Hooray chapesses and chaps: here's the next one. If you've been sitting on your hands, hardly able to contain your impatience, relief is about to come your way. If you're new here, you may feel like Dylan's Mr. Jones; in this case, I would recommend a healthy dose ( or not so healthy overdose...depends on your energy) of "A Nameless Street", the original Jim story. Follow the link:
A Nameless Street, chapter 1
Chapter 6 – Black February
Over breakfast, Sandy made the inspired decision that would shape this fateful day for her. She already knew there was trouble brewing. She hadn’t needed Mario’s outburst, “Take care today, señorita”, warning her not to venture out. But obstinate Sandy wanted to read a morning paper, a service that Beto failed to provide early enough, if at all, to his guests. Since they’re foreigners, why should they require local news? Tourists should just do the rounds and spend their money regardless…
So, it was first thing, when Sandy surprised herself by strolling, on impulse, into the Club La Paz, a nearby spot she had made a point of not frequenting. It was located beside a war memorial, a phallic column, on the Prado, the main thoroughfare that snaked along the centre of the city. This place, apart from serving the worst coffee in town (too strong, overbrewed, adulterated with corn husks), also had a reputation for being a Fascist hangout (hadn’t the criminal Klaus Barbie made it his centre of operation when he served under the late tyrant Banzer, regaling his cronies with tales of exploits in the last War in Lyon?) The stigma attached to his atrocities echoed in the exalted air.
But Sandy knew the Club La Paz prided itself on providing a full selection of daily newspapers. So, holding her breath, and attempting to disregard the haughty stares of the waiters (not normally used to serving tourists ) she positioned herself at a table by the door and grabbing a copy of Presencia, the official Catholic rag, tried to order a fruit juice.
“We only serve coffee this early, ma’am.” the obsequious waiter lied, pouring the viscous liquid from a metal urn. “But you can have a cinnamon roll or a slice of rye bread to accompany it.” Right, she thought. What a strange, Germanic combination. Sandy toyed with her breakfast, wondering if she could really stomach it. She glanced across the august room where frenetic waiters buzzed around like gnats. The newspaper mentioned that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had joined ranks in demanding that the Bolivian government address the problem of the debt to these bodies that it had accumulated over the years. The President had announced emergency measures last night. Goni bowing down to the WB and IMF - to an extent that would explain the tension in the air.
Someone had turned on the TV; Goni was addressing the nation. In a gringo accent that grated even on Sandy’s ears, he announced a new tax on incomes to offset the debt accrued during the years combating hyper-inflation. No sector would be exempted – not even the armed forces which served the country so nobly.
A gasp ran through the room. No exemptions. That includes us! His awful accent droned on. Even Sandy could pick up on the cruel distortion of vowel sounds that murdered the Spanish language, on a par with those Yanks she’d met at the American School – no wonder the public ridiculed him as Goni the Gringo. Jim would later send her an article describing how Goni had accompanied his father into exile to the States and picked up his accent there, staying from his formative infant years until he graduated from university in Chicago, thereafter hauling his Yankee accented Spanish around like a badge of pride. Not only that, but he became a notable politician in what he chose to call his home country, fashioning the details of the new neo-liberal policies for his mentor Victor Paz Estensorro until taking over the reins of the party MNR and becoming President. All of it subjected to that atrocious drawl and his phoney economic philosophy. Capitalization he’d coined it. No wonder the assembled ranks of early morning coffee slurpers were shuddering with distaste. The man couldn’t even speak, let alone pronounce, their respectable brand of Spanish properly.
Sandy glanced about the august tables of the room. Her attention was caught by a familiar face which she recognized, that of Waldo Ventura (who fortunately had no reason to suspect her interest). Not that Waldo was a sluggard. Sandy wasn’t to know this, but usually he would enjoy a leisurely breakfast at his mansion in the ‘zona sewer’. But last night he had been celebrating until dawn his promotion to the rank of Coronel, and for this reason he had yet to reach his home. He was now reading the sports page about the latest exploits of his football club, the Strongest, who still failed to live up to their overarching name. Anyway, Waldo was already annoyed by the sports report as a junior police officer entered (in February 2003 cell phones had not yet entered into universal use) and uttered a fateful message into his ear. “Trouble flaring in the Plaza Murillo, sir”. Waldo spilled his morning coffee over the sports pages, sat bolt upright, straightened his tie, gathering his jacket which had been somewhat crumpled by the night’s drinking and strode out, dragging the junior officer in his wake.
Sandy, alert, instinctively followed them out, nay, automatically, and so was granted a grandstand view of the fateful day’s events – not exactly from Waldo’s perspective but from a point of view distinctly her own. As well as caring for the environment she was, at heart, a hard-core activist, a veteran of militant demonstrations from Seattle to Davos, an anti neo-liberal who recognized her true calling. When she picked certain signals indicating that confrontation beckoned on the street, she was already activated.
