Bolivia: Two Worlds
When I arrived in Santa Cruz on October 14th, 2003, I was repeatedly warned not to go onto the streets alone, especially at night, because of the ever-present danger of being pick-pocketed or assaulted. But currently (during the proliferating anti-government protests) the danger was so great I should not venture onto the streets at all. But I wanted to get the feel of the place and times. So I took several long walks through the inner city neighborhood where the rather scruffy hotel I had chosen was situated. Walking through the bustling inner city I began to feel that I was moving through two worlds: intercalated but radically separate. The haves and the have-nots. From living in Mexico and traveling through many Third World countries I am used to the stark contrast of the down-and-out living in the shadow of affluence. But somehow on the streets of Santa Cruz, the polarity was even more striking.
On the one hand, the streets of the city center are lined with stately shops and swank restaurants. Grandiose plate-glass store fronts displaying the most seductive and costly of materialistic gadgets, elegant furniture, luxury goods and high-class appliances. The people who frequent these shops are elegantly dressed, pale-faced and dangerously overweight. They have an air of ownership and empty authority. On the other hand, in make-shift kiosks cluttering the sidewalks and gutters are the have-nots, most of them darker and with more “Indian” features. They are notably shorter in stature than the “haves,” who carefully step around them. These “wretched of the earth” are selling knickknacks, grilling cobs of corn, peddling tamales wrapped in banana leaves, repairing shoes, or sewing clothes on the curbside. Or simply begging. A number of the women, stoop shouldered, babies slung against their backs or chewing at their breasts, are dressed in cheap factory-made imitations of the traditional Indian garb. But the men, with rare exception, are shabbily dressed in second-hand Western clothes: carefully patched trousers and faded T-shirts sporting once-colorful logos of Pepsi, Scooby Doo, Rambo, and Burger King, or the beloved Nike swoosh.
Virtually all of the shops, diners, and lottery outlets are equipped with huge television sets—many over four feet across—in what seems a very macho “Mine’s bigger than yours” competition. Proudly facing the street for world viewing through the expansive plate glass, the Tvs invariable project Hollywood movies, one more violent than the next, interrupted only by tantalizing advertisements (many of which also depicted savory bits of violence or insensitive humor where a stereotypic scapegoat is trashed or made a fool of). Invariably, scores of noses press against the pane, as a motley collection of the “have-nots” and “ne’er-do-wells” fill their empty bellies on this fare.
Not surprisingly, each of the stores has its own private Terminator [security guard] standing languidly by the entryway, Uzi slung over his shoulder. It was clear to me that for the underclass there is no existential entry into this vapid world of plenty that surrounds them. Yet at the same time, no exit. It struck me as a stage set for despair, frustration, and violence: the so-called “culture of outrage.” That the protest of the down-trodden at that very moment I walked through the streets of Santa Cruz was building like a tsunami, was utterly understandable and predictable. Can’t the “haves” see that they are building their own petard?
But then it occurred to me that both the “haves” and “have-nots” are victims of the same tragic comedy: the inhuman system that is somehow out of control, like a global cancer, running its own pernicious course. In its voracious thrust, life, beauty, joy, sexuality, even love have been trivialized and squandered. Everyone—from the obese to the famished—is groping, like Tantalus, for something out of reach. All in the same cage of mirrors.
What has happened to the concept of Liberty, of Freedom, of Equal Rights, of Fair Play, of all those stone-carved values of which the United States still so vainly boasts?
Everyone, it struck me, is in one way or another looking for a way out. The great escape. I was puzzled that in Latin America’s poorest country, the highway from the airport to the city is lined with amusement parks, golf courses, pony rides, video-game arcades, ice-skating rinks, etc., each garishly competing with the next. Mickey Mouse, Loony Tunes, Star Wars, the Matrix: the most seductive of US Great Life of Illusion; the Promised Land, the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. (I believe it was no accident that the movie on my American Airlines flight both to and from Bolivia was “Bruce Almighty,” one of the most banal, spiritually trivializing Hollywood flicks ever filmed.)
Santa Cruz Bolivia, suburb of New York City! As a kind of grotesque symbol of the whole schizoid scene, there it is! Standing imperiously atop the sales hall of a huge used-car lot on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, silhouetted priapus-like against the night sky, grandly illuminated by gyrating floodlights, is a great gray-green greasy replica New York’s famous Statue of Liberty.
“It’s just a crude copy,” my host told me apologetically. Just a copy! But I found myself asking: What has happened to the concept of Liberty, of Freedom, of Equal Rights, of Fair Play, of all those stone-carved values of which the United States still so vainly boasts?
Even in the United States, for all its wealth and surplus, one out of 5 children often goes often hungry and 43 million people lack health insurance. Child mortality for Blacks is double that for Whites. Life expectancy in Washington DC is lower than in Cuba, which struggles along despite the US embargo on 1/20th the GDP per capita. Yet welfare for the needy has been steadily reduced, even as military expenditures increase. The rich get bigger and bigger tax breaks. And giant corporations are subsidized by taxpayers to export their surplus to poor countries at below-cost prices with which subsistence farmers cannot compete, thus sowing the seed of destitution, prostitution, and the pandemic of untreated AIDS.
Yet the US, self-appointed policeman of the World, is proudly exporting its inequitable mercenary model of development around the globe. Stopping at nothing, it has a long history of destabilizing equity-seeking governments or rigging the overthrow of those small, struggling countries that have dared try to prioritize need before greed.
Statue of Liberty. Statue of Sadam Hussein. Two worlds? Or one world? It is indeed time for régime change. Time to change the regime—that has the most dangerous weapons and policies, from nuclear bombs to the neocolonial market system—that endangers the health and sustainability of humanity.
Bolivia cannot make it alone. Nor can any of us. To work for peaceful and lasting change, the world’s people—all of us, from the shoe shiners to the boot lickers, from potato-pickers to potentates—need to be more fully and accurately informed, and to find a collective voice. We need to rediscover the joy of working—and if necessary dying—for the common good, while at the same time celebrating diversity and the freedom to love.