Simple Questions Adding Up

Farbman - Research in Bolivia - CLACS at NYUI’ve spent a month now in Cochabamba, doing what hundreds of others have done before me: asking questions about the Water War. I know some people are working from a script at this point, rattling off boilerplate answers when they hear key phrases. How could they not, it’s exhausting to discuss the same thing over and again.

And yet, most phone requests for interviews yield an immediate yes, and more often than not an interview the next day. People have been so incredibly generous since I arrived, with their time, their knowledge and have been beyond helpful in recommending other people I should speak with.

It’s clear that as tired as they may be of discussing the same questions (“on April 4, 2000, xxx happened…”). But its just as clear that what drove them (and tens of thousands of their neighbors) into the streets is still very much on their minds. The intense desire to see justice for the oppressed and exploited is matched by a historically combative, radical, class-conscious Bolivian left.

So my task here has been to tap into that passion, and unlock their stories in a way that wasn’t canned, a simple rehash of the dozens of versions I’d come across in my pre-trip research. Its something I’ve been getting better at, although there were definitely some difficulties early on.

I want to tell a version of the story that hasn’t been told before: how the massive spontaneity was set up by the organization and leadership of many brilliant, experienced political activists. But in a region where military dictatorships and caudillos make up a significant portion of the political history, the word “leader” can be pretty loaded.

Early on I would tell people I wanted to study leadership during the water war, or asked any questions about leadership. It would always produce a defensive action that denied any leadership, and (re)emphasized the spontaneity that had happened. So I’ve had to develop questions that get at the qualities a leader would need to exhibit, without addressing the question head-on. And I’ve had much better luck since.

I’ve also had the luck to be working out of an office with many of the people who were directly involved in the water war. The countless informal conversations I’ve had have been massively important to my ability to understand the on-the-ground context of the water war, and to ask more intelligent questions. I’ve also been up to my elbows in primary documents, which I’ve been frantically scanning in my down time.

I will return to the US with about 20 hours of recorded interviews, and hundreds of pages of communications, propaganda, and newspaper articles. It’s been an unbelievably busy time, and I’ve learned an incredible amount, which will hopefully prepare me to sift through everything when I get home.

Posted by Jason Farbman — MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

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