(Cochabamba, Bolivia) Cochabamba has been memorable in so many ways—and I almost missed it desiring the destination more than the journey. In the end, I stayed a week to participate in the World People’s Conference for Climate Change (PWCCC) events throughout the city.
The most memorable PWCCC presentation I attended was entitled, “The Bicycle: An Instrument of Resistance Against the Capitalist Development Model & Symbol of Freedom.” Out of context, the title might make you dismiss it completely, its obvious leftist leaning too foreign to an American’s politically correct avoidance of the controversial.
Sadly, more obvious than their criticism of “the whole modern system,” the truth behind their United States attacks was irrefutable. Using the 200-year-old Monroe Doctrine to justify covert and not-so-covert activities, my government has done things in Latin America that simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen elsewhere.
Would American Mr. Smith allow a foreign country to set up military bases in his backyard? Would Midwest farmer Billy Bob permit foreign helicopters to spray his crop with chemicals, eradicating his legal livelihood? Would a D.C. resident watch idly as a foreign-lead coup storms Capitol Hill then installs a puppet government to serve their interests? Would you want your government to sign free trade agreements that put your national sovereignty below that of a profit-driven transnational with immunity to local law?
These examples are not fiction.
The U.S. government has committed and continues to commit these acts in Latin America.
Despite sobering information about U.S. government intervention in Latin America the presentation moved beyond the negative by spreading joy and offering alternatives. One of the main points wasn’t that the bicycle will save the world but that it’s a sign of hope in an increasingly desperate world in which people conform or give up all together, when wanting to improve society for example.
Even in the huge continent of South America cyclists find each other. Blogs and common social circles leave little traces of ourselves wherever we go. I had met the presenters earlier on an island in Lake Titicaca, just south of the Peruvian border. The Colombian cyclists, I learned, were pedaling South America to create awareness about environmental issues and the bicycle as a way to positively transform one’s lifestyle.
At one point during the presentation the Colombians spontaneously introduced me as a fellow long-distance cyclist and asked that I say a few words before the thirty some people who had stayed to the end, despite the talk going well over its allotted time. Below is an English transcription of my response:
“I hadn’t really expected to speak tonight, but thank you…Like the Colombians, I could tell you about all the beautiful people I’ve met and spectacular scenery I’ve seen all over South America. And like the woman said earlier, their is a strong level of solidarity and hospitality throughout the continent that is uniquely South American. Quecha- and Aymara-speaking families constantly offer me their homes; every single night, without fail, I know I can arrive to a town and the people will help without asking anything in return. This is amazing and speaks enormously about the kindness of the South American peoples.”
“But I guess the reason I’m here is because I could relate to the part of the title that mentions the bike as “A Symbol of Freedom.” For me it’s not a symbol, it is freedom. It’s important to remember that life is for living and go off to discover the world…Not a solution in itself, but maybe the beginning of an important shift…The bike focuses a feeling of freedom, it brings an intense joy when while pedaling you realize you’re all alone but at the same time, not alone, and that you can go anywhere at anytime without restrictions.”
“This conference has given plenty of examples of what we’re doing wrong but what I think the bike offers an example of what we’re doing right. When I look at the Colombian crew I see a positive example of something that is right and good. He mentioned earlier that living happily is important, almost contagious. We must show those depressed and unhappy that life can be something else. I think one solution, or at least the beginning of showing people that all is not lost, is to ride through the city as an example of the pure joy we feel and that most people want in their own lives. More and more people will begin to ride if we do this….”
At this point one of the presenters applauded and said I was a different type of American, to which I replied:
“I’d like to add one more thing. I think the bike also teaches that the world is not as we’re told, that we shouldn’t judge but should treat people on an individual basis. Just as you’re not Colombian president Uribe, I’m not Bush or Obama. We’re not our governments. I’m riding my bike and trying to do something else, to learn and be more open.”
“Here in Bolivia I have political conversations daily. I meet many people who approach me and automatically think I represent the actions of my government. I’ve been called a ‘murderer’ and told ‘to fuck off’ without any basis for their judgment, without me provoking their hate based on misinformation…but they were drunk men…Look, I know what my government has done here, I studied it and read about it in my free time. I know all too well bad things have happened, every country has a black history. But we can’t stay in the past. We should educate ourselves, yes, but it’s important to not judge individuals and group them together. That’s not what this conference is about.”
The attendees again applauded my short speech, we continued our discussion until the university closed, then moved outside to play music under the stars. An American Jan Lundberg, who came to the conference to report for CultureChange.org and has been car-free for over 21 years, sang some of his original music as I interpreted the English lyrics to the Spanish-speaking crowd.
Solidarity is one of those politically charged words of which I’m usually suspicious, but inside that music circle, in that plaza, after that discussion, with so many happy faces from so many different nations, I felt its meaning through and through.