A gigantic gas explosion: This was the popular uprising
that shook all of Bolivia [in October 2003] and culminated
in the resignation of President Sanchez de Lozada, who fled,
leaving behind him a trail of corpses.
The gas was to have been shipped to California—for
a minuscule price in exchange for a few miserable gifts—across
Chilean land that used to be part of Bolivia. This last
detail was just salt in the wound for a country that for
more than a century has been demanding, in vain, restoration
of the sea access it lost in 1883 in the war that Chile won.
But the route of the gas was not the primary cause of the
fury that erupted throughout the country. There was another,
which the government responded to with bullets, as is its
custom, leaving the streets strewn with dead. The people
rose up because they refused to allow to happen with gas
what had previously happened with silver, saltpeter, tin,
and everything else.
◊ ◊ ◊
In 1870, an English diplomat in Bolivia was the victim
of a disagreeable incident. Dictator Mariano Melgarejo offered
him a glass of chicha, the national drink made from fermented
corn. The Englishman thanked him but said he preferred chocolate.
So Melgarejo, with his customary delicacy, made him drink
an enormous vat of chocolate and then paraded him on a mule,
seated backwards, through the streets of La Paz. When Queen
Victoria, in London, heard of the incident, she had a map
brought to her and pronounced “Bolivia doesn’t
exist,” crossing out the country with a chalk X.
I’d heard this tale many times. It may or may not
have happened exactly this way. But this phrase, attributed
to British imperial arrogance, could also be read as an
involuntary synthesis of the tormented history of the Bolivian
people. The tragedy repeats itself like a revolving wheel:
for five centuries, the fabulous riches of Bolivia have
been a curse to the people, who are the poorest of South
America’s poor. Indeed, for its own people, “Bolivia