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The New Bolivia: II

The altiplano of the Bolivian Andes is a great expanse of flat, dry land set 13,000 feet above sea level, and dotted only occasionally by a brown cluster of adobe houses or a white cluster of sheep. La Paz occupies a narrow, deep depression scooped out of this parched land, but at 12,000 feet above sea level it is still situated at a height hostile to trees. The embedded city, modest in all its proportions, and the jagged cliffs that surround it are uniformly the color of dust, and one is constantly aware of the absence of birds. Nevertheless, in the early hours of the day the snow-covered peak of the Illimani, the city’s sentinel, glistens brightly on the horizon, and the steep streets smell freshly scrubbed. This is when the cabinet members of the new Evo Morales government prefer to give interviews, and on one such bright morning in June I went to meet the Bolivian minister of justice.

The experience was in every way unfamiliar. The Justice Ministry seemed only partially, or indecisively, inhabited by its new team. The elevator was creaky, the hallways empty, and in the suite of offices presided over by the minister, the carpet was threadbare. The minister’s aides were unusually young, cordial, and unguarded, if a little at a loss, and they did not seem pressed for time. Amazingly, on arrival I was shown right in to the minister, who came out from behind a very large desk to greet me: a small, beautiful, dark-skinned woman of about forty, dressed in a thin sweater and a skirt made puffy, in traditional Andean style, by several layers of petticoats. Against the altiplano chill she wore an openwork shawl with little pom-poms, also in traditional style. Her hair hung over her shoulders in two black braids. She introduced herself smilingly in Quechua-accented Spanish as Casimira Rodrìguez, and it was clear that there had never been anyone remotely like her sitting behind that desk. After years of interviewing government officials in suits who had been carefully trained to lie and dissemble, it was an enormous relief to meet her.

The minister tried neither to glorify nor to distort the circumstances of her life, most of which has been spent working as a domestic employee, or organizing other domestics into a union. She was straightforward also about her five employers, the first of whom more or less kidnapped her from the Cochabamba countryside when she was thirteen, and imposed years of humiliating servitude on her. (Which I could easily visualize, having spent a week in my youth in La Paz as the guest of a kind and not at all wealthy family, who used to lock their fourteen-year-old servant in her room whenever we went out.) Eventually, she said, she ended up in the household of a scrupulous family of Methodists who paid her fair wages and compensation for overtime. “I still consider the wife my friend and my teacher,” Rodrìguez said. “She helped me develop as an organizer and as a person.” Soon, Rodrìguez was actively involved in a women’s group her employer belonged to, and reaching out to other domestic employees. Organizing domestics is a notoriously difficult task, because the women are so isolated in their individual workplaces and susceptible to intimidation, but eventually Rodrìguez became a founder and leader of the Federation of Domestic Workers, whose greatest triumph came in 2003 when the rights of domestics were incorporated into the labor legislation.

Given that she isn’t a lawyer, though, and that she is in charge of the dispensation of justice in her country, I asked her if she was familiar with its legal code, and the conversation became more strained. She said that she identified more with the traditional forms of community justice. Pressed on her qualifications, she answered that the current laws were made so that only lawyers could apply them. “The law hasn’t been very fair to the majority of the citizens of this country,” she said. “Many times we have even felt rage against the Western system of justice.” This was clear enough, but somewhat beside the point, it seemed to me: Unless the government was about to dispense with the entire Western legal system, shouldn’t someone in her position know how to use the current law?

Her principal goal, Minister Rodrìguez stated instead, was to create a parallel system within the ministry in which advisers could monitor and guide Indian communities—ayllus—in their application of traditional law. “It takes up fewer resources and is much less complicated,” she said. “In traditional justice people aren’t jailed. They’re sanctioned before the community, for example, and made to work for the injured party until the damage is restored.” As the interview was drawing to a close, I asked if I could go to an ayllu to see an instance of community justice at work, but Rodrìguez said there wouldn’t be any opportunities for such a visit at the moment.

I wondered what one should hope for from Casimira Rodrìguez. On the one hand, her presence behind that huge desk was in itself an achievement of the most luminous sort—enough, it was possible to think on leaving, to justify the ascent to power of Evo Morales, no matter what may happen next. On the other hand, only about a third of Bolivians still live in the sort of traditional rural ayllusin which institutionalized community justice could prove workable. But the need for justice is great and pressing everywhere in the country. In the lobby as I left, an old woman in traditional costume, so tiny that her head barely reached above the information counter, was weeping with what seemed to be a combination of frustration and physical exhaustion. “Why doesn’t anyone know how to help me?” she cried, and fumbled with a sheaf of tattered documents that looked like land titles. From inside an office a woman in Western dress came up to her with a cup of tea and two bread rolls, which, offered kindly, seemed like an insult under the circumstances.

