Sunday, April 15, 2007

Good Friday, Butch Cassidy and dangerous work

On Good Friday, I went to the main square in front of the cathedral to see the procession of the casket of Jesus. A military honor guard accompanies the casket through the streets. The cardinal gave a sermon in the main square. He has a voice like a TV announcer, and indeed, his sermon was being carried live by several of the TV networks. Cameras were everywhere.

Holy Week is a very big event in Bolivia. Good Friday is feriado, a day off, and there are colorful pullout sections of the paper showing the Stations of the Cross, maps of Jerusalem, important moments in the Passion of Christ. Catholicism mixed well with the indigenous religions, so the country is extremely Catholic. Evangelical churches, however, are gaining ground rapidly. There are several Christian (as opposed to Catholic) radio stations and lots of missionaries from the U.S. I get a closeup look at this from my outpost at the Evangelical University.

A couple of weeks before we started reading about Holy Week, the coverage of the Miss Santa Cruz competition began in earnest. Try to imagine four or five weeks of pre Super Bowl coverage with intimate biographies and photo shoots of each of the players, and you get some idea of the intensity of press coverage devoted to this beauty contest involving 15 women.

Seeing extensive Holy Week coverage mixed with the beauty pageant coverage provided a startling and instructive cultural contrast.

Saturday night I went to the cathedral to hear the McDaniel College gospel choir (from Westminster, Maryland, near Baltimore). The place was packed. Even though they only had 10 of their 80 singers on tour, it was a rousing, hand-clapping performance. The audience loved it. I got chills hearing the gospel music. I have always enjoyed it. You can hear the roots of jazz and blues and pop music in the spirituals. The president of McDaniel, Joan Coley, is a friend of mine, so I sent her some pictures. The chorus's director, Eric Byrd, is a fantastic piano player and has a jazz trio.

Every few days you read about another tradesman or construction worker getting killed on the job. There have been two recent cases in which welders were sealing the tanks for gasoline trucks when the tanks exploded and killed them. After the first such incident, you would have thought the second one would not have taken place. Wouldn't they make sure there were no residual fumes in the tank first before starting to weld?

Workers regularly get killed in falls from high places. These guys were working on a building near the city center. One of the local papers ran a picture of a sign painter who fell from a billboard and was impaled on an iron fence. The photo showed the points sticking through his torso, which hung from the fence. Worker safety is not a big concern here. Skilled construction workers get paid $10 a day, unskilled $5.

Construction workers (albañiles, from an Arabic word) get killed so often in Latin America, that there is a whole class of jokes and stories about bodies and body parts of albañiles. García Márquez tells one such story, which he presents as true, in his autobiography. Seems the physician instructor for an anatomy class sent a cow´s heart to the high school cafeteria´s refrigerator for storage. Someone stole the heart, which is a delicacy. The doctor then sent as a replacement the heart of a construction worker killed in a four-story fall. The kitchen staff was confused and thought the heart was for the teachers´ lunch and prepared it with sauces and spices. Márquez doesn´t say whether the tasty delicacy was served. Apparently it was not.

If there is one fact that people know about Bolivia, it's that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end here. The owner of a restaurant near my apartment has on display this Winchester .44, 1892 Model, which supposedly was in the possession of Butch and Sundance when they were killed. The story is plausible, given that the restaurant owner supposedly bought it from one of Bolivia's former presidents. It's plausible that a president would be trafficking in goods owned by the state and of uncertain provenance.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Geoglyphs in Chile

Chile is an odd place, a desert that lies on a coastline. Away from the coast, it looks like Mars -- dry, reddish soil unrelieved by any sign of life. I spent a weekend in the port city of Iquique, which got its start as a mining town. A 1,500-foot cliff forms the eastern boundary of the city, and it is a great place to do paragliding. These guys can stay up for hours.

The nitrate deposits lying near the surface here were mined and exported all over the world. It was used as fertilizer mainly but it also had minerals used to make gunpowder and sulfuric acid, among many other products. The Pacific War of 1879 was fought among Chile, Peru and Bolivia over control of nitrates. That´s when Bolivia lost its coastline. It is still trying to get it back, now by offering Chile gas for a corridor to the sea.

Today Iquique is a center for container shipping, commercial fishing and tourism. Santiago is 1,000 miles to the south, and a lot of its residents vacation here. The water is pumped in from hundreds of miles away, far up in the mountains. I went to a hot springs oasis far into the interior and about 4,000 feet above sea level.

About 1,500 years ago, at the height of the Tiwanaku empire, which was based on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the local shamans produced thousands of carvings in the soil and rock. Many have survived in the dry mountain air.

Among the best examples are at a place called Pintados, about an hour or so east of Iquique. These carvings go about four to eight inches deep into the soil or rock and are sometimes highlighted by patterns of inlaid stone. Some of them are 50 to 100 feet across. The guide, who really knew his stuff, explained the religious significance of many of the groupings. It´s hard to reproduce the impact in photographs. The size of the images and their location are stunning. One supple image near the center depicts a shark. These glyphs were supposed to create a sense of religious awe. They still do.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Training the trainers at La Razon

This is my favorite souvenir of my six months here in Bolivia. I spent a week with these folks, the editors at La Razon newspaper in La Paz, giving seminars on leadership and coaching. What does that mean? Leadership means giving people extremely clear expectations, standards and direction. Coaching means helping them reach these goals and their own professional goals as well. Most of it is learning how to communicate frankly and effectively.

