Why would anyone want to go to Bolivia, an impoverished landlocked country in the middle of South America? Aside from the appeal of stunning snow capped peaks and lush jungles, Bolivia is nearly twice the size of Texas, yet has only half the number of people. On an overcrowded planet that would be reason enough, but of those inhabitants nearly 70% are indigenous Amerindians. They are some of the nicest most polite people on earth. I will return to this subject often, for it is a miracle.
Bolivia was once unimaginably rich due to its legendary silver mines; but now, despite a boom in environmentally destructive gold mining, it is one of the poorest countries on earth. Bolivia is not as poor as Haiti, much less most of Africa, but poor enough that the poor Weazel, who lives on Social Security, could travel halfway around the globe and live well for a month and a half for no more than it would have cost to stay at home. Dr. Ann split the cost, so our travels, which took place from mid May through the end of June 2022, were effectively free.
An excellent summary of Bolivia’s history may be found here.
Most gringos have little idea of what, or even where, Bolivia is, so allow me to begin with an introduction to the country.
Bolivia, like Gaul, may be divided into three parts, the frozen highlands, the steamy jungle in the north, and the thorny Gran Chaco in the southeast which much resembles Texas. These parts are evident in the following image which depicts elevation.
As you can see, the southwestern third of the country, here shown in white, gray, and red, is extremely mountainous. Red represents moderate elevations which are lushly vegetated, sparsely populated, and prefect for growing coca. Gray represents the frigid waste of the altiplano which averages 12,500 feet in elevation. Oddly enough, the altiplano is home to most of Bolivia’s indigenous population. White represents the snow capped peaks of the Andes. Illimani, which towers over the city of La Paz, is an extraordinary 21,201 feet tall! Excellent information pertaining to the mountains of Bolivia may be found here.
The other two thirds of the country, shown in green and tan on the elevation map, represents low to moderate elevations.
The northern half of the lowlands consists of steamy Amazonian rainforest along with large areas of seasonally flooded savanna known as llanos; whereas the southern and eastern portions consist of semi arid thorn forest known as the Gran Chaco. These vegetative divisions can be seen in the following graphic.
Until quite recently the majority of the indigenous population of Bolivia lived in the cold arid highlands where the Aymara and Quechua people cultivate small plots of quinoa, potatoes, and various grains. It may seem odd that anyone would prefer to live in a frozen oxygen deprived desert, but the volcanic soil is fertile, and by so doing they are spared the diseases of the lowlands.
It was in the highlands where ancient civilizations developed, especially the Inca empire which was justly famous for large scale works including temples, terraces, and thousands of miles of roads equivalent to those built by the Romans.
Prior to the mid 20th century the lowlands were sparsely populated by indigenous tribes, some of which were nearly driven to extinction by introduced diseases, and the ravages of the early rubber trade.
Into the void came displaced people from the highlands. As in overpopulated Ireland in the mid 19th century, there were too many people and too few potatoes, so the displaced migrated downhill to moderate elevation mountainous regions such as the Yungas and the Chapare. These regions are also known as the pre-cordillera, the foothills of the Andes.
One might suppose that warm moist mountains covered with lush forest would be a agricultural paradise compared with the frigid altiplano, but steep slopes, torrential rains, pests, and the rampant growth of tropical weeds made conventional subsistence agriculture either difficult or impossible. The only sustainable crop was coca which is chewed but not swallowed. It alleviates hunger as one slowly starves.
For many centuries coca had been cultivated in the low green hills of Peru and Bolivia for use by the highland peoples. Its use was an acceptable and perfectly legal practice. Only the raw leaf was used, and it was rarely if ever refined into cocaine.
To this day, many of the highland people consider coca to be a gift from Pachamama, the Earth Mother, a benevolent goddess who gives fertility to the land. When angered by ingratitude, she causes great earthquakes that destroy those who misuse her gifts. If I were given to religion I would pay obeisance to her and her alone.
