You Can’t Tune Out this Revolution

In the sunny city of Casma, a provincial capital on Peru’s northern Central coast, there is no rest before the upcoming political elections. Normally you would expect that political candidates are exhausting themselves by shaking hands, kissing babies, and making promises. But in Casma it’s the constituents who get no rest. Political campaigns in Peru are heavily mediated and constitute an unavoidable presence during election cycles.

While many people here have televisions, cable, or satellite dishes, political campaigns are waged in an open-air format. Walls are painted with huge, colorful murals depicting a candidate’s name, the office for which they are running, and a big, simple logo crossed out with a thin ‘X’ (image below). Confusing to the foreigner, the ‘X’ isn’t part of a subtle smear campaign, but rather instructs even the illiterate precisely how to vote. Crossing out a logo on the ballot is a vote for that party. The most omnipresent form of campaigning, however, is the use of loudspeakers to blast party music, promises, and a familiar repertoire of popular songs in order to make sure that no one sleeps on a promising candidate.

In the early afternoon Casma is typically a sleepy, quiet place. About 225 miles north of Lima, Peru’s capital city, Casma is a hard-working town that straddles the Panamerican Highway. Surrounded by expansive agricultural fields where asparagus, avocados, passion fruit, and mangos are grown for export, Casma serves as the financial and judicial hub of the coastal region of Peru’s Ancash department (kind of like an American or Mexican state). Casmeños (as people from Casma are called) perhaps unknowingly follow Ben Franklin’s advice for wealth and health. They get up early and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Whether they work in the fields, or own them, or run the banks, loan agencies, or notaries that service the agricultural industry, Casmeños never fail to rest for a few hours in the early afternoon before returning to work from 4 to 8pm. However, during this election cycle, things are different.

It’s not even 4 yet and a hip-hop song sampling the infectious twang from Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On” informs me to “…marca asi, por la bandera.” I should “…mark the flag, just like this.” In other words, when I go to the polls, I should cast my vote by putting an ‘X’ through the red and white flag that represents the political party Movimiento Nuevo Izquierda. This endless barrage of propaganda is clearly effective, as I can’t get it out of my head. What’s interesting about the intensity and techniques of campaigning in Peru is that voting is obligatory. Unlike the United States where candidates must not only earn people’s votes, but also convince them to vote, in Peru everyone over 18 is required to vote. So if voting is obligatory, why all the noise?

I asked a few members of the Movimiento Nueva Izquierda what all the noise was about. Laughingly, Guido Luna, a candidate for the local cabinet, turned the question around on me. Resting his hand on a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw fitted with two huge loudspeakers (image below) blaring party propaganda he asked, “Elections aren’t like this in the United States?” Guido explained that they use these off road tricycles to broadcast propaganda in places where people may not get to see television ads. Indeed, much of the area’s population lives away from city amenities, at the edges of the rocky hills that emerge from the green Casma River valley. While some of these villages have only recently received electricity, it seems that most everyone has a TV.

Lucho Muriel explains that there’s more to it than supplementing television. He is running for mayor of Casma with the political party Fuerza 2011. Fuerza 2011’s main candidate is Keiko Fujimori, daughter of imprisoned ex-president Alberto Fujimori, who will run for president in next year’s elections. While everyone agrees that the countryside’s vote is important, Lucho explains that there are other reasons for taking drastic measures in publicity. He explained that circulating loudspeakers and parades of chanting supporters are extremely important in demonstrating a candidate’s ability to motivate people. He explained, “I can say to someone ‘look, I’ll give you 10 nuevos soles (less than $4US) if you do a lap around the whole town chanting my name. I’ll get 50 people to do that and everyone will see this and think ‘man, Lucho gets people moving.’”

He asked me “when you go to the poll, are you going to vote for the guy who’s got the crowd, or the other guy?” There is a logic to this that echoes ancient political practices of populism and patronage described by scholars of Andean prehistory. I asked if it wasn’t the case that another candidate could buy the same crowd.” “Sure,” he said, “and they do. But it doesn’t matter. One way or the other, when voters see you motivating people they don’t care why, they just know you can get things done.”

