Week # 46: Expat Expos Part One


I thought it might be nice (and, I must admit, easy for me) to give the chance to some other people (i.e. my friends) to share their perspective on expat life in Bolivia. And the genius stroke about this first interview is that the subject, Shawn Arquiego, just happens to both live and work with me. Therefore I still get to write about my life while seeming to be allowing someone else to speak!

(I should probably preface this by saying that if you havent seen the movie Ferris Buellers Day Off a couple of allusions here might be lost on you. So if you somehow made it through the Eighties without having the biggest crush on Matthew Broderick, please note that references to Cameron are NOT to the current Prime Minister.)

Maddington Bear: So tell me, are we more Cameron or Ferris today?

Shawn Arquiego: Feeling kinda Cameron actually. Its not that Im in a bad mood, I just dont feel likesometimes you got it you know, it just flows.

MB: Its only a Tuesday. So what does somewhat Cameron get up to on a sunny Tuesday in Cochabamba?

SA: Well theres the distinct possibility that Im gonna go climb. But other than that Ill probably just sit in the office. So nothing very entertaining.

MB: And which office would that be?

SA: The office of The Democracy Center. With my colleague Maddy Ryle, you may be familiar with her.

MB: And what happens at the Democracy Center? What are you and Maddy working on right now?

SA: The Centers work is very multi-faceted. It has a long history of doing advocacy work on various social justice issues in the US prior to moving to Bolivia. Also the Centers involved in anti-corporate campaigning, from the work that we did on the Bechtel campaign following the Water War in Cochabamba. Were currently involved in acampaign against Pacific Rim mining from Canada in El Salvador. The Salvadorian government refused to renew Pacific Rims exploration permits, and since El Salvador is part of CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) Pacific Rim repatriated to Nevada in order to file a lawsuit in a World Bank tribunal for the sum of $77 million [or thereabouts] against the Salvadorian people.

Im working on a few things. On a report on the effect of climate change in Bolivia on water resources and weather patterns, and its impacts on different segments of society. Im working on a draft so that Maddy can edit it. Ive just written a brief response on the new mining consultation law in Peru and the TIPNIS march in Bolivia. [Democracy Center Director Jim Shultz has also just published new commentary on TIPNIS and the Tarsands pipeline campaign in Washington]. Some NJGI stuff thats the Network for Justice in Global Investment. It comes out of our anti-corporate campaigning work but looking at the dynamics of Bilateral Investment Treaties and regional free trade agreements, and how they undermine national sovereignty. As you see with the case of Pacific Rim, the government in El Salvador passed legislation to protect the environment and protect limited water resources, and because of that they are exposed to the judgment of an international tribunal that has no democratic accountability whatsoever. And whos going to pay the price? Oh yeah, your average poor Salvadorian.

Mads is our media and communications strategy guru. Oh, and she does do yoga as well. Its basically like the movie Big. You put in ten Bolivianos and she spits out some wisdom. But shes not all powerful, we see weaknesses and insecurities just like everyone elsewhat did you ask me about?

MB: Me! What I do at work!

SA: Oh yeah. You know, I really dont knowBut a great thing about our jobs at the Center is the amount of flexibility that we have to organize our time, and therefore lots of flexibility to travel, or to work on other side projects. Like Maddys blog, or like my (here comes the plug) slots for Free Speech Radio News.

MB: So can you give us your Cameron perspective on the state of Bolivian politics just now

SA: I think generally when Im assessing political situations, its usually Cameron talkingI think theres a lot of disillusionment with the current administration. Morales electoral victory was historic and he essentially rode into office on the backs of social movements. And people feel hes kind of betrayed his base to some degree.But there are some really positive developments that came out of Evo being elected. One thing that needs to be acknowledged is this resurgence in pride in indigenous identity, and thats something that goes beyond laws, beyond any kind of social policy. The cultural revolution is hugely significant in terms of how people understand themselves in the country and how they operate in politics as a result.

You know, I think the balance [some might say split…] in my personality is necessary, because if I were Cameron all the time Id be incredibly jaded and depressed about the state of the world.

MB: And if you were Ferris all the time?

SA: Well you just dont engage the world outside, you dont engage with politics or societal problems, its just about being in your element and raging [this is North American slang for partying]. But if I didnt have those moments Id be really miserable.

MB: What kinds of things are likely to happen on a Ferris day?

SA: There isuhsometimes a little bit ofuh

MB: Courting?

SA: Courting. But not in the traditional Victorian sense that you English would understand. Its more in the American sense where courting involves grabbing a womans ass and licking her neck. But it depends on the day. Cameron doesnt do those kinds of things. Ferris clearly thinks hes a playboy and can do whatever he wants, and he generally does. So yeah, the machista thing in Bolivian culture. For some reason I feel very empowered by itI mean obviously its something that I benefit from tacitly, I dont really derive pleasure from it

MB: Do you think it might be the Latino in you? Because we havent let the readers know

SA: Oh what, we have to talk about me being Peruvian? My patriotism? Sorry I value and take pride in some elements of Peruvian culture, yes.

