Chai Brady speaks to an Irish missionary about the tense situation in embattled Bolivia
An Irish lay missionary who is serving the local community in Bolivia is living through a political fiasco which has led to protests and violence that kicked off in October after a disputed presidential election.
Anne Reilly of Viatores Christi was shocked at the “turmoil that erupted” after October 20 elections which were disputed over their legitimacy. As a result ex-President Evo Morales resigned on November 10.
Coming to Bolivia in January this year and assisting with two Church-run projects, she describes it as “the most turbulent time in their history”.
In one of South America’s poorest countries, Morales served as the first indigenous president for 14 years and was seen as a defender of the poor and marginalised. He controlled the executive, legislature and judiciary, as well as the electoral authority, police and army.
It took 20 days of protests after the elections before he decided to leave the country and seek asylum in Mexico.
This occurred in spite of a 2016 referendum in which the Bolivian populace voted against Morales running for a fourth term, the Constitutional Court overruled the people’s decision, on the grounds that it constrained his ‘human rights’. This allowed him to run for president once more but on the election night the vote count was suspended for 24 hours just as the trend seem to point the president wouldn’t have a 10% lead against his opponents, which in turn would ensure there would be no runoff vote and Morales would secure a victory.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Ms Reilly says: “We had the voting and as the results were coming in on the TV we had a ‘blackout’, mainly because it was so close and to win it had to be by 10%. Of course, the next morning Eva Morales claimed victory by the barest of 10% and there were calls from the opposition of ‘fraud’.
“It took two weeks of protests, blockades, waiting on the results of an international enquiry before the situation reached boiling point.”
Ms Reilly first left Ireland in the 1980s after a disaster in Ethiopian was shown on the news. She remembers wondering: “How can I help these peoples? Thinking, I will do anything, whatever needs to be done.”
She says: “It was a very primal response from a very naive young woman in her early 20s from a small country parish called Balbriggan, Co. Dublin, so began my missionary journey.”
After this, she left for Benue State in Nigeria to teach English and do office administration with the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary.
“On my return I found myself wondering, questioning and searching out answers to the big questions: “Why do some people live in such extreme poverty while others enjoy an affluent lifestyle…?”
“I perused studies in development issues and completed a degree in theology, at the Mission Institute Kimmage Manor. To help me with my knowledge, understanding and Faith questions.”
In 2015 after an earthquake, Ms Reilly went to Peru to help, and lived there for a year where she got involved in parish life and helped out with a women’s group. It was in 2018 that, after taking classes in Spanish, she engaged Viatores Christi in Phibsboro in Dublin, and after a training course was sent to serve in Bolivia.
When Morales resigned he no longer had the support of the police or the army. Ms Reilly described her experience at the time saying: “Then we had massive street protests, huge blockades, it became difficult for the people to get to work, transport came to a standstill, cities were cut off from each other. Public transport buses were burnt out in La Paz, over 60 of them. It just was not safe, the country was divided for and against the former president.”
Interim president and long-time critic of Morales, conservative leader Jeanine Áñez was chosen in line with the constitution and addressed Bolivians outside the government palace for the first time in her new role on November 12 holding a Bible and committing to pacify the situation.
Áñez, a proud Christian, immediately marked herself out from the former president who had got rid of religious oaths of office, saying: “God has allowed the Bible to come back into the palace. May he bless us.”
Some commentators have said this would be extremely provocative for the indigenous population in the country, who would be staunch Morales supporters and whose beliefs and rights he fought for.
For this reason her commitment to pacification seemed to fall flat, particularly as it wasn’t the effect. Ms Reilly says the announcement of the new interim president “inflamed the situation and the police and army were deployed onto the streets to maintain ‘law and order’ and the protests continued and over 30 people have been killed”.
“It has been a tough few weeks after the elections on October 10, between the street protests, blockades, huge boom noises from bangers going off 24/7, the not knowing when and where the different protesters groups would be in confrontation with each other.
Transport came to a standstill, cities were cut off from each other. Public transport buses were burnt out in La Paz”
“The menacing faces covered with scarfs and pipe brandishing motorcyclist groups, meeting them from time to time leaves an uneasy feeling that ‘this is going to erupt!’”
