The day [16th April] starts at around 5am with the sounds of a neighbours dog barking, loud bangs coming from doors at the other end of the hostel, and raised voices echoing across the courtyard. While we have been quite disciplined with our early morning starts, this morning we awake much earlier than anticipated.
The noise throughout the hostel increases, and it becomes quickly apparent that all is not well. “Open the door. Police. Immigration. Open the door” are the shouts from along the corridor, and the heavy footsteps come closer and closer.
Room by room is visited by the scores of police, flanked by members of the local immigration squad. We are each required to find our passports while answering questions as to our identities, countries of origin, place of arrival and reasons for being in Bolivia. The more unlucky in our group are subjected to full room and bag searches, as the raised voices and loud banging on doors continue around the building.
We each have our different conversations with the authorities in our individual rooms, and are led to believe that we’re on the receiving end of an immigration raid, linked to the upcoming conference, and as part of a strategy to ensure that there are no ‘undesirables’ in town as politicians and heads of state begin to arrive.
Though it’s hard not to be a little paranoid, and a fair bit shaken, our concerns are for those in this hostel and beyond that may not have the same passports and little official stamps as us. Satisfied that ‘we’ are here legitimately we are left in peace, though wondering how many local Cochabambinos are being viewed as undesirable by the authorities, and what that might lead to for them…
Later in the day we are told, with amusement, of a news piece that had been seen on a local television channel. A policemen inspects rooms in a local hostel, holding up slightly ripped bedsheets to camera, and pointing out signs of damp on the walls. He proudly explains the authorities role in ensuring that standards and conditions are good enough for the impending influx of foreigners heading to take part in the conference. While that might explain the continuing and vast amount of improvements that have been made to our hostel since our arrival, none of us recollect any of our early morning uninvited guests paying much attention to the state of our walls or our beds.
The evening treats us much better, as we meet with individuals from local collectives and autonomous groups to discuss their concerns and plans for the upcoming conference. While the focus of the conference remains steadfastly on international issues, and the historic climate debt owed by the most industrialised nations, no room is being made to examine the impacts of Bolivia’s current internal policies of extraction and commercialisation of natural resources. These policies can be seen specifically in the increased mining in San Cristobal, and the so called “green” mega-project dam in Pando, and none are on the table for discussion in any of the 17 working groups. “Everything inside the conference is already cooked,” we are told.
There was a strong feeling expressed that recent years have seen a co-opting of social movements in Bolivia, from a government claiming to represent, yet silencing those in dissent. We were reminded that during the Water Wars a foreign multinational was removed from the country without the aid or support of government of party political leaders, and no government is going to adequately deal with the current problems that the people face. Yet there is also a sense of paralysis felt, a fear that in speaking out against the current administration, social movements may play into the hands of the right-wingers that seek to destabilise and undo the achievements that have been gained.
During the interchange of ideas and positions, Alejandra spoke to us of the internal colonialism evident in many of the people of Bolivia. As small farmers and indigenous peoples have moved from rural areas to cities, in search of means of survival, they have also become increasingly effected by outside influences. Disregarding, and even feeling shame of, their cultural roots, many place the development models and cultures of the global north on a pedestal as something to aspire to.
While many in Europe have expressed the need for us travelling activists to have a mostly listening and learning role here in Cochabamba, she spoke of the distinct need for us to speak of our struggles. In making spaces for us to highlight the injustices and inadequacies of our own models of government, economics, development, and shallow cultures of consumption, we can help to displace the image of everything in the global north being ‘better’.
We look forward to continuing these conversations, and taking spaces in which these ideas can be shared and discussed further.