A blockade culture in Bolivia – why don’t have one at home?

How to start a blockade. It's easy, just get some rocks.
How to start a blockade. It’s easy, just get some rocks.

We’re still reverberating a little from the blockade and protest we witnessed in Cochabamba. We got pretty close to what was going on, but, actually, protests and blockades aren’t an unusual part of the Bolivian travel experience:

  • One traveler we spoke to was sat on a stopped bus for twenty four hours because the road was blocked by grumpy villagers whose disquiet seemed to be caused by something about vegetables
  • Another was taking the much longer way from Sucre to La Paz because the direct route was apparently blocked
  • We’ve heard lots of tales of El Alto throwing about its strategic muscle by blocking the main route out of La Paz

And they’re just run of the mill blockades. In Cochabamba there was also the water war of 2000. In 2007, shortly before Fiona’s younger sister arrived for a year  with a host family, a blockade turned into a violent confrontation and a friend of one of her host brothers was hanged.

Why don’t we have blockades at home?

I can’t think of a protest in modern New Zealand where the intention was to generally disrupt people’s lives to make a point. The 1981 Springbok tour protests were about stopping games (and the tour). Land occupations, like at Motua gardens, were specifically about a piece of land. And the Foreshore and Seabed hikoi, by far and away the largest in my lifetime, certainly had the numbers to make a massive amount of mischief, but didn’t.

What explains this protest culture difference? I don’t think Bolivians are more aggressive or violent by nature. Instead, I’m prepared to moot the following range of hypotheses:

  • New Zealanders have more faith in democratic processes as a means for change. Bolivia’s history is littered with military dictatorships and corrupt politicians. It’s not that New Zealand doesn’t have some of the latter, but the longevity of our democracy, and the preservation of the rule of law, probably blunt the need for civil disobedience of the rioting kind. the faith in democracy also limits the sympathy the population might have if there was a blockade.
  • Maybe the democratic process means we don’t end up with any many egregious policies or massive unfairnesses that make people feel they need to take to the streets violently. There are exceptions of course, see foreshore and seabed above, but still.
  • A lot of Bolivian blockades seem to be strike related and a lot of the strikes seem to be because government workers don’t get paid. With the exception of our teachers in recent times, we do tend to pay people, and that keeps them off the streets.
  • There’s a path dependency issue, which is hard to overcome. Even though Bolivia’s democracy seems to be more stable now, there’s a pattern that what you don when you get pissed off is take to the streets. This is a hard habit  to kick.

What would happen if we did?

I’ve also been left wondering what would happen if there was a blockade. Say a bunch of activists managed to block Ngauranga Gorge or the Auckland Harbour Bridge, as unfathomable as that is. I’ve asked the police whether we have tear gas, and in what circumstances they would use it. In practice I imagine a range of legal and political considerations would frame any response and it’s hard to deal with in the hypothetical.

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