This group was really into the training, so there was lots of interchange and plenty of skeptical questions. On my last day there, they surprised me by running this photo on Page 2 of their paper. The photo caption says basically what I just said: that I was doing leadership training. If you click on the picture you can see it better. Here I´m always one of the tallest people in the room.

We did one day on how to handle real-life cases that editors face -- the arrogant reporter, the personal phone calls, the failure to meet deadlines, etc.. Most journalists get very little training in people stuff before they´re put in charge of other journalists, so this group welcomed the help.

A trusted voice of news in Bolivia

Father Jose Gramunt, to the right, is a Jesuit priest and highly respected newspaper columnist here in Bolivia. He appears in the major dailies and is a model of fearless political and social commentary. Because of his longevity and his independence of any political party over many decades, he has a unique standing. His opinions carry a lot of weight. He doesn't pull any punches, and he is as likely to question the tactics of the left as the right.

He is also the founder and director of a national news service called Fides that is known for its independence and credibility, which really counts in a country where no one trusts any authority. Most of the papers in the country subscribe to it. It offers general news as well as sports, business, politics, crime, etc. Fides also has a radio news network of some 30 stations around the country.

A recent report from the Interamerican Press Association mentioned that Gramunt's news agency has received threats from President Morales's party, which accuses the journalists of "promoting sedition with the goal of overthrowing the government of Evo Morales."

Father Gramunt asked me to do a critique of a week´s production of the wire service for his 10 journalists. His goal: How could they make their news report more enterprising, with more initiative, and be less reactive? Over two mornings, and two batches of salteñas (tasty filled pastries), we went into that, and the journalists participated with lots of energy and enthusiasm.

Journalists want to work for Father Gramunt. He has trained many of the best in the country. Born in Tarragona in Spain, he came to Bolivia in 1952 as a student and eventually persuaded his Jesuit bosses that he should be a journalist. The news service grew out of a Jesuit radio network whose original focus was on religious programming. Gramunt wanted to do more journalistic programming but the church couldn´t finance it. The only way he could make it work financially was to start a subscriber news service, which is what he did in 1963. It´s managed to pay its own way for more than 40 years. Gramunt, 84, has a real sense of mission. He knows how important a credible news source is in an emerging democracy.

A culture of bribes

Yesterday El Deber ran this picture of the head of the local Immigration office being hauled off to jail in a big bribery scandal. He is charged with running the highly lucrative business of providing quick turnaround on passports for $300 to $700 at a time when a lot of desperate Bolivians are trying to leave the country to look for work. If you don´t pay the bribes, you have to wait for months to get a passport. He´s smiling probably because he knows he won´t be in jail long. When things cool down he´ll be out.

The pace of bribery picked up recently as April 1 was an important deadline. On that day, Spain would no longer admit Bolivians on tourist visas, the usual way for them to enter the European Community to look for work illegally.
Ironically, the guy going to jail was brought in a few months ago to clean up all of the crooked dealing going on under his predecessor. But there is evidently too much money floating around for anyone to stay clean. One newspaper article mentioned that there was a network of more than 50 travel agencies and an unspecified number of paperwork fixers (tramitadores) involved in this illegal traffic.

Meanwhile, the ruling party of President Evo Morales has shown new levels of audacity in the business of giving jobs to political friends. The old corrupt system was bad, and the new one has taken it to new heights. Under the old system, you had to prove party loyalty to get a government job. Under the new corrupt system of Morales´s party, you also have to pay $500 to $1,000 to the party official who gets you the job. The cash payments are an innovation of the socialist government. When Morales learned of the problem he turned it over to his own party to supposedly clean it up. They charged a couple of low-level sacrificial lambs but all of the ringleaders have escaped any judicial action.

My own experience
I´ve had some visa difficulties of my own with Bolivia´s immigration officials. Let's just say that it helps to know the right people. Meanwhile, the visa that I actually need to be here as a guest university lecturer requires 15 steps, of which I have completed five.

1. It started with an Interpol background check at National Police Headquarters, where I was fingerprinted and photographed. In addition to the legally required fees of 50 bolivianos, I had to pay another 50 bolivianos, a day´s pay, in illegal, undocumented fees for which I was not given receipt. I have a document now that says I´m not an international terrorist or drug smuggler.

2. Center for Tropical Disease Research, 180 bolivianos for blood tests for AIDs and yellow fever; told to return the following day for results. No bribe required.

3. Back to police headquarters to get a certificate of antecedents (show passport to prove I´m an American), required thumbprint, 25 Bs official payment (plus 5 Bs payment, not legal, demanded by clerk), told to come back for document next day.

4. Police headquarters again, proof of residence, also required thumbprint, official payment of 13 Bs (plus 20 Bs illegal payment, demanded by clerk), told to come back for completed document next day.

5. Had photo taken for NIT, national tax ID, downtown atprivate studio, had to come back next day, 15 Bs.

Meanwhile, it´s possible to get your visa extended by anywhere from 30 to 90 days, depending on the whim of the immigration official, by leaving and re-entering the country. I did this once to Peru and once to Chile. It appears that the 15-step visa process will be moot. I´m good through June 18.