“Food shortages and price rises were inevitable because of the city blockades, this is where cities like La Paz, Cochabamba, Sucre, Santa Cruz, etc. were all cut off from each other, a deliberate ploy to enhance the fear of the peoples, never mind starve them.
“Because transport was affected by the blockades, fuel could not get through to the different parts of the country, people could not work. The food in the markets, basic foods like meat, potatoes, veg and fruits were either scarce or the prices had risen beyond peoples means. I saw queues for milk, cheese and dairy products, that I had never seen before.
“Schools closed, because teachers came from different parts and could not get to schools. Children’s education has been badly affected. Normally the schools close at the end of November for the summer holidays here, but they closed three to four weeks earlier.”
A lot of ex-pats, particularly US citizens Ms Reilly says, were advised to leave with the volunteer/lay missionaries in her house dropping from seven to two.
“I would say it has been a turbulent, anxious time for everyone, but for the Bolivian people it has been horrendous, not unlike a civil war atmosphere, where neighbours, colleagues, friends became conflicted as Bolivia became a divided country,” she says.
Indigenous people and ‘city people’ were pitted against each other, Ms Reilly explains, because the former President Evo Morales was “so loved by the indigenous Bolivian, who saw him as their saviour because of the centuries of oppression here by the Spanish”, this led to “a local indigenous union leader becoming the first Indigenous president”.
“Morales and his party Movement for Socialism (MAS) brought about the nationalising of the gas/petrol against big wealthy interests (national and international), cut off diplomatic relations from countries like the US.
“Evo wanted a plurinational state [coexistence of two or more sealed or preserved national groups within a polity] that respected all the different cultural, religious, spiritual dimensions of Bolivian peoples and society. So, he fell out with the Catholic Church here. Yet, when he, Evo called for dialogue to negotiate a way out of protests and killings he asked for the EU and the Catholic Church to be negotiators?”
One of the two projects she assists with is run by the Christian Brother El Centro Hermano Manolo in the heart of Cochabamba, a city in the centre of Bolivia, in the biggest market area called La Cancha. The centre he runs helps street children who work in the market area, who can be as young as 6-7 years old up to teenagers, both boys and girls.
The other is in the south of Cochabamba in one of the most deprived areas called Nuevo Vera Cruz with the Maryknoll Fathers from the USA, again helping out in their after school programme and with small children.
These are very complicated times for the whole of Bolivia but I am hopeful”
Ms Reilly says: “The year here has opened my eyes and heart to the daily reality of people living from hand to mouth. They are mostly market peoples, selling anything and everything from fruit to clothes.
“They are very hard working peoples, up at the crack of dawn, travelling long distances and spending the day trying to sell enough to feed, clothe and shelter their families. Poverty is a daily reality for the people in both of the areas I help out at.
“What can I say, it has been a privilege to have been welcomed into the lives of many, encouraged and supported in my poor language skills, they have great patience and I have received so much more than I could ever give in time and energy.”
Speaking about the Church’s involvement in the crisis, she says it has been an “honest broker” that has helped to facilitate dialogue and public forums.
“One must remember there are over 35 different cultural groupings in Bolivia, so not all would respond to the Catholic Church’s invitation to dialogue. I attend a local Franciscan Church here in Cochabamba and have been impressed when it came to the homily and prayers of the faithful, the priests never shied away from relating the Gospel to the reality we were all living with and through, on a daily bases, calling for listening hearts and dialogue within the community,” Ms Reilly says.
Speaking about the run-up to Advent, Ms Reilly describes how last week Cochabamba was returning to some resemblance of normality. The centre, El Prado, was transformed into a “beautiful Advent/carol concert of song and dance”.
“The children sang, parents came with their children and lots of fun was experienced, a real reclaiming of what was a beautiful area, especially for tourists and locals alike. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and felt quite at home again here in Cochabamba after the turmoil and fear.
“These are very complicated times for the whole of Bolivia but I am hopeful, these are very resilient peoples, respectful, dignified and open, and I pray that justice, equality and peace will come with the new elections,” she added.
It is unclear what the future holds for Bolivia, but it is believed the interim government will begin the countdown for the next elections on December 23, which are reported to be set for March 2020.