Friday, June 29, 2007

Maybe Next Time, Just Ask for Bagels

An Associated Press story making the rounds through news channels tells the unfortunate tale of Donna Thi, a 20-year old from the U.S. who ended up in Bolivian police custody Wednesday night after her arrival in La Paz. In her luggage Bolivian immigration officials found a strange companion to the gift cheese claimed on her customs form – 500 rounds of 45 caliber ammunition.

When someone arrives in the country carrying 500 rounds of ammo, Bolivian authorities get a little suspicious. When someone from the U.S. arrives in the country carrying 500 rounds of ammo, AP has got itself a story and the U.S. Embassy has a problem.

And in this case the Embassy, apparently, had quite a problem. The young woman was met at the airport by the wife of a U.S. Colonel, James Campbell, assigned to the Embassy. The ammo, it seems, was brought down for his personal use, either target practice or hunting. Bolivian wild turkeys – beware.

Now in all fairness, even true conspiracy theorists will admit that it would be hard to start an anti-Evo coup with 500 rounds, and sneaking armaments in bit by bit, along with cheese, seems a little far-fetched as well. Nevertheless, Bolivian officials seemed eager to make hay out of the bullets-in-Samsonite affair. Bolivia's National Director of Migration, Magali Zegarra, told the Bolivian press, "This is evidence that someone could be orchestrating something from the outside against our country, and that the girl was met by Mrs. Campbell, wife of Colonel Campbell who works in the U.S. Embassy, is something worrisome."

Evidently Ambassador Goldberg had an apologetic visit with Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera yesterday, where they dined, one might guess, on red, white, and blue crow.

The young visitor from the U.S. is now free and we hope that her remaining time in Bolivia is more enjoyable. My 83-year-old mother always says it is better to get the bad luck out of the way at the start of the trip, but getting busted with ammo at the airport seems a bit extreme. Whomever asked her to bring in the ammo definitely owes her a really, really good visit in La Paz. If I did that to my daughter, also 20, I think I'd be stuck buying a lifetime pass to Cine Center or a full Pique lunch weekly for her and her boyfriend.

I did enjoy, I will admit, trying to imagine the phone call by the poor Embassy subordinate who had to break the news to the Ambassador (now this is only conjecture on my part):

Ambassador Goldberg: What is it?

Embassy Underling: Sir, it appears that a U.S. citizen has just been arrested on arrival at the La Paz airport.

Ambassador Goldberg: Shit!

Embassy Underling: Sir, it's a little worse than that. She was carrying 500 rounds of ammo in her suitcase. She told the customs people it was cheese.

Ambassador Goldberg: Double shit!

Embassy Underling: Sir, apparently she was carrying it in for Colonel Campbell.

Ambassador Goldberg: Shit! Holy (expletive deleted) shit!

Embassy Underling: Sir, I have Evo on the line. Says he'd like to chat.

Ambassador Goldberg: I should have stayed in the Balkans.

Now, I have been here for almost a decade and in that time I have brought down, and asked others to bring down, a lot of things. These include: my U.S. mail, Flaming Hot Cheetos, my wife's loom, Cheerios, dog medicine, photographs, Pete's coffee, a Little Mermaid jewelry box, magic markers, size-13 sneakers, books, iron-on patches, a Bruce Springsteen CD, and of course – bagels. I have also requested a burrito from El Toro at 17th and Valencia in San Francisco, but that did not work out. Maybe one day.

However, it has never occurred to me once to either bring into Bolivia, or ask someone else to bring into Bolivia, live ammunition. Note to U.S. Embassy: I think you will find that bringing in ammo is not generally a wise idea, not for public relations, bilateral relations, or interpersonal relations with those asked to do the bringing.

But, hey, we all screw up once in a while. I make lots of mistakes, some just to keep in practice. The important thing is to learn from our mistakes. Here's the memo I'd suggest Ambassador Goldberg circulate next week:

To: All Embassy Staff and Dependents

From: Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg

Re: Packages brought by visitors from the U.S.

Next time, just ask for bagels.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

President Bush's Cuban Dream

Readers of this Blog know that as the weekend approaches we tend toward the more whimsical for topics. I also haven't written anything recently to get people to call me a Communist, so here is a post that will take care of both those needs.

Today in a speech before the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island President George Bush declared that, "One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away." We assume that he meant one day soon, as opposed to one day during his Texas retirement. We should also suppose that this is conjecture as opposed to some intelligence estimate passed along to the President by the actual Good Lord (a.k.a. God).

According to Reuters, when a White House official was later asked if President Bush meant that he wished Castro would die, the official responded, "The president was commenting on an inevitable event."

This would be like, for example, "One day my poll numbers will dive below 20%."

