Social Science Field School & Spanish in La Paz, Bolivia

We are running our Social Science Field School in La Paz again this summer (late June-July)! The course is run in partnership with the UCB and is taught by Miguel and I. Participants receive 6 credit-hours from a U.S. university, as well as IRB approval to start research. 

We’ve also added a 4 week 6-credit Spanish component prior to the course. Miguel and I do not run this, but we do coordinate with the UCB. 

If you are interested, please check out the links below:

And our collaborative group tumblr from last year:

Or contact one of us! 


Masks, Public Health Tents, and Sweeping Closures

That is what swine flu in Bolivia looks like (here called Influenza A). About 100 cases have been reported here, mainly in Santa Cruz. There is a full-blown panic here that to a certain extent overlaps what occurred in the U.S. yet with local particularities and concerns. Overall, it appears that the impact here is and will be greater than in the U.S.

When we arrived two weeks ago, we were met by a team of 4 or 5 young officials (medical students? nurses? young doctors? It was hard to tell, they were all in their mid-20s and there were a few guys and a few women). They each wore two face masks and a white lab coat. They met each passenger with a clipboard and asked us while we stood in line waiting to clear immigration a series of questions – name, city of origin, if we had any flu symptoms, address in Bolivia, etc.

Later that week while talking to one of Miguel’s cousins, we found out his classes (he’s a lecturer at Rene Moreno’s campus in Montero) had been cancelled for 2 weeks due to swine flu, since there were a few confirmed cases in the vicinity.

Then upon our arrival to La Paz, I found out that *all* schools are closed (public, private, etc) for two weeks due to swine flu. This “vacation” overlaps with some schools’ winter vacation, but in many cases simply extends it for an extra week or two (particularly in the private schools that have mandated closures), and it is discussed as a closure for public health reasons, not as a scheduled break.

This includes all offices and facilities at UMSA: administration offices, laboratories, libraries, etc. Usually during a break classes are not held, but other activities continue. I had hoped to visit the laboratories and make several appointments with university officials and due to the closure this may not be possible (this is frustrating but at least I can still get together and catch up with friends in other venues).

According to a friend of mine, unlike previous “vacations” where classes are cancelled but facilities are open, they are being very strict, even denying users of the campus in Cota-Cota access unless they have a special permission de urgencia (obtained through a tramite, of course), which she and other laboratory personnel spent this week trying to obtain so that they don’t leave their experiments, samples, etc unattended for two weeks. She also told me that they have armed police at the gates to the U for control purposes.

It is common to see people walking around wearing a mask. Newspapers are getting some flack from doctors for telling people to go to the hospital for an “immediate” swine flu/influenza A test if they are exhibiting *any* cold-like symptoms (there’s not the capacity in terms of personnel, reagents, or need to do this, though apparently people have been showing up in huge numbers). Today La Razón reports that a cold front is expected, which will increase the risk and prevalence of this flu. Evo is sending 900 doctors to the campo to deal with the flu. Yesterday there was a tent staffed by medical students in the Plaza Avaroa to educate passers-by about the flu. And it goes on and on.

I am confused: I thought that this flu turns out to be a relatively mild strain (there have been no deaths in Bolivia). So why such a strong (and heavy handed) response? I’ve heard various answers. The one I am most convinced by is that many people in Bolivia, particularly La Paz, have serious underlying respiratory issues including TB, asthma, allergies, etc. The combination could be difficult to treat, especially at altitude. That may very well be the case, but I can’t help wonder what could be accomplished if all this effort went towards some other project or campaign at this point.

Academic honesty in the U.S.: a diatribe

(Again, nothing to do with Bolivia.  But as many of us are academics, I’m posting this anyway.)

Two things have come to light in the past couple of weeks regarding academic honesty in the U.S.  One is the Chicago Tribune’s expose on the University of Illinois at Campaign-Urbana (the state’s main campus) admitting students because they have political supporters, rather than on the basis of merit.