It’s important to get things done before the election in Peru because elections really can be a revolution. Individual candidates don’t just take office when they’re elected. They bring in entire government structures. The old administration, from municipal workers to administrators, may be fired and replaced with members of the new party (except for some concessions to runners-up). In a highly bureaucratic country like Peru, an enduring gift from the colonial era, a change in administration really can be a revolution. So buying crowds to convince the masses is as much a political strategy as it is preemptive proof of one’s political power.

Recently a locally famous singer of the traditional huayno music style staged a performance right in the middle of Casma’s main northbound street (which is, in fact, part of the Panamerican Highway). Right next to the recently renovated San Martin Park, traffic was stopped for nearly four hours while Sonia Morales sang in support of her husband, a candidate in the upcoming elections, so loudly that the windows in nearby buildings rattled and the floor of my hotel room shook. The seismic nature of this rally struck me; perhaps volume may be just as important as the message here. The candidate who shouts loudest is most likely to be heard. But something else occurred to me as strange. During this political concert plenty of people gathered before the stage, but very few were dancing. It wasn’t like a concert at all. I wondered if, despite all the fanfare, people weren’t hungry for some clear, concrete explanations of political platforms. Maybe they wanted a debate more than a concert.

Travel is valuable for revealing to us how things might otherwise be in our own country. I wonder, for example, if political campaigns in the United States would be more like those in Casma if we had more than two viable parties. In other words, perhaps the political cacophony here is a tolerable correlate to actually having options at the ballot. In any case, Election Day in Peru is October 3rd, and from what I’m told things will only intensify. It’s hard to imagine louder concerts or more numerous political parades. Perhaps the main square will once again be transformed into a stage, this time for candidates to explain their positions. And it will be interesting to see what happens after the election. Will administrative change be the revolution everyone says it will be, or will life go on as normal? Recalling the fallout after recent elections in other parts of the world, I asked a Casmeño if election results brought chaos and rioting. “No,” he explained, “things here are pretty tranquil after elections.” Maybe all the pre-election activity is a safety-valve for potential disorder. After all the noise, maybe people just need a rest.

As promised – Tourism Toys!

As I mentioned in a comment below, part of the on-going bicentennial celebrations here include kids’ meal toys at Pollos Copacabana celebrating various “touristic” places around La Paz. Notable is that the “tourists” are little pollitos (the chain’s mascot) and therefore should probably be read as paceños, not foreign tourists. This is important for several reasons:

1. The people buying these meals are likely middle to upper class Bolivians with some disposable income, allowing them to be tourists at home, so to speak

2. They’re interested in some of the same activities as “gringos” (aka biking to Coroico) but perhaps they don’t do it with *all* the gear.

3. Quite frankly, it does seem that tourism has dropped off substantially here. Sure, there are backpacker types wandering around Sagarnaga, but it seems far fewer than in years past (just my impression) and even there I’ve heard not a single other U.S. accent. Therefore, who can keep all the tourism operators afloat? Hopefully locals who have the time and desire to take day or weekend trips to “know” their department.

And now, without further ado, the toys:
Pollos Copacabana at Tiwanaku

Pollitos biking to Coroico

Bicentennial Symbols

The other predominant big event(s) (aside from swine flu) in La Paz right now center on bicentennial festivities.

This summer/winter is the bicentennial of cry for independence. La Paz is festooned with banners commemorating this anniversary and there are on-going cultural events to celebrate. There have been extensive building and clean up projects in the name of the bicentennial – including the installation of more playgrounds, public toilets, and other public services.

Yesterday the Prado was closed to traffic most of the day, as it is most Sundays. As we strolled up and down, we passed several performance stages. One was for guitar/traditional music, one was for young children performing in folkloric dances (the banner behind this one claimed that this was to preserve and valorize “authentic” culture), and one was for the Miss Cholita 2009/Bicentennial pageant .

