Personal Notes on Bolivia, 1989 – PDF


1989 Notes on Bolivia

Personal observations during a family trip to Bolivia. During this trip, Michael Ratner meets the Indians whom he will later represent. His wife, Karen Ranucci, meets them during her efforts to collect indigenous videos.

We left New York on Monday, March 13, 1989. Because of the strike our Eastern tickets were no good and we had to take a much longer Air Bolivia flight. The plane stopped in Caracas, then Manusmo? in Brazil and Santa Cruz, where we changed planes for La Paz. We arrive in La Paz at 10 or so in the morning. Almost the entire flight was at night. The baby, unlike me, slept the entire night.

Santa Cruz from the air looked mostly agricultural with very large farms and muddy curving rivers that seemed to swell with the rainy season. It was in the 70’s and I saw few trees and some cacti.

The flight into La Paz was spectacular. First over the farm land of Santa Cruz and the snake like muddy rivers. Then over black brown rough mountains and finally covered by clouds. On our descent when we pierced the clouds we saw large snowcapped and uninhabited mountains with large lakes. Then the altiplano–a huge flat solid brown surface without a tree or shrub. Every few miles were adobe houses surrounded by adobe walls that were rarely intact. Then the number of adobe houses increased and soon we landed in La Paz.

When I got off the plane it felt like the earth was shaking underneath me and that sensation continued for twenty minutes even when I was sitting down. I was dizz from the altitude. I noticed a doctor with a stethoscope around his neck and a white jacket. He was there to take care of those who fainted from the altitude.

Then down from the airport a few hundred meters into La Paz. The very poor live in adobe houses clinging to the sides of the mountains. Steep walks and no roads to their houses. Then into the center of La Paz. People and cars everywhere. Markets and vendors over every square inch. The cholas in their traditional and colorful dress were everywhere–all with bowler hats. Block after block of market with fruits, the witches market and coca leaves.

Our apartment is in a large building situated with a number of other similar recently built upper middle class buildings. It is bright and entirely surrounded by the mountains the walls of which are filled with housing.

The poverty is indescribable. While waiting to go up to the apartment two Indian women, not cholas,approached me with a small bag of what appeared to be lemons. They had on dark black skirts with similar blouses and carry cloths. A colorful but faded design was woven onto each cloth. The clothes were ragged and dirty. They asked me to buy the fruit. I refused and as they were leaving I saw just the hand of a small baby emerge from the sack on the woman’s back. I felt like but did not running and giving them ten dollars or more. We pay our help little but it is a good wage by Bolivian standards–100 dollars a month and what kind of life can the person have.

Much of the food and goods we buy is expensive and imported. One cannot drink the local milk and so we by Argentinean or Chilean and the same goes for the cheese or the pots. Kleenex is 3 dollars a box.

I am very frightened by sickness and diseases that can affect the baby. Everything I touch seems to me to be poison. I can’t wash with the water and touch the baby. When the baby crawls he can get a disease. The foods purchased can’t be eaten unless peeled or boiled. The water even after boiling has crud in the bottom. I hope the baby is o.k. So far on this 15th of March it is me that has saroche or altitude sickness. Karen as on her last trip is fine. I have nausea and a headache. Today the two helpers have cone and in a few days I will start Spanish.

March 16, 1988-Thursday

Today the babysitter came. Her name is Amelia and she is studying physical therapy at the medical faculty at Miraflores.

I began to read about the trial of Garcia-Meza who is being tried in Sucre for human rights violations and for the theft and sale of Che’s two diaries along with the diaries of “Pombo” or Harry Villegas. Garcia-Meza sent a letter to England containing the documentation for the sale and said they should be sold as previously agreed. Also a number of members of Congress passed a resolution asking for a judgment against him for the sale of the diaries.Three separate groups have united to form a committee imelling justice and responsibility against Gracia-Meza and his collaborators… The three are the Permanent Asssembly, the COB, the ASOFAMD, and university students.

There has been two day at least of demonstrations by the miners in La Paz protesting the failure of the government to honor the compensation package for the layoffs.

