Economics of a ‘Bloqueo’

Written by Fidgit

Crossing Bolivia we found only a few trails, some back roads, a lot of railroad, and a long stretch along Ruta 1 from Uyuni to La Paz, so not much navigation was required. After the “brain drain” we experienced in the first season of walking, my perspective on using audio devices while hiking shifted, and my little mp3 device has become a regular piece of kit. Along this stretch, I kept my mind engaged and fed with podcasts.

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The landscape at 14,000 ft can be pretty boring and following railroad tracks isn’t exactly navigationally challenging.

Walking these more populated routes, we also encountered ramifications of the pervasive practice of public protests, often taking the form of ‘bloqueos,’ wherein roads are closed by demonstrators. The first one was nerve wracking, as we were uncertain what was going on and had heard of these events turning violent. Then they became an interesting event to observe, then they became mundane and something of a nuisance. We came to call them “protests Mondays,” though they were possible any day of the work week.

So when the Freakonomics podcast episode “Do Boycotts Work?” came into my ear holes, I perked right up and began to observe the bloqueos with more scrutiny. What follows are some observations.

Who is Protesting, and How

We treated these gatherings with caution, as there is always a chance – and also a history – of violence erupting when large groups gather to demonstrate displeasure. Fortunately, every protest we encountered was peaceful, if confrontational; and as one driver complained, in La Paz, “always at least one district is closed due to a bloqueo.” While we were there, the roads in our district (Distrito Sur) were closed for at least four days. Every afternoon on the news, there were reports of where there had been protests that day. A travel advisory, of sorts.

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Interestingly it seemed primarily to be women populating the protests. They would come out in the early mornings, hang banners and ropes across intersections, and then post up in groups, sitting in circles chatting and knitting in the middle of the road, umbrellas or sombreros protecting them from the sun. The women here seem always to be knitting, though some crochet.

Men, while far fewer in number, were generally engaged in active or leadership positions. Pushing rocks up onto the roads, wandering through the crowds giving impassioned speeches, standing in positions where conflict is likely, or drinking in the shade of buildings around the periphery.

Why/What is being protested

Generally, the motivator is financial, though sometimes social reasons were cited. Often, it is because they are being charged money they don’t want to pay or aren’t getting money they think they should: a three percent raise of the electric bill in Oruro, the release of prisoners in La Paz, a neighboring district getting more money than them from the tourism industry.

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The gondola system around La Paz was a great way to avoid the protests.

A fair number of the individuals, when I asked what they were protesting, either refused to answer (or even look at me), did not know what was being protested, or cited different motivators than others in the same demonstration. This occurred in the larger cities. When I asked other Bolivians not involved in the protests, there was a sense that many who show up to these protests are of lower means, education, and awareness and come out because of social pressures rather than information.

Other times, it was smaller communities gathered together, stopping traffic at the bridges and accepting money for vehicles to pass. We passed by one like this in a village on the highway outside La Paz. At the bridge we approached, there was a neighborhood man strutting around importantly, looking very official with a pink school notebook writing down I’m not sure what, but he seemed to be accepting payments from mini drivers for permission to slip past. Three times the drivers paid him and each time he accepted, then when heckled by a group of women standing on the far side of the bridge he refused the payments and gave the money back.

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Not as frightening, but just as disruptive, were the frequent parades in the cities.

Eventually, one white van went creeping out past the edge of the town, drove through the dry river bed out in the middle of the salty, dusty pampa and took off on the other side. As soon as everyone saw his plume of dust, all the vehicles tore off in that direction. Buses, semi-trucks, glossy city vehicles, all weaving and bumping around. It was an impromptu rally race, with convoys of unaffiliated vehicles following one another, navigating seemingly at random.

Immediate Financial Impact

Word spreads quickly when there is a bloqueo. So a lot of the minis, a primary source of public transportation, simply don’t drive that day, or they drive different routes. The guy who is still willing to drive it raises the price. In all fairness, he is going to have to find a way around which means more time, wear on his vehicle, and fuel (though this price is subsidized by the government).

There is the bribery mentioned above. Though, one must not call it bribery. Most not involved in the protest seem to view it more as a “pain in the ass tax.” At the village bloqueo mentioned above, as we watched the drivers and man on the bridge haggle Neon observed, “this is more like a neighborhood fundraiser than anything.”

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Two substances favored by Bolivians are coca (a stimulant) and “potable alcohol”. At 96% alcohol content, an effective inebriator. Coca also helps with the effects of altitude and the alcohol was perfect for our alcohol stoves. So, when we went trail shopping we saw a lot of raised eyebrows when requesting these items…

Then there is the business which springs up around having a large group of people all concentrated in one area. Women wheel their carts out and begin selling food and drink. Others wander through the crowd selling sun shades or umbrellas. The favored 96% denatured alcohol is served in tiny plastic cups. Parents buy their children trinket toys.
I regret to inform you, the Fidget Spinner has made it to South America.

Secondary Financial Effects

While at the source the bloqueos and protests are mostly a social affair, the heaviest consequence I witnessed was on the remote mountain villages, those who live at the end of the road. Two weeks after walking out of La Paz, we passed through Uachuani. Of the three shops in town, their shelves were running light on goods, “there has been a bloqueo for 3 weeks in the city [La Paz],” one owner explained as he again proffered a can of grated sardines insisting it was tuna; the only source of protein we could identify.

While what we observed in the city was that the protests only happened during daytime hours, it seems the drivers and food transport individuals did not make runs until they hear it is all over. Piecing together what we had seen in the city, the lack of reliable news to the towns and their reliance on word of mouth, and the pervasive lackadaisical attitude toward production and business, I realized the four day protest we had encountered in La Paz two weeks ago meant these folks did not get food deliveries for weeks after.

Fortunately most families in these areas are largely self sufficient. They raise their own animals, purchase goods in bulk when they go to the city and are equipped to wait out these predictably unpredictable hiccups to production and transport.

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