Why is this notable? Well, we shouldn’t forget that independence was not fought in the name or interest of indigenous peoples (and indeed post-independence indigenous peoples often lost community rights and standing in the eyes of the state). That a prominent symbol of 200 years of independence (sort of) is someone who needs a certain command of local history, indigenous language, and dress is an important reminder of how things have changed.

However, this is also indicative of the Andean-centrism of the current constructions of “authentic” Bolivian identity (all the young folkloric dancers were performing morenadas, caporales, etc., in other words, dances viewed by many as representative of the Andes). To be fair, we *are* in La Paz, so that some relation between local (as in Altiplano/Dpto. of La Paz) expressions and current social symbology is to be expected. But for a Sunday festival proclaiming the liberation of *Bolivia* (not just La Paz) I was struck by this omission (I did not notice even a superficial reference to other regions).

Finally, in a discomfiting twist (to me), while the performances were occurring in the middle of the Prado right across from the Monje Campero was a gigantic Venezuelan flag + “information tent.” The flag itself dwarfed the Bolivian flags there – it was probably 20 feet long by 10 or more feet high. The tent was the largest of all of the activity tents and information booths on the Prado and occupied prime real estate in the center of all the activity. There were representatives of Venezuela handing out small Bolivian and Venezuelan flags, as well as pamphlets and information about Venezuelan aid programs and policies. The tent was packed with people every time we strolled by. It struck me as a rather transparent symbol of the current relationship between Venezuela and Bolivia and perhaps a (yet more asymmetrical) future relationship.

Power’s “Whispering in the Giant’s Ear,” reviewed

Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization by William Powers.  New York and London: Bloomsbury. 2006.  305 pp.

This book, written by a U.S. international aid worker, is a well-written, honest, warts-and-all look at Koel Kempff and other Bolivian national parks in a context of growing indigenous political power and the increasing interest of international corporations in “carbon sinks” in the Amazon.  The book’s timeframe covers Bolivia at the end of the Goni Presidency through the end of the Mesa Presidency, foreshadowing the rise of Evo Morales to power.  Powers is sympathetic to the political struggles of indigenous groups at that time, yet pragmatic about his role at the Fundacion Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN).

Powers is not an anthropologist (although he is reading anthropologists and Bolivianists, including excellent works by Arturo Escobar, Kevin Healy, Leslie Gill, and Herbert Klein, — as well as, unfortunately, pseudo-folklorist Joseph Campbell).  Yet, he discusses many of the topics and themes that affect ethnographic fieldwork.

I was particularly touched by his on-going struggles to figure out how to be comfortable within widely divergent social circles: Bolivian NGO workers, Amazonian indigenous peoples, multi-millionaire ex-patriots, British Petroleum representatives.  I think most anthropologists would understand his anxiety as he decides where to take Salvador, an indigenous Amazonian Chiquitano leader who works with his NGO, for dinner in Santa Cruz.  People like Powers are not outside the local class structure, but they cross-cut it in ways that many Bolivians don’t or can’t.  Anthropologists are similar; they often move from poor rural houses with no water to city penthouses, from street fiestas to lavish embassy parties, from ex-patriot BBQs to university libraries.  Sometimes these gringos take Bolivians with them, and I can give a few examples from my own experience: I brought Tiwanakena assistants to work in a government archive in La Paz, welcomed rural visitors into my middle-class Sopacachi apartment, took rural Aymara to city hospitals and poor urban Aymara to movie theaters.  In Bolivia’s highly-stratified society, such movements were not unheard of (and certainly do not require gringos), but they could be uncomfortable.  I feel Powers captures this dynamic very well — the sense that not all public spaces are equally open to all members of society, and the tensions that emerge when people cross those invisible lines.

