22 Oct, 2014 | Rodrigo Barrenechea

Social issues and Urban living

“ Do the Evolution”

Illustration: Oscar Zalles

Suddenly I find myself once again flying over this city which is always so familiar from high above in an airplane, and realizing, to my surprise, that there are no more brown brick houses, and all the facades had been painted blue and white, an homage to the Movement Toward Socialism’s many years in government. Arriving in La Paz, the sun burns my cheeks more than ever, the wind blows less cold, a dryness in the air tires everyone around me, and as usual it is difficult to breath – how wonderful to be back.

Many things have changed since I left the country in 2016. Now, after 20 years, I’ve come to manage forestry projects at the invitation of the government of Indira Pasoskanki Wolff, a Bolivian woman deeply rooted in her Northern Cochabamba homeland, but with Australian heritage on the side of her mother, who lived her whole life in Bolivia.

The President, who holds a doctorate from Monterrey University in Engineering and Sustainable Development, came to power after a grueling struggle by middle class union and indigenous supporters due to the environmental and food crisis that is affecting the entire continent. Evo Morales, already in his fourth term, couldn’t face this challenger due to aging and a profound physical deterioration that led him to his death bed – imagine, being President for 17 years! It’s job that could only lead to that end.

For me, Indira was a sort of Bolivian, intellectual version of Janis Joplin. Her image was pasted on innumerable billboards, picturing her strong features and wild hair.

My anxiety grows and I’m not sure if it’s because in just a few hours I will meet my country's President, or because as I descend into La Paz I see a city totally different from the one I remember: the lines of the Teleférico have increased from three, (back when operations began in 2014) to 16, and my view of the sky is totally obscured by the movement of all these colored machines.

Don Mario, the driver of a ‘fancy’ Radio Taxi (Toyota Model 2024) makes a turn in the middle of autopista into a long avenue I don’t remember at all. The walls are covered in graffiti of all different visions of the Pachamama in intense colors with phrases at the bottom of the murals like:

‘Las mujeres somos, las mujeres queremos’ (We are women, as women we want).

Don Mario tells me that everything that once was the Prado in the city center has become a giant pedestrian walkway open to informal markets all the way from San Francisco to the Plaza del Estudiante. He says:

‘Jefe, este país se ha vuelto un país de hippies, el centro es un conglomerado de esos’ (Jefe, this country has become a hippie country; the center is just full of them).

In line with that comment, a few months ago people voted in a constitutional referendum to do away with all cars and public/private transport, which means that minibuses, micros and trufis no longer exist and the only forms of transport are the highly valued Puma Kataris, Teleféricos and a few Radio Taxis. This was one of the measures adopted by the government to deal with air pollution and global warming. I see, with great sadness, looking from Llojeta toward the Zona Sur, that Illimani now has just a tiny cap of snow at the very peak, and is just like any other mountain - it makes me want to weep.

Arriving in the Zona Sur, I see that all the houses that once lined the streets in and around Calacoto no longer exist, and instead there are the huge towers of buildings that house major businesses, banks and other institutions. It seems that all the movement in La Paz is now concentrated here, and Pollos Copacabana is the biggest real-estate holder with a restaurant every three blocks. It’s so much - maybe comparable with McDonald’s, which went into international bankruptcy a few years back. Seeing so many images of chicken in red hats disturbs me a bit.

I must say it seems unbelievable to me that all the new government buildings are on 21st Street in Calacoto (the most ‘elite’ commercial area when I was young), and that the old Plaza Murillo and its palaces have become touristic and cultural spaces - well, at least they say that the old presidential palace is now one of the best history museums in the world.

I am greeted by the communications director in the surreal door of the presidential offices, where the old Cathedral of San Miguel once stood. The new building is a majestic work that reminds me of the mega-ecological projects of the German company Bayer, totally minimalist and triangular, covered in glass with solar panels at each corner.

Finally I enter the room where the President’s cabinet meets. Indira enters, takes her place at the center of the great oval table, everyone finds their seats and she greets the room:

‘Compañeros, este mundo ya no esta hecho para intelectuales, esta hecho para espirituales’ (Compañeros, this world is no longer made for intellectuals - it is made for spiritualists.)

Everything seems so out of this world to me, and I’m like an alien in my own land. Disconcerted, I take a sip of the glass of water in front of me while the Minister of Economy sends a biting smile my way, letting me know she perfectly understands my confusion upon seeing so many changes. And the day, for me, is far from over.


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