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A Day of Traveling Dangerously
As Bolivia edges toward civil war, Derek Monroe recounts a recent escape from a disgruntled mob
Derek Monroe (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2005-06-09 16:19 (KST)   
Arriving at the border between Argentina and Bolivia in the sleepy La Quiaca-Villazón township, the troubles that plague Bolivia might as well be on the other side of the moon. The quiet, commerce-based towns continue on their own rhythms, undisturbed by problems in La Paz or Buenos Aires, 700 and 1,700 kilometers away, respectively.

After receiving an entry stamp reading June 8 from a friendly Bolivian immigration clerk -- who assured me that trouble was very far away in La Paz -- I checked into my hotel to rest after an exhausting trip through northeastern Argentina. With a next-day bus ticket to the city of Potosí in my wallet, I was looking forward to another day on the road.

The next morning, my 7:30 a.m. departure time came and went with no bus in sight, so I inquired about the delay at the bus terminal office.

"There is no bus now but maybe there will be one at night," came the reply. Though the local military police assured me that the road to Potosí, 300 kilometers away, was clear of roadblocks, I found the uncertainty of the bus service unsettling.

I decided to save time by hiring a taxi for the grueling but uneventful seven-hour ride to the Sucre Airport. It proved to be a difficult task despite offering US$70 as fare; this in the country where the regular monthly wage is rarely above that sum.

After 10 minutes, an older gentlemen named Pablo decided to take my offer and 5 minutes later we were cruising in his 1970s Toyota with road conditions rarely permitting speeds higher than 45 kilometers per hour. About an hour later we approached a blockade made up of burning tires and stones the size of shopping carts scattered across the road, some 20-meters deep.

Along the blockade there was a group of about 50 peasants wielding clubs and bottles. Pablo decided to drive on the dirt alongside the blockade to get close to the protesters in order to allow me to speak to them.

As soon as I got out of the car -- gripping a wad of Bolivianos high above my head -- I became a target for a hail of stones, some size of Big Macs, with the occasional bottle smashing behind me on the exterior of Pablo's white Toyota.

Pablo motioned me to get into the car quickly as he tried to accelerate away from the crowd. But just as we were thinking that the worst was behind us, three teenagers threw two Molotov cocktails, which exploded a few meters ahead of the car and dissuaded us from going any further.


At this point I told Pablo to start driving in reverse, prompting great applause from the crowd surrounding us. With a few minor bruises on me and a few dents on the car, I decided that the dash for the airport was just not worth our lives and asked Pablo to drive us back to Villazón, which we reached around 11 a.m.

The lesson of the day was that unless you drive a tank, do not attempt to pass a blockade in daylight.

Nighttime is another story, though. Despite a nation-wide curfew, some bus companies are able to negotiate their passage in the dead of the night, though this all depends on the price that is being offered and the attitude of local roadblock bosses. As a result, neighboring Argentina, Peru and Chile are being flooded with tourists leaving the country, along with various governments evacuating their citizens from the capital of La Paz.

With the causes and repercussions of Bolivia's current crises well discussed in the present international media, what is being ignored is the fractured state of the rule of law in Bolivia. One can surely demand any type of concessions from a government that for years has neglected the majority of its 65 percent Indian population.

It is now being confronted by crowds yielding the explosive weapon of national suicide.

While many demands of political and economic reform are valid and worth supporting, the manner in which they are being brought into existence threatens the stability of the region as well as existence of Bolivia itself. It is up to Bolivians to resolve this conflict on their own or face their own irrelevance in the world. One can only hope that this is the roadblock that will finally let reason and wisdom through.

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