La Paz Organizers’ Forum international dialogues are always full of surprises. We could tell Bolivia was going to be no different especially when miner’s strikes and mobilizations of various social movements were everywhere in the streets and in the news of La Paz. Many of these were the same groups we had sought to meet with on our visit, so it made the schedule and contacts difficult to say the least, but once on the ground we have moved the kind of roll-with-the-punches dexterity that is the calling card of organizers around the world.
We were fortunate on Sunday night to get off to a great start with a frank and insightful briefing by Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, a fascinating young woman from Philadelphia who has made La Paz home and carved out a important niche as a journalist to the outside. Thanks to Jean, we were unlikely to embarrass ourselves.
Alberto Mollinedo Zeballos, the director of the Desarrollo Economico Comunitario of Bolivia, an economic development training and support operation partnered with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and a local university here, told us about initiatives they were supporting largely in the rural areas. This was an embryonic effort, but at the least confirmed what we had been hearing everywhere that the most significant impact of Evo Morales presidency has been increasing support and the presence of the state in the rural areas. Alberto told a story of being shouted down for not speaking the local language after inviting him there hours from home on a Sunday: a humbling and telling experience he chalked up to strong social capital.
We learned about the Afro-Bolivian invisibility in Bolivia. Starting as slaves 500 years ago, they didn’t work out in the mines because too many died, but ended up being moved to the coca plantations because the miners chewed so much of the stuff. Now with a population of only 20 to 40,000, they were finding their way largely because of a provision in the newly enacted constitution that gave the more than 37 different indigenous groups rights that they had never had, including the ability to devise a special curriculum in their local schools which honored their traditions, culture, and history. Racism was obviously deeply grained from hearing our new friends talk, but since they were not ignored or ostracized more than most other indigenous groups, they were cautious in pointing fingers.
We cooled our heels for quite a time as we waited to meet with the #2 person at the National Union of Campesino Workers, but once we met we felt lucky for the time we got. This is the largest organization in Bolivia with 5 million members in all districts of the country. Evo Morales’s cocoleros had been an affiliate and he had been a member. His pictures were on all of the walls. They saw their job as defending his policies in many areas, though were adamant that they received no government money in their organization. They were being called to meetings about a mobilization of social movements around the complicated miners’ strike, so had little time for us, but as we departed we also left a line of people outside and in waiting rooms who had come from all over the country to sit for even less time for an audience and some help from the organization. Worth us understanding more!
Similarly, we met with the organization of indigenous peoples from the highlands another long cab ride away. There was disappointment in some of Evo’s recent actions in these offices particularly the way he had handled plans for a highway through national parkland that affected one group. There were 2 million in this organization, which was also primarily rural. They were hardly conservatives. We had much to learn.
Our agenda of meetings ended back up the mountain in El Alto once again meeting at a chicken place with the organizer and one of the leaders of an interesting union of workers 17 years of age and younger. The organization was new and small, but had cleverly taken advantage of the movement around a new constitution to insert its issue not banning child labor but making sure it was not exploited, which was a fine policy and political line. Their small membership worked in market fares, shoe shining, domestic work, bus hawking, and other informal occupations. Very interesting! Reminded me of ACORN’s work in India organizing waste pickers about the same age.
Exhausted? Yeah, me, too, but exhilarated at processing so much new information in this thin air. I wondered if my legs were tingling from the altitude or all of exciting work we were hearing about in this unique country?