Sunday, 20 August 2017

Exploring South America 2017: Politics, Protests and the Right to (Respectfully) Express your Opinion

(During my year of travel through Asia in 2014 there was always a bit of down time to write a blog post and upload photos.  This time, though, it seems I was always too busy exploring South America or visiting with folks.  Not a bad thing, because it’s given me time to think about those experiences and search for the “same same different” between countries.  Instead of writing about each country I visited, I’m going to start with a number of ideas that flowed across borders.)

Given the current political events in America (riots in Charlottesville), I’ve been thinking of my experiences with how the countries I traveled through managed the complex issue of maintaining public security while allowing citizens the right to express an opinion. 

Knowing the history of dictatorships, repression and violence in many of the countries I was going to visit, I expected there to be a strong police presence and reluctance by citizens to speak openly (as I had experienced in Central Asia).  Instead, what I saw was a very visible police/military presence determined to keep the peace, to treat citizens respectfully and to give the message that their community was a good place to live and to visit.  In turn, citizens openly expressed their opinions about the government, or the economy or politics.  Protests happened regularly, but any of the ones I was involved with were peaceful.  Yes, there is serious violence happening in Venezuela, and none of the governments are perfect (there are clear distinctions between the advantaged upper class and the disadvantaged lower class), but it seems to me that protesters in first world countries could take some lessons from how conflict is respectfully dealt with in South America.


I’ve written about my experiences with Carnival in Rio de Janiero.  Looking back, I think of walking to and from the Sambadrome in the dark, or exploring the favelas, or the classically insane crowd of the Copacabana bloco (200,000 drunken people partying on the beach). I personally did not ever feel unsafe – but I did the same kinds of things I would in any city in Canada. We heard of wallets or phones being stolen (when they were left available to be taken) but not of violence to people or property.
Grafitti near the Selaron steps in Rio de Janeiro. This is a tribute to a local community leader (so by the rules of graffiti should have been left alone).  When it was covered over, there were major vocal protests for days until the original work was replaced.  No injuries, no property damage.

Copacabana bloco street vendors.  "Please, take our photos" 
Rochina favela.  We were listening to the story of when a tourist was murdered a few years ago.  After being warned, as we were, to ask permission to take photos of people, he had from this location, taken photos of a drug deal going down.  He was seen and shots were fired. When it was discovered that it had been a stupid tourist, rather than undercover police, apologies were given and the man firing the shots was surrendered to the police. I was asking myself if an incident like this in Canada (or the US) would have escalated to all out war.

I first met the concept of “the streets belong to the people” as we came into Buenos Aires and were caught in gridlock caused by the local truckers’ union protesting in the Plaza de Mayo.  It had been announced ahead and there was a police presence politely marking the boundary where it had been agreed that the protesters could block traffic.  Vehicles slowly made their way through, honking or waving in support.  As we passed in our bright orange truck, many of the protesters waved at us and took photos as we waved back.  At the agreed upon time, the union packed up their signs and left.  The message had been given to the government and there had been no violence. We learned later that blockading roads was something that happened everywhere on a regular basis to make a point about whatever was concerning a group – we made an early start out of Ushuaia to beat the planned border blockage that the local indigenous groups were having.

This concept came from the opposition to the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 in response to repression of the right to meet.  Following the return to elected government, it became a primary right to meet as a group, to say what you wished to say either verbally or in writing. There is tolerance of the protests and road blocks and work stoppages, even if there is a strong police and/or military presence.  Citizens accept/expect that there will be work stoppages as part of their strongly held belief that the streets belong to the people.
Las Islas Malvinas on the memorial in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires.  This is what is left of the Israeli Embassy after a terrorist explosion in 1992.  The outline has been left as a reminder.  The present Embassy has rows of cement flower planters along the sidewalk to prevent suicide bombers from hitting the building.  The planters were placed and maintained by Argentina.

