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 …

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