements to allow us to achieve peace” and asked “equally, of the Armed Forces and the police: no bullets, please.” The Sacaba massacre was a grim response.
Over the weekend, the same legislators issued a call for the full Senate and Chamber of Deputies to hold sessions on Tuesday (Noveber 19) to convene new elections. Murillo’s new crackdown threatens to undermine this call and/or unseat the MAS-IPSP from its majority. The Minister, who supervises the security forces and prosecutors, said Sunday:
“There are senators and deputies (male and female), not all of them, just some; I will begin to publish their names who are fomenting subversion. Starting Monday, I already have the list which the leaders of the various zones themselves are passing to me. [We] will begin to detain them with prosecutorial orders.”
“Hay senadores y senadoras, diputados y diputadas, no todos, unos cuantos, que voy a empezar a publicar sus nombres, que están haciendo subversión. A partir de lunes voy a ordenar, ya tengo listas que los mismos dirigentes de varias zonas me están pasando, los van a empezar a detener con órdenes fiscales”
At the beginning of the week, I argued that when “the military signaled limits to further state repression, stayed out of the presidential chair, and did not substitute its choice of leaders for one determined at the ballot box,” their political interventions in Bolivia have not been remembered as coups d’ètat. We have crossed those lines.
I’ve translated the following essay by Roger Adán Chambi Mayta, a Bolivian living in Brazil, because it speaks directly to many of the questions that my friends following current events Bolivia are asking. I will be sharing multiple pieces here and linking to others. Not every thought aligns with my own, but I think it’s vita—now, more than ever—I that we hear from Bolivians who are wrestling with the future of their society. And that we slow down our desires to put the Bolivian situation into a pre-defined schema, at least until we understand it well and hear from those on the frontlines. This piece appeared on the Colectivo Curva Facebook page, which is filled with a vocal and diverse debate among grassroots Bolivian voices.
“They have lost their best leader!” “Now the Right will come back!” “The poor indigenous!” These are some of the comments that I have received from my friends in Brazil after Evo’s resignation. For many here, Evo Morales represented a government that was of the left, progressive, anticapitalist, and above all: the principal defender of indigenous peoples and of the political vision of Vivir Bien [Living Well: in sufficiency, community, and harmony with nature]! The moment I utter my first criticism, they have already branded me as being a defender of the coup against the indigenous former president. “If the left goes down, the right comes back. Are you from the left or the right?,” a friend asks me on messenger. Once again arises the typical and simple dichotomy that seeks to put some on the “revolutionary” side and the rest among the reactionaries. As if things were that way, so simple, as if there was only a single question of taking on one ideological title. Well now, I understand that these readings respond to a Brazilian idiosyncrasy, my friends ask me questions and make their judgments in an exercise that is an analogy to what they have experienced with Temer and Bolsonaro, and I don’t judge them for it. But we are talking about Bolivia, a country that has a long tradition of indigenous struggles and where the left and right have always met the expectations of the white-mestizo sector, which is racist and discriminatory against its racialized others. That is why I tell my friends that, it shouldn’t be strange that there are Aymaras who are critical of the “left” government of Evo Morales and who are not because of that defenders of the right.
Are there reactionaries that want to claim hegemony of the current violent conjuncture for their own benefit? Evidently so. Aren’t Bolsonaro and Trump celebrating this context? I have no doubt. But, out of fear of that, should we have continued with Evo for fourth term? For that, did we have to keep watching as more white-mestizo become newly rich in the name of the indigenous government? For that, do we have to bear the instrumentalization of our history, of our culture for the benefit of a precious few?
“But think on the structural level, of the world system, of imperialism!,” my friend questions me, and it’s certain that we must think of the macro level. But the first to think of the consequences should have been the government! It was they who sacrificed the so-called “process of change” by not building new legitimate leaderships that could continue their government. A fourth term, besides being illegal was intolerable! Once I heard an Aymara grandfather say to me, “Evo says he’s indigenous, but he doesn’t carry out the practices of the community; the authorities must always rotate, for the health of all.” And now I ask myself, for all that they talk of being the government of Vivir Bien, To what degree would a fourth term bring us closer to Vivir Bien? Would my friends have asked the MASistas that question? Of course not! It wouldn’t even have mattered to them!
But now, Evo is no longer in the country and has left his people that he said he loved, in the midst of a fierce social convulsion. The wiphala, the historic flag of the Andean peoples, has been erroneously labeled as a synonym of the MAS. The people who supported it so much on social media now say nothing.