Children's playground where teens are encouraged to paint graffiti on the walls.  Note the stylized white scarves to symbolize the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

During our free walking tour in Buenos Aires, our guides had the freedom to discuss openly the political events of the day, including how Las Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands to outsiders) has become such a unifying force. We were warned that there were protests about the UK (and to be respectful of this right) as the anniversary was remembered.  I also learned about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who continue to circle the plaza every Thursday to push for answers about “The Disappeared”.
In Ushuaia.  The full name of Tierra del Fuego province includes Las Islas Malvinas 

Gentleman on our boat tour in the Beagle Channel. "Casa de Veterano" with the outline of Las Islas Malvinas over the Argentinian flag.  These fleece jackets were worn by many Argentinians.  I never felt unwelcome or confronted with whether I was English.


In Santiago, the Free Walking Tour led us through the history of the atrocities of the Pinochet era and openly discussed the assassination of Salvador Allende in the presidential palace.  The Museum of Memory and Human Rights describes what happened between 1973 and 1990, and is a powerful statement of memory of the thousands of citizens who were murdered. Everywhere, I felt the same message as at Cambodia’s Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) – let us tell our story so that others hear it and perhaps this will never need to be repeated.


Our visit to Bolivia was brief.  Police and military were in evidence to maintain the peace.  We were free to explore on our own and talk with local people.  While we were there, we heard about a roadblock by indigenous women of one of the main highways heading toward Peru.  They set up tables, lit fires, cooked meals and fed the community as a way of making a point to the government, very similarly to the groups in Argentina.  Again, there was no violence from either the protest group or the police who were ensuring order. 

Our guide, Duncan, indicated that he or other Dragoman groups had been involved with a number of roadblocks/protests in South America.  You would get the word through social media and if you couldn’t avoid it you needed to check out whether it was “safe” to carefully drive through the ditch and around or if the best choice was to respect the roadblock and wait.


As we traveled through Peru, there was also a heavy police/military presence.  In Cuzco and Huaraz, we watched military parades with hundreds of citizens watching.  To be honest, these parades felt more like our local summer parade with everybody in the community participating.  Children in special outfits/costumes/uniforms were helped by uniformed police to line up correctly and to wait their turn before marching past military officers.  They then wandered off to the local park for a picnic lunch.  At one parade (which I think was commemorating the education system), the children were followed by civilians carrying banners (who had obviously been in the youth groups because they still remembered the correct marching techniques).  The climax of the parade was the three levels of military each determined to impress the audience with their drill.  When the parade finished, they moved into the crowds to “mix and mingle”.  On a couple of occasions, I stopped to ask for directions and my point and smile Spanish was met with smiles and an honest attempt to give me an answer in English.
Huge morning parade in Cuzco on the main plaza.  School children.

I watched this happen with every group.  Police officer on the right made sure that the lead person was in the middle and waited until it was time.  The two officers on the left made sure that the next row were in the right spots.

From a distance, I took a photo of this row of police in riot gear on the plaza in Cuzco.  Official looking cars came regularly down the street.
Protests were more subtle than in Argentina or Bolivia. In Arequipa, we were privileged to take the Reality Tour which very clearly presented the lack of action on the government’s part to deal with poor working conditions, sexual abuse and violence directed particularly at women. This NGO has a Facebook page and provides these tours openly but otherwise operates by word of mouth to avoid direct confrontation with the government.  
Arequipa, the white city, is built with these blocks - white from the silicone that poisons the workers who quarry the stone by hand.  This is a day's work for the worker we talked to.  If they met the standard, he would be paid the equivalent of 2 dollars a day.  This gentleman had fled his mountain village thirty years ago because there was safety in Arequipa (military).  

This and other things had been carved by workers in the quarry to encourage outsiders to come to see their working conditions.

Guides and local people did not fear expressing opinions when asked questions.  As we were hiking the Wild Andes Trek, I asked one of our guides what the weather was like in the winter, thinking I’d get information about temperature and amount of snow.  Instead, I got a passionate description of the reality of winter in the highlands – not much snow, but a lot of rain at freezing temperatures which resulted in build-ups of ice so animals died from lack of food while the young children and seniors died of respiratory conditions brought on by lack of food and no ability to heat houses.  Her summary was that this happened every year, it wasn’t an occasional surprise, and that the government chose to do nothing.


