2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Views from Bolivia

Daniel M. Goldstein

I have known the Aliaga family for 24 years, since I first arrived in Bolivia to study Quechua in 1992. My wife and I were living with a Bolivian family, headed by the widow of a lawyer who had once been business partners with a man named Gunther. Gunther was a Holocaust survivor then living in Cochabamba. On learning that we were Jewish – a rarity in Bolivia – the widow exclaimed, “I know someone Jewish!” and put us in touch with Gunther. On meeting us, Gunther exclaimed, “I know someone young!” – not so unusual, except among Gunther’s acquaintances – and he put us in touch with the Aliagas. We’ve been friends ever since.

I was interested to learn more about Bolivians’ perceptions of the U.S. Presidential campaign through which we are now living, a campaign that many observers have described as among the most bizarre and revolting they have ever witnessed. Recently, Raúl Rodriguez Arancibia (a Bolivian studying in the U.S.) and I wrote a piece on this blog exploring Raúl’s feelings about the Trump campaign in light of Bolivian political experience. For this follow-up piece, I wanted to change directions, to understand the perspectives on this election of some Bolivians and Bolivian-Americans living in Bolivia. And so I wrote to the Aliagas to ask for their insights. (For a perspective from Kenya, see Angelique Haugerud’s Savage Minds post, “Is This What Democracy Looks Like?”)

Anna Aliaga is a U.S. citizen, born and raised in Grass Valley, California. She met and fell in love with Carlos, and the two of them settled in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba to raise a family. Anna founded and runs a business producing and exporting artisanal knitwear and leather goods; Carlos is an intellectual, artist, author, and musician. Their two sons, Eduardo and Elahdio, are now grown: Eduardo graduated from Stanford University in 2013 and is working in Austin, Texas, and Elahdio recently graduated from Santa Clara University in California and returned to Bolivia. I asked them to write a bit about their perspectives on the current electoral campaign.

The first point to emerge is that Bolivians aren’t nearly as concerned about the U.S. election as people in the U.S. might imagine them to be. “As an American who has lived in Bolivia for over 25 years,” Anna says, “it is always interesting to be asked about what Bolivians think on this or that subject…The U.S. is an extremely narcissistic country. If something is going on in the U.S., they assume that everyone, everywhere must be thinking about it.” This is a message clearly sent by the U.S.-based media. Anna says, “CNN International is now so saturated with election coverage that in order to get international news one has to watch Euronews, Argentinian news, the BBC, or other international coverage in order to find out what is happening in Turkey after the coup, the ongoing mayhem in Aleppo, the hurricane in Haiti, or anything else that everyone else cares about. Trump and Hillary are not on the minds of everyone, especially not the average Bolivian.”

Elahdio offers the perspective of a Bolivian who has lived and studied in the U.S., and knows what it is like to be inundated by the media onslaught of campaign coverage. “Politics and global news have become Kardashianized,” he says, coining a phrase. “Sources of respectable news seem to have become a tabloid on the never-ending Trump/Clinton debacle. Watching American news just confirms my pessimistic assumption that Americans view the world as their playground, they have always been the strutting big kid with the best toys. For the past months all that is on the news is this nightmare of an election sprinkled with the occasional shooting and terrorist attack…We feel cornered, with absolutely no prospect of escape.”

Elahdio compares Bolivian political history with what is happening in the U.S., and finds some discouraging similarities: “These elections show that the proud American democracy seems to resemble more of a lopsided third world oligarchy…Oligarchies exist around the world, but of course not in free and democratic America. These elections might show otherwise, because it seems to be that in order to aspire to become a political leader you either have to be part of a political dynasty or a billionaire magnate. Power is concentrated to a small political and economic elite.”

Anna notes that, generally speaking “Bolivians are extremely politically savvy and have incredible insight,” and the average Bolivian understands from past experience that “US politics can have a big impact on their day-to-day lives.” But Bolivians don’t seem to draw close distinctions between U.S. candidates, considering them to be equally awful. (In the U.S. media, in fact, Trump has often been given a free pass while Hillary has been depicted as the deceitful one.) So, “How do Bolivians view this election? They are as entertained by it as the rest of the world.” Anna asked some of the people with whom she works for their opinions about the campaign. “One person I talked to said, ‘We are not used to seeing American politicians act this way. This is the first time that the American candidates are acting like Latinos.’ Another said, in reference to the Republican nominee, ‘This is the first time an American politician is being honest. We always knew they hated us but at least this time there is someone who is admitting it.’” And Elahdio quotes a woman named Carolina, who says derisively, “I think both candidates are too immature, they talk a lot of crap. In Latin America we are used to hearing candidates talk b.s., but not from the States.”

Having themselves experienced politics as a force beyond themselves and out of their control – politics characterized by military coups, oligarchic rule, and populist authoritarianism – Bolivians, like other inhabitants of the Global South, are cynical about political rhetoric and the promises of political candidates. “Most citizens of countries in the developing world have never trusted their government,” says Anna. “They think corruption, nepotism, dictatorship, death squads, collusion, etc. when they think of government. They are amazed at the earnest nature of some Americans, who believe that their government can be trusted.” And while they may be shocked and surprised by the extent of the vulgarity expressed in the current campaign, Bolivians are not shocked and surprised in the same way that some more credulous Americans might be. Says Anna: “Bolivians know that the emperor has no clothes, that the person in first class is not better than the guys in coach, that we Bolivians might actually be more savvy than the American electorate.”