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La Paz: The View from the Top of the World

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By Pedro G. Cavallero (from La Paz, Bolivia, for Safe Democracy)

Pedro G. Cavallero describes Bolivia‘s tumultuous political and social situation, which is causing the country to sink back into the rhetoric of the past. With the opposition to the Presidency of Evo Morales increasing in various regions, a chaotic Constitutional Assembly responsible for the drafting of a new constitution, and an erratic foreign policy, the Bolivian administration has begun reediting old scripts, and applying old cures to new problems. As Morales‘ government struggles to get off the ground, the images of undying guerrilla spirit, indigenous power, the integrationist dream, and Caribbean Leninism have been resurrected to flower over a far from attractive reality.


[2] Pedro German Cavallero is a policy analyst based in Washington DC. He holds a master degree in Comparative Law and comments regularly on U.S. foreign policy and inter-American affairs.

AS THE TRAFFIC MOVES SLOWLY TOWARD DOWNTOWN LA PAZ through a congested Arce Avenue, two powerful historical images that have resurfaced in today’s Bolivia greet throngs of passersby. On one side of the thoroughfare, a huge, colorful mural brings Simon Bolivar back to life, to call on the paceños (the inhabitants of La Paz) to make the politically fragmented Americas one sole, unified nation.

Never mind the fact that Bolivia is a nation marred by a profound, and at times unbridgeable, divide, which sets its natural resources-rich, powerful, eastern lowlands at loggerheads with the poorer, predominantly Aymara-populated western highlands. The great Venezuelan General stands firm in his exhortation of the integrationist dream.

[3] RHETORIC OF THE PAST
On the other side of the street, another iconic (even mythological) political figure emerges, urging Bolivians to launch an even more daring enterprise. Next to the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés’ main entrance, an enormous red and black mural of Ernesto Che Guevara proclaims the beginning of a long-delayed revolution.

In La Paz, Guevara’s face (as reproduced in murals, T-shirts, posters, and paintings by local artists) is conspicuous as elsewhere in Latin America. And in the popular market surrounding the Church of San Francisco, reproductions abound of an eternally young Guevara, seated next to President Evo Morales and Fidel Castro, forging an odd marriage between never-dying guerrilla spirit, indigenous power and Caribbean Leninism.

Those images serve as background while passing through a gas station located a few blocks away from the crowded, noisy Heroes Square. There a large banner boasts the recent nationalization of Bolivia’s oil refineries, set into motion by Morales. Never before has nationalization triggered a giant step forward in Latin America. On the contrary, it has often retarded Latin America’s development.

Yet, as a political tool it exudes an irresistible nationalistic, rebellious, and strong anti-Washington flavor that is all too tempting for the former cocalero leader to avoid implementing.

CIVIL AND POLITICAL UNREST
Since coming to office, Evo Morales has become extremely active on the international scene, as Bolivian political analysts and commentators highlight. Following in the footsteps of Hugo Chávez, his presence at international forums rivals even that of his Venezuelan mentor. Despite serious domestic issues piling up on his desk at the Palacio Quemado (the President’s office) Morales embarks on repeated international tours. Back home, Bolivian society follows the deliberations of a tumultuous (and at times chaotic) Constitutional Assembly entrusted the rewriting the country’s constitution.

A couple of weeks ago, a general strike generated street confrontations as the opposition to the administration galvanized in the regions of Beni, Pando, Tarija, and Santa Cruz, while other issues (counterpoints with Church authorities, incidents in Copacabana and the worsening of the political situation) plague an ebullient reality that seems anything but settled.

[4] ERRATIC INTERNATIONAL COURSE
Recently, Evo Morales and Vice President Alvaro García Linera were both traveling outside of the country. Understandably, their absence conveyed an unavoidable impression: Bolivia was running on automatic pilot. In Havana, where Morales was attending the Summit of the Movement of Non-Aligned Nations (a colorful gathering that included North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, Vietnam, dozens of African kleptocrats, and oddly several Latin American democracies) the Bolivian President took repeated shots at Washington. According to Morales, the Bush administration was undermining his government and encouraging his opponents. While in the island, Morales also emphasized La Paz’s dual alignment with Venezuela and Cuba.

And as he engaged in strident anti-Americanism, Vice President García Linera rushed to Washington to negotiate the renewal of trade-related benefits for Bolivia. When asked by local journalists about the visit’s purpose, García Linera answered candidly: to improve bilateral relations and cooperation, thus leaving his American counterparts perplexed at Bolivia’s erratic international course.

[5] NARROWING VIEW
Built at 11,000 feet above the sea, La Paz seems to sit on top of the world. On a clear day, the magnificence of a colorful landscape defies the horizon, providing an almost limitless perspective. However, the view from Palacio Quemado has narrowed drastically these days. As a growing number of conflicts, both domestic and external, crowd the agenda of an increasingly embattled administration, it is becoming very difficult to see through all the fog.

With so many challenges, it has become very tempting to reedit old scripts, bring back outdated recipes and rely upon the unrealistic rhetoric of the past.

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