Cochabamba, Bolivia

I sat at the table and watched. I was at the co-café in Cochabamba, Bolivia on a cool June night with local cochalos.[1]  We drank, smoked and chewed coca leaves deep into the small hours of the night. It was dreamlike and sublime; the forces of history and destiny brought us here this evening. I am with my friend, Alejandro—a sociology student with Marxist-Leninist inclinations, despite his firm katarista cultivation. The waiter—a friend and fellow sociology student of Alejandro’s—brings us Huari beer after Huari beer; and we smoke cigarettes incessantly.  We are not the only ones doing this; all those who entered the cocafé this evening are drinking and smoking impetuously. It is that kind of night in Cocha.

Cochabamba was the backdrop for the “water war” of early 2000, the series of protests that shook the streets of Cocha between December 1999 and April of 2000. These massive protests arose in response to the government’s attempts to privatize the water supply, and included weeks of waged protests, general strikes, and transportation blockages that brought the country to a virtual standstill. The protests were sparked by the government’s concession to sell Cochabamba’s public water system to foreign investors. The protesters demanded the government break its $200 million contract with private contractors, which had dramatically raised water rates. Image

We sit and talk and more friends arrive. Most are students, although an archeologist and psychologist have since joined our discussion. We talk and drink and reflect on the recent history of Bolivia, on the water war, the overthrow of “Goni” and the election of Bolivia’s first Aymara president.  At face value, it would seem, that at last the tables are turning in Bolivia, the prophesized pachacuti is seemingly upon us in space and time.[2] Bolivia was, in fact, the epicenter of the most profound revolutionary challenge to Spanish hegemony during the colonial period. The Andean revolution of 1780 reached its apex in La Paz under the leadership of Tupaj Katari, a common indian who rose from his people to lead a revolution against the most powerful empire of the age.

I sat at the table and listened. Bolivia, according to the United Nations human development index, is the least developed country in South America, and one of the least developed on the American continent. I am skeptical of quantitative forms of analysis that attempt to measure human advancement on western teleological concepts of progress.  Still, in Bolivia, I saw extreme inequality, and considering the history of racism and ethnic discrimination, it is not difficult to observe the corollaries between race and poverty. In this sense, perhaps, the history of Bolivia is only beginning to turn the tide, only begun its pachacuti or reversal of space and time. Perhaps now it is the turn of the other…

Posted by Alexis A. Montes, MA candidate in CLACS at NYU

[1] Cochalos is local slang for Cochabamba natives.

[2] Pachacuti is a prophesized Andean myth in which a radical turnaround, rupture or point of no return occurs.

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