Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2015
Through the Prism of Nonviolence
By John Heid
High in the Bolivian Andes lies Al Salar De Uyuni, a region of vast, snow-white salt flats as far as the eye can see. The prevailing sound there is the hush of wind sweeping across the treeless expanse. And too there is a silence so palpable one can almost touch it. The rain-soaked salt plateau mirrors the clouds. The horizon vanishes. Earth and sky are one. Seamless. Euclidean geometry is out the window. The world as I have known it turned upside down in Al Salar. I felt as though I was walking in the sky, ungrounded, between spaces—surrounded by wonder yet out of place. It was at once an exhilarating and unsettling feeling, an apt metaphor for my time in Bolivia.
For reasons still unclear to me, I have felt drawn to the Andes for decades. When given the opportunity to study Spanish at the Maryknoll Mission Center’s Language Institute, I leapt. I wanted to be immersed in this mountain civilization—so outside my familiar environs. I knew Bolivia still had a vibrant indigenous culture. I knew of its socialist-style government and that it is not a particularly popular tourist destination for most US citizens. These were selling points. So with a backpack of clothing, Spanish grammar books and immeasurable privilege I went to learn. I had no idea what I was getting into.
For three months I lived with a Bolivian family in Cochabamba, known as the city of eternal spring. The valley of Cochabamba, at nearly 9,000 feet, is situated between the hot, humid jungle of the Beni and the frigid, arid altiplano, the Andean plateau. In Cochabamba I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Plants that are potted in the US, like poinsettias and hibiscus, are full size trees that line many of the city’s streets. Something colorful was always in bloom.
Cochabamba came into the international limelight in 2000 during what became known as the Water War. Under pressure from the World Bank, the Bolivian government rescinded the existing water rights laws and privatized the utility. Then the administration negotiated a contract with the predatorial international conglomerate, Bechtel, to sell the water. Rates rose 300 percent. No source of water was exempt, not even rainfall.
Bechtel tried to charge people for the rain they gathered in pails. In a unique moment of rural and urban solidarity the various classes and sectors of Cochabamban society resisted. Streets were blocked. Business as usual came to a screeching halt. Among the protest banners one stood out: “¡El Agua Es Nuestra, Carajo!” “The Water is ours, damn it!” Months of vigorous public protest ultimately forced the government to break the contract. Oscar Olivera, one of the movement’s primary organizers, told me: “The struggle was about more than just water, it was about our peoples’ fundamental right to make their own decisions.”
Although I was in a classroom for 12 weeks, the real lessons were on the streets, in the markets, city parks, and on the trufis (a major form of public transportation.) History, like the water wars, went well beyond grammar books tutoring me in the nature of this predominantly indigenous society. This immersion was as rich and disorienting as the Al Salar.
For me, Bolivia is a country of vast contrasts beginning with its geography. There are steamy jungles, and the altiplano with its year-round snow and dizzying elevation. Indigenous women in their black bowler hats and colorful traditional polleras walk alongside women dressed in fitted blue jeans and power suits—both often held cell phones. High-walled residences characterize the cities, while vast areas of the country are sublime fields of rose and saffron colored quinoa plants.
The air quality of Cochabamba rivals the worst in the hemisphere, and there are four days a year where the streets are closed to all forms of motorized traffic, except emergency vehicles. These Dias del Peatóns, designed to raise environmental awareness, transform the city’s streets into a world of informal parades as families walk to city parks to picnic and to ball parks to play soccer—traditional indigenous culture alongside contemporary.
Bolivian society has witnessed enormous transformation over the past decade with election of a socialist-style government. Constitutional reforms have removed many of the once legal racist barriers that European colonization imported. Yet human rights activists point out that there still is no access to public water in Cochabamba’s poorest areas while in upscale neighborhoods residents fill their swimming pools. Class inequity persists despite the success of the Water War 15 years ago. Bolivia was a stark reminder of the challenges every society faces in terms of providing and protecting basic human rights and services for all its members, regardless of the form of government in place.
The country shared something of its heart with me by way of the Spanish language. Still there are much deeper lessons to be learned, a practice that would require studying Quechua and Amyara, two of the country’s most-used indigenous languages.
Bolivia has two official flags: One is the familiar tri-colored banner with the National Coat of Arms at center; the other is the Wiphala, the indigenous flag. The rainbow-colored Wiphala was given its official designation in 2009 by way of a revision of the national constitution. The two fly side-by-side. This powerful symbolic gesture epitomizes, for me, the vision and challenge of a multicultural, plurinational people. Two flags, one people. I was deeply privileged to be a brief spectator in this odyssey of transformation.
—John Heid lives and works at the Casa Mariposa Community in Tucson, Arizona.