Koff and Geordie awoke late as usual but from the frantic bustle to clear the breakfast tables gathered that something odd was afoot. Koff in his amateur fashion considered himself a popular history buff, meaning that he had amassed an intuitive collection of interesting examples of the oddities of human behaviour in the way an aficionado adds extra items to his collection of prized butterfly specimens. Now he felt something tweaking his antennae. He didn’t know yet what, but those antennae were unmistakeably roused.
Geordie was always on the lookout for movement in the streets. So, right from the first tinkle of broken glass and echoes of gunshot volleys, they both knew some kind of shit was going down and ran out, despite or because of the inherent danger, in search of the action.
Meanwhile, events were centred on the Plaza Murillo. The first sight that Sandy took in was of a bunch of students from the nearby Ayacucho school, (‘hooligans’ thought Waldo) gaily smashing windows at the Presidential Palace. And where was the palace security? The problem was that the police, feeling their basic salaries threatened by Goni’s recently announced Impuestazo, had declared themselves on strike. The elite corps, the GES, who should have been protecting government property, were in full-scale revolt and had barricaded themselves in their barracks, just up from the Plaza Murillo.
Foolish Goni, commented the bystanders who had congregated to watch the show, submitting to IMF pressure to the extent of including his own special troops in the tax hike. What the hell did he expect?
Now in open revolt, the police had voluntarily withdrawn from their duties. But we still have the ever-faithful Armed Forces, reasoned Waldo. As a newly promoted Colonel, he presumed himself to be the most senior military officer in the vicinity at the moment. It was clearly his responsibility to summon emergency reinforcements. So he ordered the officer (still in tow, though semi-paralysed with shock) to go find a functioning telephone and call HQ, and bring some loyal troops in.
Unfortunately all the top brass could come up with in an hour were inexperienced recruits still in basic training, resplendent in their freshly issued fatigues, under the command of an over-enthusiastic officer who ordered his men/boys to storm the barracks of the GES and compel the police locked inside to complete their sworn duty.
As the commanding officer should have anticipated, the GES swarmed out heavily armed (as an elite force they had access to the latest weaponry) and firing. The army recruits responded as they had been trained to do and before long various uniformed young men lay dead on the venerable cobblestones of the Plaza Murillo.
That police and soldiers should confront each other shocked Waldo. His universe built on established order was collapsing before his eyes. Even Sandy was bemused. She was used to being on the receiving end of police batons and whips and tear-gas. To see the pigs setting on each other was a novel, even unsettling, experience.
As the news of the occurrences in the Plaza reached the general population, the disturbances gradually radiated outwards. The general anger and mistrust of authority sparked by the new measures did not spread randomly but seemed to choose selective targets. For example the new shopping mall ‘5to Centenario` (named to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus annexation of the continent, if that is actually what he did) was ransacked, looting being the dish of the day. ‘And who could blame the down-trodden consumers?’ reasoned Sandy. The residence of the Vice-Presidency went up in flames. (The fire this time).
Casual onlookers dispersed at the first sign of bloodshed. Thus when snipers hidden in the Cathedral turrets (experienced army sharp shooters, on this occasion) aimed at those fleeing towards the Perez, where the battle had moved (stones against rifles – intuitive outrage against calculated killing by trained soldier corps – hardly a fair fight, one might think), Sandy was appalled.
Taking as much care as possible in the chaotic circumstances, Sandy followed the fray, mingling with the crowds round the Perez. At the corner of the tourist street of Sagarnaga where handicraft souvenirs are usually sold, she saw a nurse and doctor shot before her eyes while they were coming to the aid of a bricklayer who had been picked off randomnly by the military snipers aiming at anyone in their sights. ‘This game is getting far too serious for my kind of universe’, flashed Sandy in sudden panic as she crashed into Geordie and Koff. They had been following the action, had witnessed the city put to flames by mobs incensed by news of the random slaughter being perpetrated in the name of this incompetent government of Goni.
“So this is what happens when those in power lose control,” jests Geordie as a brick whistles past his ear.
“I’d rather face a bunch of drunk skinheads any time. They’re predictable, this is not,” added Koff hastily.
And as for Waldo’s reaction, those that have the doubtful privilege of wading through the memoirs he dictated to his grandchildren upon retirement will know that it was on this sad February afternoon when it dawned on Colonel Ventura that Goni was doomed.
Comparing Goni to Banzer, Ventura writes: “The General would have known what to do with these so-called police officers who went on strike. Those that he didn’t execute immediately, he would have sent to one of his camps in the countryside and taught them a lesson over a length of time at his leisure. Sanchez de Lozada just continued studying the IMF report and consulted his team of advisors. They told him nothing unusual had happened. One must expect some limited local reaction.”
Meanwhile the discontent had spread up to the Alto. That afternoon the Coca-Cola bottling plant up in Rio Seco was set alight. The anger of the forgotten alteños would ferment until it descended like a shower of acid on Goni’s plans.