Nearly eighty people died in the Bolivian riots of 2003, yet few in the West knew anything about it. This is a tragedy equalled only by the events themselves. I was unfortunate enough to be trapped in the capital, La Paz, at the time and between dodging tear-gas and rioters, I managed to spend some time talking to the people, albeit in exceptionally bad Spanish. These broken conversations gave an insight into a stunningly beautiful yet deeply troubled country.
Bolivia measures 1.1 million square kilometres and boasts incredible geographical and climatic diversity. Over half of Bolivia’s population of 9 million speak Quechua, the language of the Incan Empire, as their first language – probably the reason for our sketchy Spanish conversations. In a disastrous war with Chile in 1879 Bolivia lost half its territory and was left entirely landlocked. At the heart of its troubles, however, lie two remarkable natural resources.
The first is coca, a green tea grown in the Andes, used for centuries as a pick-me-up by indigenous miners and farmers. There are statues dating back to Incan times of priests chewing coca. It tastes like mud, but it’s a wonderful little plant: when working at high altitude a few chews of this little leaf lowers the heart rate and helps you go on for longer. Unfortunately, it can also become cocaine, peddled in clubs and streets around the world. It is a testament to the negative influence of the West that rich Westerners have corrupted this plant, used for years by indigenous people in their work, into a recreational drug. Liberal, free-thinking America has decided to heap the blame on Bolivia and tried to ban them from growing coca. Hang on, but doesn’t it grow there naturally? That doesn’t matter to the US – the miners and farmers will just have to survive on coffee and sugar. In reality of course coca is still sold in the markets and chewed just as readily by the natives, but there is a feeling of bad blood among the people that I spoke to against America for its playground bully-like behaviour.
The second resource is natural gas, highly favoured in the West. Bolivia is a poor country, relatively new to the tourism game; the natural solution to its poverty is the gas. Export it to the West, charge high, and bingo, a ready income for the country. However it is not that easy. Bolivians do not want to lose control of their biggest natural resource, and feel that it should be nationalised and made available to the poor. The introduction of the ban on coca growing has inflamed the public against America, the biggest market for gas. Moreover, the cheapest way to export the gas is through Chile, the country that took the Bolivian coastline. Thus the two countries Bolivians hate the most in the world, America and Chile, are their ticket out of poverty. For the average Bolivian this is hard to swallow.
When President Sanchez de Lozada tried to export the gas through Chile to America, hundreds of thousands protested, went on strike and constructed extensive road blockades across the country. These mobilisations were marked by intense confrontations between security forces and protesters, so much so that the times are now named Bolivia’s Gas War. Eventually the army was called in to break up the demonstrations. This was an unmitigated disaster. One attempt by soldiers to quell resistance resulted in 26 deaths in one day; my memories of that day involve hiding in a local man’s shop basement as fighting raged outside. In all nearly 80 people were killed before the president stepped down. Unfortunately he left his successor Carlos Mesa with the same problems. He too has recently been forced out of office and the new President, Veltze – the third in less than two years – is now faced with the same problems, the same blessings and curses.
It is amazing that in the midst of a virtual civil war, the people I spoke to were so friendly, so willing to help a frightened traveller. It is a source of constant sadness to me that I can see no solution for them. In a world where rich countries get richer and the poor remain poor, is there no way out for the Bolivians?