We first went to the headquarters of the Central Obrero Regional in El Alto (COR- the Regional Workers Central), a group with a half million members that was very active in a massive mobilization in October 2003 that succeeded in overthrowing a corrupt and neoliberal president (Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada) who essentially gave away Bolivia´s natural resources (and is currently happily residing, despite numerous requests for his extradition, in Chevy Chase, Maryland). The COR is a very powerful organization in El Alto (everyone we talk to tells us to go speak to them), and 8 of its 51 directors (drawn from various federations, unions, and associations) are women. As we are focusing on the role of female leaders with popular movements that focus on non-gender specifics issues (such as for the control of natural resources), so far the COR seems to be a perfect case study for our research. Plus, an important part of their agenda focuses on re-taking control of privatized natural resources, so the group is an excellent fit in that respect as well.
We walked into the headquarters and received a warm reception by some of the directors of the COR. They were definitely curious and perhaps a bit skeptical of us at first, but that really only lasted 5-10 minutes before we won them over. For two hours, we then learned about the current goals of the COR (defend Bolivia´s natural resources, stop sending natural resources to the enemy nation of Chile, have ex-president Sanchez de Lozada extradited to Bolivia, recuperate what was privatized, and rid Bolivia of neoliberalism) as well as the internal governing structure. The COR doesn´t have a budget- its leaders work organizing the group, as presidents of their union/association/federation/etc, and also have jobs (as nurses, teachers, butchers, transit employees, etc) in order to make money. We set up meetings with some of the female leaders of the COR and are also going to their weekly directors meeting (with all 51 people present) on Wednesday. Clearly, we left the COR´s office very excited and eager to continue with the fieldwork.
Our next stop was FEJUVE (Federacion de Juntas Vecinales de El Alto- Neighborhood Federation of El Alto. They are also active in the nationalization/anti-neoliberalism movement in El Alto)... but this visit went very differently. We were immediately granted a meeting with the president of the FEJUVE, along with several of his supportive minions. But instead of an eager reception, we were immediately questioned (interrogated) on our connection to the US government, neocolonialism, what we were going to do for them (including one audacious request for a specific budget on how we might help financially) , that the US government was going to use the information they gave us against the citizens of El Alto... basically, that our research is the handmaiden of colonialism.
Fortunately for them (but perhaps unfortunately for my personal sense of morality), Cesar, Pablo, and I all agree with those criticisms of Bolivia´s history of exploitation, the role of the US government in fostering unrest in Bolivia, and the tendency of NGOs and academics to gather information and never give anything back to the community. They seemed fairly satisfied with our activist credentials, bolstered by our social justice projects that continue in Peru long after the academic research was done. We worked hard to make our opinions clear, and must have passed the test because we were invited to come back tomorrow for a real interview.
As a side note, my favorite quote (stated by a key member of the FEJUVE) is that the "Czechoslovakian" immigrants in Bolivia are all "cobardes y maricones." ...oh lord.
In some of our other interviews from last week, one thing surprised me: in some ways women leaders of women's organizations did not want us to study women leaders of non-women's organizations. There was a sense of "why do you want to focus on those women leaders when the most important and effective ones lead groups focused specifically on women?" But we're sticking to our plan of focusing on the women leaders that pretty much get ignored by most studies.
J'allalla! ("may it live" in Aymara)
Nicole and Pablo