The Happiest Uprising on Earth
First published in The Brooklyn Rail, July-August 2006
It’s Memorial Day weekend of 2005 and I stick two fingers in a scanner that takes an electronic picture of my fingerprints. Getting into Disney World today is like gaining access to Ft. Knox. I’m allowed to insert my ticket, which is read and kicked back to me. My identity established, a plastic turnstile allows me in. For better or for worse, I am now inside the Magic Kingdom, where I’ll spend the weekend with my girlfriend and her Miami-Cuban family. In return, I was allowed to go to Bolivia for a revolution.
The day before Disney, I wake at 3:30 a.m. in La Paz so that another journalist and I can get to the international airport before the morning blockades go up. All week I’ve been watching Indians battle police in the streets, and everything I own reeks of teargas and dynamite as I stumble through security. If Bolivia could afford bomb-sniffing dogs, they’d be pissing all over themselves right now but, as it is, no one even bothers to confiscate the ten boxes of coca tea I’m bringing back.
Before the uprising, we take a tour through the Chapare region, once the source of between half and two thirds of the world’s coca, the plant used to make cocaine. Since the mid-80’s, it’s been a hot zone of U.S.-funded and led eradication efforts. The indigenous population, mostly Aymara Indian, has organized to resist the effort. Our goal is to meet the leaders of this resistance in an attempt to find out where the movement is headed. Plus, the uprising—in true Latin American fashion—has been postponed a week, so we have time to kill.
Bolivia’s capital is three miles above sea level. They say planes don’t land in La Paz—they park. The flight to Cochabamba, capital of the Chapare, is more of a downhill glide than a flight.
We meet our fixers the next morning. Kathryn Ledebur came to Cochabamba 15 years ago to write her master’s thesis and never left. Today she’s the director, and lone employee, of the Andean Information Network, one of about six billion NGO’s in Bolivia. A few years ago she married our other fixer, Godofredo Reinicke, the first Bolivian human rights official, who is now working on his own. His father owned an asbestos mine. He died of cancer. Kathryn and Godo bring along their newborn, Sebastian, and the five of us begin the bumpy ride deep into the Chapare.
The secret to good foreign reporting is to have a good fixer. The fixer is in the know and stays in peanut butter (or coca tea, or whatever) by fixing interviews. You need the ambassador? I’ve got his cell phone number. You need a guerilla leader? Here’s his hotmail address.
Walking up Disney’s main street toward “It’s a Small World,” a balloon pops behind me. I duck. Before Bolivia, I told myself that I wouldn’t duck if bombs went off or we were shot at. It’s the amateur’s reaction. Now here I am surrounded by 200-pound children and walking cartoons, and I’m flinching at balloons. And, of course, I think that’s pretty cool. It won’t be long, I figure, until I have my 1,000-yard stare down.
The beauty, genius, and attraction of Walt Disney World is its pure fakeness. Everything is fake—right down to the smiles plastered on the cast’s faces (there is no “staff”—people are “cast members”)—and everyone knows it. It can get hairy, though, just inside or just outside, in the sprawling campus that divides the fake world from the real world.
As a bus pulls up to take us to the Magic Kingdom, my girlfriend’s mother, Virginia, steps forward. An orange-haired woman in a green bandana elbows her hard and pushes in front. “I’m with them,” the woman says, “and we were the first ones here.” The bus is empty. Virginia steps aside, then boards.
The first town we stop in is Cristal Mayu, the biggest town in the Jungas Federation, though it doesn’t look to have more than a few hundred residents. We try to meet with the union leader who runs the town, but are told that he is busy. He just found a body in his coca field.
The second day at Disney, I don’t stick my fingers in the scanner, but fake it. It works anyway. The scanner is fake. There are wheelchairs off to the left that can be rented and often are by the larger Disney guests. I glance at my ticket and notice it tells me that any legal dispute I have with Disney must be settled in a Florida court.
We finally make it to “Small World,” the ride I dread—I admit, irrationally—more than any other. I’m bound to go on it. I was told that it was under construction and so, thinking I’d never have to go through with it I promised my girlfriend, Elizan, I’d ride it with her. After months of construction, it has just opened up.