Coincidently, this week the CIA released a trove of declassified reports about agency skullduggery during the Cold War, known affectionately as "the jewels". The papers included a report that in 1960, in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, the CIA tried to work a deal with a mob family to assassinate Castro. The Godfather involved reportedly offered to do the job pro bono, casino closures in Havana apparently having done little to endear Castro to the U.S. mafia. It would also appear that the deal never went through. Nine U.S. presidents later, neither "the Lord", nor the CIA, nor the Cuban community in Miami has managed to get that particular job done.

Hey, I'm not commenting on Castro, good or evil. But the guy does have staying power.

All of which is really a set up to this joke that I was reminded of as Bush professed his inside knowledge on God's plans. Here goes:

George H.W. Bush, the father, takes ill with a rare illness. In accordance with long-worked out plans he is frozen by the Houston-based Lone Star Cryogenics Inc. and stored to await the discovery of a medical cure for his condition. In May of 2037 he is wakened and cured.

George Bush: Tell me! What news is there? How did things in the world come out since 2007?

Technician: Well, we have good news and bad news Mr. President.

George Bush: Tell me the bad news first.

Technician: Your son, George W. Bush, his whole being the president thing really didn't turn out so good.

George Bush: Yeah, well, we could see that coming. What's the good news?

Technician: Fidel Castro, it looks like he should die any day now.

Monday, June 25, 2007

…Yes, but is it Democracy?

'Democracy' is a word invoked by people in the name of all kinds of things in Bolivia.

It is the word hot on the lips of civic leaders in four eastern states, as they demand 'autonomy' from national authorities. I am not sure how that claim to democracy jibes with the fact that the Bolivian electorate rejected that exact same proposal 56% to 44% when it was put to a national vote a year ago. I also don’t know if 'democracy' was invoked last week when 'civic leaders' in Santa Cruz pulled down billboards not to their liking, which called for 'indigenous' autonomy in their region.

Now, on the other side, in January, 'democracy' was one of the justifications used by opponents of the local Governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, when they occupied the Central Plaza and blocked entrances to the city calling for his resignation. I asked some of them at the time about the democratic legitimacy of a few thousand people occupying the plaza seeking to overturn an election involving tens of thousands of people. "The people have spoken," I was told. It seemed, to be honest, a weak answer.

Oh yes, let us not forget that Reyes Villa has also recently been polishing his 'democracy' credentials. His latest adventures involve sending thugs out in official state vehicles to destroy and confiscate political literature that he considers unkind to his image.

In the decade I have lived in Bolivia, 'democracy' has been invoked in the name of citizens toppling presidents, and presidents ordering the shooting of citizens. It is a justification called on equally by both the left and right. So, it might be reasonable to ask, what part of all the current political bluster in Bolivia is really about democracy.

Who said this would be Easy?

Ground zero for the current 'lucha libre' (I had to work the photo in somehow) of Bolivian democracy is the Constituent Assembly currently underway in the city of Sucre, charged with the mighty task of re-writing the nation's constitution. Delegates elected a year ago have been grappling in 21 different commissions over issues ranging from gas and oil policy to regional powers.

Two things about the Assembly are not especially surprising. First, the debates taking place there are tense. A week ago leaders of the opposition PODEMOS party (those are the conservative members) started a fistfight with their adversaries (and the police). Second, the process is taking longer than planned. Delegates were supposed to wrap up work by Bolivia's national independence day in August. Last week only 6 of the 21 commissions presented their work results on deadline and both MAS and the opposition are asking for more time, 3 to 6 months.

To be sure, Bolivian democracy is hardly clean and tidy. The recent low-point was last January 11 here in Cochabamba, when a chess game played our between a power-seeking Reyes Villa and an overreacting local MAS leadership descended into an afternoon of mob on mob violence that left 3 men dead and more than one hundred others injured. I think that violence actually served, gratefully, as a wake-up call to all sides and the big players took their chess moves back into the political process.

So, I ask again, is all this democracy? I say it is, and here is why.

Bolivia is in the midst of a historic political transformation, an inevitable one, I would say. In more psychological terms, Bolivia is dealing with its shit.

It has just gone through a political u-turn in which some of the groups most excluded from power now have it and are still learning how to use it. Some of the groups who have had political power here for so long that they thought it was their birthright have suffered a series of election defeats and now find themselves on the outside. On the table is the nation's basic economic direction, the content of a new constitution, and some fundamental questions about national identity and character. And these issues have to be worked out against a backdrop of deep divisions of economic class, ethnicity, and regional interest – divisions so deep that the defense of high altitude football (soccer) seems to be the only issue of national unity.

Did anyone really expect this process to be simple? Those who see themselves losing power – much of it based on privilege – are deeply afraid. That is human nature. Those gaining power have mighty fears of their own – that a political revolution they have dreamed of and worked toward their whole lives might be robbed from them by those who have had power and aren't keen to concede it.

