Over 3 years ago i went to Bolivia and started a long, frustrating attempt at technology solidarity. It turned out to be just too big a project, too difficult, too unrealistic, too crazy, and without the support of enough people at either end.
Last September the computers we'd gathered over the years were finally cleaned out of the storage space, the rent for which was sucking money down a drain. They were donated to another group, World Computer Exchange, which does simliar work. Then last month the bank account I'd set up to hold the funds, which I and a colleague in Oregon had raised over the years, was closed, and the money given to her. She and some techies from Portland Indymedia will use the money for a continuing related goal, a smaller scale project to get smaller numbers of newer computers to Bolivian media activists, hidden in luggage rather than packed into huge expensive cargo containers.
A wistful sigh, but a relieved sigh as well. Past follies and crazy dreams, dissolved into a few digital traces and memories.
If my blogging software permitted, this post would be marked not only in the personal category but in every other category that I've defined, and more. That's because this entry is about how many different things I'm involved with and how that's a problem.
But before I get too far into that I will link to a post i just published on another blog that I seldom use, on the delete the border site, relating recent news about arizona border crossing deaths and stuff.
Now I move on into saying this: I'm doing too much and I need to figure out how to jettision some stuff if i intend to feel better about myself and stay sane, because very little of it is getting done in a quality way. Here's the list, or everything i can think of now:
The most important things are 2, 7, 11, and 12. A few other things are impossible to get rid of right now. The rest I need to just tell people "sorry, I can't be there." Sigh.
The nice thing, though is that, as usual, just making a list of everything makes it seem like a lot less of a problem. so, yay....
I haven't had time to read it, but here's what looks like a really good report called Invisible Hands. Tracing the Connections Between the Policies of International Financial Institutions and Country Budget Policies (a PDF file). Written by Jim Schultz of the Democracy Center. It's the result of a conference where people trying to make budget processes more transparent in their countries met up with people who are working to make financial organizations like the World Bank more accountable. I've skimmed it, looks great, don't have time to read it. If you do, let me know what you think. [embarrassed shrug]
James Petras write for Counterpunch about Bolivia's Evo Morales and some decisions he's taken already that seem to go against the interests of the nation's people. Mainly this is evident through the cabinet appointments he's made, many of whom are conservative politicians or business leaders. In summary:
Sooner rather than later, polarized differences of interest between Morales' foreign and local business allies and oligarchs and the masses who struggled and sacrificed to elect him to power will lead to a new round of confrontations and conflicts. Morales is riding two horses going in opposite directions. The photogenic traditional Andean rituals, the color and pageantry of the electoral inauguration will quickly fade in the face of the continuing poverty, inequality and gross concentrations of wealth. Over time a profound disenchantment will spread with a President who spoke to the people but works for the rich, including the foreign rich.
Finally, Bechtel drops its suit against the Bolivian government for not letting them charge insanely high prices for water to poor people in Cochabamba. They go out swinging, though, their PR department trying to spin things and not getting very far. Jim Schultz of the Democracy Center counters with some free PR advice for them.
I have about 12 more hours in cold, wet, grey, Michigan and then I head back to Tucson. While you wait eagerly for more news from Project Steev, listen to
this radio show about Bolivia, Evo Morales, and the new leftist wave in Latin America, and also read the interesting comments thread for the show. Here's what one thoughtful listener/reader said:
Angela Merkel grew up under socialism in East Germany, but she embraces the more capitalist ways of West Germany (especially as she is pushing for more dramatic labor policy changes than the Social Democrats are to help improve her country's economy). On the other hand, Gerhard Schroeder grew up in poverty in capitalist West Germany, and he has chosen to embrace socialism. Each wants what they did not have growing up. Why is this? Unfortunately, I would argue that Latin Americans have not had the opportunity to fully experience capitalism like Schroeder did. This does not give them the proper perspective to truly understand capitalism. Thus, their push for socialism is done half-blind, at least.
I just have to post a link to Jim Schultz's morning-after take on the Bolivia election, and quote this great little anecdote:
...in October when I spent five days in a small Quechua Indian village three hours off into the mountains. On a sunny afternoon I sat with the village leader, Lucio, a man I have known for almost a decade. I asked him if the coming elections were big on people’s minds. “No, we are really more worried about whether it will rain soon.” I asked him if people were excited about Evo Morales and the prospect of electing an Indian as president. “Well, he is really just a politician.” Then I asked him whether the people of the village would vote. “Oh yes, we will vote. All 400 of us will walk together 45 minutes to the place where we vote and we will all vote for Evo.”