The incorporation of community justice into the legal system was a campaign promise of Evo Morales, who is, like his minister, an unsettling mix of daring and insecurity. A former coca farmer who rose to national prominence in the 1980s as the leader of a combative federation of cocaleros, he is barely schooled, fearless in the face of danger, evidently committed to the cause of poor Bolivians like himself, and often startling in social situations. When I was reintroduced to him last November—I had met him briefly years ago—the first thing he said, with a rakish grin, was “I’m a little bachelor with no commitments; tell that to your women readers.” But when I prefaced a question by noting that he was the all but certain winner in the following month’s elections, he ducked his head and mumbled an abashed thanks, as if a compliment had just been paid him.

As a politician, Morales moves fast: in his first six months in power he has decreed a far-reaching land reform, overhauled the allocation of resources and profits for the gas industry, set a salary limit of $1,900 a month for all government workers including himself, and held elections for delegates to the constitutional convention, which began deliberating this August and in which the party he founded, the Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS, won a healthy majority. Even before his inauguration on January 22, he embarked on an ambitious tour around the world, in which he asked his fellow heads of state for direct economic assistance, or the cancellation of at least part of Bolivia’s choking foreign debt. Sometimes he came away with empty pockets and sometimes he didn’t, but in his thin sweaters and cheap sport slacks—the poor man’s native costume worldwide, one could say—he became an internationally recognized figure, something of an achievement for the president of a country with a population of barely nine million and a GDP of $8.5 billion.

Morales has traded in his old striped sweaters for couture leather jackets trimmed with Indian embroidery—they are much more elegant than the fussy suits and long strips of cloth roped around the neck of the Western business costume—but he remains defensive even in social settings in which he is evidently the top-ranking person. At press conferences he often turns to his vice-president, Álvaro Garcìa Linera, for questions having to do with hard facts or statistics. This year a friend of mine, traveling with a favorably disposed international delegation, watched President Morales take laborious notes of their meeting in a ledger book, as though he were still an embattled coca federation leader, besieged by cheats. After a multitudinous campaign rally in his home district of the Chapare, a month before the presidential elections last December, the press was invited to join him at a MAS party. We watched him eat and drink with good cheer among his followers and dance the night away to huaynomusic, but the next morning, true to habit, he fled from reporters who had made the long, exhausting overland journey in the hope of an interview promised and canceled many times over.

In front of an audience of ordinary Bolivians, though, like the impoverished Aymara and Quechua workers and farmers who are his natural constituency, Morales is invariably forceful and relaxed, even at moments of great tension. “Let this be a warning,” he shouted into a microphone one night at a campaign rally. “Because with a lot of patience, very respectfully, we have been refraining the people’s movement of Bolivia from expressing its anger.” This was during a terrible week for him last November when it appeared that Congress would succeed in canceling an election that Morales was sure to win, and when, as a result, Bolivia’s future looked utterly uncertain. “If the elections are suspended, if they succeed in ‘blocking the roadblockers,’ they will be blocking the pueblo, and risking an enormous reaction,” Morales proclaimed.

The rally took place in the city of Cochabamba, capital of the eponymous departamento that is Morales’s home ground; this is where the coca-growing region of the Chapare is located and where Morales got his political start. In recent years the President has lived in Cochabamba City, in a cramped house, poorly furnished, that he still considers his home. Cochabamba is also where the movimientos populares carried out the first of the three guerras, or roadblock wars, that over a period of six years brought Bolivia to a complete political stalemate and, by forcing the resignation of two presidents in a row, cleared the way for Morales’s ascent to power.1 The street we were standing on that night was dark, littered with garbage, and riddled with potholes—a typical urban shantytown—but Morales and his entourage were welcomed in aristocratic Indian style, with ceremonial greetings, great wreaths of flowers and fruit, and also by the singular Andean way of expressing political enthusiasm: the candidate talked for about twenty minutes and was interrupted only by occasional weak cheers, but then, when he stepped down from the podium, the silent crush of people trying to touch him was so great that for a panicky second I was lifted bodily off the muddy ground.

  1. 1

    Morales and the movimientos populares that make up the core of his party, the MAS, forced President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to flee the country in 2003, in the course of their second roadblock war, and then in June of last year brought about the resignation of his successor, Carlos Mesa, after Morales broke off his alliance with him.

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