What a strange day! Awaking in the morning in #Cochabamba Bolivia, to the sound of almost silence? No roar of traffic nor murmur of voices. What is going on? Out on the streets, in the city’s central district, it is eerily quiet. A quick hunt for coffee & wifi access, and a scan of a morning paper, reveals that…today, Thursday 16 March, is a 1-day #ParoCivico or Civic Strike. Organised by the Civic Committee of Cochabamba & supported by the local mayor, it´s specifically against a complicated legal section of a certain law, but more generally against narco-trafficking, and also the sense that the ‘Cocaleros’ (coca growers) receive preferential treatment (ie in relation to taxes).
This is a complicated issue! But we find the city, and probably the whole region, has been shut down by civic action since the very early hours, primarily by the simple tactic of blockading the roads – the key bridges into the city, the key intersections – and therefore ensuring there is no transportation. The blockades are a mix of ‘public transport’ vehicles (busses, taxis/trufis), bins & rubbish, and of course people in the middle of the road. Simple, and very effective. The streets are eerily quiet here in the city centre, and for as far as we are able to walk. Others are walking too, or moving by bike & motorcycle, and a few vehicles circulate within the blockaded areas. (See local media reports here and here in Spanish).
A post seen on twitter during our quick coffee break implies the police are breaking some of the blockades. We head towards the bridges across the Rio Rocha, which encircles the central area to the north & west. North of the river are the more posh & ostentatious neighbourhoods of Queru-Queru & Cala-Cala, where the ´whiter` people are to be found living. Here the blockade of the key bridge Puente Topater has been broken, although Puente CalaCala is still shut (to the west Puente de Enero has been cleared). We also come across a fast moving convoy of masked & tooled up cops, continuing their historic role of ´strikebreaking´ (applicable around the world).
The blockades are lifted around 2.30 to 3pm, having done their job. It is followed by a war of words in the media, involving many parties. President Morales for example, accuses the civic strike of assisting the narco trafficking! The key issue for protesters is to seek a modification of `article 70, section 4` of la Ley de Sustancias Controladas (info here in Spanish), but the Government says this is not necessary – and they will prevail for now. However one suspects there is a bit more to all this! The region of Cochabamba includes the area of Chapare, Bolivia´s second largest coca growing area, and the place where President Morales first came to prominence as a coca union activist & official. It is also the coca growing area most associated, in many peoples view, with the cocaine trade. Following recent protests by coca growers in the Yungas region, Morales Govt allegedly `gave in` to coca growers and allowed an increase in coca production. But major concerns remain over how the coca will be used (ie cocaine?), despite it´s acceptance as an important part of national culture & useful natural product. Coca production is now an agribusiness, and the key is to find alternative uses to its use in the cocaine trade, because there´s just too much to chew or put in tea (see Guardian article).
Other complicating factors in the Cochabamba and Morales/MAS/La Paz relationship include Cochabamba´s longstanding sense of independence & rebelliousness (ie see Water War 2000 on wikipedia), it´s opposition to Morales campaign to change the constitution to allow himself another run at the Presidency in 2019, and the fact it has rarely if ever been a MAS powerbase. On top of that is the history of the area, which back in the 15th century was the scene of social engineering by the Incas, who moved many Quechuan farmers to the area to capitalise on its agricultural potential (the Inca ´were´ Quechuan, not Aymaran), and it is now a ´Quechuan´ area. Morales of course makes much of his indigenous Aymaran heritage. So this is complicated!!!
All of which helps make Cochabamba a fascinating place to visit. Set in a wide flat fertile valley surrounded by mountains, it’s a lovely city to wander around. There´s very little orientation towards tourists which suits us, but plenty to see and do, and its cheaper than La Paz! The city is bestowed with many pleasant shaded squares, and feels like a pretty laid back place, despite its typical daily hustle & bustle and its social struggles (as well as the civic strike we´ve seen some 4 city centre protests/marches in 3 days). We arrived here last weekend, we´d wimped out on the long coach journey from La Paz and instead picked up some cheap flight tickets from BOA.bo (about 30 quid) and got here in 35 minutes from La Paz´s El Alto international airport – well worth it, and yes we acknowledge our privilege!