Powers also captures what I like to call “surreal Bolivia” — those moments where, at least as a gringo, something so… odd happens that it seems funny, deeply profound, and enlightening all at once.  Power’s account is littered with these moments: the local official who corners him to ask how he can be more like Bill Clinton (p. 198-199), scaring parrots (p. 169), U.S. embassy staff who can’t understand the connection between the War on Drugs and how Bolivians feel about the U.S. (p. 210), Power’s culture shock of returning to the U.S. to hyper-processed foods and hyper-materialism (p. 212-216).

There are also a few moments that might make an anthropologist cringe slightly.  Powers is very concerned with the category of indigenous people, not just as a legal or political category, but as a “real” group. When Salvador’s ethnicity is questioned in order to discredit his group’s claim to Amazonian land (p. 156), Powers seems genuinely disturbed.  Rather than see this as a legal ploy to justify the claims of loggers, he instead starts to pursue a “lost” group of indigenous people who are even more “indigenous” than the Chiquitano — the Guarasug’we. Later he gives us this strange analogy:

There’s a single tree, a hundred-year-old flowering tajibo, in the very center of BP’s Bolivia in Miniature…. As I touch its rough bark, I know that it is no longer the Guarasug’we tree tha holds up the world. It doesn’t emerge out of their animate earth or send its flowers into seven skies.  It grows out of and flourishes into globalization.  In a sense, the ground below out feet and the air we breathe have become global capitalism.  We live within Jamison’s “postmodern hyperspace,” where the great expansion of capitalism in our era internalizes the exterior world, just as the Epcot Center seeks to internalize its exterior, aspiring to be a total space, a complete world. Globalization absorbs traditional culture and wild nature and spews forth a heteronomy of fragments such as carbon ranches, green companies, and capitalist Indians.

But within this all-encompassing hyperspace there are struggles.  And looking at the tajibo tree in front of me, I get an idea.  Perhaps Salvador is a strangler fig, and the modernizing sultan Apollonius [another indigenous leader] a liana.  Both of these plants complete for the tajibo tree before me.  But whereas strangler figs, like all hemiepiphytes, begin within the tree canopy and work their way down to the soil, the thick, woody liana is a vine that starts in the soil and climbs up.  Both plants use the tree for structure, and both kill it, but in very different ways.  A group of lianas can eventually bring the tree crashing down under their weight; strangler figs take the suffocating tree into themselves, and, remarkably, the new organizsm retains the shape and verticality of the tree.

Bolivia’s protesting masses are not noble savages battling an evil corporate globalization.  Everything is tainted.  Salvador and hundreds of thousands of others come together as a strangler fig from within the branches of the ancient tree of indigenous culture and wild nature, shoot their roots down into the group of globalization, and use it to entomb the tree.  The new is shaped around the old, but it an entirely different species.  The strangler races against time with the lianas: the forces of monoculture and extinction that simultaneoulsly inch up the tree and threaten its collapse (pp. 230-231).

Powers recognizes that all humans have both individual goals and big dreams, and that the two come into conflict. Yet, he seems genuinely surprised that Salvador or other indigenous people might try to personally benefit from their political connections (including to him and FAN).  Underlying Power’s narrative is the sense that there really is something real and solid about indigeneity that is untouched or untouchable by the forces of capitalism.  But as Alcida Rita Ramos has warned (Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil, 1998), this “Hyperreal Indian” is always a political tool.  It is never an ethnographic description but instead used strategically to empower or disenfranchise groups labeled as “indigenous.”  Saying that “real” indigenous people should be isolated from capitalism provides a way to discredit claims made on ethnic grounds, because no group is totally isolated from capitalism today.

Yet, Powers recognizes that indigenous people are forced to speak a language the state can understand — one that mixes claims to unchanging ethnicity with real political action.  He quotes Salvador as saying “Blocking roads is the only language some people understand” (p. 250).  In the end, this book is worth reading not because Powers has a coherent theoretical stance, but rather because he allows the situation to be contradictory.  He is not afraid to show the complexities of life in Bolivia, even when they don’t fit into the narrative that he, himself, wants to write.  And in the end, it is that data which makes this book — or any other ethnography – useful.