Bolivia the daunting
Share with others:
LA PAZ, Bolivia -- None of my other trips to South America had ever included Bolivia; thus, I have found its complexity somewhat daunting.
What brought my wife and me here was my stepson's wife, an internationally acclaimed pianist, Ana-Maria Vera. Ana-Maria is half-Bolivian, half-Dutch and now American. She started her career at age 8 as a child prodigy. There is startling footage of her in a little cotton dress, white socks and sandals playing Mozart with the Rotterdam (Holland) Philharmonic, with the other musicians dressed in tails and long black dresses. (She has played in Pittsburgh.)
Ana-Maria maintained her ties to Bolivia throughout an international career, largely in Europe. She is something of a national figure here, even having been on a Bolivian postage stamp in 1982. Mention of her name at a lunch in Potosi, Bolivia's most famous mining town, brought tears to the eyes of our host, who had heard her play and saved the program.
Ana-Maria's continuing visits to Bolivia persuaded her that the country's young musicians were not getting enough exposure to international-class performers. She then decided to organize, first, an annual festival in Bolivia, to which she would bring her friends and colleagues from that world. The first round took place last October. Famous musicians came, played and gave master classes to young Bolivian musicians.
Ana-Maria is now setting up a music school in La Paz, the capital, with the support of Bolivian banks, companies and the government, to seek to make the effort permanent. Her husband, John Dunton-Downer, a TV producer, has made a film to chronicle and promote the festival and the school. All of that is introduction to why I am in Bolivia, a charming but very complex country.
The complexity -- the difficulty -- starts with the ethnic mix of its people. The official name of the country is the Plurinational State of Bolivia. The Indians were here first in modern times, the high plateau Aymara and Quechua, who brought the Inca system of rule, and many different lowland groups. The Spanish came in 1538 and subjugated some of the Indians, then proceeding to loot the place of its gold, silver and other mineral wealth.
The Spanish then metastasized into various groupings that became castes and classes. There were the "pure" Spanish from Spain, the Spaniards born in the colonies, then the children of the "pure" and those born here, then the children of the various kinds of Spaniards and Indians, and so on.
They appear to know their lineage back to Francisco Pizarro, the leader of the conquistadors, or to the last Inca.
More to the point, of the some 51 presidents Bolivia has had since independence in 1825, the first pure Indian one, Evo Morales, an Aymara, was elected in 2005, 180 years later in spite of the huge numerical superiority of the Indians.
A second important factor that has to play into the Bolivian mentality, the Bolivian national spirit, is that the country over the years has lost important pieces of its territory to neighboring Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Peru, largely through unwise wars that it lost. One result, apart from the damage to national pride, is that its loss of its Pacific Ocean coast to Chile has made it landlocked. That means that all of its exports, including heavy minerals such as lead, silver, tin and zinc must cross another country's territory to get out.
It would be as if instead of the United States gaining territory from France, Mexico and Russia, it had lost, for example, the whole West Coast. Bolivians know their history, and have forgotten nor forgiven nothing.
Another very complicated phenomenon in Bolivia is religion. When the Spanish came they brought with them a plethora of different Christian Catholic sects -- the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits and Mercedarians. It quickly became a sign of piety by the rich and powerful to build churches, many of which remain and are beautiful This is the first that I had heard of a style called Baroque-mestizo. (Mestizo is Spanish crossed with Indian.)
The astonishing part is that the Indians, starting with the conquest and proceeding to this day, have managed to keep a great big piece of their original religion in their outwardly fervent Catholicism. Jesus is painted with a Sun God halo as an example.
The most startling expression of Indian religion I saw this trip was at Potosi on the high plateau, still mined 467 years after the first of some 60,000 tons of silver was extracted and sent to Spain. The miners there work under conditions that even I, familiar with mining in Central Africa, found harsh. At each minehead, 20 to 30 yards inside the tunnel, is a shrine that hosts a large clay statue, El Tio, "the uncle," who, with Pachamama, mother earth, "owns" the mine. El Tio sports a large shiny metal erection. He receives regular offerings of coca leaves, pure alcohol and llama blood from the miners and visitors. But here comes the wild part. We were there before Mardi Gras and his shrine was brightly decorated for the holiday, prior to the beginning of Lent.
For comic relief, one of the hymns sung in Spanish in the La Paz cathedral on Sunday was Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."
Finally for this round, Bolivia's 51 presidents have included some real pieces of work. Many of them were generals, who came to power in coups d'etat. Predictably, for that reason, Bolivian armies have tended to be large, and substantial portions of the country's sometimes crushing national debt have been a result of military expenditures on arms, benefits for them and wars.
One president, an ex-colonel, committed suicide. Another was shot dead by his son-in-law while assaulting one of his aides. Another president, in 1946, was dragged from the presidential palace and his body hanged in the city square. Anytime you think the Republican presidential candidate debates are a little raw, try some Bolivian history. Next week I will discuss U.S.-Bolivian relations over the years.
First Published February 8, 2012 12:00 am