Beyond Ideology

Observers and writers who like to lead with ideology, either right or left, love to paint Bolivia's current struggle in deeply ideological terms. What we have at hand is either a right-wing oligarchy hell bent on hegemony, or pseudo-communist authoritarians secretly aiming to give Iran an Andean foothold. Take your pick.

In fact, Bolivia is addressing real issues. Take 'regional autonomy.' In most every country I have worked recently – from Croatia to Brazil – there is an active debate about how to decentralize national power out to the more regional or local level where, presumably, it will be 'closer to the people'. It is a debate as old as democratic governance.

But, let's not confuse that with the demand for regional autonomy coming from Santa Cruz and its eastern partners. This isn’t about the right to make regional choices about what school texts their children will read. It is about geology. They happen to live on land where, thanks to their luck not their hard work, geology planted trillions of cubic feet of gas and oil. Of course they'd like to maximize their share of it. If my daughter is the last trick-or-treater at a house ready to close down for the night (okay, this presumes we would be in the U.S., but go along with me for a minute) and inherits a windfall stash of a dozen Kit-Kat bars, she is going to want to keep them. That's human nature. But really, if I took her door-to-door, shouldn't I get a fair cut?

Santa Cruz never called for autonomy when the mineral wealth of the nation was in tin and silver mines in the highlands. It is not unreasonable for a nation to treat natural resources as a national asset, as opposed to allocating the riches that result just to the people lucky enough to be living on top of them. So, of course, Bolivia is having a heated debate.

And, let's put all this into a little bi-national comparison. If only the U.S. had put in this much passion and debate before jauntily sending troops off to make regime change in Iraq. Members of Congress, in both parties, blithely took that action without even bothering to read all the intelligence reports made available to them. If only U.S. politics would deal as seriously with the crisis in health care access as Bolivians are debating a new constitution.

In other words, one of the reasons that Bolivian politics looks so heated and messy is because the nation is talking about real issues and the people of the country have strong opinions. And that, more than quiet elections, silent citizens, and gentle rebuttals to the Presidential State of the Union addresses, is what real democracy needs.

The Goofiest Idea So Far

Oh, lastly. I do want to weigh in on one issue here. The party PODEMOS proposed an idea recently to formally move the Capitol of Bolivia from La Paz to Sucre (Politics 101: this is what you do when you just want to stir things up). Well, I was in La Paz a week ago and I have to tell you, I think that moving those buildings is going to be a lot of work. If PODEMOS thinks it is such a good idea. Let's see Tuto Quiroga (the party leader) lift that Congress building off its foundation. It has got to be extremely heavy. Who does he expect is going to lift that thing and put in on a truck?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

San Juan – Bolivia’s celebration of the winter solstice.

Someone smarter than me can explain why this night takes place on the 23rd of June, as opposed to the actual solstice two days earlier – also the Andean New Year. That celebration is marked by crowds of the faithful waiting at selected mountain points across the highlands to await the first appearance of the sun after winter’s longest night.

What is not in doubt is that the central feature of San Juan in much of Bolivia is about burning things and blowing things up. As I write, bonfires small and mammoth dot the Cochabamba valley, and my neighborhood. The cheap Chinese-made fireworks left over from last Christmas Eve and New Years Eve (big firework nights both) are hauled out by sellers on the usual street corners.

To be sure, all this leaves one hell of a carbon footprint. The morning after San Juan, Cochabamba always looks like the entire city got turned over night into an open air bar where half a million people are chain smokers. This year government officials and environmental groups have gone all out to try to convince people not to burn or explode things. Public service announcements in La Paz featured rap singers beckoning people, “don’t burn, don’t burn.” Here in Cochabamba a small group of people dressed up as fires and walked around aiming to spread the “don’t burn” message. Fire costumes – almost as cool as a nun’s habit (almost).

Well, it is 10pm here and judging from the crackle of explosions and mass of smoke wafting in the air, I’d have to say that the public service campaign has not been a rousing success. I am not excusing all the burning (Oh God, imagine the field day our readers would have with that). I am merely observing that getting Cochabambinos to drop the bonfire and firework habit is as tough a task as prying Californians out of the SUVs they use to shop at Safeway. Some habits are hard to break.

Okay, full disclosure. Here is the final firework tally at out house:

Sparklers: 4 packages

Firework roosters that fart colored jet streams: 2

Skyrockets: 2

Firework fountain: 1

Bonfire: None

Mata Suegra mega-explosive used to demolish an overripe papaya: pending

Friday, June 22, 2007

Happy Gay Pride Weekend!

You want to know one of the things I miss most about my old life in the U.S.? I'll tell you, I miss out-there gay people. I do. And I miss this weekend in San Francisco when the gays and lesbians of my U.S. home are out in full force. For a straight guy with three kids, gay people in the U.S. have shaped my lives in powerful ways.