And so on Sunday, Bolivians by the millions marched distances short and far to give Morales the biggest mandate of any president here in half a century.
This is incredible. Everyone predicted that the Bolivian election would end with no one possessing a majority of the vote, sending Evo Morales and his U.S.-educated rival Quiroga to a vote in Congress, as mandated by their constitution. However, it appears that Morales has gone ahead and won 51% already. Amazing!
Of course as some experts have noted repeatedly, being president of Bolivia is pretty impossibly difficult. There were even theories that Evo, if he got into the congressional runoff, which always results in party coaltion-building, would have arranged to NOT be president in exchange for more power for his party, so that he wouldn't crash and burn as president.
Now he has to prove himself. Let's see if he's any different than other great leftist hopes of recent times in South America, like Kirchner and Lula. I j ust read that both Argentina and Brazil have finally buckled under and agreed to pay all their IMF debt in full.
Of course one of the first things in the corporate press about Evo's victory will be how unstable and unattractive to investors this will make Bolivia:
Morales's victory may ``add new risk to investments in many emerging markets that lack political consensus,''
Everyone's favorite mainstream english-language paper to read while abroad, the International Herald Tribune, brings us an interesting sweeping look at the leftist tide sweeping Latin America, concentrating on the likely victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia.
After he ordered the military to use force to crack down on street protests in October 2003, causing many deaths, then-president of Bolivia Gonzalez Sanchez de Lozada fled the country with his cronies and has been comfortably ensconced in Miami ever since. Human rights organizations and the Bolivian government have been trying to get him extradited to give testimony and possibly be tried, but the U.S. is not cooperating so far.
Now there's an online petition you can sign, asking the U.S. to serve the subpoena.
It's so fascinating and funny to see public figures say exactly what you would expect them to say. A former Chancellor of the Exchequer of England weighs in with a completely predictable neoliberal rant about Bolivia, and how bad it will be if terrible evil Evo Morales becomes president.
Meanwhile Jim Schultz of the Democracy Center writes today in his blog that he now thinks Evo has a pretty good chance of winning, whereas 2 months ago he gave him very poor odds.
Things just keep getting more and more interesting in Bolivia.
I just read an excellent article in Counterpunch about Bolivian social movements and the unique way that the indigenous Aymara there organize. It's the first thing I've read that really gets into the details of how people do things in El Alto, a basically DIY city composed of and built by rural poor who moved toward La Paz from the countryside over the last few decades.
I also just saw a nice little piece by Rebecca Solnit called "Fire in the South," about Latin America in general and the wave of resistance to neoliberal oppression there in the last few years. ( I've been consistently impressed with Solnit's activist writing in the last few months, especially a piece in September's Orion called "The Asanas of Denial," about the little excuses, the mental poses, that progressives use to short-circuit real positive work toward a better world, in others and even in themselves. Can't seem to find that online, but it's great.)
More troubling, during his brief year as President (Banzer resigned in 2001 with fatal cancer) the young Texan-Bolivian outdid his mentor in a chilling category – government killings. Under Quiroga in a year, Bolivian troops killed more people (thirteen) than Banzer did in the four years prior as elected President. When Quiroga speaks of civil disobedience as an obstacle to true democracy, we should not forget the ease with which he uses the bullet.
Interesting photo essay from BBC News about sexual diversity in Bolivia. Some really great photos of a group of drag queens in La Paz, and quotes from one of its members. They even had a small pride parade in La Paz. I remember being surprised at hearing last week of the huge turnout in Mexico City for its pride parade. But for La Paz it's even more incredible. Way to go, Bolivia.
If you don't know what's been going in Bolivia, and/or you don't know why, if you haven't been following it, or even if you have but you don't really understand the recent historical reasons for recent events, you have to read Jim Schultz's latest blog entry. Everything he posts is excellent, but this one in particular is great because he goes back and explains the foreign pressures that have really been the cause of the uprisings going on now. And its an excellent summary case study of how the neoliberal, nondemocratic institutions which rule our world operate. They apply invisible fists to get their way, and when the people rise up and say they don't like it, others from outside who don't know about the invisible fists look and see a violent mob disrupting peaceful life. But who created the conditions that made that 'mob' get so desparate and pissed off? The IMF. The World Bank. Etcetera.
