Questioning Bolivia under curfew

Downtown Sucre, Bolivia, was like a ghost town during the national census.

The door to my hostel was shut, the streets were empty like the opening scene of 28 Days Later and I had no clean water or food. I would go to a country with a forced curfew.

I happened to be stuck in the Bolivia’s constitutional capital, Sucre, during its first national census in 11 years. If caught outside I could have faced a 1500 Bolivianosfine ($214 CAN) or even jail time.

So obviously I went outside to check it out.

I was caught by this platoon of Bolivian police during the census curfew. Photo by Niall Flynn.

300 Bolivians were detained by police for violating the curfew and 1927 arrests were made against people who were riding in vehicles without a permit. Fortunately for me, I was simply told by the platoon of police to head back to my hostel.

On Wednesday night, the Bolivian government called the census a “success,” despite reports of a lack of ballots, conflicts over boundaries, the disorientation of the canvassers and the forced return of residents to their communities. Some people with holiday homes argued with the government of their inability to be in two residences at once. Most spectacularly, pollsters in the northern province of Beni were kidnapped over boundary disputes.

Nevertheless, the results of the estimated $50 million census will be extremely crucial to Bolivia’s political and economic future. It will help determine the population (estimated at 11 million), what languages are still spoken, living conditions, education, health status, income, and basic/unmet needs; all important statistics for designing public policies.

At the top of the list will be to pull Bolivia out of it’s infamous reputation as South America’s poorest country – something not dissimilar to other resource-rich countries that suffer from what is often dubbed as “the resource curse.”

Unlike in Canada or the United States, Bolivia has no effective postal system to distribute census forms. Instead, 35 000 policemen and 200 000 hired canvassers had to scale the country’s sky-scraping mountains, dense tropical forests and desert-like plains personally asking every one of the estimated 11 million citizens about their language, material possessions, level of education, household details etc. Even tourists and foreigners were asked one-by-one to fill out the questionnaire from their hostel or temporary residence without being asked to present their passports.

Left off the questionnaire was the option to define oneself as a “mestizo” or mixed race. Deciding on one could be particularly difficult for the estimated 40 ethnic groups listed on the census.

“This would be like dividing Bolivia,” said the country’s charismatic indigenous leader Evo Morales.

Evo Morales’ palace overlooks the massive metropolis that is La Paz.

Since coming into power in 2005, Morales has made sweeping changes to the political climate in Bolivia. A self-proclaimed socialist, the former union leader for a coca-growers union has advocated strongly for indigenous rights and political autonomy. He has re-initiated the teaching of indigenous languages in schools and attempted to limit the transition towards English.

When speaking with people around La Paz, the de-facto capital, I have been told that Bolivians are more confident in calling themselves indigenous now that one of their own is in power – especially among those of Aymara and Quechua decent who are Morales’ strongest supporters.

An indigenous woman sells traditional native clothing mostly to tourists outside the indigenous museum in Sucre.

Internationally, Morales is a leader considered to be part of a political leftwards shift in South America over the past decade – akin with the governments in Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil and Peru. He is also quite hostile towards the US “imperialists” and strongly opposed to their anti-narcotics policies.

However, I have also been told that Morales’ support has begun to shift since being re-elected decisively with 64% of the vote in 2009. His unsuccessful bid to cut government fuel subsidies caused protests and forced him to withdraw from the plan in 2010. Also, his eccentric personality and sometimes unfiltered public speaking has gotten the charismatic leader into hot water. At the 2010 World Summit on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Morales made a speech that implied that eating chicken causes men to go gay. And just this year, Morales asked American actor Sean Penn to be his international ambassador on the decriminalization of coca leaves. No lie.

Morales is up for re-election in 2014, but only if he calls a referendum according to the Leader of the Opposition party Juan del Granado – Article 168 stipulates that a leader may only rule for one successful term. However, Morales argues that his first term was incomplete and thus is entitled to one more term. Time will tell. Until then, there still is two years of Morales’ rule, which should be enough to draft new policies due to the results of the census.

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One comment

  • Let’s not belittle the developing government more than is necessary. Morales, though not particularly eloquent, isn’t exactly the clown that you make him out to be here and his election was a huge step in the right direction as far as indigenous rights are concerned in Bolivia. Great story! Keep exploring! Can’t wait to hear more about your trip! Try to stray away from having a “civilized white man in the land of savages” attitude too much.

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