Remember the phrase “God draws straight with crooked lines?” I’ve never been a fan of it, because when I’ve typically heard it said to me, it’s from the mouth of a (well-intending) friend that’s trying to make me feel better that things aren’t going as planned. If someone were to say that to me now to describe the current crisis in Bolivia, they might be the recipient of both a free knuckle sandwich, and free lecture.
On October 20, Bolivia held its presidential elections. With a field of 9 candidates on the ballot, Bolivians took to the polls that Sunday amongst streets mostly free of traffic, and large commercial businesses closed – all so that Bolivians can go to the polls without being late for/having to work, etc. At 7:40 pm that night, with 83% of the vote counted, results showed that a runoff would be necessary between incumbent Evo Morales (Movimiento a Socialismo; then 45%) and 2nd runner-up Carlos Mesa (Comunidad Ciudadana; then 38%) because the candidate with the most votes did not have 50% of the vote AND less than 10% separated him from the closest challenger.
But, these were the last results posted that evening; a stop in reporting which still remains a mystery. The next night, Morales claimed victory with 46.83% over Mesa’s 36.7%; a 10.12% difference, JUUUUST enough to avoid the runoff required under law when the difference is less than 10%. This was claimed statistically unlikely by election observers dispatched by the Org. of American States.
Tuesday October 22 began as normal. I went to ministry at Puente de Solidaridad, and reiterated a running joke between me and the Bolivians who works there: “Por cualquier cosa va a pasar, lo siento, por todo es falta de imperialismo!” (For whatever is going to happen, I’m sorry, because everything is imperialism’s fault!) I continued working on doing inventory of supplies brought from the United States by a recent mission group and having my two Bolivian co-workers show me electoral results on-line that clearly showed discrepancies in the vote tallies country’s own tribunal. Throughout the morning, people were getting text messages about roads being blocked off by people angry at the clearly flawed process.
At 11 am, people started leaving the office to pick up kids from school, to meet loved ones, and to simply get home before the entire city was shut down. I walked home through streets where citizens had placed large rocks, piles of dirt, furniture, and were pulling police-style plastic tape across roads to close them. By 3 pm, the Plaza de las Banderas, a distance of a block or so from my house, was filling with thousands of people.
Since then, most of Cochabamba city has been completely paralyzed; I haven’t been able to work in my ministries, and we are very much living in a day-by-day, wait and see situation.
One of those ‘wait and see’ moments that resulted in action was the Wednesday after the elections (10/23). The next day, the MAS (Movimiento a Socialismo / “Movement Towards Socialism”) political party, of which Morales is a part, were to bus supporters into the city of Cochabamba for a massive rally/counter-protest. They are said to be paid Bs 100-200 (about US$20-28) by the party to attend these mass rallies; or face a “multa” (fine) if they don’t. *Note: I cannot confirm this other than hearsay from missioners who know some of these neighborhoods better than I.
I live in a house with 6 other missioners/volunteers near the city center. We are located between two areas where protests of all types often gather – the Plaza de Las Banderas and Plaza 14 de Septiembre (or Plaza Principal / main plaza). On that day, the MASistas were gathering at the main plaza, and anti-government supporters tended to gather around “Banderas” in those days.
Not wanting to be surrounded by a possible confrontation (even if I was safe inside of my house), I opted to sleep at the Maryknoll Fathers’ & Brothers’ residence that night and stay through the next day. What should have been a 10 minute taxi ride there took about an hour and 15 minutes because the taxi driver had to work his way around blockaded streets! From this experience comes the entré into this post – our taxi made crooked and back-tracked lines throughout Zona Notre in Cochabamba, but after all this, and a bilingual decade of the rosary between me & and Irish priest, I eventually got to where I needed to be.
Finally the real ending – but there will be more parts, so please keep looking.