Wanders and Wonders
I thought it might be nice (and, I must admit, easy for me) to give the chance to some other people (i.e. my friends) to share their perspective on expat life in Bolivia. And the genius stroke about this first interview is that the subject, Shawn Arquiñego, just happens to both live and work with me. Therefore I still get to write about my life while seeming to be allowing someone else to speak!
(I should probably preface this by saying that if you haven’t seen the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off a couple of allusions here might be lost on you. So if you somehow made it through the Eighties without having the biggest crush on Matthew Broderick, please note that references to Cameron are NOT to the current Prime Minister.)
Maddington Bear: So tell me, are we more Cameron or Ferris today?
Shawn Arquiñego: Feeling kinda Cameron actually. It’s not that I’m in a bad mood, I just don’t feel like…sometimes you got it you know, it just flows.
MB: It’s only a Tuesday. So what does somewhat Cameron get up to on a sunny Tuesday in Cochabamba?
SA: Well there’s the distinct possibility that I’m gonna go climb. But other than that I’ll probably just sit in the office. So nothing very entertaining.
MB: And which office would that be?
SA: The office of The Democracy Center. With my colleague Maddy Ryle, you may be familiar with her.
MB: And what happens at the Democracy Center? What are you and Maddy working on right now?
SA: The Center’s work is very multi-faceted. It has a long history of doing advocacy work on various social justice issues in the US prior to moving to Bolivia. Also the Center’s involved in anti-corporate campaigning, from the work that we did on the Bechtel campaign following the Water War in Cochabamba. We’re currently involved in a campaign against Pacific Rim mining from Canada in El Salvador. The Salvadorian government refused to renew Pacific Rim’s exploration permits, and since El Salvador is part of CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) Pacific Rim repatriated to Nevada in order to file a lawsuit in a World Bank tribunal for the sum of $77 million [or thereabouts] against the Salvadorian people.
I’m working on a few things. On a report on the effect of climate change in Bolivia on water resources and weather patterns, and its impacts on different segments of society. I’m working on a draft so that Maddy can edit it. I’ve just written a brief response on the new mining consultation law in Peru and the TIPNIS march in Bolivia. [Democracy Center Director Jim Shultz has also just published new commentary on TIPNIS and the Tarsands pipeline campaign in Washington]. Some NJGI stuff – that’s the Network for Justice in Global Investment. It comes out of our anti-corporate campaigning work but looking at the dynamics of Bilateral Investment Treaties and regional free trade agreements, and how they undermine national sovereignty. As you see with the case of Pacific Rim, the government in El Salvador passed legislation to protect the environment and protect limited water resources, and because of that they are exposed to the judgment of an international tribunal that has no democratic accountability whatsoever. And who’s going to pay the price? Oh yeah, your average poor Salvadorian.
Mads is our media and communications strategy guru. Oh, and she does do yoga as well. It’s basically like the movie ‘Big’. You put in ten Bolivianos and she spits out some wisdom. But she’s not all powerful, we see weaknesses and insecurities just like everyone else…what did you ask me about?
MB: Me! What I do at work!
SA: Oh yeah. You know, I really don’t know…But a great thing about our jobs at the Center is the amount of flexibility that we have to organize our time, and therefore lots of flexibility to travel, or to work on other side projects. Like Maddy’s blog, or like my (here comes the plug) slots for Free Speech Radio News.
MB: So can you give us your Cameron perspective on the state of Bolivian politics just now…
SA: I think generally when I’m assessing political situations, it’s usually Cameron talking…I think there’s a lot of disillusionment with the current administration. Morales’ electoral victory was historic and he essentially rode into office on the backs of social movements. And people feel he’s kind of betrayed his base to some degree….But there are some really positive developments that came out of Evo being elected. One thing that needs to be acknowledged is this resurgence in pride in indigenous identity, and that’s something that goes beyond laws, beyond any kind of social policy. The cultural revolution is hugely significant in terms of how people understand themselves in the country and how they operate in politics as a result.
You know, I think the balance [some might say split…] in my personality is necessary, because if I were Cameron all the time I’d be incredibly jaded and depressed about the state of the world.
MB: And if you were Ferris all the time?
SA: Well you just don’t engage the world outside, you don’t engage with politics or societal problems, it’s just about being in your element and raging [this is North American slang for ‘partying’]. But if I didn’t have those moments I’d be really miserable.
MB: What kinds of things are likely to happen on a Ferris day?