There is Christopher G. McKenzie, a teacher at my high school in Whittier three decades ago who showed me that being yourself in public, no matter what reaction that provokes, is a courage worth having. He would have been 60 this August, had AIDS not taken him from us. At my straight boy wedding he stood up in front of my relatives, my in-laws, and my friends and asked them to demand that I run for President of the U.S. That's how he was. In 2002 I dedicated a book to him.

There is the young woman whose name I never knew with whom I stood on a BART platform in November 1978, coming home from the memorial for Harvey Milk, a pioneering gay San Francisco politician assassinated at City Hall. He left behind a recording in which he said that if he were ever killed it should be used as an occasion for gays across the U.S. to come out to their friends and relatives. As we waited for a train back to Berkeley she told me that she had called her parents the night before to tell them they had a lesbian daughter.

There is Daniel Brewer and Martin O'Malley, a loving gay couple who died of AIDS in that order. Every time I hear the rantings of homophobic bigotry against gay marriage I think of Martin tending to his beloved partner as Daniel spent his last days in a merciful morphine drowse at home, thanks to Martin's 24-hour care. And the whole time Martin knew he was watching a gruesome preview of his own near future, minus the partner to care for him. Daniel's cousin in the U.S. wrote me recently, after having read his name in an article I wrote and thanked me. No one in her family told her he'd died of AIDS, or about Martin caring for him.

I loved raising my oldest children in San Francisco. Elly hadn't been in the U.S. from Bolivia two months when we stumbled by accident on the last lap of the transvestite parade on Halloween. She was 6, spoke only Spanish, and had not a clue that the line of 'princesses' sitting atop the convertibles were really guys, as they waved to her, "Hello little girl!" "Que linda! Que bonitas sus vestidos!" she kept telling me. I loved that in our Noe Valley neighborhood neither Miguel nor Elly had a second thought that Zoe next door had two mommies.

I miss the quilt of skinny, skimpily-clad gay guys sunbathing on the green slopes of Dolores Park, to the giggles and gasps of the Latino immigrant mothers who brought their children to the playground there. Only San Francisco can serve up such a funny cultural stew.

And I miss this first Sunday of summer when the rainbow flags and the men and women marching under them come storming out of whatever last closet remains. I miss the "Dykes on Bikes" who storm at the forefront on testosterone Harleys. I miss the Gay Campers Association, with their walking tent that suggestively bounces up and down every time it takes a rest. I miss sitting on the slopes of that same Dolores Park on the Saturday night before, emptying a bottle of champaign with friends and then rolling down the hill into the center of the Gay Universe at Castro and 18th to a community under political fire celebrating its existence in full color.

I even miss my daughter's half-crazy fifth grade teacher who I would see on occasion dressed in drag in the Castro. I think he always considered me a straight brethren because I showed up at the school Halloween party dressed as a nun (I will publish that photo here only in response to popular demand).

A few months ago the team here at The Democracy Center did a small workshop on advocacy for a group of Bolivian gay activists working on AIDS prevention issues. I was transported back in time 30 years, when homophobia ran so rampant that gays in California had to face a statewide move to prevent them from being school teachers. Bolivia is rough a terrain for gay people in 2007. Closets are as plentiful as chicha. So imagine the guts of the big guy from Chuqisaca wearing a puffy blonde wig who introduced himself to me as "the Shakira of Sucre".

When my children are my age they will look back on this time of anti-gay politics and sentiment, in both the U.S. in Bolivia, as a classic round of bigotry that had to be outgrown, akin to the votes in my youth that made it perfectly legal in California to refuse to rent homes to black people.

To our gay readers and the others who love them. Happy Gay Pride 2007!!!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Getting a Visa from the U.S. Embassy: The View from Inside

Last week in La Paz I spent some interesting time visiting with two staff members at the U.S. Embassy, pleasant and dedicated public servants both, and readers of this Blog. It turns out that The Democracy Center's Blog has a following among some Embassy staff. Our April Fools edition this year, which included a lovely doctored photograph of Ambassador Goldberg in an Evo sweater, was evidently a special hit. So, to our readers at the Embassy, I say a special hello.

Among the topics we talked about during our La Paz visit is the way in which the U.S. Embassy deals with requests for visas by Bolivians seeking to visit the U.S. Readers may recall that I was critical of this process in a Blog that I wrote last January and my lunch partners from the Embassy wanted to clarify a few things, which I am happy to do in this edition of the Blog.

In January I wrote:

If you look in the American Heritage Dictionary (New College Edition, 2005) under the term royal pain in the ass, for definition number three you will find the words: Noun. The experience a Bolivian goes through to seek a tourist entry visa to the United States.

