Bolivian Doctors Fighting For Socialism
It is late morning, May 27th, 2012, and one of the squares of the Bolivian city of Cochabamba is colorful and festive. The police and army are patrolling the area, but they are apparently also enjoying the Sunday morning, looking more like some characters from an Italian comical opera than the strict upholders of the law.
The square is full. It is packed with indigenous women, some carrying children on their backs, some with cotton sacks in their hands, almost all wearing hats.
Hundreds of local women have come to the square to register their babies and children inside the provisory tents erected by the government. Most of these kids were born out of wedlock; something that would be just a few years ago deplored by society, even considered immoral and shameful. Things are changing now and fingers are pointing accusatively in different directions, while the state is trying to register everybody regardless of how he or she came to this earth, as without the proper registration, children and adults have no right for government assistance.
In 2005, Evo Morales became for the first time the President of Bolivia and despite some vicious and determined resistance and attempts to destabilize his government from both the West and the ranks of Bolivian elites, things began changing rapidly for this nation with the greatest indigenous majority in South America. And “The Process” never stopped, never even slowed down.
Now in Cochabamba like in most other parts of the country, both the city and the state are encouraging women to come forward: to list their children, to talk about the abuse they have been facing from family and society, to check themselves for breast cancer, for tuberculosis, to learn how to prepare healthy food themselves and for their children.
In the past I would have never dared to take photographs of Bolivian women and their children point blank. There were legends about stealing the soul through the lenses of cameras, and there was a creeping lack of trust. If I had attempted to ask questions, most of them would go unanswered. In the past, there was always a thick fog of suspicion floating in the air, mixed with resentment and fear. Now, it is as if the fog has cleared, the dam has burst, and the bitterness accumulated over years and decades has begun to flow, transforming, begging to lend itself to stories. The fear has miraculously vanished, replaced by hope, and the stories that have begun emerging were full force.
Most of the stories were simple and they spoke of pain, of simple and faithful women being abandoned by their husbands and spouses, for no apparent reason when they were pregnant or when other women crossed their path. But there were also other stories, those of injustice and abuse, of social wrongs, full of outrage and rebelliousness.
“Two of my children died when they were little”, said one of the mothers facing me defiantly as if I had been designated to bear at least some part of the responsibility. She showed me with her harsh, hardworking hands how small they were: “that little”, she kept repeating in disbelief, “that tiny”. Then looking straight to my eyes: “Why?”
I knew why and so did she. There was nothing to be said, but looking at me she somehow knew that I heard what she was saying and that her words would be carried from this square to the wide world.
A few meters away, the mobile clinics were parked at the curb - several of them. They were actually huge ingeniously converted trucks. I went up the stairs of one of them, knocked at the door. Someone opened and I was let inside where a woman was giving her full breast to her baby, while the doctor and a nurse were showering her with medical advice.
And here, what stunned me was the trust – absolute and powerfully expressed: between the mother and the doctor, the nurse and the woman and between all of them and me. It took me just a few seconds to explain what I was doing here. We exchanged polite greetings. I asked whether I could film. “Yes, of course”, all of them nodded. It was up to me to set the limits. I was expected to be discreet, but I was not told to be. It was understood that all of us were gathering here for an important reason: to help Bolivia and its people. The doctor was probably Cuban, and the nurse was local. I did not ask; it did not matter. A true internationalist should not care much about one’s geographical, cultural or other roots.
What mattered though was that right in front of my eyes something that would be unimaginable just a few years ago was suddenly taking place: in once impoverished and racially divided and classist Bolivia, a white man, a doctor, was looking with simple warmth and human compassion at a suffering indigenous woman breastfeeding her baby, asking her “When did you feel pain the last time, mother?”
He behaved in a simple, kind, decent and humane way, but in a world increasingly kidnapped by financial and personal interests his humanism felt like some extreme, like a reminder of different era. He was a doctor and he behaved like one, as doctors were expected to behave in the not so distant past. But here as in so many other places all over the world, it had been so common instead of inquiring, “Where does it hurt?” to ask for the credit card number or cash deposit, that normal behavior felt something of an anomaly.
At one point the doctor patted the woman’s arm, kindly. He was of a different race and background, and he behaved as her equal, making her feel calm and confident. After a while she began answering his questions quietly and boldly, as if she were speaking to a member of her own family.
At this point I knew I was witnessing the revolution. I had witnessed quite a few of them, as well as many civil wars all over the world. But this was different. There were no Kalashnikovs, no combat zones, but this was as big as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua “going up”, taking the Congress, some decades ago.
