Presidents, Presidents Everywhere
The Presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua are all headed into Cochabamba this afternoon, along with a host of other diplomats from Latin America’s left, for a two-day summit of the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos (ALBA). We have a team covering it and will have more news about the politics of the summit coming soon.
But first, here is how it went down this morning in Plaza Colon.
When I heard the loud crying it sounded like someone’s child had been hit by a bus. I walked faster to see what had happened but saw no child, only a ruckus in the middle of the street around the familiar cart of a woman I pass and talk with every morning who sells fresh squeezed fruit juice in the corner of the tree-lined plaza. Her oranges and grapefruit, all carefully peeled just after dawn, were strewn across the pavement.
The cries were coming from her as she scrambled, with little assistance, to gather them up before they were splattered and destroyed by the morning traffic. Two young policemen in blue uniforms were pushing her along.
After helping her gather up the last of the fruit from the pavement, dodging turning trufis and cars that seemed to pay no heed, I tried to find out what happened. Why was she being moved? Why were the police so eager to get this humble Quechua woman with just one eye away from the corner where she ekes out a tiny living each day pouring juice for passers by?
It didn’t take long to figure out the answer to that question – the summit.
“We are just following orders,” one of the young policemen told me. “They want the juice sellers cleared out of the plaza. I guess they don’t think it looks good.” In their haste to follow those orders the police had managed to push the old woman into such a frenzy of fear and traffic that she tipped her cart and spilled her fruit. This made it her fault, I was told.
So there it is. Somewhere in the bowels of government – perhaps in the Cochabamba’s conspicuously corrupt Mayor’s office or in the stratospheres of national power in La Paz – some bureaucrat or politician decided that this woman in a straw hat and long skirt turning fruit into juice was not a suitable image for visiting dignitaries to see.
What? Did someone in government fear that President Hugo Chavez might be sent into an epileptic seizure at the sight of a peeled grapefruit? Were there terrorist concerns, that perhaps she might throw discarded rinds at a President’s head or suddenly run her bent metal cart into a passing motorcade?
What else might these heads of state and their entourages find offensive? The guy downstairs with the nut cart? He’s a little shifty. The maracyua ice cream at Dumbos? That orange is a weird color. To be honest, I am not entirely sure that the socks I put on this morning match all that well. Should I be cautious about crossing the “offensiveness” line if I pass by the Hotel Diplomat today on my way to lunch? Seen at a close distance, the socks could induce President Ortega of Nicaragua to have a heart attack, possibly.
Let’s talk about what all these leaders evidently will not take offense at. They apparently are not offended in any fashion by the periodic loud passing of rifle-carrying police on motorcycles who are burning up the streets of Cochabamba today. Similarly, we are to find no offense in the fleet of smoked-windowed SUVs and late model sedans that are evidently the required transportation for those in power.
This is democracy’s real cancer – the arrogance of power. Let us be clear. This mental illness that allows those in power to hustle humble juice women off the street, or have nurses shot on rooftops, or any of the other offenses that come with it is not monopolized by any ideology or any nationality. There are people who suffer from it spread across the across left and right, and the north and south. And they are drawn to power, as the saying goes, “like flies to shit.”
Here is what I think should happen. I think that we should find out who made this decision and do the following. We should tie them for an hour to the footbridge in the middle of Plaza Colon and let the women who sell juice in its four corners pummel he or she with peels and the occasional whole grapefruit. Then that person’s name should be placed on a list of people who will never be allowed to wield public authority again, ever, in any country.
Oh yes, the ALBA summit is about much bigger things that one poor woman tumbled with her fruit in the street in downtown Cochabamba. There are trade accords to negotiate, declarations on Honduras to make, discussions about environmental destruction and dolaraization of the region’s economies.
But politics and political power begins with how it treats the most humble. If it can’t get that right then it isn’t likely to get the rest right either. Based on that criteria and the scene this morning in Plaza Colon, this summit doesn’t look to be getting off to a good start.
Answers to Last Week’s Bolivia News Quiz
1. None, it was a trick question.
2. Residents near the Kara Kara city dump blockaded the entrance to demand the dump’s closure due to the contamination caused to the local environment and water.
3. President Evo Morales announced (through the Vice President) that he will not debate any of his opponents in the December Presidential vote.
4. 47% is the current level of voter support for Morales reported in a recent national poll. 17% is the support level reported for his nearest opponent, former Cochabamba Governor Manfred Reyes Villa.
5. Severe drought.
6. The Paraguayan government has objected to what it called hidden plans by Bolivia to purchase new military airplanes.
7. Miss Peru.