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Hopeful…and wary in Bolivia: Community activist group Tinku has been a fixture in Cochabamba public life for more than 7 years.

Mike Agresta Mar 7, 2006

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia—On a typical day in the main plaza of Cochabamba, Bolivia, well-dressed businesspeople stroll through the shaded paths alongside out-of-work dawdlers and Quechua-speaking vendors. Comedians, magicians and other small-time performers draw crowds and make a living off the constant flow of people through the space. Near the central fountain, the community activist group Tinku maintains its bulletin board, a fixture in Cochabamba public life for more than seven years.

Within a few feet of the Tinku bulletin board, political discussions erupt spontaneously and last for hours as strangers arrive, listen in, and offer their opinions. Busier people pause briefly to read posted event notices and news clippings with political content highlighted in red marker.

“Our aim is to be a point of reference in the struggle,” says Ramiro Saravia, co-founder of Tinku.

Almost everyone drawn in by the bulletin board eventually finds Tinku’s office, where almost every night a different meeting, discussion group, video screening or lecture is open to the public. There, the political consciousness encouraged in the main plaza is given full space to develop.

One night, older members of the community fill the office for a discussion about what a new Constitutional Assembly would mean for the country. At other times, there are pirate radio broadcasts and union meetings for young shoeshiners trying to protect their livelihoods during seasonal migrations back to their rural homes.

Saravia was born in Cochabamba but emigrated to Argentina when he was only three months old. He did not return to live in Bolivia until he was 15, and he made the long overland journey alone.

“Crossing the border had a big effect on me, seeing all the colors, the way the roads are poorer and the land looks different,” he says. Saravia immediately involved himself in a youth group in his grandparents’ neighborhood and in a student federation in his high school. In 1998 he and his friends in the public university formed Tinku as a network of
activist, artistic and cultural groups.

At almost every Tinku event, someone asks what kind of group Tinku is. Saravia takes it upon himself to respond with a seemingly memorized speech about how Tinku is “self-organized, self-managed and self-financed, without pertaining to any political party or
NGO.”

Operating expenses come from a donation bucket handed around at informal meetings, from ecotourism and political tourism trips advertised around the city, and by traveling volunteers who contribute in return for space to sleep in the back rooms of the office.

The name refers to a traditional dance among indigenous groups where two communities in conflict will perform a ritualized war as a way of expressing and venting frustrations. Literally it can be translated to “encounter.”

The Tinku logo is two heads facing each other in profile, perhaps signifying an encounter within Bolivian society of colonizing and native cultures, or a meeting of Bolivia with the rest of the world. Since then, social movements from Cochabamba have united with other important forces from both the coca-growing lowlands and the indigenous areas around La Paz to demand a change in the way Bolivia is governed.

In 2000, residents of Cochabamba took to the streets to protest the privatization of their water and the subsequent price hikes that made it impossible for many poorer citizens to afford any water at all. In 2003, citizens again shut down the city in protests over a new tax, which gave way to accusations of corruption against the governing party and a mine-owning president with a habit of privatizing national resources for his own benefit.

Now, however, seems to be a moment of victory and calm for the social movements in Bolivia. The principal multinationals involved in the Water War of 2001 finally agreed in January to settle for about $0.25 in their suit for damages against the people of Cochabamba, creating a precedent for the cancellation of other dubious privatization contracts.

And Evo Morales, political leader of the coca growers movement, has made headlines around the world as the first indigenous president of Bolivia. Morales declines to wear a tie when meeting with world leaders and promises to dismantle the neoliberal system which has characterized the Bolivian economy for the last 20 years.

The new Bolivian vice-president, among other theorists, has written about how a new form of “participative democracy” ought to be allowed to replace the party-oriented “representative democracy” that has served Bolivia so poorly. A participative democracy would require a citizenry that actively involves itself in politics with the force of social movements on a daily basis, not just once every few years at the polls.

Cochabamba seems ready for that leap. Tinku’s constant campaigns to raise political awareness and call people to action have been crucial to that preparation. In the middle of January, Cochabamba swelled with foreigners on the way to La Paz to witness Evo Morales’s inauguration.

But while Morales was officially sworn in before Congress, members of the Tinku network from around Bolivia gathered to discuss their organization’s direction in the new era represented by the new president. The manifesto they emerged with reiterated Tinku’s support for stated goals of the Morales administration, but it also reaffirmed Tinku’s independence.

“We offer our moral and unconditional support to this change in direction for the administration of the state, we also reaffirm our independence and autonomy,” the manifesto read.

Whereas under less friendly governments Tinku might fear repression, under a socially progressive government, Saravia is wary of being co-opted. In his few years as a public figure in the plaza of Cochabamba, he has seen how many other leaders compromised by political parties and foreign organizations did not achieve the changes they promised.

The night that Morales assumed the presidency, Tinku volunteers walked down to the main plaza of La Paz to celebrate. Music filled the city, a typically Bolivian fusion of funk and salsa played on native instruments. A few faces were missing from the dancing throng, however – Saravia and a couple of volunteers had headed back early to Cochabamba. They never miss a day in the plaza with their bulletin board, and that wasn’t about to change just because the presidential palace had a new tenant.