March 17–see letters 1 and 1a; I felt much better today and went out with Karen to eat Saltenas at Mi Favorita. They were delicious. This was our first experience with leaving Baby Jake alone with Amelia and he did great and she is doing better with him now. Today we walked up and down the Prado. First the section by our house which is near the university. A number of fancy shops and hotels. The best maps were too expensive to buy. I bought some newspapers–the left Aqui, the union paper Rebellion and a regular paper. In the main paper was a government notice about the trial of Galitieri and Gracia-Meza for the selling of Che’s diary and an article about the start of the trial. In the afternoon we went to the large artisans market near the San Francisco church. It was great. I got an alpaca sweater for 40 Bolivianos or 16 dollars. Then we rented a jeep for Karen’s trip and I had my first experience driving in downtown La Paz. Bumper to bumper and stick shift on the hills. I have the boy for the weekend because Karen is leaving for Oruro for the weekend. I am having a great time.

March 19th- Today is Palm Sunday and it is a gorgeous day in La Paz. the temperature is perfect for walking. Karen called this morning from Siglo XX by radio phone. At first I did not understand because the operator kept saying cambio or change. Finally I understood that when I finished talking I had to say cambio so the operator would switch the radio from talk to listen. She sounded great and said that there was something wonderful at Siglo XX church and that she would be home late.

After the call I left the house and strolled down Prado. It had only a few people and I soon realized it was palm Sunday. The first church had cholas in front weaving with palms and selling crosses and other palm items. A band was setting up on the center strip of the prado which has some grass. I walked all the way to San Francisco and turned to the right? bank and up to the government square and the cathedral. It was a beautiful, clean open square withe the church and the government buildings. Very sunny and bright with soldiers in front of most of the buildings even the church. Again the chola and their kids were out front weaving and selling the palm leaves. I went into the church which was gigantic and quite impressive. Outside in from of the square was a very moving memorial to Valleroel who in 1946 was dragged from the presidential palace and a hung. From his words he appeared to be on the side of the poor. Their was even a plaque from his children. Military trucks were unloading a military band, little kids were selling balloons, shoeshine men and boys were everywhere; the men with stands and the boys with shoeshine boxes. I had mine shined for 1 Boliviano. Then came another small truck and unloaded what appeared to be three large blackboards. Two of the boards were then set up and a sign saying “El Museo sale al la calle” and three old oils of Christ were hung on the blackboards depicting Christ in different stages–beating; judgment etc. The third blackboard was placed over the other two as a roof. A small glass case was set up. One side contained pottery from Tiwkanu, a pre-Inca civilization with a card giving date as D.C. 200 or 200 years despues (after) Christ. The other side had more small oils of Christ painted on small pieces of tin–? “retablo.” For about ten minutes I watched a small poor Indian child untie her mothers cloth, find bread and a bottle and eat it. She was really cure. She then tried to re-tie the sack like her mother does with different knots. Her mother was a few feet away preparing some custard like thing by scooping it out of a large blue plastic bucket and putting it into cups to sell. A very difficult life.

I then walked over the the San Francisco Church. Hundreds of cholas were out with their palms making all sorts of objects. I bought a small cross with a red berry in the center, a small purse and a ring with a number of fed berries. Jake destroyed the ring, berry by berry, when I got home. The church was filled with people sitting and standing in the aisles. There was a strong smell of incense in the air and chanting not dissimilar to that I used to hear in temple. I had to be home by noon to relieve the sitter and I bought 4 satenas on the way. Jake was wonderful as usual and jumped into my arms.

NOTES: On the spine of the phone book in bold black capital letters “BOLIVIA DEMANDA SU DERECHO DE SALIDA AL MAR” and the park that we play in with Jake is dedicated to one of the heroes of the war in which the access to the sea was lost–a war with Chile.

NOTES: In my walk into the huge Saturday San Francisco market in the middle three or four blocks behind the church I came across a small cafeteria with its sign in Spanish and under it Hebrew lettering. I will go back and inquire. I also saw a store “moda Abraham” and another “Max Edelman.”

Much of the food we eat is imported. Poor Bolivia. We drink milk from cartons that is from Argentina and Chile; so is the cheese. The yogurt we can eat is from Argentina as are all of the juices. They do produce each of these items but none are healthy for us or Jake.

The toilet paper has no tear lines so one is always tearing off huge chunks.

I love the newspapers. The weekly “Aqui” is leftist and its recent tenth anniversary issue had the picture of Che with the two peasant children in Bolivia and also honored the papers founder Limas who was assassinated in 81. El Diario is good from my point of view because there is so much about Latin America. There was a good piece on the work stoppages in El Salvador and even a small piece on the demand by US citizens in front of the US embassy in Nicaragua. It is not a leftist paper.

Amelia who is Jake’s ninera or babysitter says his eye color is “ploma.” She describes it as somewhat between blue and gray and also clear.

