Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 7 May 2008

Dispatch from Oblivia

A quick update to let you all know that I continue to be well here in Bolivia, and that life, on the ground (and particularly out of the department of Santa Cruz) is pleasantly slow-paced and tranquilo.  May 4th has come and gone. And to many of you, that may not mean much. Just another Sunday, perhaps.  But here in Bolivia, last Sunday was a long anticipated vote and its outcome has arguably polarized this country even further. I know the Democrats in the US right now feel like nothing could be more polarizing than the Obama-Clinton question, but being here, I beg to differ.

Bolivia has been in the international press recently as the Santa Cruz department voted on an autonomy referendum (not terribly dissimilar from the relative autonomy US states enjoy) that it hopes will grant it more power to allocate its own resources from the oil and agriculturally rich eastern region of the country.  It is no secret that, in recent years, Santa Cruz has emerged as the economic powerhouse of the nation. And it is also no secret that President Evo Morales and his MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) government are at odds with the leaders and elite of Santa Cruz.

Bolivia has a long history of social unrest and civil protest.  It, thankfully, also has a long history of resisting violence and valuing relative peace.  These have been volatile years for Bolivia and, while roads may be regularly blocked, and while workers in many sectors may regularly walk off of the job in protest, it is very rarely that these demonstrations of democratic will result in widespread violence.  Bolivians have a tendency to vigorously shake up the soda can, but with out ever popping the top—knowing full well that what would result would be a nasty mess, difficult to clean up, and what would be left over would be a fraction of its former self. And for that, I am grateful.

Peace Corps has obviously been keeping a close watch on the situation, and has kept us well informed. Last Sunday (May 4th), The Cruceños (people from Santa Cruz) voted “Sí” or “No” on the question of Autonomy.  Official results say that an overwhelming 86% of the votes cast were in favor of, and that only 14% were against autonomy.  However, there was still much controversy surrounding the vote.  As many as 40% of eligible Santa Cruz voters did not participate, be it through apathy or protest.  The vote was “policed” by national police and civilians alike, and there were reports of Masistas burning ballot boxes in some MAS stronghold neighborhoods and towns throughout the department.  Regrettably, one death is attributed to the isolated, but violent skirmishes that broke out in various neighborhoods in Santa Cruz.  There were several injuries reported as well.  And, after all was said and done, the Morales government is opposing the legality of the vote.  The day went smoother than most expected, which is a good thing, but, still, a lot of questions remain unanswered.

The other “Media Luna” (“Half Moon”, referring to the four Eastern lowlands departments of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija that, together, vaguely appear to be a crescent moon shape) departments are scheduled to vote on Autonomy next month.  The MAS government has yet to set a date on which the nation will vote to approve or reject the new constitution (which, ironically or not, includes concessions for departmental autonomies).  It is, unsurprisingly, very controversial and divisive.

Two things are clear to me, as a Peace Corps Volunteer: One, that Bolivia remains vehemently divided on a national level.  Two, on a local level (the one that matters most in my life), Bolivians are peace loving and tranquil.  I have never felt unsafe or uncomfortable as a result of national politics. I trust in Peace Corps to make appropriate and timely decisions regarding our safety as Americans in Bolivia.  So, please remember that after reading about us in the international press.  I am much more focused on the hard work of integrating into my community, and relatively disconnected from the mudslinging, be it from Autonomistas, Masistas, Clinton, McCain or Obama…

I am in Sucre right now, fighting my own good fight against some nasty bacteria (again…grrr…), but I am feeling much better today after the antibiotics have kicked in, and am catching up on the times, and getting rest.

Hopefully I’ll be back in La Palma soon.  I am hoping to go out to the sectional schools (smaller, campo schools under the jurisdiction of the Director of the Nucleo of La Palma) next week to meet the professors, students, communities and continue to develop my “community diagnostic”, which I am to present to Peace Corps in July in Cochabamba.

I hope that life is treating you all well, wherever you may be. Love from “La Ciudad Blanca”…



  1. Helen: It was good to read your perspective on the May 4 referendum – important nationally, but not affecting life in La Palma much. Apparently Chuquisaca is not in the media luna of states seeking more autonomy – or isn’t it that simple? Stay safe and get well. Abrazos, Dad

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