I tell myself to stop being such an elitist and go on the ride. I can hear my right wing friends (okay, friend) saying, “How can you expect to connect with the Red States if you can’t even enjoy Disney World?”
We’re here at Disney with Elizan’s cousin Tessie, her husband Juan Carlos, and their daughter Ariana. They have a season pass, and Ariana has been to Disney seven times. She’s two.
“It’s a Small World” is Disney’s homage to racist stereotypes. Every few feet a new puppet community tells you what you need to know about a culture. In China, they all have long pointy beards and squinty eyes. African women all wear grass skirts. And on until the end, where all the different characters are dressed in pure white and playing harp in a puppet heaven. “Namaste,” says a sign as we leave.
Our first interview in the Chapare is with two mayors. Both are members of Evo Morales’s party Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS in its Spanish letters. The one nearest me, Feliciano Mamani, lifts his pant leg in response to a question about the consequences of the War on Drugs. His shin has a star-shaped scar on it—a deep hole that makes his leg look severely bent. He was shot by a tear gas canister during the Water Wars in 2000. “It just stopped pussing a few weeks ago,” he says in Spanish, which Kathryn translates for me. A helicopter roars overheard. “How about that for color?” says the guy I’m traveling with, Christian Parenti, a Nation correspondent (and Rail contributing editor).
We’re on a military base in Chimore waiting for a DEA-sponsored helicopter ride and to meet with the commander, but he seems to be giving us the run-around. Bolivian soldiers play a lively game of soccer while we’re distracted with a tour of the base’s piss-stained prison, then a tour of the DEA’s coke museum. Afterwards, Christian pulls out his bag of coca leaf and offers me some. The soldier minding us has a shocked look on his face and I think he’s about to cuff Christian. “Desde La Paz?” he asks, pointing to the bag.
“Si.” The soldier smiles. La Paz coca is supposed to be bigger and taste better than Chapare coca, which it’s his charge to eradicate.
“Por favor?” Christian nods and the soldier stuffs a handful in his mouth, then stashes another handful in his canteen bag. “Quita el hambre,” he says. It takes away the hunger.
His mouth numb from coca, the soldier warms up to us. He says he’s not unhappy in his job. He’s poorly educated and likes the uniform, so it could be worse. He’s paid 100 dollars a month by the Bolivian government and roughly 130 by ours. The U.S. also cut monthly checks to judges and prosecutors in the War on Drugs. We call the payments anti-corruption bonuses.
“Why is it,” the soldier asks us in Spanish, “Americans can come down here and look around at everything, but we can’t go to America?”
“It’s called imperialism,” says Christian in English. The soldier, Sgt. Soldado, smiles.
While still waiting, we’re taken in to see the subcommander. Before we ask a question, he starts by telling us how committed he is to “Derechos humanos.” Human rights. He is so committed, he says, that he recently took a course on human rights with the Ministry of Justice. To prove it, he hands us a certificate. It says, “Major Fernando Plato has successfully completed the course Human Rights and Sexually Transmitted Diseases.”
“What does that mean?” Christian whispers to me. “They teach them to wear condoms when they’re raping detainees?”
As Plato drones on, it looks less and less like we’re getting a helicopter ride. We’ve brought bread and three-liter bottles of Coke and, finally, Colonol Dario Leigue comes out and glad-hands us. He’s sorry, but he can’t meet with us without the permission of the Commander-in-Chief Admiral Luis Aranda, who is in a meeting. Seeing our skepticism, he tells us to call the admiral ourselves. Leaving aside the question of why a landlocked country would even have an admiral, we agree to call him. Leigue gives us the cell phone number of the Commander-in-Chief.
Of course, he doesn’t answer. A few weeks later he’s in the news denying that he’s plotting a coup. I call him up, but he doesn’t answer then either. At the checkpoint outside the base, a woman is selling coca. “Prohibido Orinar,” says a sign on a crumbling wall. No urinating.