Unlike the doctors concerned with their inflated salaries – in Bolivia and all over the world – the doctors working here appeared cool and confident, at ease and clearly at peace with themselves and the world and above all, with their own conscience. They seemed to have no need for complex philosophical somersaults explaining why they were stuffing their purses instead of serving the needy. They were doing exactly what they were trained to do: saving lives, offering advice, and being there for those in pain and in distress, nothing more, nothing less.
Just watching these doctors working in the middle of Cochabamba I felt overwhelmed and at the same time endlessly grateful. It was like coming home from an extremely long and unsettling journey, dotted with nightmarish images depicting perversely but accurately the direction the world was heading to, or rather to where its kidnappers were taking it. Coming back from the journey where commercial interests stand above compassion, where ‘helping’ those in need and in pain is simply a good business and has its price tag, mostly ridiculously inflated.
To me these sights in the middle of the Bolivian Andes were like the essence of the human nature – by now almost extinct but still the essence – played in front of my eyes. And I was very much aware of the fact that this was exactly the socialism in which I had believed for decades; it was right here, in action, in front of my eyes. And it was simple, natural and non dogmatic.
Then I recalled one of the greatest novels ever written - The Plague (La Peste) - of Albert Camus, and the unforgettable phrase “And unable to become saints, they became doctors”. I thought about the main character, a simple doctor named Bernard Rieux, who when the plague began ravishing the Algerian city of Oran, stood against unimaginable horror and destruction, and against all odds fought the illness with all his knowledge and might, losing his wife, losing everybody he loved in the process, but at the end winning the battle and saving his city. As I watched the doctors working in the center of Cochabamba, it was evident that they, as was Dr Rieux in The Plague were not only fighting diseases, they were fighting fascism! In Cochabamba and in Oran, they were struggling for the entire humanity.
Then I looked around some more. I realized that I knew these women well. I had covered the civil war in neighboring Peru for more than a year in the 90s, I had driven through Bolivia - this poorest country of South America - from North to South, and from East to West so many times I could not even count. They were always ‘there’, these women in colorful dresses and black hats - silently watching, standing by the side of the roads, selling fresh fruits and cheap imported goods on the sidewalks: the indigenous women of Peru, of Ecuador, of Bolivia.
The women of Altiplano used to appear to me as some incarnation of pain and stoicism, of a once tremendous and now destroyed culture, of hopelessness and the miraculous ability of human beings to survive the worst that life can serve on its dirty and cracked plates.
In the past, I always tried to avoid their eyes, because I felt shame and because I did not know how to help them. In Bolivia, for decades, a revolution had been postponed indefinitely. The country was silently bleeding, governed by shameless and Euro-centric elites. It was a man’s world, but in which, even the men – or more precisely their great majority - were going through a dehumanizing and constant humiliation. A decisive revolution appeared to be the only act capable of offering some hope; capable of overthrowing the feudal fascist system.
Decades ago, Che Guevara died for this country; one of the greatest revolutionaries of all times had fallen alone here, helpless, abandoned and betrayed. But for him not to fight in Bolivia and for Bolivia would have been like not fighting at all; it would have been a thorough hypocrisy. Because it was precisely here – in this cold, inhospitable but endlessly beautiful mountains, in the clay huts of Altiplano, in the hot, humid and predominantly feudal settlements lost in the middle of selva – jungle – that more than 500 years of colonial and post colonial brutality and madness showing its most terrible face had stripped of all humanity and humanism.
This is where Potosi’s veins were opened, this is where she was stripped naked and robbed of everything, her children dying in the mines for the glory of European civilization. The richest city on earth, the city of silver, with its people forced to die likes animals for the Crown, and for the brave and glorious European culture!
The plight of these women was hidden. Many of those journalists who were writing in Bolivia and Peru were paid, directly or indirectly, not to expose the harsh realities of the local people.
Of course there were some sparks of outrage, of fury, like those in the films by Francisco Lombardi, the greatest Peruvian filmmaker. He directed his “La boca del lobo” (‘Wolf’s Mouth’, 1988), depicting the ‘Dirty War’ in the Peruvian Andes, which I had covered and which changed me forever, and the terror the indigenous people had to face. There, he showed a rape of a simple indigenous girl. It was a rape that was not even considered a rape by the soldiers who committed it, because the girl was indigenous – and in the eyes of city folks hardly human. Lombardi shows half-mad soldiers believing they were on the mission to get all local women pregnant. And then he dared to show the horror of extra judiciary execution, a mass murder of the villagers killed simply for being there, and at the end, he showed a boy called Vitin Luna; a boy who joined the army to serve his country as his father had done in the past. He showed Luna drunk, shattered and disillusioned, suddenly risking his career and his life, challenging the lieutenant who oversaw the rape and the killing to a game of Russian roulette in one of the greatest and most powerful moments in Latin American cinema. Waving the gun, smashing the door of the house in the middle of the night, screaming in the darkness: “Come down, lieutenant! Come down if you really have balls!”