In fact, Embassy officials seem to be making an effort to make it less of a "pain in the ass" for would-be visitors. Here's a look at some of the issues involved:

The Forms

There is good news here. Under the old rules applicants had to deal with forms that were all in English and therefore wickedly confusing to many people applying. I know this first hand. When I was in the Embassy interview room last year (working on getting my four-year-old a blue passport) my wife and I were approached for help by people baffled by forms in a language they didn’t speak. By comparison, Bolivia's forms for arriving visitors have been in both Spanish and English for the 15 years I have been filling them out.

Now Bolivian applicants cannot only find the forms they need in Spanish but they can fill them out over the Internet in a snazzy new on-line "fill-in" form. One of the questions asked on the form is if the applicant has ever entered the U.S. with the intent of committing an act of terrorism, or if he or she is a member of a terrorist group, or had engaged in any act of genocide. A tip here from me for those applying – I am pretty sure U.S. officials are looking for a 'No' on that one.

The Cost

Here the news is not so good. I reported in January that it cost $110 to apply for a U.S. visa, non-refundable if you get denied. Since then the price has been raised to $114, non-refundable. Of that, $14 goes to DHL for processing the request and $100 to Uncle Sam. That is still about twice the monthly minimum wage here and a source of frustration for many applicants. The folks from the Embassy explained that the charge is this same amount for applicants from every country, under rules requires that require U.S. consulates to pay for themselves through such fees (and those charged for services to U.S. citizens as well). At 100 visits a day right now, even if some are families applying under one application, that still likely produces some tens of thousands of dollars every week for the Embassy. In Bolivia, that has to cover a good deal more than salaries and overhead. It seems to me that the U.S. could afford to refund a chunk of that back to the people who get denied, a decision that would have to come from Washington.

The Wait for a Visa Interview

Every Bolivian (14 or older) seeking a visa to visit the U.S. must travel to La Paz to be interviewed in person. And on the issue of how long it takes to get an interview my version was old news. In January I wrote that the wait for a visa interview was "usually months" after forms were filed. The Embassy says that the wait time is down to three weeks. That's not bad at all, considering that the Embassy is currently interviewing, as noted earlier, about 100 applicants each day, five days a week (a number that the Embassy staff noted was higher than usual due to seasonal tourism).

The Stack of Supporting Documents

I also wrote in January that applicants were expected to bring other paperwork to be reviewed by U.S. officials, including, "all kinds of personal economic information, such as bank statements, employment letters, etc." This, the Embassy says, is one of the great myths they'd like to dispel. The only things that Bolivian applicants are legally required to submit are: the completed form; a valid Bolivian passport; visa-size headshots; and proof that they paid the $114 fee. All the other forms are suggested by the Embassy as "supporting documents" but are not required. In fact, I was told, sometimes it is these very documents that get people in trouble. In their desire to show economic stability at home, a good number of applicants cook up fake employment letters and bank statements. Falsified documents, it seems, are almost as sure a route to denial as, "Oh yes, I want to go and blow up Disneyland."

The Statistics on Getting Accepted or Denied

On this topic, according to the official U.S. statistics, my January post was off by a lot. I wrote that applicants "stand a good 9 out of 10 chance of being denied". Not so, says the Embassy. According to a report they passed along for refusal rates for tourist and business travelers, more than two out of every three Bolivian applicants gets a U.S. visa. Now that will be news to the University of San Simon accountant who owns my house who applied to go see his cousins, and to Juan Patricio, the brother of a victim in the October 2003 massacres who was invited by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others to speak in Washington last year. They both got denied. Nevertheless, according to the official data, a lot more people walk out the door of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz smiling than crying. This does not account, however, for who gets in and who doesn't, a separate issue.

The numbers on visa refusals around the world are themselves interesting. If you want a tourist or business visa to the U.S. the best countries to come from are Luxembourg, France, and the Vatican, all of whom registered refusal rates of less than 2%. Membership in the "coalition of the willing" apparently has nothing to do with it. The three countries you most don't want to be from are Cuba, the Gambia and Ghana, all of whom had refusal rates above 61%. The Federated States of Micronesia, with a population of 110,000 people, scored a remarkable 100% denial rate, however. But that might be based on one guy who wanted to get a glimpse of Mt. Rushmore and misread the terrorist question.

What does it Really Take to Get In?

The most interesting part of my chat with the two people from the Embassy was when they shared their thoughts about what U.S. officials are looking for when they interview visa applicants from Bolivia. The top priority – not surprising from a nation in a political frenzy at the moment over immigration and border security – is finding and rejecting applicants who aim to be "tourists" for years.

The Embassy's questions, while they may take different forms in each case, are really these:

Why do you want to go to the U.S.?
What do you want to do there?
Why do you want to return to Bolivia?

