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In a country where Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America is mandatory reading for high school students (this is the
book Hugo Chavez gave to Obama), history is everything.
Bolivia may be the wealthiest country in the world in terms of the value of natural resources taken out of it. Silver from the mines of Potosi
fueled the European Renaissance, and they have more minerals than one can imagine. They've lost three portions of the country in wars over rubber (to Brazil),
nitrates (to Chile), and oil (to Paraguay). It was a plan to export natural gas to California (while El Alto freezes at 13,400' with no heat) that
ultimately led to the election of Evo Morales, said to be the first indigenous head of state in the Western Hemisphere in 500 years. He is also
the first Bolivian leader to seek to distribute some of the nation's wealth to the poor. The Aymara view him as a fulfillment of prophecy, and a
successor to Tupac Katari, who led an Indian uprising and laid siege to La Paz in 1781. He was drawn-and-quartered, but not before uttering his
famous last words, "I will return and it will be in the millions." (Yes, the modern rap star was named after him.) The flag behind Tupac is the
wipala, symbol of the indigenous peoples and now an official co-national flag of Bolivia. When Evo was elected, he held a moment of silence for fallen
populist leaders such as Che Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia and whose new statue of scrap metal now towers above El Alto.
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The city of La Paz, founded in 1548 as a waypoint between Lima (Peru) and Potosi (with its silver mines), nestled in a canyon on the Altiplano, with Illimani (21,122') towering behind. A revolution in 1952 ended the fuedal
system created by the Spaniards and freed the Aymara from serfdom (until then, you could buy land with Indian families as part of the deal). They
promptly moved to the city looking for jobs. Today, the suburb of El Alto sprawls up onto the Altiplano (at 13,400') above La Paz from where
it casts its shadow. This suburb is
now larger than La Paz and wielded enough political power to create the next revolution: the election of Evo Morales in 2005.
Pro-Evo grafitti is everywhere in the highlands. This one thanks Evo for a small stipend to children for school supplies. MAS stands for "Movement
toward Socialism", Evo's party, and also a play on words.
Because Evo has raised the government royalty on exported natural gas, government revenues have
increased six-fold. Many communities around Sorata were getting bridges, paved roads (or
roads where there were trails), and electricity.
Capitalism is alive and well on the streets of La Paz (the socialism only applies to large resource extraction industries). One tourist map even
highlighted the "Pirate DVD Market". We also drank coca tea daily, as it helps one deal with the elevation. This product is illegal in the US,
except for Coca-Cola, which has permission from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to import 100 metric tons of leaf annually (mostly from Peru). The cocaine
is extracted and used for anethetics, but the leaf still flavors the soda. It's official US policy to eradicate all coca, even though the tea
and the leaves have long been a staple of the local culture (for 4,000 years). In the 1980s, the DEA-funded and trained a para-military police force that
waged a virtual war on coca growers, at one point beating Evo Morales and leaving him for dead. When he became president in 2006, he kicked out the
Indigenous beliefs persist strongly. Dried llama fetuses are sold here alongside enough charms, amulets, and potions to rival Diagon Alley. We saw
a businessman carefully arranging and buying a custom offering plate to Pachamama (earth mother goddess), complete with a llama fetus decorated with silver tinsel.
It was winter there, which is the dry season. Usually it was clear, with highs in the 70s and lows in the 30s or 40s. But one day it snowed in El Alto,
which didn't stop the local kids from playing soccer.
San Francisco Cathedral in La Paz, where the cobblestones have been worn smooth by 400 years of foot traffic. A portrait of Machu Picchu in a local
restaurant, deliberately hung sideways to reveal the hidden Incan in the mountains. They believe their civilization goes in 500-year cycles of good
and bad, and that Evo heralds the rise of the indigenous people of the Andes after five centuries of subjugation.
We visited a women's cooperative where they made alpaca-wool scarves and other items.
on to page three (of four) of Bolivia 2010 photos