Let’s start with the image of a pair of fingerless hands, bleeding.
On Tuesday November 12, two days after the announcement that the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, had resigned, I was waiting in a doctor’s office when I clicked on the Facebook Story of my friend Beltrán, a Bolivian. On my phone I saw a man I did not recognize on the sidelines of what appeared to be political protest, wearing a construction jumpsuit and staring at his mangled hands.
I clicked on his Story again and again, hunching over my phone in the waiting room so no one else would have to see the gore. At first, I wasn’t sure if what I was watching was real, unwilling to concede to the content’s gruesome reality. I continued to watch the clip until the psychological overload of the video’s graphic content finally dispelled my disbelief. I put down my phone. Soon after, a nurse called my name, and I stood up to submit myself to a jaw examination.
The nurse asked me the basic questions: height, weight, allergies, do you smoke? etc. But before she left, she said, “You know it’s a whole thing up at the front that you don’t look anything like the photo in your ID. Is that really you?”
I laughed and replied, “Yeah, I didn’t have a beard or long hair in high school.” I pulled out my wallet and showed her my Bolivian carnet, the ID card that identified me as a temporary resident of Bolivia from September 2017 to May 2018 with personal information and a portrait much closer to the rugged look I have now. It’s a look I adopted during my stay down South and one I have maintained with relative consistency since my departure. It no longer holds any official or administrative weight in any country, but I still keep this ID in my wallet behind my Tennessee driver’s license.
For two years I’ve liked to think that my Bolivian ID is more than just a conversation starter, that it grounds my daily life in my relationship to a country I for a time called my home. In that moment, however, as I simultaneously showed this nurse my little souvenir and thought about that injured man, I realized it was nothing but a piece of plastic that, at most, serves as a snapshot into a past time of my life. What did it matter that I kept it in my pocket every day if Beltrán might be in danger?
Throughout my nine-month stay in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba two years ago, I had heard a wide range of opinions regarding Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president. More or less, Morales had started as an incredible grassroots leader, fighting against anti-indigenous racism, multi-national corporate privatization, and imperialism all the way to his historic election in 2005. His early presidency, his first term in particular, was generally marked by real change, where he, with the help of the numerous indigenous people he had put into administrative positions, worked to officialize much of the groundwork he and his fellow grassroots leaders had enacted. As time went on however, it seemed that his power had gone to his head, as he failed to empower any potential successors, seemingly doing little more than ride the wave of his initial successes.
The breaking point came when, despite both the dictates of a constitution he himself had helped pen and a national referendum that determined that he would not be able to run for a fourth term, he ran for one anyway. When a vote declaring Morales the winner was met with nationwide dispute and protest this past October, he agreed to a run-off with candidate Carlos Mesa, Bolivian historian and former interim President, saying he would step down if defeated. Opposition nonetheless continued. The target of the opposition, however, was unclear, at least from the news sources I was reading. Were the protests in favor of Morales, against him, or somewhere in between? Were they organized protests, or were they little more than chaos?
I took some time between my doctor’s appointment and my afternoon class to reflect on the situation. Omitting the video I had seen, I talked to a friend about the events for just a moment before he had to run to a meeting, but I resolved to continue reflecting by writing something down or at least reading more of the latest news updates. But instead of reading about it, instead of writing about it, instead of just making myself sit with it all, I watched Star Wars for half an hour on Disney+, the new streaming service that had just launched that day. I refused to engage otherwise, because I was afraid the concomitant sorrow would overwhelm me.
The shape of the protests, or at least a shape of some of them, became clearer on November 10, when Bolivian police and military forces joined with protestors to demand Morales’s resignation. On November 12, the day I watched Star Wars before class, Morales boarded a plane to take asylum in Mexico City.
Let’s go back to that pair of fingerless hands, bleeding. I messaged Beltrán that night and expressed to him how horrified I was at what I had seen on his Facebook. I asked him what was happening in Cochabamba, whether he himself was okay.
First, he said, “siguen los conflictos, Pedro.” The struggles are still here. Then, he told me that he hadn’t taken the video that had horrified me so, but that it had happened in La Paz. It seemed like Beltrán was himself just lying low, waiting for it all to turn into something more stable, whatever form that might take. Part of me wanted to draw some sort of wholesome conclusion, that maybe he and I weren’t in such a different boat after all. But his nationality, class, and skin color begged to differ. In the end, I just told him he was in my heart, and he thanked me.
