I spent one Saturday night in early July watching movies with my new friend Alé. I met him when our mutual friend Amanda suggested we help each other with a language exchange. My Spanish forever falls short of “fluent” or possibly even “coherent” and he needed to learn more English for his job as a tattoo artist. After high school Alé started studying Law and Human Rights at Universidad Mayor San Andres, the largest and best-known university in the city. But he struggled with the assignments, and after two years decided to quit and pursue art. Still living with his parents, they had something to say about this. Amidst questions about how he would ever earn a living making art, Alé decided to apprentice as a tattoo artist.
At first sight I assumed we had nothing in common. He wore skater-style sneakers, baggy jeans, and a black t shirt with some sort of tattoo-related design on the front. He usually wore a leather jacket with a hooded sweatshirt poking out the collar. He had a shaved head and dark stubbly facial hair. I, on the other hand generally looked rather bookish in collared shirts and cardigans. But our first conversation, over daily specials at Mr. Pizza in Sopocachi, made clear we thought very similarly about the world.
So on this evening in July, after watching Black Swan on a pirated DVD, we started talking politics. Like many political discussions in Bolivia, the subject of Ernesto “Che” Guevara arose. Suddenly, Alé declared “Oh, you should see this DVD I have.” He was already rustling through his collection of movies when he asked “Do you have time? It's getting late?” I agreed to watch it if he would drive me home afterwards. He put Siglo XX into the DVD player and we watched the collection of short documentaries on Che.
In the car, as he drove me back to my apartment in the San Pedro neighborhood, we started discussing Che’s brand of socialism in relation to Evo’s current presidency. And then, Alé caught me off guard. He told me that he, like many of his friends, admired the United States because social change could happen without violence. There was never bloodshed. No soldiers riding through the streets. No tear gas.
“Yes, but nothing ever really changes in the US” I responded. His comments surprised me because I had always (though self-consciously) romanticized Bolivian revolution a bit. I was continually impressed by the ways simply blocking off a road could force the president into increased salary negotiations with miners and health workers, as it had a few days after I arrived in La Paz. But later, as I thought about it, it all made perfect sense. Alé had experienced presidents like former military dictator Hugo Banzer who allegedly killed around 200 political opponents, and Gonzalo “Goni” Sanches de Lozada who was living about 4 miles from my home in Washington, DC, unable (or unwilling) to return to Bolivia where he would face human rights abuse charges. As a young child Alé lived through the fourth largest hyper-inflation ever recorded in the world, as part of the larger Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s. In 1994, when Alé was 10, the president’s chief aid was jailed on corruption and drug trafficking charges. As a young adult Alé experienced the Water War of 2000, Gas War of 2005, and the political violence of October 2003 when Goni’s troops killed dozens of protesters outside the city of La Paz. Yes, perhaps I could see why the stability of US democracy seemed alluring.
And Alé was not the only young person I met that imparted similar sentiments. From Rodolfo, who had always lived in El Alto, to Franco, who grew up in Zona Sur and had recently earned his B.A. at a private University in the US, the sentiment that the US government was a good model to follow was popular.