Many years ago I showed the film to my acquaintance in La Paz, the owner of a major daily newspaper and the son of a Senator. I asked him: “Don’t you think that one day there will be people banging at the gate of your mansion?” He gave me a big smile, as he was packing his golf bag. “They will come”, he said. “Of course one day they will come. But before that, I will be having plenty of fun while they will be eating shit.”
“Try this”, I was handed a cup of yoghurt with local herbs. “It is really good for you – all natural”. Several nutritionists explaining to local people how to incorporate healthy things they have and grow into their daily diet.
I moved further and was asked to register my family for some government health program. I tried to produce the most outrageous Chilean accent I could manage, but it didn’t deter the enthusiastic government employee. “You don’t live here? But you definitely know some people who do. Bring them here, we will tell them to sign up; it is for their own good.”
The entire atmosphere was of socialist realism brought to its best. It was naïve, sincere and to be in the middle of it felt extremely well and warm. People working on the square appeared to be fully stripped of any cynicism, sarcasm and self-interest. The government, medical staff and hundreds of women who were on the receiving end were interacting naturally and confidently. There was calm and plenty of good will, but there was no artificiality – not many pre-fabricated smiles and no unnecessary or extreme courtesy.
Many years ago a friend of mine, a translator and writer Kevin Mathewson who presently lives in Brazil, recalled the first days of the Nicaraguan revolution that he experienced in Managua:
“What I found the most powerful was not the revolution itself, but what it unleashed. One day I was standing at the side of the road. The bus was passing. It was full of girls from the countryside, dressed in their best. The bus was packed. Some girls were barefoot, but they were all very clean and very excited. You see, they were going to downtown Managua; they were going to dance. For the first time in their lives they were going to be allowed to enter the places that were just few days earlier reserved only for the elites. Suddenly, they knew they could… There was so much anticipation and hope and excitement radiating from their faces… This was the moment when I understood that this revolution was right. When I saw those shy countryside girls going to the capital city which was suddenly theirs.”
I felt the same, in the middle of the festive square of Cochabamba.
The music erupted. Many women spontaneously moved towards its source; the provisory stage. Until then, most of them had known only hard work; they had no opportunity to learn how to dance, but they wanted to be included, they wanted to live. They moved their feet clumsily, they smiled apologetically, and they kept trying and trying to dance. Some outsiders may have found their movements ridiculous, but here, nobody was laughing. It was their square, their city and their country. They were testing and tasting the first steps of their own hard earned freedom, not the freedom prefabricated and pushed down the throats by the West.
For some of them, their new life was starting at the age of 18 or even sooner, but many were well into their 60s. It did not seem to matter much. They were all learning how to walk, how to take the first steps – the steps of the people who suddenly realized that the country and the society in which they lived now actually belonged to them, and not the other way around.
I travelled throughout the country and I heard the voices of those in favor as well as those who were against the revolution, as I did earlier in Venezuela and elsewhere. I spoke to the medics who were throwing red paint on their clothes, opposing the reforms introduced by the government. I spoke to those who were deeply involved in the protest against the new highway that was being carved through the jungle.
I disagreed with the protesters, because many were using the indigenous card for their own commercial and political interests, or more precisely the opposing local media and international media were using these cards. It was also clear that there were striking similarities between the protests that were antagonistic to progressive changes in today’s Bolivia and the protests that have been rocking Venezuela since Chavez became the President, as well as in Allende’s Chile before the US-sponsored military coup on 9-11-1973. Many of those protests were orchestrated and sponsored by the right wing and by those who, as Eduardo Galeano once said to me, “were paid by somebody, but would not tell by whom”.
I do not want to go to the details of my investigation – the details are disturbing, often appalling. In this essay I am simply offering a glimpse to those few moments that I lived on one of the squares of Cochabamba - the moments that by their simplicity and epic beauty made me, once again, refuse impartiality. After those few moments, in my own way I joined ‘the Process’, offering my full support to the Bolivian revolution of Evo Morales.