Disney World is America on steroids. Anything you can find in the U.S. you can find in Celebration, Florida, the home of the Magic Kingdom. You want inequality? We’ve got waterfront homes you can rent by the week or motel-style slums that can handle an entire trailer. You want commercialism? The bathrooms are sponsored, and every ride dumps you into a related gift shop. And if you want a microcosm of your suburban life while you’re here at Disney, we’ve got it. Come stay in a log-cabin trailer in “The Wilderness,” replete with its own deck, grill, and golf cart. With each driveway stuffed with an SUV—seriously, each one—this is your suburban home away from home. Juan Carlo gives us a tour on his golf cart, designed not to go faster than, it seems, five miles an hour. We pull off the main road cutting through the “Red Zone,” an area arbitrarily designated by the U.S. as more ominous than any other in Bolivia. Our SUV is stuck behind a long patch of drying coca, which two women move to the side, so we can pass. We meet a cocalero family. The wife, Hilaria Perez, was shot by drug task force agents when she tried to stop them from uprooting her crop. She shows us the bullet hole in her chest. They are MAS members, as is every other cocalero we meet.
The husband doesn’t seem very political. What does he think of the natural gas issue? “I cook with wood,” he says. “Why would I care about gas?” I see their children peering through gaps in their splintering, dirt-floor shack.
The day before the uprising, I’m in the Cochabamba airport with Christian waiting for our hop back to La Paz. I’m talking in broken Spanish and English with a young guy next to me. “Did you hear?” he asks. “Evo Morales is dead.”
“Yes, he’s dead,” the boy repeats. “He’s dead right over there.” Either I can’t hear right or the guy doesn’t know the word for “here,” but either way I follow his finger to the tallest man in the airport, dressed in black jeans and a short-sleeve, white button-down shirt with 70’s stripes.
A two-bit journalist can pick up a few extra bits, I think, with an interview with Evo on the eve of the revolution. Christian and I introduce ourselves; Christian had interviewed him no more than two weeks earlier, but Evo doesn’t remember him. He reminds Evo who else was there for the interview and where exactly it was. Though it would be easy for him to nod and say, “Claro!” he continues to shake his head.
We ask him what he means by “nationalizacion.” He tells us that the gas in Bolivia’s ground belongs to Bolivia and he will state that clearly—and then renegotiate with the foreign companies for its exploitation. This scheme is not nationalization as it’s commonly understood—and it’s exactly what he later did, with the international press referring to it as nationalization.
Turns out Evo is on our flight and I’m less thrilled by our luck. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but you try sitting on the tarmac in a small plane with the left-wing leader of a Latin American crisis on the verge of a planned uprising. But we made it, with Evo in first class. (It was an extra ten bucks. He grew up with mud floors. Let’s give him this luxury.)
On Monday, the uprising begins slowly, with a long march from El Alto to La Paz. It’s taken the cocaleros, campesinos, miners, and other protesters about a week to march to La Paz, so they’re in no hurry. The miners have brought their dynamite, which they toss here and there throughout the day. Occasionally a bomb of serious weight rocks the city. I’m getting good at not flinching.
On Tuesday I’m marching with about 2,000 Aymara Indians from the high plains. They are noticeably pissed off and moving at a faster clip than any march I’ve ever been in. With quick flicks of sticks and smiles on their face, they smash car and store windows along the way, often with the passengers still inside.
“Cabron!” shouts one minibus driver as glass pours over his riders.
Americans have to be told not to form lines. “There’s no line here, people,” says a cast member, over and over, as we shuffle toward a ride. This one takes us on a safari with real lions, hippos, elephants, etc. “The animals’ dwindling population is due entirely to human activity,” says Karl, the cast member leading our tour. What a Blue State thing to say, I think.
The march ends a block away from the presidential palace in a standoff with police. I’m with a group of four journalists when a miner tosses a stick of dynamite at us. It explodes a foot behind me. The force rocks me forward, but it’s all air. There is no shrapnel or gun powder; just a blasting cap. Luis Gomez, a Mexican who refers to himself as an Authentic Journalist—always in caps—says, “Too many gringos together. Split up.” It worked for Custer, I think, and cross the street with Christian.
Bottles start to fly, followed by rocks. The police raise their riot shields and hold their ground. Then a stick of dynamite is tossed and explodes at the feet of three soldiers, who block it with their shields. They raise their guns and we run.