It seems that they are happy how the people carries on confronting one another after their manipulative tactics. The reactionaries who want to take advantage of the moment will not hesitate to burn the wiphala so as to strike fear in all those people who are racialized.
It’s important to say that Evo in his last days in the presidency called upon indigenous communities to protect his government (filled with non-indigenous people), and now that he is no longer in the country, left behind a people confronting one another, with pain and sadness in the streets.
But there is resistance, I see on the screen my Aymara brothers and sisters in the streets of El Alto, supporting demonstrations against the discourse of discrimination, and they shout: No more racism! Respect our symbols! El Alto on its feet, never on its knees! After the resignation of the president, the population did not stand back with its arms crossed. Evo is gone, but we won’t accept a Camacho either! “Evo is the hope of Latin America,” they say to me here. Was it just Evo? Was it the person? I think that this reading was wrong; it wasn’t that Evo, the caudillo, was the Latin American hope, but rather that he represented the beginning of that hope. A racialized person of the lower middle class, part of an indigenous nation with an insurrectionary tradition that arrived in power.
The hope of Latin America comes from those peoples who, like the Alteño people in this moment, have pushed beyond those simple dichotomies of left and wright and who go out into the streets to defend their rights, their family, their work, their symbols, their history, and their country.
With the world’s eyes turned towards the fires in the Amazon rainforest, and primarily on Brazil, there is good reason to survey the larger problem of deliberate deforestation across South America. Right now Bolivia is several weeks into the most devastating season of fires in at least a decade. As of August 22, the Bolivian government reported that 744,000 hectares of the country were affected by the blazes, and by Saturday, August 24, the regional government of Santa Cruz raised that estimate to over one million hectares.
A key driver of the fires in both countries is the deliberate clearing of forest land for agricultural production, which has been prioritized by left-wing government of Evo Morales as well as the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro. Last week, both presidents reacted flippantly to the growing international attention surrounding the fires. (On August 19, Morales called the fires “natural phenomena” that “will continue” in years to come and seemed preoccupied with avoiding blame: “This is not the first time that there have been fires, they have always been around. Now they want to blame Evo Morales for the fires.” ) After the fires became a key discussion point at the G7 meeting, and following growing protests demanding international aid in eastern Bolivia, however, both men have attempted to show their governments are proactively responding to the emergency. Nonetheless, government policy in Brazil and Bolivia is fueling and authorizing the underlying drive to convert more of primary forests into croplands and grazing fields for cattle. This fact has been widely recognized for the government of Bolsonaro, who defied environmental regulators on his own private property before taking office, and who has dismantled environmental protections as president.
Unfortunately, the same policy priorities are at work in Bolivia under President Evo Morales. While from a different social class, as the leader of the Chapare coca grower’s union, Morales shares a similar orientation towards the forests of their respective countries. Both men see the Amazon rainforest (and in Bolivia’s case, the Chiquitano dry forest as well) as underpopulated areas of land that ought to be incorporated into the national economy through production for the market. (Contrary to some wild-eyed Twitter claims, however, the current fires in Bolivia are in the service of cattle and lowland export crops like soy, not coca.)
In 2013, the Morales government laid out its territorial vision as part of its 2025 Patriotic Agenda, a thirteen-point series of goals whose target date is the bicentennial of Bolivian independence. The plan, describing “how we want our beloved Bolivia to be” in Morales’ words, proposes an ambitious reterritorialization of Bolivia that will affect large portions of the country’s land surface, with millions of hectares altered by new agricultural, hydrocarbon, and infrastructural initiatives. It offers quantitative targets for the use of Bolivia’s land, water, and natural resources. In writing the plan, Bolivian government planners worked on a wide canvas: the full area of Bolivia’s national territory, which consists of nearly 110 million hectares and land and domestic waters.
The most dramatic shift proposed in the Patriotic Agenda is the so-called “expansion of the agrarian frontier”: increasing the total land under cultivation from 3.3 million hectares (in 2013) to as many as 13 million hectares by 2025. This staggering figure has been put forward by the president, vice president, and ministers, but their reach exceeds their grasp. The technical data used by the government’s planning staff, according to Fundación Tierra researcher Enrique Castañón Ballivián, corresponds to a still-startling 6-million-hectare cultivated area. Nearly half of the projected expansion would come in the eastern department of Santa Cruz, where soy (and soy oil)-exporting agribusiness dominates the economy. Costañón argues that this expansion would inevitably clash with indigenous collective titles, as well as forested areas.
While this agricultural land goal seemed unrealistically ambitious at the time, it has set the direction for Bolivia’s forest and land management agencies and for new decrees like the one that set off the current fires in the Chiquitanía.
