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Potosí, Bolivia and Syncopation

By Diana Iftodi Developing a taste for syncopation: contradicting takes on Potosí protests of August 2010 and their aftermath

Whenever I revealed the purpose of my coming  to Bolivia and my interest in social movements I would get the same reaction more or less: “you’ve come to the right place”. The social dynamics in Bolivia are up high and in your face although they do not lack their fair share of intricacy.

Bolivia is a landlocked country in South America, recently added to the continent’s “new left” front. This turn of events was the only road to take in order to achieve some kind of stability at the turn of the century after the hatred people amassed for foreign interests in their country, neoliberalism and a clientelist government, specifically that of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. The desiderate of stability on the one hand however difficults the people’s ownership of the change on the other. Either way, Bolivia’s discontent led to nationwide protests, the ousting of Sánchez de Lozada and eventually to the rise of Evo Morales to power, an indigenous president elected in 2005 and representing not a conventional party but a front of social movements (MAS).

Although MAS declares itself ‘ socialist’, from the inside, things don’t seem to have turned very socialist and people have soon enough experienced disenchantment with the government’s new rhetoric and a new wave of unrest is now sweeping the country. Things don’t seem to change and politicians seem to have gone astray from their initial agenda and the promised process of change.

One of the first episodes of popular revolt took place in Potosí in the summer of 2010 when for 19 days the people of Potosí mobilized against the government’s failure to attend departmental needs.  The mobilizations reached historical dimensions, with 150,000 people marching at one point. Potosí is a crude example of the contradictions that push people to demand social justice as it is the richest department in resources and the poorest as far as the standard of living. Despite the fact that it is one of the most indigenous departments, the protests were not constructed along ethnic lines, but pointed more to a strong regionalism (“I am a member of MAS party but first I am potosino” said a member of the Council for indigenous communities of Potosí).  The department’s history of colonial exploitation, the “trauma of the leak of capital” and the example set by indigenous people of a nearby community struggling to win a case of a disputed interdepartmental boundary that would allow them to be a part of Potosí and not Oruro, were the main reasons given to explain the mobilizations. What also united the people was the incompetence of the new government. As a local priest, seen as a leader of opinion in the community, put it: “People of Potosí don’t accept to be ruled by somebody who is not more competent than themselves.” To this extent Thoreau would admire such an example of civic disobedience but the political projects and ambitious surfacing from this point forward would send him back to his grave.

Though several months have passed, people hold the memory of the protests very much alive and on the day I left, my last discussion with Celestino Condori, recognized as the leader of the movements and president of the Civic Committee, revealed that no later than April this year, new measures of protest will be initiated to make sure the government will attend their demands.

Research in Potosi was at times more similar to detective work than anthropology, as people, especially politicians would serve me “prefabricated” information and soon enough I realised my main informants are more likely to be their trustees, who were more willing to share information and to hope for more understanding by talking to me.  As the weeks passed I started moving from one social organization to another each with its own, well-rounded and rationalised version of the protest. I could have been persuaded by all but all were contradictory.  Bourdieu(2006) promoted the concept of engaged knowledge and applied it by talking to different organizations with common interest about each other and by trying to contribute to the thickening of their social and political capital. Research in Potosí has facilitated introducing the common aspects of the agendas of the different organizations into conversations. Many members of the different organizations seem to seek collaboration and unification of forces and most divisions seem to be the result of a smear campaign attributed to supporters of the government.

Throughout the social and civic organizations in Potosí a struggle for definition, ideological articulation as well as on formulating economical alternatives have stimulated many different individuals in an effort to tomar responsabilidad, assume responsibility.  Amidst its divisions and polyphony, Potosí is still searching for its common denominator, to be able to once again launch protest against its abandonment. And ethnicity seems to be the lesser issue in this endeavour.

Diana Iftodi is a master student Social and Cultural Anthropology. She recently did fieldwork in Bolivia, and is now working on het master thesis.

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