While travelling its often hard to keep updated on world events, especially the admitedly somewhat obscure (for the U.S.) subjects that I try to keep track of when I'm home. But lately Bolivia has been erupting into action again, again mostly about the hydrocarbon policies - really really serious stuff going on there, and being in Latin America you get more news of Latin America. I've been following things as best I can for the last few days online, and today La Journada, the leading left-leaning national paper in Mexico, has a front page above the fold story about Bolivia. The situation is getting steadily more intense. Blockades are up in La Paz and now Cochabamaba. Military officers are getting fired by the army for saying in public on televison that the president should resign... I don't know if anyone has much of an idea what will happen, but big changes are afoot soon, I would say. So keep looking at Bolivia Indymedia (if you know spanish), or Jim Schultz's Democracy Center Blog, or Narco News, where mi amigo Luis Gomez is reporting from La Paz pretty regularly.
I just sent out a status report and donation request for the Computers for Bolivia Project. I've been working on this project for so long and now we're again seeming to get really close. But we just need a little bit more money. The great news came a few days ago when a grant I requested from the Global South Fund was approved. That helped a lot. But we're still not quite there. If everyone on the list I just sent to gave 10 or 20 bucks we would probably have enough. If doesn't happen in the next 2 weeks, then it probably won't happen in the next 2 months or more, because I'm leaving the country again.
So frustrating. I guess I'm just too mobile. I keep planning things and then planning to travel right after I think those things will be done, and then it isn't and I feel either massively let down or like I'm dropping the ball, or both. grrrr.
The Times reports on Carlos Mesa's announcement that he is resigning the presidency of Bolivia. Many think he's trying to get more support and doesn't really want to quit, is hoping that congress rejects his resignation. What an amazing gamble. If he's out who knows what will happen? He's definitely had a hard time. "By Mr. Mesa's own count, there have been more than 800 protests against him since he replaced Mr. Sanchez de Lozada," in October 2003.
Also in the article are quotes from neoliberal 'experts' who want Mesa to stop being such a wimp and quell the protests with violence: "Mesa has to understand that governments have the right, the legitimate right, to use force"....
On the Publius Pundit blog is an excellent timeline of recent events in Bolivia. Warning: I've never read this blog before but the author reveals himself to probably be on the conservative side. But he really does his homework, even linking to the Lonely Planet traveller's bulletin board where there are backpackers reporting on what roads are blockaded and stuff. wow...
I wish I was there.
Barring that I've been hoping to get an indymedia global feature up about recent Bolivian events. With the continuation of the El Alto water war and now this, things are really pretty crazy, and we need to be covering it. I wish I knew better Spanish so I could really know what the best article would be to use from the CMI-Bolivia site. There seem to be a lot.
Well, that's why i'm going to Guatemala next month... I'm really looking forward to learning more spanish, to really making that my prime priority for a 6 weeks or so.
Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba is a really smart guy. A few days ago he wrote about his meetings with Brazilian citizen groups and their optimism. And he said the following, which is exactly the sort of thing I've been trying to articulate about Venezuela's Hugo Chavez:
Some like the swagger of Chavez in Venezuela, but ignore the authoritarian instincts that are evident in his governance as well. He is also a one man show. Lula is the visible face of a movement that has been building here for years and will survive long after Lula leaves office.
Check out also, more recently, his reporting from more recent days in Bolivia. There is intense stuff happening once again in El Alto and elswhere, as mi companero Luis Gómez has confirmed in email.
Well even though the project is rapidly looking more like it may stall for months now, I might as well post the photos of our building the computers we want to send to Bolivia. We also go some good local TV coverage, which I'm going to digitise and post soon, i hope.
[I've been taking a lot of photos over the last month, since I got a new digital camera for xmas. ]
Sigh. I'm so much better at documenting things than actually doing things.
Well, to be fair to myself, I'm still waiting for more quotes from shipping companies, and trying to figure out what to do. I've been arranging to get palettes and boxes and warehouse space at freegeek, even though I don't know whether we should go ahead and palettize the computers and then let the palettes sit in the warehouse, or just leave everything on the shelves and hope it doesn't get stolen, or not even worry about it because it might be months before we ship anyway and by then we might as well make better computers from the better parts that may be available. Should these machines be given away to other causes closer to home till we can get our act together?