Raul Zibechi writes in an article on the website Toward Freedom that the “context for what is taking place in Bolivia didn’t start with electoral fraud.” Instead, “it began with systematic attacks by the government of Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera against the same popular movements that brought them to power, to the point that when they needed the movements to defend them, the movements were deactivated and demoralized.” Reading this summary reminded me of The Dark Knight, where Harvey Dent summarily declares, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
When Evo Morales resigned, I celebrated before doing anything else. Finally, he had agreed to step down and allow someone else to continue the movement, I thought. But the next day, messaging my former employers, Marcela and Oscar, themselves grassroots leaders, I learned that they weren’t celebrating. They were scared.
I texted Oscar first. “I’m afraid for my family,” he told me. “I’m trying to get money to send my daughters to Mexico, where I have some friends. There they can finish their studies.” When I asked what would happen in any upcoming elections, if they eventually even take place, he said that there was no were good candidates who would realistically take Morales’s place. “It’ll be someone from the far right. We have no options from the left.”
I let that idea sink in. As fraught as Morales’s presidency had been, his departure left a vacancy that looked like it would end up much worse, bringing the country back to the evangelical Christian, anti-indigenous, neoliberal structure that people like Morales and the Oliveras had been working so hard to dismantle. I no longer felt like celebrating. Instead, I became afraid for all my friends who would suddenly be targeted again.
I messaged Marcela, too. “I don’t think there is really anything that I can do for you,” I wrote, “But I am thinking about you all.”
She sent me an article to read about the situation, detailing the violence that was already occurring against indigenous people across the country, and assured me that, “You are asking about us and that makes us feel better. That is what friends are for. Thank you, thank you!”
I tried to feel better with these kind words, but they only made me feel more powerless. Was I inadvertently forced to nothing more than the international political crisis equivalent of the people who post “thoughts and prayers go out to x” on social media in the wake of a mass shooting? I felt sorrow and grief for my friends, but that would be the extent of the crisis’ reach for me. I could go to dinner, do my homework, watch television, and go to sleep, all in comfort, all the while neglecting something that was so serious for so many.
The following Saturday night, my friend Matthew, one of my companions on our Bolivian adventure two years before, met me at a party in a mutual friend’s room. When I asked him how he was as I handed him a drink, he responded meekly that he was very sad. “I was talking to my host dad today, and he said told me that the police were given immunity for any of their efforts to pacify Cochabamba. So eight or nine people were killed today.” There was nothing we could do with this information but acknowledge the extent of our powerlessness and grief.
These are snippets of the stories of a culture currently far from my body but perennially close to my heart. Though I am removed from them physically, I want nothing more than to be there, if in no other way than in spirit. But was does it mean to be way somewhere in spirit when the only consequence I face is fear for my friends, people who are themselves in actual danger?
There seems to be no tangible aid I can give to bring me closer to this country in the midst of its mourning and chaos. I love my querida Bolivia, so knowing that I can do nothing to help my suffering friends only makes my sorrow greater. If all I do is join in their fear and sadness, I’m not sure that will bring us any closer together. What I have realized that I can do, though, is write.
The night before I left my volunteer job in Cochabamba in April of 2018, I told my friend Gabo that I had no words for the mix of all the emotions I was feeling. He put his hand on my shoulder and laughed. “A writer with no words!” That night, I decided never to use that phrase again. From then on, I would either find the words, or I would stay silent.
With that precept in mind, I have started and abandoned this piece numerous times over the past few weeks. Sitting on a porch in South Carolina, where my mother’s side of the family has gathered for the Thanksgiving holiday, the setting sun lights the ocean horizon on fire while I search for the words I need to bring me closer to my compañeros, even if only in spirit. Perhaps I have merely summarized the details of a crisis that anyone with access to CNN and Telesur could have ascertained for themselves. But perhaps by acknowledging our relationship in words, I can make it more tangible. By writing, I can reassert a connection that I cherish too much to let go.
I messaged Marcela on Thanksgiving Day to tell her I was thinking about her, Oscar, Beltrán, and all my Bolivian friends and how grateful I remained for all of them.
“Thank you, Peter,” she wrote back. “We too are thankful for the solidarity and the friendship. A big hug for you and your family.” Reading this text made me realize that love and connection go both ways. This realization is not everything, maybe not even enough, but it is more than nothing. It is something wonderful, and that cannot be denied.