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Travel in music: Chapter 21 - 2002, Bolivia

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


2002 – Chapter 21 | We arrived in Bolivia not long after Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada y Sánchez de Bustamante’s election for a second presidential term. Yes, that is his full name but thankfully, familiarly and much more practically, he also goes by ‘Goñi’. We were the first foreign journalists to interview him, possibly thanks to the fact that we represented a major US newspaper. Indeed, Goñi had a penchant for the USA that could make anyone legitimately doubt his loyalty to his own country. In fact, his other, less affectionate nickname is ‘El Gringo’. He grew up in Iowa, studied at the University of Chicago and, as a result, he speaks Spanish with a noticeable ‘gringo’ accent. I addressed him in Spanish but he switched to English immediately. Arguing that he felt more comfortable, he asked that we conduct the interview in English as well. It felt a little surreal to be in the heart of the Palacio Quemado, spontaneously translating the questions I had so carefully prepared in Spanish to interview the President.

This may seem a trivial anecdote but it says a lot about Bolivia. Approximately 20% of the population is indigenous. More so than in the rest of Latin America, Quechua and Aymara are still widely spoken. In the highlands of the Altiplano, it is rather common to find people who speak no Spanish at all, a feat that is much rarer in neighboring Andean countries. Another 65% of the population is ‘mestizo’, i.e. with mixed European and indigenous ancestry. Despite these demographics, history has marginalized them rather cruelly. They did not have citizenship before 1952 and the first significant reforms to grant them societal, educational, political representation and land-owning rights were only introduced during Goñi’s first term as President, between ’93 and ’97. He may have been fiscally conservative and economically ultraliberal, he was also rather socially progressive.

That did not save his second term though. Marred by the long-standing conflicts that have always plagued Bolivia, his second presidential stint ended under a hail of stones. A few months after our interview, he boarded a plane to the USA, never to return. The issue of national resources, their ownership and the revenue they ought to bring to the State has always provoked a tug-of-war between Bolivia’s elites (generally, in collusion with foreign interests) and the population. Indigenous rights hinge on these conflicts very directly. Historically, they have always come out on the losing end. Bolivia lost its access to the Pacific Ocean in a war against Chile over nitrate deposits. The privatization of water ignited a major social conflict that forced its reversal. US pressure to eradicate coca leaf cultivation gave rise to violent protests. Potosí’s ‘cerro rico’ (rich mountain) singlehandedly propped up Spain’s wealth during colonial times (silver coins minted in the city even gave birth to an expression Cervantes made famous: “valer un potosí”, i.e. “worth a fortune”), of course at the expense of indigenous labor. Independence severed tax obligations to the crown but it did not profoundly change the mining business model that ensued, even after it substituted tin for silver as the main cash provider.

In the last two to three decades, the crux of the struggle has been gas. Bolivia has vast reserves, discovered in the mid-90s and located, for the most part, in the southern states of Tarija and Santa Cruz. When we were there, the ‘gas war’, that ultimately forced Goñi’s demise, was in full swing. Selfishly, I relished the opportunity it gave me to visit the only parts of Bolivia I had not traveled before. The lowlands are very different from the Andean Altiplano, where people live at impossible altitudes – La Paz is the highest capital in the world, Potosí the highest mine in the world and Titicaca the highest lake in the world, all towering 4.000 meters+ above sea level. In the highlands, vegetation is sparse, the sun is coarse and the nights freezing, the horizons are endless, mineral colors paint the mountains and lagoons in impossible hues and, in some places (like Uyuni’s saltpan desert for example), you cannot even tell where the sky begins and the land ends. The ‘llanos’, on the other hand, are lush and tropical. They are the dominion of old landowning families who developed sugar estates and kept their bloodlines as ‘Spanish’ as they possibly could. In the gas-rich lowlands, the word ‘indio’ carries as much weight as the n-word in southern US states or the k-word in South Africa. In Bolivia, the war over whether to wrest more or less state control over natural resources contains a heavy and toxic element of class struggle.

Simon & Garfunkel’s reprise of ‘El Condor Pasa’ first brought to my ears the mesmerizing sounds of quena (flute), siku and zampoña (panpipes), charango (a small 10-string instrument that traditionally used the armadillo’s shell as a resonator), and the various drums used in Andean music. Perhaps this is a monumental cliché but, to my teenage ears, the song sounded exotic and evoked a magical world I had hitherto only glimpsed in Tintin comic strips. Successive trips to Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia helped me appreciate the depths of this musical heritage that has shaped folklore all along South America’s dorsal spine, from Colombia to Patagonia. For true measure, have a listen to ‘Leyenda’, Inti Illimani’s recording with John Williams and flamenco guitarist Paco Peña. I will not share it here because, even though Andean music transcends borders, the band is Chilean. A post on Bolivia, whose contribution to the genre is as immense as its mountains are high, needed to contain an emblematic band and, if possible, reference to mining, the country’s yolk. How fitting that Savia Andina should provide just that…


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