I was recently praying for Mom to send an earthquake to level California, and Hallelujah, my prayers were partly answered! Just this morning, December 20th, part of northern California fell into the sea! Alas, even the Gods are fallible. I was hoping the catastrophe would affect southern, not northern, California, but just wait!
Everything changed in the early 1970s when the world, and America in particular, discovered the dubious pleasures of recreational cocaine, the use of which quickly leads to addiction, bad behavior, mayhem, and murder.
As a person of wide experience, I find it difficult to understand the attractions of cocaine. I am apparently immune to addiction, but after snorting a few lines I behave just as badly as everyone else.
Almost overnight, what had been a form of subsistence agriculture exploded on the world stage. Suddenly peasant farmers were getting rich, and the illegality of cocaine, as opposed to simple coca, led inevitably to the rise of drug cartels.
(Insofar as bad consequences are concerned, I should mention that this coincided with the emergence of polyester suits and disco.)
Needless to say, the DEA sent CIA spooks to de-stabilize the country. We wanted to install a reasonably priced dictator who would do our bidding and oppress both leftists and the poor peasants who were growing coca. Hugo Banzer was our boy. He dutifully exiled, tortured, or killed thousands of Bolivians, mostly his political rivals. If a peasant is abducted in the middle of the night, and no one hears his screams, did it actually happen? No, of course not, don’t be silly.
Imagine the dismay in Washington D. C. when, in 2005, the Bolivians elected Evo Morales, an indigenous Aymara who was an avowed socialist and the head of the Coca Grower’s Union.
Evo quickly booted the DEA out of the country, nationalized the petroleum and mining industries, taxed the rich, built roads, hospitals, and schools. He did his best to protect the environment, combat poverty, ignorance, and discrimination. To everyone’s surprise, it worked. The economy boomed!
(Note to readers: I generally despise leftist demagogues like Ugo Chavez of Venezuela, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, but Evo is different. He is not a doctrinaire socialist, but rather a good hearted man who is doing his best to help the poor. Whatever works, works!)
Needless to say, all this greatly pissed off the rich white landowners. The flat lowlands east of Santa Cruz have both petrochemicals and large scale commercial agriculture dominated by the mechanized farming of soy for export, and for use as cattle feed. Needless to say there are also enormous cattle ranches complete with cowboys whose main job, aside from herding cattle, is the shooting of jaguars and Indians.
This agribusiness mindset is utterly alien to the average Bolivian who lives in the mountains and grubs with a hoe to feed his family. So it is that a great cultural divide has arisen between the indigenous people of the highlands and the wealthy whites who own the great lowland estancias, and whose culture is more Brazilian than Bolivian.
How white are the honkey landowners we are talking about here? There are still a few old aristocratic Spanish families, plenty of whitish Brazilians, and even the genetically identical grandchildren of the Nazis who fled to South America after World War II.
The whitest of all are Mennonites who speak only low German and are spreading across Bolivia like a pallid locust plague (More on this later). The one thing they all have in common is a desire to dispossess the Indians, secede from the rest of the country, and establish a new Aryan Nation along the lines of the Weimar Republic.
In 2019 Evo screwed up. Though still wildly popular with the people, he attempted to illegally extend his term limits. That was a perfect excuse for the wealthy landowners around Santa Cruz to pull off a coup with the support of the army. They wanted a blond Fuhrer, but settled instead for a blond fury named Jeanine Áñez. As is so often the case with political leaders these days, prior to assuming the Presidency she was a TV personality.
The coup was relatively bloodless, and closely resembled a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Within a year the coup had dissolved and Jeanine was in jail where she remains to this day, shrieking and pulling out her hair which is no longer blond.
In November of 2020 a protégé of Evo named Luis Arce was elected president. Shortly thereafter Evo returned from exile to run things from behind the scenes. This was fine with the people of Bolivia, and by the time I arrived in May of 2022 peace and relative prosperity had returned.
Next up: Join the Weazel and Doctor Ann as we begin our adventure in Santa Cruz, the city that cocaine built!