I particularly enjoyed the way protests happen in Quito.  The first day I was there, I was taken aback by the police and military presence in the main plaza.  Dozens of riot police were lined up on one sidewalk, there were barricades blocking vehicles from entering and the side streets had police on horseback. Then I noticed that the riot police were relaxed and talking with each other and people were approaching the horses and asking to take photos.  Hmm, security for a government official, I was guessing.  A few days later, I noticed people setting up video cameras, and about half an hour later there was a group of protesters lined up with signs in front of the governor’s palace (with police politely marking the line they needed to stay behind so that pedestrians and vehicles could continue to pass through the square.  The cameras were recording the demonstration for the local TV, I assume.  
These ladies, in typical Quito indigenous dress, were heading across the plaza to be part of one of the protest groups (better social services for lower class communities).  I noted that none of them had the appearance of the local Quechua people.

Scenes from the Monday protest.  I was free to stand as close to the action as I wished.  To the left is the governor's palace, decorated with bunting, where government officials would witness the changing of the guard.  The protesters are lined up to the right.

Horses coming through.  Army (right) and police (foreground) helping get everything ready.  Also directing people away from getting hurt by the horses.  They actually brought an extra horse who stood by the corner so people could take photos.  Mind you, the horses were not as well drilled as the RCMP rides I've been privileged to see.:)

This crowd of army right in front of me were being deployed to move the crowd back a bit so the horses could get through.

On my last day in Quito, a Monday, I headed to the plaza to watch the changing of the guards.  In addition to the guards and horses dressed in their finest, there were three levels of police/military and four separate protest groups. There was no conflict, despite the huge crowds in the plaza that day. Civilians came up to the officers to ask questions, to ask if it was ok to cross through to get to the other side. Street merchants were making the most of the crowd.  The protests were varied, (plea that a general was innocent, indigenous rights, local community insisting on better social services, and a fourth that was an evangelical group) and they each politely took their turn to demonstrate.  So, in less than a week, there were three days of protests in the main plaza.


Columbia is working hard to come out from under the shadow of the Cocaine Wars and welcome visitors and investment.  We arrived just as the government and FARC (the main rebel group) signed a cease fire and agreement that rebels would not be prosecuted as they had completed their demilitarization.  There was a huge security presence in the cities to ensure safety of citizens as well as visitors. 

  In Popayan (just over the border from Ecuador) I learned that one of the three branches of the national military is focused on tourism.  I walked carefully past two soldiers with guns at the door of the tourism office to find out about the free walking tour.  The soldier inside smiled and reassured me that I was in the right place, just early.  Walking out, I was confronted by the soldiers at the door.  They wanted, in their best English, to find out where I was from, was I enjoying Columbia, and could they be of help.  
Fruit tasting at Mercado Minorista in Medellin.  At the end, we discovered that we were indirectly part of a demonstration.  It seems that locals are reluctant to come to this incredible market because the area is unsafe.  When Medellin moved to clean up the downtown core, many of the homeless people relocated here.  One of the goals of Real City Tours is to give the message that if it is safe for tourists to come to the market, then it is safe for locals. Interesting, I felt very safe taking the Metro here and walking the nearby streets.  In the daylight.  Without flashing that I had a lot of money.

Another form of quiet protest.  Our guide is telling us the story of this badly damaged Botera statue and it's twin.  In 1995, terrorists (or organized was not a safe time) placed a backpack of explosives behind this statue during a music concert.  Dozens, many children, were killed.  The perpetrator was never found.  When the Mayor announced the cleanup of the plaza and to remove the statue, he received an angry phone call from Botera himself.  If this statue was removed so people would forget, he would personally make sure that every one of his artworks were removed from Medellin  (dozens of huge statues and an entire museum of his work).  He would, however, create an identical statue to be displayed along side the damaged one.  What I found interesting was that twenty two years later, there has been no vandalism or graffti on or near these two statues which sit in a plaza that our guide felt was unsafe for us to leave on our own as the night was approaching.

Signs in English outside a major museum in Cartagena letting us know that if we entered the museum we were contributing to the loss of jobs.  The museum was replacing human guides with audio guides.

The free walking tours in Popayan, Medellin and  Cartagena were open about the history as well as the current problems.  Yes, there were still rebel groups that hadn’t surrendered and there was still organized crime growing and selling cocaine – but that was all in the jungle where there were no roads to get into anyway. Columbia is working hard to convince their citizens that the country is safe.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” - Nelson Mandela."

(Tweeted by former President Obama)

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