After a few weeks of protests in Bolivia, following the national elections (and Morales’ subsequent ‘victory’), I decided it would be a good time to leave the country. A few events motivated this decision: 1, airlines had cancelled several international flights; 2, protester were blockading access to the airport, and 3, the Year Abroad administrator (my former Director of Studies / Supervisor Tim Chesters) at Cambridge had sent me an e-mail saying ‘I think it would be a good idea to get out as quickly as possible’ – which, translated from ‘cautious English academic language’, means ‘FUCKING RUN FOR THE HILLS’. So I sent a polite e-mail to STA Travel, and had my flight changed. Simple!
Or not. It’s taken 3 days to get to Madrid airport, where I am currently, and I can’t say I’d give my recent travel experiences a 5* on TripAdvisor. I’m feeling extremely grateful to be back in Europe and monitoring developments in Bolivia by Twitter, rather than actually experiencing them. If you haven’t followed events – perhaps due to the depressingly scarce coverage by English-language news outlets – here’s a quick overview of the past few weeks.
Quick Political Summary in Bullet Points to Keep Your Concentration:
- Evo Morales ‘won’ the election on the 20th October
- Everyone started protesting, on the basis that he very likely hadn’t actually ‘won’ in the actual sense of ‘winning’ but more in the sense of ‘being massively corrupt’
- Protests developed over the next few weeks. The city of Potosi went under a 24-hr blockade; blockades sprung up across the country; police used tear gas (even nerve gas) against protesters; many hundreds were injured, and at least 4 people died (officially). Protesters burnt civic buildings and fought with police in the streets. Several places were cut off entirely, and in cities of particularly intense fighting, such as Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, people found themselves unable even to leave their houses.
- The OAS (Organisation of American States) and UN backed an audit of the election
- It was found that Morales had committed fraud
- This sparked further conflict, as protesters demanded his resignation.
- The police committed mutiny and joined the protesters
- Morales resigned under duress / was asked to step down by the military (this is why some people who don’t have access to good information on the situation are calling this a ‘military coup’.)
- Protests intensified as Masistas (supporters of Morales / members of ‘MAS’ ) came to the cities to protest, especially coming to La Paz. Intense conflict as sniper groups positioned themselves at key roads, to attack protesters travelling. There were some truly shocking stories of rape, abduction, and abuse.
- Over the weekend, protesters in La Paz started burning and civic buildings, shops, public areas and residential zones. Citizens formed neighbourhood protection groups, and sirens would sound in the event of danger.
All in all, a sensible time for a gringa to leave. I made it to the airport at a good time: blockades had temporarily come down, as the police had joined the people. Soldiers were patrolling the airport, it was much busier than usual, people were being prevented exit, and several flights had already been cancelled; however, all seemed pretty quiet, considering. I booked into the basic hostel and tried to get some sleep – I’d arrived at 2pm, to avoid evening / overnight protests, and my flight was scheduled at 4am the following morning.
Although the airport was very safe, I still felt uneasy. Following twitter and the news throughout, I could see the protests growing more intense, and around 8pm protesters drew around the airport; I watched clouds of tear gas forming, from a café inside, as the soldiers controlled the situation. When it was announced that Morales had resigned, cheers and shouts of ‘!Viva Bolivia, Que viva!’ resounded through every gate.
At around midnight, groups of Masistas took to the streets of La Paz, burning and looting. I couldn’t sleep, and lay there refreshing twitter for updates, distressed to see this beautiful country experience so much violence. Still no airline employees had entered, and flights were being cancelled by the hour. It was no great surprise when I received an e-mail saying my flight too was not to land.
Groups of anxious travellers (pretty much all European, US, Argentinian and Chilean tourists) gathered to discuss options: there were none. It seemed to be that the information desk staff had been chosen under the criteria of 1) possessing an IQ of approximately zero; 2) Entirely lacking any charm or interpersonal skills; 3) knowing pretty much nothing about any airline or flight departure.
Anneli called me to give an update on what was happening in La Paz, which sounded pretty awful. Resigning myself to a day of waiting, I settled in a café and watched a gruesome film about Yossi Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) getting lost in the Bolivian Amazon (would recommend, but probably not when you’re already feeling very anxious about not being able to leave the country…). Flights kept on getting cancelled, and LATAM (my airline) still hadn’t arrived at the airport. Fortunately, the situation fostered a great sense of companionship amongst the travellers, and everyone came together to navigate our various attempts to get home.