SA: There is…uh…sometimes a little bit of…uh…
SA: Courting. But not in the traditional Victorian sense that you English would understand. It’s more in the American sense where courting involves grabbing a woman’s ass and licking her neck. But it depends on the day. Cameron doesn’t do those kinds of things. Ferris clearly thinks he’s a playboy and can do whatever he wants, and he generally does. So yeah, the machista thing in Bolivian culture. For some reason I feel very empowered by it…I mean obviously it’s something that I benefit from tacitly, I don’t really derive pleasure from it…
MB: Do you think it might be the Latino in you? Because we haven’t let the readers know…
SA: Oh what, we have to talk about me being Peruvian? My patriotism? Sorry I value and take pride in some elements of Peruvian culture, yes.
MB: What do you like about Peruvian culture?
SA: I think growing up in a family environment [in the US] that was very disconnected, I feel while my Peruvian family’s very dysfunctional – partially because everybody lives together – there’s a lot more in terms of understanding…conceptions of family are different I think, compared to how [North] Americans understand it.
MB: That’s not specifically Peruvian I guess. You’d find that in Bolivia as well for example…Do you think it is a dynamic of what we call Western culture?
SA: Yeah. Well I think there are economic compulsions for it that we don’t have in the United States or in the developed world. You know when I turned 17 I was in a position where I could move out my house in the US whereas my cousins [in Lima] don’t have the financial capacity to move out on their own. And there’s more of an expectation that you would stay.
MB: Tell me, how many Phish shows have you been to?
SA: [Long pause] Now I know everyone’s going to judge. You know, you hear, well, he’s been to 48 Phish shows…
SA: Oh you want to explore this? It’s about improvisation…they’re very intellectual experiences too in some respects. It’s about the unpredictability, you never know what song they’re going to play, and beyond that the songs are launch pads for further improvisation. Take a song like ‘Tweezer’. It’s a perfect example of one of their ‘jam vehicles’. I don’t really like the term but…
MB: Is that like a big lorry that carries what you call ‘jelly’ around.
SA: Yes, that’s why I tour with Phish. For the free jelly.
MB: So it was National Day of the Pedestrian in Bolivia last Sunday. How was that?
SA: It was really serene. It changes people’s conceptions of community I think. In Cochabamba there’s nearly a million people; massive population growth and unfortunately the infrastructure hasn’t kept up with it. And on a regular day there’s no space to do anything. There aren’t many parks, there’s not a lot of space for kids to ride bikes, or for kids to just be kids. So it afforded people the opportunity to get out in their communities, and you just noticed a marked shift in people’s moods and how they carry themselves and interact with other people. Everyone’s just a lot more positive and relaxed. Freedom, you know. That’s something you said: this is freedom. And this feeds into conceptions of freedom; in the United States it’s very much based on this negative conception of freedom…
MB: Cars are a bit like a freedom vehicle in the way that Phish songs are like jam vehicles…
SA: I much prefer jam vehicles as they don’t take up physical space or pollute the environment. Um, so…in American society people understand freedom as freedom from government control, freedom from restrictions on the things you like to do. Whereas a positive conception of freedom is more about what kind of society do you want to construct?
MB: And do you feel like in Bolivia, then, people are more engaged with how to construct their society?
SA: Maybe, but with respect to Día del Peatón I think it’s not looked at in that sense; it’s more looked at as a holiday you get to enjoy with your family. And I mean, we’ve talked about this a lot, it’s still based here on the [North] American model of owning a vehicle is the equivalent to societal status and freedom, and that hasn’t changed.
MB: Bolivia in five adjectives?
SA: Shortsighted…um…Breathtaking, it really is. Some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen in my life. Hm, I have something in my head I don’t know how to convey in one word…Because of the size of the country’s population [just ten or so million in the world’s 28th largest nation] there is kind of this historic opportunity to take the idea of development in a different direction…
SA: Yeah, promising. There are opportunities here that there aren’t in other countries, where there’s a more entrenched capitalist class.
MB: Or revolutionary?
SA: Yeah, take back promising, let’s say revolutionary. What else? Extreme. It’s a place of extremes, in terms of geography as well.
MB: Yep. ‘Extreme’ and ‘diverse’ are the classic guidebook descriptions of Bolivia, but I think for good reason.
SA: And resilient
MB: There’s a lot of people on the left in the global north who put hopes in Latin America because of the political changes that have been taking place here, plus recent studies show that awareness of and concern about climate change is much higher here than in other continents. How much basis do you think those hopes have, that Latin America harbours the potential for political change and reconceptualization?
SA: I think there is a basis for them, but I also think that hoping that change is coming from some other continent, or that some other people, some other leaders will actually carry out that kind of change that you want to see in your country, is utterly misguided. If you want these changes that you see to be part of a broader movement, we need to create a transnational network of activists that are working within their own countries. And I think there are models that you can draw on in Latin America and those are very useful, but to just say “well, my country’s totally fucked beyond redemption, so hopefully this movement works out over there”, I think you can’t become complacent in that way, you need to take strategic lessons from that, as Jim would say.