Bolivia
Michael Ellis

It is ironic that the country named for Simon Bolivar, the so-called George Washington of South America, the great liberator, the insurer of freedom from the tyranny of Spain for much of the Americas, is a nation that has had 187 changes of government in its 160 years of freedom. I visited Bolivia for the first time last month and witnessed the typical political chaos of this landlocked, extremely poor country. Farmers were blockading the roads leading to the capital, La Paz, and my tour group had to be escorted to and from Lake Titicaca by a truckload of soldiers. My left-leaning sympathies are normally with the oppressed, lower classes but in this particular case I was happy to have the right wing, armed escort.

I have visited nearly every country in Central and South America and culturally Bolivia is by far the most fascinating. It retains more of the flavor of the original inhabitants, 65% of the population is of pure blood. It is often called the Tibet of South America because of its high elevation and the Bolivians do greatly resemble their distant Asian ancestors. The altiplano at 11000 feet is nothing more than a broad valley between two ranges of the Andes, which still tower two miles above the plain. Most of the agricultural work is still done by hand or oxen. We witnessed timeless scenes of the people bent over harvesting amaranth, quinoa and potatoes. And as Andean people have done for centuries, we saw them barefooted, slowly stepping on the potatoes, squeezing the water out, dehydrating them – a process that creates an essential food that can last for a decade or longer. In many local markets bartering is still the preferred method of exchange.

The veneer of the Catholic Church, while thick in many parts of the Americas, remains extremely thin over the indigenous animistic religion of this region. The native customs pop right through that Christian skin with remarkable vigor. In the markets are llama fetuses, fantastic devil masks, herbs of every sort and shamans available for every human concern. The Pope definitely would not approve.

Bolivia is a country of immense resources including large deposits of natural gas. If this wealth can be shared with all its citizens then there is a chance for stability. If not, then there will be more blockades or worse.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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November 5, 2010