The most certain rule about answering these questions, I was told, is: Lying guarantees you won't get a visa. Here was the advice the Embassy has to offer applicants:

1. Tell the truth, even if you are visiting family who got into the U.S. illegally. It was enlightening to hear a U.S. official explain that the Embassy staff knows quite well that a lot of people who want to go north are visiting people who sidestepped the visit to the Embassy on their way there. Many of those seeking a visa are headed to Arlington, Virginia or some other enclave of Bolivians to meet their grandchildren for the first time. According to the fellow in charge of making the decision to accept or reject, visiting someone who got in illegally is actually a perfectly good reason to ask for a visa.

2. Be clear about what you want to do in the U.S. Again, according to those who do the interviewing, if a guy from Punata shows up and says he is wants to visit Disneyworld for three weeks, he's got a hard sell on his hands. So does a widow who says she wants to see "the beautiful places" but can't name them. From the sound of it, a nicely printed itinerary that makes sense (week one, visit Uncle Jorge in Providence…) might be of more value than a bank statement.

3. Explain with clarity and enthusiasm why you are coming back. My favorite answer to this question was the one offered by a friend of mine seeking a visa to participate in an academic conference. In his interview he declared, "I don't like the United States at all. Why would I want to stay there?" Embassy staff want to hear about the job you have to come back for, the grandkids you can't live away from, and about the ties that bind you to Bolivia.

In the end the visa process is really about U.S. officials forcing you to prove that you aren't trying to add "undocumented immigrant" to your biography. While many applicants think that money in the bank is a big selling point (and I am still willing to bet good money that wealthier people get visas more readily than poorer ones), the word from the Embassy is, "not necessarily." Apparently there was a small flood of tourist visa applications from affluent Santa Cruz families after Evo's election in 2005, many of who looked like they were more likely to be headed to see realtors than relatives. A good number of them got denied.

A Suggestion

While the people running the Visa program at the Embassy seem like good people and clearly have a rough job – "every day I make someone cry" – the process still remains an expensive and daunting one to most Bolivians. It also remains a good deal more costly and daunting than the one in place for people from the U.S. visiting Bolivia.

That was clearly one of the reasons that Evo Morales announced in January that the Bolivian government was going to establishing a new tourist visa requirement U.S. visitors to Bolivia. Right now that involves, basically, showing up at the airport and getting a free 90-day stamp in your passport. In the La Paz airport it also comes with free oxygen. Morales declared his intent to make Bolivia's visa rules more akin to those faced by his Bolivian brethren seeking passage to Arlington. Six months later there is still no word of what that new visa process will look like or when it will begin (I checked again with the Bolivian Embassy in Washington on Friday).

As for the U.S. process, it seems that there is little that officials in La Paz can do other than follow the strict rules from Washington. But I do have one suggestion of how Embassy staff in the world's highest capital might warm things up a little. I think some of Bolivian's resentment is the whole experience of standing in a cold morning line outside a building that, to be honest, looks like a tall, squat concrete bunker built for warfare. What widow from Tarata wouldn't be intimidated?

So here is my suggestion for my friends at the U.S. Embassy – Api and Buñuelos!

Across Bolivia, that is what people drink and eat in the dawn hours to fend off the cold – a hot purple glass of a drink made from red corn and an equally hot, slightly greasy, pastry with a tad of white cheese in the middle. You take some of that $114 and you hire a few Paceña women to prepare and hand out free Api and Bunuelos to the people on line, courtesy of the U.S. government. Now that might give the U.S. Embassy here a different feel!

Or better yet, have them handed out by the Ambassador. An Uncle Sam suit would be optional.

A Short Addition (Monday, July 25)

After I published the Embassy's proud boast last week that it had gotten the wait period for a visa interview down to 3 weeks, the news came in that it might not just be so, including a chargrined note from the Embassy itself. Due to the change of staffing among Consular officials, the current wait is now 6 weeks. We have no word yet as to whether the added wait time will be compensated for with the handout of free Api and Bunuelos.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Helicopters, Toyotas, and Politics

The front page of today's Los Tiempos leads with an article about plans by Cochabamba's governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, to buy a million dollar helicopter. Staff to Reyes Villa declare in the article that the helicopter would be used "exclusively for attention to emergencies", citing as an example the region's recent flooding. The helicopter that the Governor would purchase would have a capacity of four passengers.

Normally, this might be a non-story [I will leave it to others to debate the relative merits of the Governor having a helicopter at his disposal to fly to the outer regions of the large Cochabamba department]. The reason it is a story is because it comes as part of a growing political battle between President Morales and Governor Reyes Villa – now the two leading politicians in Bolivia – over the latter's spending of public dollars.

