Electing Evo

Jan. 26, 2006, midnight | By Jody Pollock | 14 years, 11 months ago

What happens when a tall, red-headed social studies teacher observes elections in Bolivia

Abandoning any pretense of hospitality or even civility, they threw rocks at the visitor. But it was all in the name of democracy.

Apparently, elections in Bolivia can get messy, as social studies teacher David Swaney explained in an e-mail written during his roughly two-week stint in the Latin American country this past December. He traveled there as an official election observer with the Organization of American States (OAS), a league of 34 democratic countries in the Western Hemisphere. While Swaney himself was met with little more than unadulterated awe for his six-foot-three stature and red hair, a fellow observer fared much worse when faced with a mob of villagers angered by certain voting restrictions. The observer's car was almost pushed over and he was stoned — "and I don't mean on drugs," wrote Swaney wryly.

In one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America, it is not surprising that elections cause such a stir, especially since Bolivia is so divided. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a non-partisan foreign-policy think tank, despite the fact that 60 to 70 percent of the populace is indigenous, Bolivia has never had an indigenous president, and the native population has largely been disenfranchised — until now.

On Dec. 18, Evo Morales, an indigenous cocalero, or coca-leaf grower, was elected to the presidency with more votes than any other candidate in the democratic history of Bolivia, wrote Steven Griner, OAS Assistant Chief of the Electoral Observation Mission, in an e-mail from Bolivia three days after the election.

And Swaney was there to witness the event. For him, it was worth the risk to legitimize the Bolivian elections and, in the process, observe history taking shape.


This was not Swaney's first time on an electoral mission. In fact, it was his 10th. Ever since observing the 1991 election in Suriname, a Latin American country bordering Brazil, Swaney has been hooked: Fluent in Spanish, he's since gone to the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala and Venezuela to observe elections. Swaney also hopes to observe the Colombian elections this summer.

While it doesn't hurt that OAS pays him for each mission, what attracts Swaney to these trips is the opportunity to immerse himself in the politics of another country while rejuvenating himself as a teacher. "As a teacher you have to try to stay fresh and find ways to stay excited and recharge your batteries," he says. "It's also a context change." Before this mission, Swaney knew only what little about Bolivia he could pick up from reading The Washington Post, so the mission was also "a great, intensive political study of a country."

13,000 feet

But his first day in Bolivia was hardly energizing. Swaney arrived in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, on Dec. 10 and was greeted with a dizzying headache from the high altitude — at over 13,000 feet above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world, standing level with the tallest mountains in the contiguous U.S. It was not exactly the warmest welcome he had ever received, but after a cup of coca tea, Swaney began to adjust.

Over the next 13 days, Swaney tramped across Bolivia, zooming up winding mountain roads that threatened to plunge his car off of precipices, driving over boulders stranded in dry riverbeds that were equally dangerous when flooded and speeding down into the hot, sticky jungle where waterfalls were "just spilling out of the mountains."

Swaney, along with nine other observers, was stationed in Cochabamba, the third-largest city in Bolivia and the heart of the coca-growing region. Every day for about a week, Swaney and a personal driver traveled over four hours to arrive at his assigned observation site, Colcha, a tiny mountain village of about 100 people. While there, he spent time interacting with the locals and taking denuncios, or complaints of fraud or wrongdoing, before the election. Every night, Swaney traveled another four hours to return to his hotel in Cochabamba.

Voting by mustache

And then, finally, it was election day. Each ballot was a large sheet of paper printed with the candidates' faces and party flags in color-coded sections. Since over 12 percent of the population is illiterate, according to the CIA World Factbook, these ballots allow for visual recognition. Voters make a mark in the section containing whichever candidate they support, and each mark is counted as a vote.

But despite the supposed simplicity of the voting system, some people still made mistakes. Swaney remembers seeing marks in between candidates or on more than one. Some voters doodled on the candidates' faces, drawing mustaches. The rule for dealing with mustaches: As long as only one candidate is mustached, the vote is counted, but more than one means the vote is a nullo, or a null ballot. Swaney laughs as he recalls, "I think there were more nullos than votes for the conservative guy that the U.S. wanted."

