You can view all those angry miners waving sticks of dynamite at your bus as a nuisance, or as a grand cultural happening. Your choice…
If you travel through Bolivia without encountering at least one strike or protest or road blockade, you should probably ask for your money back. In a country full of mountains but no tallest mountains, full of ancient culture but no Machu Picchus, the bread-and-butter Bolivian travel story is about how goddamn bad the buses are, and about how they always get held up by some kind of civil disobedience.
There’s good reason for this. Bolivian roads are terrible; half of the country sprawls in the sweltering lowlands, the other half sits atop the craggy Andes; neither terrain is particularly amenable to smooth asphalt. The buses that careen over these crumbling, pot-holed, flooded roads are all falling apart. Their toilets have been taken out and cumbia-blasting radios have been put in. The drivers cram coca leaves into their mouths, suck on beers, chat on their phones, and take the idea of deceleration as an attack on their manhood. This is Bolivian transport at the best of times. Throw in angry, dynamite-wielding miners blockading the road and you have a truly awful journey.
So you can bitch about it and write your stock story about how badass you are for suffering through these petty squabbles, or you can actually stop to ask just why Bolivians are so good at slowing traffic down.
Few countries in the world have been as frequently shat on as Bolivia. Bolivia (back then known as Alto Perú – it didn’t even have its own name) was one of the first Latin American countries to declare independence from Spain, and one the last to actually gain independence. As Spain moved out and other colonisers moved in, Bolivia lost territory to Brazil over its rubber plantations, lost territory to Chile over nitrate deposits, and lost territory to Paraguay over fossil fuels that didn’t exist. The loss to Chile was also the loss of Bolivia’s coastline, leaving the country high and dry (it still has a token navy on Lake Titicaca and a phantom coastal ‘province’). It also turned out to be the loss of one of the biggest copper mines in the world.
It’s not only outside powers that love screwing Bolivia over. With the help of the CIA, the IMF, the DEA, and other equally nefarious acronyms, Bolivia’s wealthy have mastered the art of screwing their countrymen over too. Bolivian governments have a magnificent track record of doing whatever it takes to get their hands on foreign money, whether this means selling off natural resources, putting people in prison, or evicting people from their ancestral lands.
This all leaves very few options for most Bolivians. For the miners in Potosí, working under conditions that have barely changed in 200 years, for the coca growers in the Chapare, being held at gunpoint while their crops are burnt, for the residents of El Alto, forced to build their own roads and utilities, for the people in Cochabamba, who face a constant struggle for access to potable water, there are very few ways to have their voices heard.
One successful way, though, is to organise into unions and committees, and to stage protests, strikes and road blockades. These are crude tactics, but have proven to be one of the only ways to draw the attention of usually corrupt, usually racist, usually violent, usually spineless government.
In 1999 the water in Cochabamba was privatised. Not just the water that ran through the pipes for a few hours each day, but all water in the city. If you dug a well in your back yard, if you collected rainwater off of your roof, you had to pay for it. Average water rates were about $20 a month in a country with an average monthly income of less than $100 a month. The people of the city organised and took to the streets, shutting down the city and sparking off similar actions in other cities. Other causes joined the water protestors: police and teachers demanded higher pay (both made around $80 a month); coca growers demanded an end to eradication of their crop.
The Cochabamba ‘Water Wars’ ultimately lead to the overturning of the water privatisation. Laws were changed. Wages were raised. Coca continued to be burned under the watchful eye of the DEA. The protests were viewed as a great, although costly success. Where their government had failed them, the people had risen up to protect themselves and set the government straight.
While you’re sitting in a sweaty bus somewhere high in the Andes, waiting for the driver to negotiate his way through the blockade, consider this: in the US people preferred to wait politely for 8 years rather than actually do something about the Bush regime. In Australia people waited 12 years for John Howard to pass into obscurity. Canadians are still too polite to get rid of Stephen Harper once and for all. Dynamiting a highway may not be as sophisticated as free-and-fair elections, but it gets the job done. It sends a much clearer message than the occasional disgruntled letter to the editor.
Bolivian roadblocks and strikes may be a pain in the ass, but they are a part of Bolivia. Social protest is an integral, albeit informal part of Bolivian society. Current president Evo Morales gained the popularity necessary for his landslide electoral victory by engaging with social movements and organising protests.
You probably came to Bolivia to ride down the Death Road, visit San Pedro prison, try some local coke and maybe tour the salt flats. They’re all fine, and they’re all apparently typical to Bolivia, but so too is the roadblock. You may not like it, but chances are it is a fair bit more important than arriving at your hostel on time. Take your camera out, snap some clandestine pictures; you’re witnessing a crude, sweaty victory for the little guys.