Is it Safe to Travel in Bolivia?

by Amizade Global Service-Learning

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs from Marvin and Martie Wachs, long time friends and supporters of Amizade who have visited and served in Bolivia numerous times. Scroll through our archives for more stories from the Wachs.

I am often asked “Is it safe to travel in Bolivia?” In a word, “yes”.

That being said, the U.S. State Department occasionally issues travel warnings when there are turbulent occurrences in the western region of the country – the Andes altiplano region that includes the cities of La Paz and Oruro. The U.S. travel warnings cover all of Bolivia, even though the unrest is usually confined to the western area of the country. It is analogous to the situation that occurred a number of years ago, when some German citizens were involved in a deadly car-jacking incident near Miami, Florida. Germany issued a travel warning advising German citizens against coming to the U.S. Those of us living in St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore, Salt Lake City, and anywhere else in the U.S. were disturbed by the car-jackings in Miami, but not at all threatened. We wouldn’t have dreamed of warning Europeans to cancel their trips to the U.S. The most recent unrest in Bolivia over fuel price increases and a shortage of sugar are primarily confined to the western region of Bolivia. Cochabamba, Bolivia, however, where Amizade service volunteers work, remains relatively calm and peaceful.

With a $900 average annual per capita income, Bolivia is South America’s poorest country. Its mineral wealth has been exploited by the wealthy ruling class since before its independence from Spain in 1825. Hardly any of that wealth has benefitted the average Bolivian citizen. Bolivia is a democracy, at least on paper, but its citizens have no illusions that it is “by the people, for the people…”. And that feeling of disenfranchisement is reflected in how the game is played. When a duly elected government (be it national, regional or local) enacts policies that are unpopular with its citizenry, the citizens organize protest marches, strikes or “bloqueos” to let the government know. In most cases, you could compare it to picketing or marches like those we have in the U.S.

During one of our many volunteer trips to Cochabamba, Bolivia with Amizade Global  Service-Learning, there was a 24-hour strike by the bus drivers over proposed additional bus routes, which they felt would dilute their already meager earnings. The drivers parked their buses on the major bridges in Cochabamba for one day. Those who knew which bridges were not blocked could drive an alternate way to work. We took a cab to the outside edge of the “bloqueo”, walked over the bridge between the parked buses to the other side of the river, and went on our merry way.

We were with an Amizade volunteer group in 2005 when Bolivian President Sanchez de Lozada (known as Goni) fell out of favor. In that case, the entire country was protesting, but the violent protests were confined, once again, to the western area of the country. In Cochabamba our volunteer group stayed away from any announced protest marches, and within a day or two life was back to normal and we could go anywhere in the city.

Since the 1950s most of Bolivia’s presidents have been selected at the polls. A few have served their full term of office, but many have been “de-selected” via the “bloqueo”. Bolivia has been independent about 50 fewer years than the U.S.A., but has had nearly twice as many presidents (80). Since we began going to Bolivian in 2001, there have been five.

So I will conclude with the same question I started with: “Is it safe to travel in Bolivia?” First, define “safe”.. Me? I feel safer when I am in Cochabamba, Bolivia than I do in New York City or Miami, but I don’t go check out the plaza when the strikes or “bloqueos” are in full swing.

Marvin Wachs