The other is that William Meehan, the President of Jacksonville State University, plagiarized much of his dissertation.

What is disturbing about Meehan’s plagiarism of Carl Boening’s dissertation — and something that I’m not the first to notice — is that both men wrote their dissertations for a Doctorate in Education at the University of Alabama, within three years of each other (1996 and 1999).  Not only that, they SHARED COMMITTEE MEMBERS, specifically Michael T. Miller, now of the University of Arkansas (who was chair of BOTH their dissertation committees) and the late Harold Bishop.  In other words, these two men supposedly read, critiqued and commented on drafts of both these dissertations, but didn’t notice that they were largely the same document.

I would be embarrassed to have signed off on a dissertation without noticing something so glaring.  This not only brings Meehan’s reputation into question, but unfortunately also those of Drs. Miller and Bishop.  While dissertation committees should not be expected to turn graduate work into, and it is well known that committee members often don’t have the time to read every word of their students’ dissertations (that is a structural problem involving what is expected from academics and what they can reasonably do), it seems that members of this committee should have noticed something so obvious and done something about it.

In fact, this should have been caught at the stage of formulating a dissertation project.  If a doctorate is supposed to add to a discipline’s body of knowledge, students should be encouraged to avoid projects that are too similar to others completed so recently, unless they truly have a different take on the material.

The larger point I want to make, however, is that these kinds of scandals do more than anger those of us who wrote our own dissertations and who have the unpleasant task of punishing undergraduates who plagiarize.  They affect the reputations of others associated with these institutions.  It’s one thing to write a mediocre dissertation; it’s another for others to have to wonder whether U. of Alabama doctorates wrote their own work (and I assume that most of them do).  It’s one thing to not be the best student to ever grace UIUC; it’s another for people to have to wonder whether anyone with a connection to someone in state politics is only there because they pulled strings (as this letter points out).

This is not just about who is accepted to these institutions, but what it means to have graduated from them.  In academia, much of the legitimacy of our work rides on the integrity of our scholarly communities — our students, our department, our university, our alums.  Those who throw that honesty into question should expect consequences, and those who value the reputation of their institutions should take action.  In the end, our reputation as scholars is the most valuable thing we have.

Cuban kharisiris?

Ok, sort of a cheap-shot provocative title to get ya’ll to read this. But that doesn’t change the content of the long article published in Wednesday’s La Razón.

A young woman from Oruro, Beatriz, who three years ago obtained a scholarship to a Cuban medical school, died while abroad. Her parents were told that the cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage. When her body was returned to the family in Bolivia, they had an autopsy performed and found most of her internal organs had been removed, including her brain. Her sister claimed that Cuban authorities wanted to perform an autopsy in El Alto, using Cuban doctors, but instead the family was able to conduct the autopsy in the Hospital de Clinicas.

The article quotes family members as saying that they told authorities they did not want anything to be taken from the body (using the term sacar). It also asserts that the Cuban authorities are threatening to break off diplomatic ties with the home municipality of the family if the family members continue investigating.

The article ends by delineating a case from 2002, almost identical to this one.

Let’s look structurally at what happened: a young woman died while far away from her family, in a country that provides significant health care aid to Bolivia. Beatriz was young, so her death was unexpected. No one close to her knows the details of what happened. When her body arrived, her family was suspicious enough to demand an autopsy conducted by non-Cuban doctors. They found that most of her organs had been removed. The family then claims that they were threatened and told to keep it quiet by Cuban authorities.

Regardless of if Beatriz’ organs “really” were stolen – though I am inclined to think something fishy happened – I cannot help but be reminded of the figure of the kharisiri.  Kharisiris have often been represented as outsiders, as whites, even sometimes as doctors.  Usually they are visitors to a community in the Andes, where they then suck out the fat and life source of their victims.  Here, we have bodies being returned to Bolivia from Cuba with their vital organs – the ones fundamental to life itself – missing.

