Monthly Archives: September 2003

Goodbye, La Paz

We made it out of La Paz this morning on a 5 a.m. bus–the roads are clearer in the morning, we were told, and we made it through difficult spots outisde the city thanks to what appeared to be a military escort. Of course, I can’t be certain–we were told to close the curtains on our windows as we neared dangerous stretches of road, but we were able to glimpse armed soliders roaming the fields surrounding our bus, on the lookout for angry protesters who might stone the vehicle.

It made sense to leave La Paz a few days ahead of schedule. Protesters have said they’ll be stepping up roadblocks beginning tomorrow, and after that no one knows when roads will again be passable. Today’s Washington Post includes a good summary of what’s gone wrong–and where Bolivia may be headed:

Demonstrators stepped up their pace in the past week, with a series of strikes, marches and roadblocks, leaving thousands of businesses unable to replenish supplies, stranding hundreds of tourists and heightening tensions. Seven people were killed 45 miles north of here on Sept. 20 in clashes with troops sent to rescue 800 people, including 40 foreign tourists, who were trapped by roadblocks.

Many Bolivians, political analysts and journalists say they fear the country may have reached its tipping point. With military officers opposing the sale of natural gas through Chile, the possibility of a coup or even civil war is openly discussed.

I’m writing this from Puno, Peru, halfway bewteen La Paz and Cuzco, the city from which we’ll fly back to Ecuador. We’ll be spending a few days here and a few days in Cuzco, and then we’ll be back in Cuenca toward the end of the week.

Update from a City Quietly Under Siege

Bolivia is a mess. But here in La Paz, things are quiet. Our hopes to travel overland from here to Ecuador via Peru next week, however, are looking increasingly bleak.

Reuters says the protests may well increase next week: “Hundreds of thousands of Bolivian workers from miners to bus drivers plan to go on strike next week to demand unpopular President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada quit, adding to fears of more bloodshed as Indian peasants continue to block roads.”

The article says that “roadblock protests by peasants have choked supply routes into La Paz in recent weeks, with stocks of food in markets running low, prices soaring and tension mounting.”

And that’s true. But as I reported earlier, La Paz seems to be otherwise operating normally, especially in the rich neighborhood where we’re staying with my brother. More soon as the situation becomes clearer…

Report from La Paz: Hemmed In by Roadblocks

We’re still in La Paz. Having a great time with my brother–despite the fact that the city is cut off from the rest of the country.

Protesters have roadblocked all highways leading in and out of La Paz, so our plans to travel down to the famed Uyuni salt flats, in the south of the country, are on hold.

This article says indigenous farmers and soliders have clashed outside the city, but things are generally undisturbed where we are. There are reports, however, that some La Paz markets and stores are closing in solidarity with the protesters, but the ones in my brother’s neighborhood, Cota Cota, are still open.

Update from Bolivia

We arrived here in La Paz Saturday night. It was not an easy bus ride from Puno, Peru.

After spending Friday waiting out the aforementioned protests/roadblocks, we were able to book passage on a bus leaving Saturday morning for the six-hour journey across the Bolivian border and into La Paz.

After crossing over into Bolivia, however, we neared a bridge and came to a stop behind a column of motionless cars. It was a roadblock.

We waited for 20 or 30 minutes, during which time our bus driver tried to arrange for a police transport through the hot spot. As we were milling about near the bus, everyone at the front of the line–also out of their cars and walking around–began yelling and sprinting back toward their cars. We followed suit and boarded our bus; there was a mad dash of cars and people as everyone hastily sped back in the opposite direction.

Turns out, we heard, that a farmer was walking along a nearby hill and waving a shot gun in the direction of the waiting cars. Apparently he was a protester and was trying to clear the area of cars.

After driving for a few minutes, our bus turned down a second, much more rocky road, with the intention of skirting the road block. But after about a quarter of a mile, a loud “pop” and “whoosh” signaled that we’d blown a tire.

Again, everyone got off the bus. And it took all of two hours for the Bolivian bus driver, his assistant, and the operators of a second bus, one with which we were caravaning and which also suffered a flat right behind us, to change the tire. Particularly troubling was a lug nut which, it turned out, had to be removed with a hack saw.

During this time, cars could be seen flowing around the road block on the main road, so when we were ready to go again we doubled back toward the original highway. But not before the bus was momemtarily stuck in a mud field while attempting to turn around. At long last, though, we made it back to the bottleneck, which was still strewn with large rocks and broken glass.

Several protesters stood on a hill next to the roadside, one of whom was swinging a slingshot and threatening to pelt our bus with a rock. But our driver’s assistant approached the group, paid them enough Bolivianos so that they allowed us to pass, and we made it through. It was quite nerve-wracking.

We arrived in downtown La Paz, changed some money, and took a cab to my brother’s apartment. What should’ve been a six-hour ride took more like ten; we slept well that night.

And in happier news, yesterday we were lucky enough to attend an excellent soccer match between La Paz’s two rival clubs, Bolivar and the interestingly-named The Strongest. The squads played to a 2-2 draw.

Great to see my brother and great to great to finally be in La Paz.

Stuck in Puno, Peru

We’re stuck in Puno, Peru, a town next to Lake Titicaca. We’d planned to take the bus six hours to La Paz this morning, but all the roads leading into Bolivia have been shut down. The border is, in effect, closed.

Protesters, most of them indigenous, have shut down roads throughout Bolivia. They’re angry that the government’s planning to export natural gas from Bolivia to be sold through Chile’s ports. Not only are the protesters demanding free gas, but they’re upset that Chile’s ports will be used–that stretch of coastline belonged to Bolivia before it was lost in a war.

Things are supposed to be back to normal tomorrow, but bus companies still aren’t selling tickets to La Paz, as they’re not sure whether or not roads will be clear. So in the meantime, we’re sitting tight…

Hola y Adios a Ecuador

A very quick note: I arrived in Guayaquil without incident Sunday night and have been relaxing here in Cuenca since then. But now it’s off to visit my brother in Bolivia.

I leave from Guayaquil tonight on the red-eye to Lima; from there it’s on to Cuzco, where we plan to bus, with a stop in Puno, on the edge of Lake Titicaca, the 13 additional hours to La Paz. Then we’ll travel in Bolivia for a couple weeks before returning to Cuenca to teach on October 3rd. Reports will be sparse for the next few days.

No More “Ecuadorian Time” for Lucio

AP: “President Lucio Gutierrez will set a national example and start showing up on time for meetings and appointments in an effort to combat a national lack of punctuality, a government spokesman said Monday.”

My favorite line: “Locally referred to as keeping ‘Ecuadorean Time,’ the nation is known for showing up late to sporting, media and government events — which rarely start on time.”

So very true.

Chris Hitchens on September 11th

Hitchens writes:

Reflect upon it: Civil society is assaulted in the most criminal way by the most pitilessly reactionary force in the modern world. The drama immediately puts the working class in the saddle as the necessary actor and rescuer of the said society. Investigation shows the complicity of a chain of conservative client states, from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, in the face of which our vaunted “national security” czars had capitulated. Here was the time for radicals to have demanded a war to the utmost against the forces of reaction, as well a full house cleaning of the state apparatus and a league of solidarity with the women of Afghanistan and with the whole nexus of dissent and opposition in the Muslim world. Instead of which, the posturing loons all concentrated on a masturbatory introspection about American guilt, granted the aura of revolutionary authenticity to Bin Laden and his fellow gangsters, and let the flag be duly seized by those who did look at least as if they meant business.