We have a lot to look forward to. Easter, May Day, the elections and everything else.

March 20, 1989: Karen came back late on Sunday evening from Siglo XX where there were no hotel rooms and she had to sleep in the jeep until 2:30 when it became too cold for her and she slept in a room at the radio station.

I started my Spanish classes at a school in Irpavi which is a suburb of La Paz about twenty minutes from the city. I take a trufi which is a communal taxi. The class is quite good, four hours a day and with four different teachers. Hymie Mejia, a Jesuit language teacher took me to the class. After class I rushed home because Karen and I were having lunch with Sofia Tikell who puts out the Bolivia Bulletin at CEDOIN and her husband James Painter a writer and journalist. They have a little 1 and 1/2 year old girl named Maya who will be a playmate for Jake. We discussed the elections and the fact that if Banzer wins a plurality and is not made President by the Congress there could be a coup but not until we leave.

March 22nd: Sometimes I think we are living in a hundred years of solitude. Today was quite a day for that. Jake normally plays in a park named Eduard Avorol which has in its center a huge statute of its namesake the general who led the fight to protect Bolivia’s outlet to the sea. He lost or was killed on March 22, 1884 and today was the commemoration. Nothing could have been more South American. A major military parade made up primarily of marching bands shut off a number of streets in La Paz and went right past our house. The uniforms were from out of the 1890’s and each soldier had large pompoms on his head. School children lined the street and President walked in the middle with a big pink sash and lots of medals. It was like being in a small town with a July 4th parade. At first we did not know what the parade was about. A child told us it was Lo Resto de Avorol or the remains of the general. And sure enough four huge horses appeared, then a military jeep and trailing the jeep a small cassion and strapped to the cassion was a small casket presumably holding the remains of Avarol. Immediately behind the casket a soldier carried a glass box holding what appeared to be his uniform. The whole scene could have come from a stereotype south American movie. Because we had gone out earlier and were unaware of the parade Jake was not with us. We kept thinking how much he would have like the parade. Then as we were walking home, there he was with the Amelia. He was so excited by the parade and by seeing us.

When we began our walk in the afternoon we went out to the Prado which is the main and really only important street in La Paz and noticed there were no cars on a street that is usually jammed with cars. A few blocks ahead we saw the reason. The miners were again blocking the entire street. They were standing two or three deep across the street and the police were diverting traffic around them. A few days before the police had brutally repressed the demonstrators with teargas and clubs. Today they did not and Karen and I had a lovely stroll along the Prado until we reached the other end of the blockade.

I have spent a lot of time reading the newspapers. The Latin American coverage is great. I concentrate mostly on the Garci-Meza trial, the general who stole Che’s diary and committed serious human rights violations. The trial is a comedy of errors. At this point no one knows where the general is hiding. On Sunday in one of the papers a large ad appeared which reproduced a letter addressed to the head of the military in La Paz. It was signed by a number of military officials. They were complaining on the treatment of Garcia-Meza, said they supported him and would take to the streets to protect him–essentially stating they would promote a coup. The language in the letter was a real shocker. It referred to those pressing charges against the general as narco-communists, narco-guerillas, sociopathic criminals, Trotsky communists and other similar terms. I was amazed to see the letter basically calling for a coup. Also in the same newspaper was another paid for carta or letter, this one from the wife and kids of the bad general. It talked about what a wonderful man he was and gave him big hugs and kisses.

Then this Monday and Tuesday the papers are filled with a story of how the prosecutor or someone like that is starting an investigation of who printed the letter. The group called itself the “nationalist Militaru Civil Forces of Bolivia” No such group exists but I presume the officers who signed the letter do exist. Well we’ll see how it ends.

My Spanish classes are going alright. Next week I will be in private classes. The woman in my class is the wife of a US DEA pilot who flies the DEA agents into the jungle to destroy the coca paste factories. There is quite a large operation here of DEA people.

Holiday here starts on Friday and we have rented a jeep for the weekend. A jeep is necessary because only four percent of the roads are paved. I am looking forward to exploring some of the country. We are planning a strip to Lake Titicaca which is the highest navigable lake in the world. Today we ate a large trout from the lake which is more of cross between a trout and a salmon.

Karen recently met a group if Indians who have been trying to recover ancient and sacred textiles stolen from their village and sold in the US. A beautiful video has been made about the cultural theft. They want me to help them get the textiles back some of which were luckily seized at US customs.