I see tear gas canisters fly by, but soon there’s little visibility, just the hiss of gas as it fills the street. A rubber bullet hits me in the back and I say, for some reason, “Ow.” Sprinting uphill at 15,000 feet through a wall of tear gas is a challenge. Within a few blocks I’ve lost Christian and am stumbling blindly through the streets.
“Ryan,” says a voice through a blurry haze. “Ryan, are you okay?”
“Si. Ven conmigo,” she says. Lucia is MAS Sen. Antonio Peredo’s secretary. We had interviewed him earlier that day. And yes, if you’re wondering, he is Inti and Coco’s brother—the two most impressive guerillas in Che’s Bolivian Diaries. Like a college dorm room, Sen. Peredo’s wall was covered with Che portraits.
Lucia takes me to her apartment, where she gives me a cigarette—the first I’ve had in 13 years. I remember seeing a public service announcement on the news the night before, reminding Bolivians that cigarettes are the best remedy for tear gas. It really works. My eyes and lungs clear up.
Back on the street, I head back to the scene to see if anybody was killed. After all, I figure, I’m pretending to be a journalist; that’s what a journalist would do. A block away, they fire tear gas again and everyone runs. I snap a picture of the crowd coming toward me, turn, and am punched hard in the back. I pretend it didn’t happen and keep my pace. Surrounded by angry Indians, and fully aware of my whiteness, I’m genuinely scared for the first time. But I’m able to duck down an alley and avoid any more random punches.
In La Paz, it seems that one in every ten people is wearing a neon green vest, the sign that they have a cell phone you can use for one boliviano, or about 12 cents. Christian, being a real journalist, has his own phone.
“Dude, that sucked,” he says when I call him.
“Yeah, that totally blew.”
“Let’s do it again.”
We do it again. And again. And it’s less fun each time. The rush of an Authentic Experience fades, replaced by an all-too-authentic pain in your lungs, throat, and crying eyes. But as the uprising spreads, the gas becomes harder to avoid. In Plaza San Francisco, a protester shouts at Christian and I, “Gringos se culpa! Gringos se culpa!”
“Si, si, we’re guilty,” Christian says, not quieting the man down. A police officer—one in a line of ten—walks our way to calm him. The man turns to the cop and throws a brick-sized rock at him, hitting him in the facemask. The cops raise their weapons and I hear myself yell at them not to shoot. I realize in about three-quarters of a second that I won’t be able to reason with them. As Christian dives to the ground, I turn and run. The spent teargas canisters I’ve been collecting weigh me down, and I feel odd securing them in my hoody pocket while fresh ones are flying around us. Feliciano’s shattered leg flashes in my mind, along with a story we heard of a woman who was killed when a canister implanted itself deep into her forehead.
A shell rockets by my left arm, its oddly beautiful trail slowly spreading around us. I duck behind a three-foot wall and, peering over, feel like I’m in an actual battle. All around me Indian men and women are stoically gushing tears. Those who try to run have canisters and rubber bullets fired their way. I realize we’re pinned down, and I like the way that sounds in my mind. I’m “in the shit,” I think. Then another spent canister falls out of my sweatshirt, and I feel like an idiot tourist again. A crying, crouching man to my left gives me a thumbs-up when he sees the souvenir canister, and I don’t feel so bad anymore—well, except for the wafting fog of teargas we are stuck in. The gas is intended to make us flee. We can’t move, so we sit, cry, cough, and pray for a breeze and a pack of smokes.
Every Disney-affiliated company has a tent on Pleasure Island, which is the nexus of Disney and mainstream America. A row of clubs set aside for Disney’s 21-and-older, this is the place you come if you want a bucket full of an allegedly alcoholic fruit drink, one of BET’s “Incredible Hulk” drinks—a mix of Hennessey and Hpnotiq—or just somewhere to go beyond the knowing eyes of Mickey, Goofy, and the rest of his clan. Elizan taps my arm and points down an alley, where two of Disney’s larger guests are fully wrapped in fruit-drink love. Fireworks burst above us, and I flinch.
RYAN GRIM is the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post. He is the author of This Is Your Country on Drugs (Wiley, 2009).