I dunno. it's just a big quandry.
Very belatedly, I have been, for the last hour or so, scanning through the archives of the indymedia tech solidarity mailing list, trying desparately to gain some wisdom from the past. From October 2002 to May 2004 there was lots of activity and several projects worked on, discussed, contemplated. Ecuador seems to have been a success, though mistakes were made. the Argentina shipment, I understand, ended up in Paraguay instead, for customs reasons (?). The Brazil one never happened, for customs reasons. Other projects that there were hints of: Guatemala, South Africa, Beirut.... ? then after May of last year, the list just fell silent. What happened? Actually March of 2004 is when things started tailing off. Did people just get so burned out or disillusioned by the Brazil and Argentina projects that they gave up on the whole concept, except for rabble with his Venezuela project?
Why did I ever commit to this Bolivia project without doing the research to find out how freaking hard it is? Why did I not look at the list archives before and realize that these other projects involved many many people all over the world cooperating and working hard together? And somehow I thought me and Kim and Luis were going to be able to do it all ourselves? I should have known in the beginning that without more people helping it was going to be doomed to failure.
I just feel like shit. Will this be yet another unfinished project in my life? I feel like there are so many things I never followed through on. A friend that became an employer and then became a non-friend, back in the disillusioning and disorienting dot-com era, once said that another friend of ours told him that I wasn't good at finishing things. Was he just making that up to try to goad me into doing more free coding for him, or did the other friend actually say that? I never asked him, and if I did, I don't know if he would ever admit to saying that about me.
I know that if I look back on my life there ARE important accomplishments that I HAVE completed. But the failures and incompletes are the ones that stick out. That's just human nature, to amplify the memories of pain over the pleasures. But I do feel like I need a completion soon to get my self-esteem boosted back up where it should be.... if, at least, some others would step in and say "hey yeah, don't worry, we'll help out and get it done WITH you," then I could feel good again. How does one inspire that in others? I can get people excited enough to throw 20 bucks in a hat, or maybe spend an afternoon screwing together computer parts, but beyond that, I don't think I know how to motivate people... I need people to spend hours on the phone with customs officials and freight fowarders, writing grants and talking to NGOs and lawyers... I need people to OWN this with me.... cuz I can't do this alone. I thought maybe I could be I can't. I just can't and I shouldn't have even tried. I'll go insane if I try any more.
I'm really happy to report that we're already halfway finished with building the 100 diskless terminals that is our goal, after only 2 days out of the 6 days planned.
Of course, more time will be needed making the terminal servers, but I think with the this week spent researching what software to put on them, we will have plenty of time next weekend to get them done, along with the rest of the terminals.
This is really exciting to see things go so smoothly and quickly, and it's been great to see so many volunteers show up.
The story I just posted to portland indymedia is here: http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2005/01/308252.shtml
Three other geeks joined me at Free Geek tonight to start assembling the computers that will be sent to Bolivia and Venezuela. It is great to finally be doing this, after over a year of planning and organizing. The low turnout was understandable, as it was a Saturday night and everything outside was sheathed in a coating of ice. The city is basically shut down and hardly anything is moving.
Hopefully tommorrow more will make it down there.
Despite these obstacles, just the four of us built 12 diskless terminals in about 4 hours. At this rate we will easily have 100 made by the end of our 6 days. Of course making the terminal servers will be the hard part. But I figure we will finish up on the 24th, and then on the 30th, we'll palletize everything that's going to Bolivia, about 50 machines, and on the 31st load the pallets onto the truck. This is my naive hope, at least. And then on February 1st I head to Tucson! The Venezuela machines, I'm not sure what will happen. Maybe they'll get stored somewhere till that project is ready to ship, which might be later in February.
It looks like Bolivia's 2nd Water War has already come to a satisfactory conclusion, in favor of the people of El Alto. President Carlos Mesa has agreed to cancel the contract with Aguas del Illimani, a French company. I've just discovered a blog by Jim Shultz, head of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba and the main reason the North found out about the first Water War in 2000. The latest entry of his blog has great details about the El Alto situation. He says that unlike the Cochabamba water war "To the government´s credit, no state of martial has been declared, no one has been arrested, no city has been militarized, no one has been injured or killed." This is really good news, of course.