MB: What do you like about Peruvian culture?

SA: I think growing up in a family environment [in the US] that was very disconnected, I feel while my Peruvian familys very dysfunctional partially because everybody lives together theres a lot more in terms of understandingconceptions of family are different I think, compared to how [North] Americans understand it.

MB: Thats not specifically Peruvian I guess. Youd find that in Bolivia as well for exampleDo you think it is a dynamic of what we call Western culture?

SA: Yeah. Well I think there are economic compulsions for it that we dont have in the United States or in the developed world. You know when I turned 17 I was in a position where I could move out my house in the US whereas my cousins [in Lima] dont have the financial capacity to move out on their own. And theres more of an expectation that you would stay.

MB: Tell me, how many Phish shows have you been to?

SA: [Long pause] Now I know everyones going to judge. You know, you hear, well, hes been to 48 Phish shows

MB: Why?

SA: Oh you want to explore this? Its about improvisationtheyre very intellectual experiences too in some respects. Its about the unpredictability, you never know what song theyre going to play, and beyond that the songs are launch pads for further improvisation. Take a song like Tweezer. Its a perfect example of one of their jam vehicles. I dont really like the term but

MB: Is that like a big lorry that carries what you call jelly around.

SA: Yes, thats why I tour with Phish. For the free jelly.

MB: So it was National Day of the Pedestrian in Bolivia last Sunday. How was that?

SA: It was really serene. It changes peoples conceptions of community I think. In Cochabamba theres nearly a million people; massive population growth and unfortunately the infrastructure hasnt kept up with it. And on a regular day theres no space to do anything. There arent many parks, theres not a lot of space for kids to ride bikes, or for kids to just be kids. So it afforded people the opportunity to get out in their communities, and you just noticed a marked shift in peoples moods and how they carry themselves and interact with other people. Everyones just a lot more positive and relaxed. Freedom, you know. Thats something you said: this is freedom. And this feeds into conceptions of freedom; in the United States its very much based on this negative conception of freedom

MB: Cars are a bit like a freedom vehicle in the way that Phish songs are like jam vehicles

SA: I much prefer jam vehicles as they dont take up physical space or pollute the environment. Um, soin American society people understand freedom as freedom from government control, freedom from restrictions on the things you like to do. Whereas a positive conception of freedom is more about what kind of society do you want to construct?

MB: And do you feel like in Bolivia, then, people are more engaged with how to construct their society?

SA: Maybe, but with respect to Da del Peatn I think its not looked at in that sense; its more looked at as a holiday you get to enjoy with your family. And I mean, weve talked about this a lot, its still based here on the [North] American model of owning a vehicle is the equivalent to societal status and freedom, and that hasnt changed.

MB: Bolivia in five adjectives?

SA: ShortsightedumBreathtaking, it really is. Some of the most beautiful country Ive ever seen in my life. Hm, I have something in my head I dont know how to convey in one wordBecause of the size of the countrys population [just ten or so million in the worlds 28th largest nation] there is kind of this historic opportunity to take the idea of development in a different direction

MB: Promising?

SA: Yeah, promising. There are opportunities here that there arent in other countries, where theres a more entrenched capitalist class.

MB: Or revolutionary?

SA: Yeah, take back promising, lets say revolutionary. What else? Extreme. Its a place of extremes, in terms of geography as well.

MB: Yep. Extreme and diverse are the classic guidebook descriptions of Bolivia, but I think for good reason.

SA: And resilient

MB: Theres  a lot of people on the left in the global north who put hopes in Latin America because of the political changes that have been taking place here, plus recent studies show that awareness of and concern about climate change is much higher here than in other continents. How much basis do you think those hopes have, that Latin America harbours the potential for political change and reconceptualization?

SA: I think there is a basis for them, but I also think that hoping that change is coming from some other continent, or that some other people, some other leaders will actually carry out that kind of change that you want to see in your country, is utterly misguided. If you want these changes that you see to be part of a broader movement, we need to create a transnational network of activists that are working within their own countries. And I think there are models that you can draw on in Latin America and those are very useful, but to just say well, my countrys totally fucked beyond redemption, so hopefully this movement works out over there, I think you cant become complacent in that way, you need to take strategic lessons from that, as Jim would say.

Mads Ryle

Check Maddington Bears brand-spanking new blog holding more photos of Wander & Wonder and lots more!

Not on the R$N list yet? Sign up for all things essential and receive Thursdays weekly lowdown here