Who better to suck fat and take vital substances than doctors, with their intimate knowledge of the human body? And where better to do so than away from the watchful eyes of kin, when the victim is herself also training to be doctor and not suspicious of health care settings?

I wonder if this narrative is an updated (post-millennial?) version of the kharisiri story, one modified and suited for mobile, increasingly urban and transnational populations.  At least that’s one relatively simplistic reading. The figure of the fat-suckers are marked by nationality and occupation – Cuban doctors. (Remember the hesitance by Beatriz’ family to have Cuban doctors working in El Alto perform the autopsy.) That Cubans are now the subject of fear, anxiety, and suspicion is new to me if not, upon reflection, surprising, as rumors that Cubans are taking over the medical establishment and/or are working as spies have caused controversy before (meaning that alignments and alliances between countries in the Latin American left are more complex and problematic than is often assumed by casual observers).

After all, Beatriz was from Curahuara de Carangas, Oruro, not a major urban center, yet she was able attend a Cuban medical school (belying stereotypical if outdated assumptions of rural populations being static or fixed in place).  This is consistent with analyses – most notably by Mary Weismantel – that discuss the kharisiri as a potent distillation of the fears, anxieties, and understandings of the operative power relationships under capitalism.    Here the Cubans, then, are the ones holding the purse strings, power, and promise of a better future if you follow their rules and do so on their turf.  No longer does the kharisiri find you in your natal community, entering as an outsider, but rather you are always a target by virtue of leaving your community.  The need to do so, of course, is often driven by economic forces beyond one’s control.

Voces Bolivianas expanding


About five years ago, when I was doing field work in Bolivia, there were only a handful Bolivian bloggers. That number has since expanded to include hundreds, and is rapidly expanding today.

Today, Bolivians blog in Spanish, English, Aymara, and a number of other languages (depending on where they live). And Bolivian bloggers aren’t only from the “upper class” (a common misconception). Few Bolivians have home internet access. But many thousands log onto the internet regularly from “cyber cafés”—from the crowded urban centers to rural, out of the way places.

Since August 2007, Eddie Avila (of Barrio Flores, one of the pioneer Bolivian bloggers) launched a small grass roots project tied to the Harvard-based Global Voices project. The goal: Train a new generation of Bolivian bloggers, focusing on marginalized sectors. Currently, there are three group blogs (in addition to the hundreds of individual blogs): El Alto I, El Alto II, and Santa Cruz (in the Plan Tres Mil neighborhood). Check out their YouTube channel.

Now, Voces Bolivianas is expanding w/ the project: Voces Bolivianas en Tu Comunidad. The new goal is to reach every corner of Bolivia, w/ its “internet literacy” program. It’s going to be an exciting year!

University Autonomy

The Entrada Universitaria was held last weekend in La Paz. Featuring thousands of dancers affiliated with various facultades at UMSA, the entrada is an important event for many students. What’s interesting to this anthropologist is that the Entrada is explicitly about UMSA as an institution publicly fomenting & demonstrating “national culture.” Furthermore, in an interview, Miss Entrada Universitaria said that “No bailamos por devoción a ningún santo, lo hacemos para celebrar la autonomía”.

I don’t think that university autonomy and regional autonomy are markedly different concepts in theory, yet I doubt we will see a university autonomy/regional autonomy unified movement any time soon, in part due to very different (even perhaps mutually exclusive) concepts of national “culture” and the public use and utility of these symbols. Any thoughts on “autonomy” as a generative, powerful concept in contemporary Bolivia? Furthermore, the use of “culture” in the interview is striking. It seems that the term here is meant more as Culture, implying perhaps a fixed, even static, entity that has some finite and broadly recognizable content, not cultureas we anthropologists understand it (i.e. flexible, shifting, lived and produced through daily practice, etc). Though of course the Entrada Universitaria can be interpreted both ways simultaneously.