This image from NASA offers a panorama of the fires raging across South America during the week of August 15 – 22, 2019. World attention has turned to the Amazon rainforest fires in Brazil, where ultra-right President Jair Bolsonaro has drastically cut back environmental enforcement. This week, there has been needed attention brought to Bolivia’s rapidly expanding fires, primarily in the Chiquitano dry forest. Claire Wordley offers a solid primer on the situation in English.
As of August 22, the Bolivian government reported that 744,000 hectares of the country were affected by the blazes, and by Saturday, August 24, the regional government of Santa Cruz raised that estimate to over one million hectares. These are parallel crises, caused by independently set fires. A key driver of the fires in both countries is the deliberate clearing of forest land for agricultural production, which has been prioritized by left-wing government of Evo Morales as well as the right-wing government of Bolsonaro.
Earlier this month, I spent ten days in La Paz working on Ultimate Consequences: A database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict during the democratic era. This project is a compilation of detailed information about the human cost of political struggle in the country I have been research and writing about for over a decade. It includes people killed when movements challenged the state and the state responded with violence—the initial spark for my research—but also a variety of deaths associated with coca erradication and resistance to it, deaths caused and endured by guerrilla and paramilitary forces, prolonged inter-ethnic conflict (mainly the “war of the ayllus” between the Laymi and Qaqachaka communities), political assassinations (both due to partisan politics and patriarchal rejection of women coming to forma leadership), and the times when self-sacrificial protest (hunger strikes and prolonged marches under adverse conditions) claimed the lives of protesters and their children.
As of today, we have 512 deaths recorded, 477 of them with names. It has been a grim, if captivating tour through recent Bolivian history. While I’ve had the collaborative support of two research assistants over the course of the project, I think I’ve read every story of death, and the process has been at turns sobering, enraging, frustrating, and deeply informative.
Right now, I am focused on getting two things done with this database: ensuring that our dataset is as complete as we can make it, and making several of the many variables that we are recording—starting with location and the role of the state—as completely specified as possible so that we can share complete summary data, maps, and other statistical visualizations with the public. In La Paz, this meant taking my camera on a lot of trips to the Archive of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, which has decades of Bolivian newspapers bound into massive volumes, and coordinating with colleagues in a Bolivian NGO on a graphic visualization front-end for the database.
Just published in Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Bjork-James, Carwil. 2018. Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Boliva’s Organic Grassroots (full text). Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 23, no. 2 (July): 363–82. Abstract: Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical […]
Think of this as the trailer for my ethnography, photography, and the book I’m revising for publication…
On June 23, 2008, three of us ascend an eerily empty highway from the tropical town of Coroico to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. Foreigners, we stare at the majestic valley below as we pass above the line where the tropical tree cover of the Yungas gives way to pure rock. The so-called Death Highway has been rebuilt on a more secure footing, but it is still marked by hairpin turns, intruded upon by fallen boulders of a terrifying scale, and undermined by landslides. Its predecessor, once calculated as the world’s deadliest roadway, has been preserved as a downhill biking path for tourists seeking “100 percent adrenaline.” Where the road has fallen or washed out, drivers let their wheels dig tracks into the mud and gravel tracks, and peer over the edges of their vehicles to avoid falling off the side.
Today, however, both roads are nearly silent. None of the half dozen minibus unions are operating their vehicles, bike tours are cancelled, and the taxi we found cruises over empty roads and easily steers clear of both the rock faces and the treacherous edges. Once finally inside La Paz however, it comes to a stop at the cause of all the earlier silence: an urban road blockade. Residents of the northeastern District 13, organized through 46 neighborhood councils, have plugged the main arteries through their neighborhood with stones and their collective presence. They are calling on the municipality to meet an eight-point platform of demands concerning crime, public works, and water provision. Taxis like ours can approach the protest zone but only to discharge their passengers. Dozens of men and women walk—their goods stacked on their heads, bundled in fabric on their backs, or dragged along in suitcases—across the vehicle-free stretch of urban pavement, littered with stones and occupied by protesters who gather in the middle.
Every point along the road we have travelled is a potential chokepoint. Since the main road from La Paz to the Yungas passes through this district, a single blockade is enough to cut off all traffic to Coroico, the Yungas, Caranavi, and the northern Bolivian Amazon. Whether accomplished by simply sitting down in the street, dragging in boulders and tree limbs, or coordinating crowds of thousands to take over key thoroughfares, road blockades bring a sudden urgency to political protest. By blocking the circulation of people and goods, they ensure that the impacts of protest ripple across an entire region.