Yesterday the issue was Toyotas, a squabble carried out in a pair of large competing ads in the Sunday paper. In one ad the Morales government challenged Reyes Villa for buying 26 new vehicles for official business, a happy event for the local Toyota distributor. The ad listed each of the vehicles and their purchase price one by one. For families who struggle just to pay the 1.50 Boliviano (20 cent) local bus fare, thousands of dollars paid out for a shiny new car at taxpayer expense is likely to strike a resentful chord (which, of course, is Morales' intention).

Someone obviously tipped off Reyes Villa that the ad was coming and so the Governor responded with an ad of his own defending the new cars, essentially arguing that the old ones needed to be replaced. Again, I will leave it to others to argue the relative merits of purchasing new cars. I will however, disclose for the record that the last car I owned (in 1998) was a beloved 1992 Toyota Corolla named Emmalina (and was the color of poop).

I would also add here that it would be interesting to know how much taxpayers paid for both the ads, and which politician got the better deal from the happy editors at Los Tiempos.

The Strategy Behind the Scenes

In any event, what is most interesting about this is that Morales is now doing politically to Reyes Villa what Reyes Villa tried to do to Morales last December when he joined the Santa Cruz bandwagon for regional autonomy – picking at the other's political caricature and weakness.

What is the political caricature that picks at Morales' weak spot – Evo the Wannabe Despot. He wants to ram through a new constitution without real debate. He wants to be Hugo Chavez in a wool sweater. He really wants to abolish both an independent judiciary and independent press. He wants Bolivia to be Cuba! That's the rap, and like all raps of the sort it is wildly overblown and at the same time has enough grains of truth buried in it to get some political traction.

The parallel rap on Reyes Villa (one around long before Evo sang it) is simpler – Manfred the Corrupt. Go back to the Goni attack campaign against Reyes Villa in 2002, engineered by U.S. political consultants and chronicled well in the Rachel Boynton's U.S. film Our Brand is Crisis. "How did he get all those houses in Bolivia and Miami?" they asked. Here in Cochabamba the locals say, "Okay, he steals but at least he gets the job done too." His old political party, NFR, got nicknamed Nueva Forma de Robar (New Way to Steal). Morales is counting on the caricature sticking and he is dealing in a strategy essential to warfare, be it political or battlefield – take the fight to where you have the high ground and your opponent has to play defense.

Another Use for that Helicopter

Whatever the merits of a new helicopter and fleet of new vehicles, all this does keep with one Reyes Villa truism, he does like to spend the public's money on flashy toys. Earlier this year he invested $80,000 of taxpayer funds to add rotating colored lights to illuminate the giant Jesus statue here. Bathed in alternating purple, yellow, blue and green (I like the purple best) Cochabamba can now proudly claim not only the tallest Jesus on Earth, but arguably the most psychedelic as well.

Citizens here have demanded that Reyes Villa open the state's books to public scrutiny and have been rebuffed.

Another Reyes Villa public work (as Cochabamba Mayor) is the high dangling tram that sweeps people up and down the hill to visit that Jesus. Ironically, the same morning paper that offers up the helicopter story also tells of an incident yesterday involving the tram. Yesterday screaming passengers were trapped dangling in mid-flight for half an hour when the tram stopped working suddenly. Apparently the system is suffering maintenance problems (when you build things you also have to keep in mind the cost of upkeep).

It may be that one of the earliest uses of Reyes Villa's chopper will be to rescue passengers from his Tram to Jesus. I can't wait to see the Morales Administration's ad when that happens.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Great Venezuelan TV Debate

Here is the debate, a reasonable one, being heard in Latin America these days. In the name of a political vision that is fundamentally about redistributing power to those who have not had it, are some leaders trampling on democracy?

In Venezuela these past few weeks that debate has focused on the decision by the government of President Hugo Chavez to "de-license" a television station (RCTV) that has been a leading critic of the government.

Chavez has become the favorite target of U.S. (and Latin American) conservatives on the attack against the broader leftward shift in Latin American politics -- a substitute who has come just in time to replace an ailing Fidel Castro in that role. Last week on Fox TV, Geraldo Rivera called the President repeatedly elected by strong majorities, a "communist dictator." Former GOP Presidential candidate and televangelist Pat Robertson famously called for the U.S. to assassinate him ("thou shalt not kill", being made an optional commandment).

And to be clear, Chavez asks for it, relishes it. At the U.N. last fall he delivered his famous "I can still smell the sulfur" speech in which he called President Bush the devil. Chavez's rant from the most famous podium in the world may have lifted book sales for Noam Chomsky (whose book Chavez held aloft) but I don't think it did much to advance the interests of either the Venezuelan people, or Chavez. It certainly doomed Venezuela's effort to win a seat on a key UN human rights panel.