Even if some ballots were wasted, according to Swaney, about 85 percent of the population voted, a figure that "puts the United States to shame." Swaney laments the fact that many Americans fail to take advantage of their right to vote when some Bolivians walk for up to eight hours to an election site just to cast their ballots. "We're exporting democracy? And we're the lamest democracy in the world," he says. But Swaney also recognizes that unlike in the U.S., Bolivian law requires that all adults vote, and failure to vote is punishable by a fine.

Mountain misadventures

Swaney never actually handled the ballots because, as an observer, he was not to interfere with the actual voting process at all. Instead, he was responsible for monitoring the proceedings and noting any irregularities. After the polls closed and all votes were hand-counted, Swaney had to phone in the results to the OAS supervisor in La Paz as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, making a phone call in Colcha is essentially impossible. Out of cell phone range, Swaney was forced to drive an hour to a slightly larger town of 500 people. When he finally arrived, 11 people were waiting in line to use the town's one telephone. Already over an hour behind schedule, Swaney asked to jump in front, and luckily, the people in line politely obliged. He finally got through and was told he was the last of 150 OAS observers to call in.

But that was not the end of the ordeal — he still had to make it back up to Colcha. So, with the car's tank nearly on empty and night fast approaching, Swaney and his driver attempted to rush back up the mountain to Colcha. So, with the car's tank nearly on empty and night fast approaching, Swaney and his driver attempted to rush back up the mountain. Enveloped in darkness, they hugged the edge of the mountain, driving up narrow roads bordered by cliffs on both sides. At one point, they had to flag down a passing truck to siphon some gas into the car. There were also "roadblocks," as Swaney calls them, where rocks rained down on the car, presumably thrown by villagers hidden in the darkness. It is possible those rocks were thrown with malicious intent, especially if the villagers knew an American was in the car.

Leaves and the left

Anti-American sentiment is rampant in Bolivia, says. Swaney "A lot of people [in Bolivia] are starting to hate the United States," he says. "As soon as you open your mouth it's like `Ugh. Gringo.'"

This animosity stems from growing tension between the two countries. Failed economic policies and the U.S. government's war on drugs have further compounded an already strained relationship, says Swaney. And since Morales is a strong proponent of protecting rights to the cultivation of the coca leaf, which can be used to produce cocaine, he has faced strong opposition from the United States, according to CFR. Morales argues that coca itself is not a drug, that it is often used instead as an herbal remedy and that many rely on its cultivation as their sole source of income, according to CFR. But the United States Drug Enforcement Agency is more concerned with the fact that Bolivia is the world's third-largest coca cultivator and drug trafficking continues to be an enormous problem, according to the CIA World Factbook.

As a result, the Bush administration is unhappy with the election results. Morales was the head of the coca growers' trade union, "so you can imagine what [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice thought of that," says Swaney, grinning.

Furthermore, Morales's election echoes a recent trend in Latin America of democratically elected leftists, including recently reelected Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, an outspoken critic of the U.S. government, says Swaney. "It's solidifying and catalyzing a whole movement towards the left in Latin America," he explains. "It means that the Bush administration's worst fears might be coming true — that [Morales] might be reaching out to the extreme left rather than towards the United States."

Still, the U.S. has no choice but to accept Morales. "They have to shut up and live with it," says Swaney. Denouncing a democratic election legitimized by OAS, of which the U.S. is a member, would work against the Bush administration, he continues. So, according to Griner, Rice and the U.S. Embassy issued statements that as long as Morales "respects the democratic institutions of his country, the U.S. will be willing to work with him."

But it remains to be seen what lies in Bolivia's future. Griner says most Bolivians are hopeful that Morales will provide stability to the country. "They see a future, in the short term at least, with no road blockades," he writes.

Except, of course, for those villagers throwing stones.

Jody Pollock. Jody is a CAP senior (finally!) who is looking forward to another great year in Silver Chips. When she's not driving herself crazy with her impossibly busy schedule, she's singing with InToneNation and going to City at Peace practically every day of the week. Somehow … More »

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