It's good news for me personally too because I've been waiting for activists in La Paz to get back to me about the shipment of computers we're trying to send them, but they've been too busy, apparently, with this water revolt, to reply to me. So now perhaps they will have more time.
It looks like a big hacker conference is happening
in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in early March. Seems like this would be a good way to find geeks who would want to help with the Computers for Bolivia Project. Hmm. We are very close to being able to ship the machines, but the big unknown is still: who will be there to set them up and train people at their destination?
The second Bolivian war over water, this time in El Alto, appears to be heating up. My spanish isn't good enough to really understand this article well enough, but people I know there are extremely busy over this.
I just sent a message out to my mailling list of people who signed up for updates about the Computers of Bolivia project. It's really close to finally happening. I'm excited, and a little stressed out about it, because there will be a lot of work in the next month making it really happen. But hopefully it will all work out and by April the machines will be at their destinations!
Meanwhile, as explained in an excellent recent article by my friend in La Paz, Luis Gómez, the efforts to bring the exiled president and his cronies to justice in Bolivia continues, slowly and painfully.
In the nostagia department, a year ago yesterday I crossed the border leaving Bolivia and going into Brazil. On the night of December 30 I witnessed a year-end candomblé ritual down at the Rio Paragui in Corumbá. People were putting boats full of food and flowers in the river and letting them float downstream. It was beautiful. And for New Year's eve I drank beer ("Brahma," which was like the Brazilian national beer, it seemed) and ate barbeque on Eva Peron's yacht, with the couple that now own it, a kenyan-british woman and her yankee husband, their teenaged son, 2 french guys and a brazilian videographer. And after midnight the kid took us to a disco club and we danced with the party people of Corumbá.
Tonite promises to be much less interesting, but I will enjoy spending time with friends at a quiet little party in northeast portland, and maybe playing some video games at Freegeek beforehand.
It's very cold for Portland, and sprinkling rain on and off. Very cold rain. I was reminded as I rode my bike home from breakfast a little while back how rain doesn't have to be so cold. I wouldn't mind it if it was warm water. I thought back to the heaviest rain I've ever seen, on my last day in South America back in March, in Sao Paulo. Caught in a torrential downpour, I marvelled at how the rain was so intense that the storm sewers were spitting water back up through grates in the street, and huge expanses of street and sidewalk were just impassable. But the rain was warm. It wasn't pleasant, exactly, but it was tolerable because it was warm.
By contrast, rain here in Oregon feels like liquid ice. Not fun to bike around in, especially because I have a headcold. I can't wait till I get out of this town again...
A year ago today was my first full day in Bolivia. I woke up in La Paz having just flown in from Sao Paulo the night before. I'm looking at my journal from that day and recollecting:
...sure enough, Portuguese has effected my Spanish. I just asked for water and pronounced it "Agwa Meeneraow" like in Brazil.
I'm in a peña, wihch is a sort of live music restaurant, called Calicanto. I'm told the music will begin soon. I have just barely navigated the ordering process... ooh, the beer does fizz a lot more here, 'cause of the altitude... this language thing is so tiring. How to relax but deal with communicating in this foreign tongue? Stranger in a strange land...
Hah. Yeah, wow, amazing to think back on that mind-blowing time.
Meanwhile, back in the present - I used Skype for the first time yesterday. Where have I been? Why haven't I been up on this amazing piece of software, and how have my parents been using it for a month before I try it? It would have been so easy to take calls from anywhere in the world when we were doing our AFTA radio show a couple weeks ago. I think I just assumed it was PC-only, or that it didn't really work, or maybe the fact that the name sounds like some livestock disease made me unconciously dismiss it. What I want to know is, what's the catch? What is the company going to get out of a million people making free long-distance phone calls? And do we really know it's secure? Or does Homeland Security have a backdoor?
I just found a great site called Patagoniabolivia.net, a blog written by two young independent journalists from Vancouver, B.C. who have been travelling and reporting in Argentina, Chile, and now Bolivia, for many months. It's very good writing, too, or what I can read of it is. One of them seems to do most of his reporting in French. The other, Dawn Paley, writes mostly in English. Very well-designed site, too, using software called Mambo, which I haven't seen before.