As the conflict outside the airport died down around the early morning, more and more people arrived, and soon the central hall and cafés were full of people trying to leave the country. At around 4am, some airline staff arrived (for BoA) and everyone rushed to try and get on the next flights out. Around 8am, I eventually managed to buy another flight, this time to Madrid via Santa Cruz (usefully found by my boyfriend back in the U.K. ): this involved printing off $500 from 8 different ATMs (which were starting to run out of cash), and exchanging all my Peruvian soles, Chilean soles, bolivianos and euros for the ticket.
Inevitably, this flight was also cancelled. Fortunately, it was rescheduled for the late afternoon, and as I’d already dropped my bags off, and the airport exit was still blocked, all I had to do was wait. Wi-fi was down across Bolivia, so it was hard to access information, but there was still a real spirit of solidarity amongst everyone waiting for flights. At around 4pm, I went through security, to wait for the Santa Cruz flight.
The flight was the first of 4 flights to Santa Cruz, ours being the link to international connections to Miami and Madrid. As it was delayed, and delayed, the atmosphere felt tense: everyone had already been waiting for more than a day, and had lost a couple of flights already. Not being able to leave, it did feel like we were trapped. When the three domestic flights to Santa Cruz were all cancelled, nerves increased; when our flight was cancelled, everyone stormed the desk in a big hoard. It would not be possible to go leave, said the employees, it’s too dangerous. You just have to wait. No, we’re not re-scheduling the flight. Everyone got angrier and angrier: we’ve waited for more than a day here, we’ll miss the connections, we’re trapped here. Eventually, the staff were forced into re-organising the flights, and exhausted passengers went to wait in a second boarding hall.
Our flight was to go through Cochabamba, then Santa Cruz. It didn’t seem possible – how could four flights be organised into one? When the plane landed, it was a fight to get to the front, to secure seats; luckily, our group just made it. The same situation happened in Cochabamba, where hundreds of people had also been waiting for well over 24 hours to leave. Somehow, the flight left, and arrived at Santa Cruz, where I boarded the connection to Madrid at around 3am. It was delayed for a while longer, then set off.
What a relief to finally leave! Though the flight was cramped and had no entertainment, I felt so grateful to have been offered a passage out of the country. I called my parents and Jake, as due to the wi-fi problems I hadn’t been able to update them on boarding the flight. Once at the airport, I collected my trusty rucksack, which somehow had not been lost in spite of all the cancellations and changes, and checked into an airport hotel. When I passed through airport security, I fainted in a slightly dramatic way, and when I came to and the guard asked me where I had come from, I kept on telling him (to his confusion) that I’d come from Madrid. He also had to pick me up with the handle of my bag, as it was so heavy I couldn’t stand up by myself. Reading that back makes me laugh – I must have looked like a pathetic and very tired tortoise.
Now waiting in Madrid airport for a delayed RyanAir flight, it is strange to look around and see everything that was so familiar to me back home. So many shops, stuffed with products from so many brands; so many swish machines, services, and designer goods. Having been in Bolivia for 2 1/2 months, it seems faintly ridiculous to see rich Europeans trying on £2000 watches, while in the country that temporarily adopted me people fight on the streets for their democracy. Landing in Spain, I kept thinking (in a somewhat incohesive, sleep-deprived way) about how the colonisation of the Americas by this country had led, in large part, to the political chaos and poverty experienced now by Bolivia.
It’s deeply depressing to see the difficulties of the ongoing crisis, and I sincerely hope it can be resolved; however, there seems to be no obvious solution, and the country remains divided. The interim president was found to have tweeted her distaste for ‘indios’ (a highly pejorative term describing the indigenous peoples of Bolivia, who make up more than 60% of the population – though practically everyone is at least descended from these groups), and Aymara people, having lived through centuries of conflict and colonisation, won’t easily give up a fight. Politically, the opposition to Morales is not unified, and there’s still a significant amount of support for the ex-president.
Later I’ll be able to reflect better on the wonderful time i had in Bolivia; but for now, i’m just glad to be going home !