The Stages of Protest in Bolivia

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:

bloqueo1bloqueo2bloqueo3

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.

bloqueo autobuses

They block whole highways and thus cut off one part of the country from the rest.

bloqueo camiones

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.

bloqueo Potosi 2010.jpg

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.

bloqueo4.JPG

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:

Poststreik.JPG

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.

Rollstuhlfahrerprotest.jpg

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.

Rollstullfahrer march

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.

Rollstuhlfahrer Brücke.jpg

Rollstuhlfahrer Brücke 2

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.)

(Hier geht es zur deutschen Fassung dieses Beitrags.)

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a journalist, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Bolivia, Photography, Politics, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to The Stages of Protest in Bolivia

  1. Pingback: Formen des Protests in Bolivien | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Miriam says:

    Interesting. What a great insight.

  3. locotojhon says:

    As an occasional vociferous critic, I can only applaud your latest informative effort. It seems as though you are finally starting to ‘get’ Bolivia–and appreciate the nuances of life there. The loss of lives in El Alto you mention had little to do with Bolivia and Bolivians, and much more to do with those who want to end the progress Bolivia has made under the leadership of Evo Morales. Those who fomented that violence were US-inspired, be there no doubt.
    Regarding the rest of your most recent blogging, you now seem to be understanding why Bolivia has also captured my heart, and why I have also come to love the country and people so much.
    There is hope for you after all!
    Who woulda thunk it?
    With increased respect,,,locotojhon

    • No hope alas for you and your conspiracy theories, according to which anything bad in the world is caused by the USA and nobody in the rest of the world is an independent agent capable of making their own decisions. Like all conspiracy theorists, you, sitting at home in your pyjamas, are of course the only one out of 7 billion people who knows what is really going on. Don’t you fear for your life with that unique insight?

      • locotojhon says:

        Please Andreas, If you are going to resort to name calling, at least get it right.
        I am a conspiracy realist, understanding that much of what covertly happens in this world is comprised of a conspiracy of some sort or another. The Snowden revelations, among many others, prove it. To think differently is quite immature and naive–or thoroughly propagandized–take your pick. Logic fault one.
        I never claimed that all wrongs are due to the USA as you suggest–logic fault number two.
        I also never suggested that nobody in the rest of the world is an independent agent capable of making their own decisions–logic fault number three.
        I have never claimed–let alone intimated–that I am the only one out of 7 billion people who knows what is really going on. There are many you wrongly discount or disregard–logic fault number four.
        Lastly, why would I ever fear for my life?
        What are revealing about yourself–are you some kind of paranoid schizoid?
        Sheesh! I offer a compliment and get attacked for having done so–little wonder you are a self-described hermit, admit to having few friends, and rarely get invited to weddings.
        Get a clue, dude.
        locotojhon

      • What did Edward Snowden say about the El Alto fires?

  4. locotojhon says:

    I’m so glad you asked, Andreas.
    As far as I know, Mr. Snowden said not a word about El Alto, nor did I ever suggest that he did. Snowden did, however, reveal much about the secretive workings of the US government, including irrefutable evidence using official documentation to support similar disruptive actions elsewhere. (Think ‘color’ revolutions everywhere.) My reasoning was that if we (USA) could do it (or worse) elsewhere, then why not Bolivia as well, especially considering how well the two governments get along these days, and also considering how much the USA hates the lessons (threat) of a ‘good’ example. (Think of the decades of aggression against Cuba.) The realist understands that is what Special Forces and other surreptitious entities are used for. Yes, Andreas—those of us who understand and inhabit the real world. (For more see here: http://memoryholeblog.com/2015/08 /26/the-cia-and-the-news-media-50-historical-facts-the-world-needs-to-know/ )
    Essentially, I used the reference to support the notion that thoughts of conspiracy to foment those kinds of internal tensions were much more factually-based than your fantasies. The deaths resultant from those actions could easily have been unintentional or accidental, for all I know. ‘Stuff’ actually does happen. The protests/riots/arson were perfectly timed to do maximum damage to Morales’ ‘Si’ referendum chances–that part is undeniable, is it not? Coincidental? Perhaps—though doubtful. My reference concerning the Snowden revelations was as a rebuttal to your suggestion that the tragic El Alto deaths could not be due to USA causes in one way or another. Contrarily, the realists among us understand that it might even be likely. I hope this helps—any other misunderstandings I could help you with today?
    Helpfully,,,locotojhon

  5. David says:

    Hmmm. not sure what to make of this. It’s good the people have a voice.

    But no sane person would ever invest there.

    i guess they’ve made a choice as to how they want to live.

    • Why not invest in Bolivia?
      It’s a booming economy, has a wealth of natural resources and has been much more stable than some other countries in South America. And people are very friendly and helpful.

      • David says:

        I’m specifically referring to Cochabamba – if the traffic issues are as bad as you describe them, any business (especially low-tech) would have serious logistical issues.

      • I don’t think it’s such a big deal. You either take a detour of a few blocks, or – worst case – your truck is stuck somewhere for a few days. That happens to supply chains everywhere, due to strikes, storms, floods, derailed trains or pirates in the Strait of Malakka. Even with blockades, traffic here flows more smoothly than in Kuala Lumpur, Delhi or rush-hour Los Angeles or Munich.

        I don’t think many industries work on a very strict just-in-time schedule with zero inventory, particularly in countries like Bolivia where the space to build up inventory is not a problem.

      • David says:

        Bear in mind that inventory is not just a storage issue – it’s primarily a cash-flow issue.

  6. What a great post! Thanks for sharing that.

  7. Lou-ter-Lou says:

    Wow, highly interesting to read. Thanks for sharing all these Bolivian insights! Great pictures, too. (And I also know now why the postcard hasn’t arrived yet ^_^ I should read more often…)

    • But now the postal strike is over and your postcard is on its way!

      You, as one of the few readers who has made a donation and helps me to keep writing, should indeed read more often. :-) But then, it’s also fun to read in bursts, on a weekend, with a large plate of Kaiserschmarrn.

      • Lou-ter-Lou says:

        I just had steak, but Kaiserschmarrn are a good idea. Will eat them tomorrow, while reading more!

      • One of the very few things I miss about Europe: a long lunch with Kaiserschmarrn and Süddeutsche Zeitung.

      • Lou-ter-Lou says:

        Well, Süddeutsche Zeitung you can read online. And if you give me an address, I could send you some packages of Knorr Sweety Kaiserschmarrn (just add water :-P taste really good, although I hate fixes) and you’ll be able to have your missed lunch in no time :-D
        With or without raisins?

      • I always add raisins when I find some. But Kaiserschmarrn is actually one of the few things I can make from scratch. And milk, eggs and flour I should really find everywhere.

        Unfortunately, I don’t enjoy reading online. It always feels like work, not relaxing.

      • Lou-ter-Lou says:

        Well, sending over a SDZ is kinda useless… by the time it gets to you, it’s a month old. But at least you can make those Kaiserschmarrn then! (and get to enjoy them in the sun) :-D

      • I once wanted to have a subscription of Süddeutsche Zeitung in Lithuania, even to there it sometimes took a week. I had to cancel it after a week.

        There is actually a German library in Cochabamba and they have Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, but also with a delay of at least a month, I think.

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