As I was leaving Cochabamba for La Paz, a military transport BAE-146 jet encountered great difficulties gaining altitude. It was obviously overloaded and taking off at great altitude, its four engines seemed to be roaring in vain, unable to pull the airplane up. After the takeoff, it had frozen at extremely low height, almost licking the roofs of the houses. The mountains were directly in front of us and I knew enough about flying to realize that either we would be managing to go up or we would crash. I was clearly aware of the fact that if the plane would make an attempt to make a turn to avoid the mountain range, it would slide to the side and lose the altitude sharply, as it was flying too slowly through the air that was too thin at this altitude.
There was no panic - I realized that many people on board were probably flying for the first time, unaware of the danger. And I was simply too tired to feel anything as I had been working for several days and nights without rest.
After several tense minutes, the pilots managed to gain altitude and we flew over the mountains, but just about.
The metaphor was clear, I thought. It was exactly what Bolivia was going through at this historic period. It was beyond the point of no return, and it could not change its direction. If the country would leave its path towards egalitarian society - historically its essence before the European colonial terror smashed all local cultures - it would simply crash. There would be almost nothing that would support its wings. The only way was to go forward, to clench the fists and fly over those enormous mountains of resistance taken here from abroad; to fly above all that bad inertia and saturated hopelessness.
The old BAE-146 and its pilots were like Bolivia, far from perfect. Errors have been made every month, every week, and every day. But the path has been correct and well defined. Now everything depended on their will, skills and guts. Full throttle, take off flaps and up we go, carambas! Dangerous? Yes it was dangerous, as anything worth living and fighting for always is.
“No matter what will happen to Evo”, said a young Argentinian philosopher whom I met on board a mini-van plying at neck-breaking speed between the border at Desaguadero and the Peruvian city of Puno, “Bolivia will never go back. It may stumble, slow down, but after what is happening here right now, return is not an option.”
But one day before that conversation, approaching the city of La Paz, I was thinking about the doctors I encountered in Cochabamba. People like them were on the frontline of the Bolivian ‘Process’. They were fighting for the country; they were pushing it forward. They were healing and simultaneously they were building trust and confidence, redefining the relationships in this profound and ancient part of the world. They were not saints and they did not claim to be – they were simply revolutionaries.
At El Alto International Airport a young doctor had picked me up, my driver. He was just finishing his degree and driving a cab was one way to stay afloat.
“It is good you saw it”, he said. “Westerners: most of them want this government to fall. They want to grab our natural resources again, to enslave us. They don’t want Bolivia to be able to govern itself, to show an example to the world. This is one of the richest countries on earth, which was made to be one of the poorest. I want to be a doctor, yes. But not for the status – I want to become one so I would be able to cure, and also because I want to serve my people.”
I recalled a poster in Santiago de Chile, several years ago, with the photo of a student and a few simple words: “I am studying to be a doctor, so I could take away the pain from which my country is suffering.”
Everything was changing in South America. This is what its people wanted for decades and centuries; this is what they struggled for. Their will was broken, literally raped by outside forces. Now the new era of solidarity, of a powerful and determined drive towards building compassionate and social states was sweeping colonial and post-colonial mentality and elements aside. The continent was taking off in an elegant, confident, and majestic fashion.
It was a very dangerous takeoff, but it was already in the process. It was now or never, after more than 500 years of humiliation, theft and plunder.
“Please stop”, I asked my young friend, a doctor, as we were descending from El Alto, from more than 4.000 meters, to that enormous crater of La Paz. I spotted a huge graffiti demanding ‘Medical care for all’ and next to it a corpulent indigenous lady wearing her traditional outfit. I wanted to film the scene. As I was shooting, a lady suddenly moved aside, exposing the rest of the slogan her body had been sheltering before: “and it should be free!”
I liked the sight. I liked the lady, looking at me sarcastically but with a friendly spark in her eyes. I liked this enormous city of La Paz down below. I liked Mount Illimani covered by snow on the horizon, the symbol of this glorious and injured culture that was just beginning to heal. I liked the indigenous flags flying next to those of Bolivia.
“Whom would you like to heal?” I asked my friend, lighting up my Cuban cigarillo.
He did not answer; just waved his hand at the city and at the hills of El Alto, covered by slums.
“Good”, I said. “There will be plenty of work for you here.”
He nodded confidently and proudly, before shifting the gear.
ANDRE VLTCHEK (http://andrevltchek.weebly.com/) – a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He lives and works in East Asia and Africa. His latest books – “Oceania” and “Indonesia – Archipelago Of Fear” – describe Western neo-colonialism in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, as well as unbridled capitalism in post-1965 Indonesia.