I personally have never had much respect in politics for people whose first priority is to get off on their own rhetoric, at the expense of better priorities. It is especially not an attractive quality in presidents. President Bush, for example, clearly didn't do U.S. troops in Iraq any favor when he challenged the insurgency there to "bring it on." A year and hundreds of U.S. deaths later (and thousands or Iraqi deaths) the insurgency issued a communiqué asking, "Have you another challenge?"

The Venezuela RCTV debate, in a nutshell, looks like this.

Critics of Chavez, in Venezuela and elsewhere, have protested loudly, warning that the government's decision to not renew the station's license (as in the U.S., the airwaves are publicly-owned but licensed to commercial networks) is an ominous sign that the Venezuelan President is aiming to silence criticism and dissent. Those critics include everyone from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Washington Office on Latin America, to the Bush administration. This week Secretary of State Rice publicly confronted the Venezuelan government over the issue at an OAS meeting (Venezuela countered with a call for an investigation into U.S. torture practices at Guantanamo).

The Venezuelan government has countered, not-especially-believably, that this is all really "a simple regulatory matter." A more complete and credible defense of the move comes from the reporter who covered Venezuela for eight years for the Associated Press, Bart Jones. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jones noted RCTV's key role in an April 2002 coup attempt against Chavez:

After military rebels overthrew Chavez and he disappeared from public view for two days, RCTV's biased coverage edged fully into sedition. Thousands of Chavez supporters took to the streets to demand his return, but none of that appeared on RCTV or other television stations. RCTV News Director Andres Izarra later testified at National Assembly hearings on the coup attempt that he received an order from superiors at the station: "Zero pro-Chavez, nothing related to Chavez or his supporters…. The idea was to create a climate of transition and to start to promote the dawn of a new country." While the streets of Caracas burned with rage, RCTV ran cartoons, soap operas and old movies such as "Pretty Woman." On April 13, 2002, [RCTV chief] Granier and other media moguls met in the Miraflores palace to pledge support to the country's coup-installed dictator, Pedro Carmona, who had eliminated the Supreme Court, the National Assembly and the Constitution.

The former AP correspondent then adds:

Would a network that aided and abetted a coup against the government be allowed to operate in the United States? The U.S. government probably would have shut down RCTV within five minutes after a failed coup attempt — and thrown its owners in jail. Chavez's government allowed it to continue operating for five years, and then declined to renew its 20-year license to use the public airwaves. It can still broadcast on cable or via satellite dish.

I am a strong believer in free speech. For as long as this Blog has existed we have allowed completely uncensored commentary. Many times I have been encouraged by readers and friends to either edit or eliminate the comments section. "Some of those people are just stupid, with no actual argument at all." And that is the point of free speech, to protect the space for expression even by people who disagree with everything you write or say. That's why the comments section – home to reasoned people and Bozos alike – remains free and uncensored.

Maybe, for his own sake and Venezuela's, Chavez should have had similar tolerance for the station that joined the coup against him.

There is clearly a reasonable debate to be had over the responsibilities that networks are obligated to assume in exchange for one of the most lucrative gifts a government can bestow, use of publicly-owned airwaves (as Jones notes, RCTV is still completely at liberty to broadcast via satellite or cable). In the U.S. too little attention is given to the responsibilities that come with that gift.

On the other hand, in public leadership, image means as much as substance. Chavez might gain far more – domestically and globally – by pointing out how bad the network is and then still letting it have access to the public airwaves. At the end of the day, I still believe that the best way to counter an argument against you is not to censor it, but to engage it and refute it.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

A New On-Line Publication From Bolivia

For those of you who like to follow political events in Bolivia and appreciate a perspective that is left-of-center but well researched and written, some friends of ours in La Paz have started a new on-line newspaper worth reading: Ukhampacha Bolivia. The title is Aymara for, “This is Bolivia.”

The lead writers of the publication are Luis Gómez, who has written for some time for the on-line publication ‘Narco News’, and Jean Friedman-Rudovsky who has also written for Time Magazine. You can find their new publication, published weekly in both English and Spanish here.

Ukhampacha Bolivia was started a month ago and has published articles looking at the racial undertones of Cochabamba’s January violence, the Evo re-election issue, and looks currently at the government’s gas export plans. One thing in particular that you will find from the authors is a critical analysis of the Morales government from a left perspective. While critiques from the right are abundant, published crituques from the left are less so. Both Jean and Luis also have excellent sources throughout Bolivian society and draw on them in their writing. They have also begun posting commentary and analyis from elsewhere in Latin America.

Conservatives who don’t like their views challenged probably won’t like Ukhampacha Bolivia. But everyone else should give it a look.

Oh yes, about the image above. Nothing is inferred other than that I really like dogs. I wish one of mine could bring me the New York Times like this in the morning, but the nearest place it is sold is Miami and that's a long trip even for Little Bear.