whirl•wind
/ˈ(h)wərlˌwind/
noun
A column of air moving rapidly around and around in a cylindrical or funnel shape. Used in similes and metaphors to describe a very energetic or tumultuous person or process.

That is the only way to describe the last three weeks. Although we’re only in the first week of November (and I was supposed to be in Bolivia until the end of November), it may surprise many of my cohort-mates and other readers that I’m actually writing this post from the comfort of my parents’ house in Tiverton, RI, USA. Read on to learn more about how I’ve been wrapping up my internship, and why I came home earlier than expected…

On Sunday, October 20, 2019, Bolivia had their presidential elections. Leading up to the elections, I had been hearing from colleagues that the situation was very complicated, and that it had the potential to get really contentious, and perhaps even violent. I knew to take their concerns seriously, as while writing my pre-departure report for our internship class, I learned about Bolivia’s rich social movement history. Overall, protesting and other forms of political activism are a very prevalent part of Bolivian culture, with folks from all walks of life actively participating in this display of democracy. All of that said, knowing all of this didn’t make living through the 2019 Bolivian presidential elections, and the aftermath, any less surreal.

Before going on, I’ll preface this by saying that the current situation in Bolivia is ultra-complicated, so my description here is going to be a gross oversimplification. You can read more about the situation here, here, here, and here. (Note: This situation has been getting very little news coverage in English; if you read Spanish, you’ll find a lot more about the situation in Bolivian publications, such as El Deber, and international publications such as El País.)

Essentially, the current president of Bolivia is Evo Morales Ayma, the first indigenous president in a country where two-thirds of the population is indigenous. Evo has been president since 2006, and this year was running for what many see as an unconstitutional fourth term. In 2016, he tried to change the constitution so that he could run again; the majority of Bolivians voted against this in a national vote that same year; the Supreme Court overruled their vote, saying that to prohibit Evo from running would be a “violation of his human rights”; and hundreds of thousands of Bolivians have been protesting ever since (read more about this here).

For this October’s elections, while there were nearly ten other candidates, the major opposition candidate, Carlos Mesa, is a former president of Bolivia (who resigned from the presidency in 2005). In order to win the October 20th election, the top candidate would have either had to have 50%+ of the vote, or 40% + a 10% margin lead over the next closest candidate; if no candidate cleared those hurdles, they’d have to move on to a run-off election in December. During the evening of October 20th, things started to get dicey, as the race was looking precariously close between Evo and Mesa, but then the vote count abruptly stopped for nearly 24 hours. Evo declared victory on Sunday evening (before the vote count was concluded), while Mesa declared electoral fraud. And then the country slowly started erupting until that Thursday evening when the vote count was completed and declared Evo the winner (without having to go to a second round)–then things really boiled over. While there had been protests and roadblocks (and some violence) throughout the country since the day after the election, things really ramped up on Thursday, October 24th, particularly in La Paz. Before then, most of the action had been concentrated in the city center, but then opponents of Evo announced a “1000 block strike”, which meant that the roadblocks made their way to my typically quiet, suburban-feeling neighborhood. 

Roadblock 2 blocks down the road from my AirBnB

Over the next several days, things kept escalating, with protests in some cities (such as Santa Cruz and Cochabamba) getting violent, with dozens injured and a few reported deaths. Evo began threatening to shut off external access to the cities (effectively cutting us off from food and medical supplies, for example), as well as cutting off La Paz’s water access. Miners (supporters of Evo) began arriving in La Paz’s city center, using dynamite as a part of their protest tactics. As the days went on, the chaos kept getting closer and closer to my house, with conflicts between people on both sides of this issue engaging in violent fights right outside my house. Police used teargas, multiple times a day, for several days in a row, to break-up the fights, which meant smelling the teargas from inside my house (if I didn’t close the windows quickly enough). After a couple of days of this, and other protest activities getting too close to home, I worked with IEDP and our international insurance provider, and we eventually decided that it was time for me to go home. While I was still overall feeling physically safe, I had been working from home for over a week at that point, and with no end in sight, we decided it was best for my mental health to get me home, where I’ve been starting to wrap up my internship deliverables over the last several days.

Every way you look at it, it’s a complex situation. But truthfully, I’m deeply impressed with the commitment to democracy that the majority of Bolivians have, with people from all ends of the political spectrum seeing it as their duty to take to the streets to defend their rights. I’d be lying if I said that seeing all of these people, many of them my peers, peacefully protesting in the name of democracy didn’t make me smile. But of course, while the majority of the protests are peaceful, there are also the violent aspects of this fight, which makes day-to-day life challenging, and will continue to make life difficult for the most vulnerable people in Bolivia.

This experience was made all the more interesting because of how the situation in Bolivia has been getting nearly no media coverage in the U.S. Nearly everyone I spoke with at home was utterly shocked at what I was experiencing, since all that they had heard about civil unrest in South America was taking place in nearby Chile (sending my best to fellow IEDPer, Ale, who is there now!). This made it even more difficult to decide to leave because it felt like surely things weren’t that bad, especially in comparison to what was unfolding in Chile, or what had just taken place in Ecuador. And while I’m not sure I’ll ever feel “good” about my decision to leave (I have an immense amount of privilege that allowed me to make this decision, which is hard to swallow), as I’ve been hearing from colleagues back in La Paz, it does sound like things continue to get worse, so it was overall the smarter decision to come home.

As I was saying goodbye to some of my colleagues (mostly through whatsapp since we couldn’t travel very far to meet-up), one of my friends asked me to tell the story about Bolivia, which is why I’m dedicating a whole blog post to this story. It’s also why I’ll write another post about wrapping up my internship, because, though deeply affected by this political situation, my experience interning with UNICEF Bolivia was so much more than this whirlwind over the last two weeks. So, stay tuned over the next couple of weeks for my last blog post.

¡Fuerza, Bolivia!

EDIT (Nov. 11, 2019): Evo Morales, the vice president, and dozens of other high level officials associated with Evo’s political party (MAS), resigned on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, hours after the military announced their support for his resignation. This news is finally making international headlines, but a lot of people outside of Bolivia are calling this a coup (some even saying a U.S.-backed coup). Given the history of widespread resistance to a fourth presidential term for Evo, the evidence of electoral fraud committed by the MAS party, and the popular opposition of Evo, I want to amplify the voices of all of my Bolivian friends and colleagues who are denouncing this misinformation: there was no coup in Bolivia. #NoHayGolpeBolivia