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The Book of the Week is “In Bolivia, the Adventurous Odyssey Through the Americas’ Least-Known Nation” by Eric Lawlor, published in 1989. In the late 1980’s, the author visited various parts of Bolivia, speaking with natives and tourists to learn how the culture evolved, based on its history.
There was labor unrest in the Bolivian mining industry in 1919, 1922, 1927, 1942 and 1967. Over the years, thousands of unarmed, protesting miners of tin or silver died when fired on by the military. In the 1942 confrontation, the government blamed the deaths on Communist agitators, and later, Nazis. The government sociopathically crushed the miners’ revolts every time.
The author visited Santa Cruz, which put out such products as oil, cotton, sugar, rice and coffee. Its major industry was black-market cocaine, sold by small-time dealers. They were left alone because the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of the United States was interested in catching only kingpin Roberto Suarez. After having made about half a billion dollars a year– some from supplying America with about one third of its illegal cocaine– he was caught in July 1988.
Prior to that, there was a cocaine gravy train. Pilots made lots of money flying the drug to Miami. Even teenage boys made a living, stomping barefoot on kerosene-marinated coca leaves to process them. They were rumored to develop skin cancer. The author was offered but declined a job drug-running, from two different men he’d just met. He bought a small amount of cocaine, and was advised to stash it in his underpants. He was actually fortunate that it was stolen from its hiding place in his hotel room, because shortly afterwards, the DEA came around and interrogated him.
More and more farmers were finding the growing of coca more lucrative than food crops. The Bolivian government warned the drug lords in advance that American law enforcement and the Bolivian army were going to raid their labs. They fled to Panama. Another way America made a token gesture of cracking down on the cocaine industry was to threaten to withhold about $60 million dollars of annual aid. Ordinary Bolivians were angry at U.S president Reagan for crashing their economy and being a hypocrite. They said, “We’ll stop exporting cocaine when he stops exporting weapons.”
The author visited a region in Bolivia called La Loma. The tribe who lived there depended on a river for their very simple lifestyle. There was plenty of fish, and they were happy. The people in Tarija– near the border of Argentina– were unhappy. For, they went on strike to demand that the government build the power plant it had promised them six months prior. The author interviewed a Bolivian army soldier who told him the country should be ruled by the military. The military was nonpartisan, and its goal was to do only what was best for the country, not what was best for the politicians. If it achieved its goal of improving the economy, however, the military budget would grow with it.
The author was trapped in Tarija for weeks. He couldn’t leave by bus, train or plane, and there were guarded barricades all around the city. He spoke with a man who had fought in the Bolivian war with the Paraguayans over disputed territory in the Chaco in 1932. Many more Bolivians died of dehydration, starvation and disease, than from their wounds.
The Bolivians fought incompetently, lacking training and resources. The war ended in 1935, due to attrition on both sides. Bolivians’ emotional turmoil was comparable to that of Americans’ after Vietnam and Watergate. Trust had been broken between the Bolivian people and their leaders. So revolution (during which ninety thousand people died) ensued in 1952. But the aforementioned interviewee thought Bolivians were worse off after the revolution.
Some changes were made: nationalization of the tin mines, land reform, and Indians got the vote. But Bolivia went bankrupt in 1956. The United States instituted a stabilization program there. The military led the country again until 1985. The takeaway from Bolivia’s governments through the decades, is that dictators are largely similar the world over:
“He had wealth and status… He produced nothing and provided no leadership. He was not very smart and had few skills… his contempt for his countrymen and his belief in his own superiority was not typical of what is normally considered moral.”
Read the book to learn a smattering about Bolivia’s history of missionaries, violent occurrences, and mindset over the last several centuries.