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Day of the Bolivian "Ex-President" 
By Greg Altman 

Monday May 6th, the day that ¨Día de Trabajo¨ was observed in Bolivia. Arriving in Santa Cruz on Sunday morning after a 21-hour rodeo train ride from the Brazilian border, this ´feria´ meant a second day where everything was shut.  Trying not to let this get in the way of the errands I had to deal with before traveling onward, I was returning from a quest to find out where and when the small ¨micro¨ buses departed for Samaipata, when I noticed the World War II era fighter planes circling around the center of the city.  The confluence of sound from the 4 old prop planes captivated me as I watched them swing around and around.  Kinda cool, but a rather strange way to celebrate a Labor Day I figured.  

As I got to my residence near the city´s center plaza, a continual stream of people was heading away from the square. They seamed in a hurry, so I grabbed my cameras from my room and joined the flow. Something was surely going on, but whomever I asked just pointed ahead and kept going.  I skirted along the road, which I soon realized was going parallel to a procession of some sort one block over.  When the crowds looked manageable I walked up to the street with all the action, to see a trio of police chopper motorcycles leading another trio of drummers, followed by a brass band of men in uniform. Behind them was a legion of perhaps a hundred or more soldiers in regal (reminiscent of the British red coats) outfits and rifles fitted with bayonets.  Things appeared even stranger when I saw that the Humvee jeep following them (adorned with red-green-yellow (Bolivian flag colors) streamers and bulls-eyes) was towing a cart with a coffin.

The puzzlement that this all created was just the sort of thing that I quite enjoyed in new places, but what to make of it? The most I could get out of anyone was that it was all for the ¨Ex-President¨. So, every year on this day they honor a special Ex-President? The same one always, or does it rotate? Was this the sort of thing that people were forced to show up to? I was immediately suspicious of any sort of military tinged holidays.

Well, the only way to find out was to see where the procession was going. I followed along for another ten blocks before it wound around a traffic circle, continued another hundred meters, and hung a right through the large gates of a cemetery. I followed a bunch of people through a side entrance, and weaved my may through the 4-meter tall rows of burial buildings (think of the cemeteries in the Garden District of New Orleans, only bigger). People had climbed up on top of these structures to get a better view of the procession. I eventually got close to where things seemed to stop, and asked someone next to me why they did this sort of remembrance every year. He looked puzzled, and told me that the guy had just died.  I made the same face back at him, and said ¨but this is a annual holiday, right¨?

Then he laughed, and let me in on what was going on. General Hugo Banzer Suarez had just died the day before, and by coincidence was being buried on the same day as ¨ Día de Trabajo¨. This explained all the military fanfare. The General had been elected president in 1997, and had leaded the country until August 2001, when he stepped down due to pulmonary cancer. After 10 months of treatment in a military hospital in the U.S., he returned home to Santa Cruz to end his life just short of his 76th birthday. I was told he had done a lot of good for the country, especially with education and the health system, and was well liked by the people. He was the leader of the Accion Democratica National political party, and had started a concerted program against the cultivation of coca and the drug trade. He apparently had fought a bit too hard on this front, as his policies had sparked many violent confrontations with coca growers and drug henchmen. The Vice-President Jorge Quiroga took over, and next month there are going to be elections to replace him on August 6th, when his yearlong supplemental term would end. 

Well, you learn something new every day, they say. It will be interesting to see how the U.S. government views the successor, especially given the current situations in Columbia and Venezuela. I ended up having dinner with my gracious informant and his wife, and will hopefully be kept updated on how the people of Bolivia view the upcoming election.

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When Greg Altman is not in New York or Eastern Long Island, you’ll likely find him roaming any corner of the world. A self proclaimed Jack-of-all-trades on the cusp of thirtydom, his experience runs from writing to consulting, photography, tortilla manufacturing, and organic farming. Currently on assignment in Brazil, he has been soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells of Bahia.  The quest to experience and capture magic through the ear or camera lens will continue to inspire his feet and pen as long as world cultures remain alive.

Email:  gregaltman@yahoo.com (Greg Altman)

 

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