Going Against the Grain – in Bolivia and elsewhere

Re-engineered clock on Congress Bldg, La Paz, Bolivia

Re-engineered clock on Congress Bldg, La Paz, Bolivia

Anti-clockwise running clocks have appealed to me since I first saw one years ago on the wall of a colleague’s restaurant back in New Zealand. A year or two later I found the source – a shop in London’s West End specializing in scissors, pens, corkscrews and other equipment designed for perhaps the world’s last unrepresented minority, left-handers.

Maybe there is something about being left-handed that makes one sympathetic to misfits and rebels in general. Possibly that’s why some societies, overtly or covertly, have attempted to discourage left-handedness in children, and why the English word sinister derives from the Latin word for left-handed.

I have to tell you, this awareness dawned upon me slowly. Learning to write in the days of fountain pens, I developed a characteristic ‘left-hander’s hook’ to avoid producing lines of smudged ink. At an early age I must have made the pragmatic decision to use scissors with my right hand, just as, after coming to Turkey, I learnt to make Turkish coffee with the standard cezve[1]. Since, however, I took the decision to ‘come out’ as a left-hander, I find myself applauding every small victory for my cack-handed brothers and sisters.

So, I felt a sense of camaraderie when I read a news item reporting that the government of Bolivia has made the bold decision to re-engineer the nation’s clocks so they run counter-clockwise. I’m quoting from an article that appeared in The Guardian last week:

“Bolivia turns back the clock in bid to rediscover identity and ‘southernness’

“In the latest – and by far the most literal – sign that times are changing in Bolivia, the numerals on the clock that adorns the congress building in La Paz have been reversed and the hands set to run anticlockwise in proud affirmation of the Andean nation’s “southernness”. According to Bolivia’s foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, the horological initiative is intended to help Bolivians rediscover their indigenous roots.

” ’We’re in the south and, as we’re trying to recover our identity, the Bolivian government is also recovering its sarawi, which means ‘way’ in Aymara,” he said. “In keeping with our sarawi – or Nan, in Quechua – our clocks should turn to the left.’

“Clocks are an evolution of the sundial, and in the northern hemisphere a sundial’s shadow runs clockwise, while in the southern hemisphere it moves counter clockwise – making the modern clock a representation of light in the northern hemisphere.

“The clock face volte-face is not the first time a left-wing Latin American nation has played with time in recent years. In 2007, the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez put Venezuela’s clocks back half an hour in an attempt to get Venezuelans biologically more in tune with the sun. The previous year, Chávez decided that the white horse on the country’s coat of arms ought to gallop to the left instead of the right to better express the aspirations of his Bolivarian revolution.”

Well, I have documented previously my appreciation of Chavez and his Ecuadorean brother-in-arms, Rafael Correa. It’s pleasing to see Chavez’s successor carrying on the good work. One of the new President’s first acts was to establish a Ministry of Happiness charged with boosting programs for alleviating poverty, disability and social inequality. The article I read reported that Venezuela was ranked the happiest country in Latin America (according to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s World Happiness Report for 2013), and 20th happiest in the world, placing ahead of the UK, France and Germany. Such news items make me happy too, and I am happier still to have occasion to learn a little more South American history.

Christchurch wizard avoiding the 1981 census

Christchurch wizard avoiding the 1981 census

Before delving into that subject, however, I would like to pay brief tribute to another revolutionary figure. Not many countries have an official wizard these days – at least not in the developed world – so I take some pride in the fact that we in New Zealand do. Our wizard, born in England as Ian Brackenbury Channell, has filled the role since 1990, having been promoted by the Prime Minister of the day from his previous position as Wizard of the South Island city of Christchurch which he had held since 1974. Prior to that he had served as Official Wizard at Sydney’s University of New South Wales since 1967. Well, that’s quite a career, isn’t it! Check the link above if you want to learn more, but one of his early feats of wizardry was producing a world map using the Hobo-Dyer Projection which placed the South Pole at the top. The purpose was, amongst other things, to illustrate the point that much of our received knowledge is arbitrary, and based on assumptions forced upon us by Western/Americo-European predominantly Northern Hemisphere political and economic systems.

Wizard world map - right-side up

Wizard world map – right-side up

But to return to South America. Evo Morales has been President of Bolivia since 2006 when he won an absolute majority (53.7%) in a democratic election – two events which have been pretty rare in that country since it gained independence from Spain in 1809. As with most post-colonial states, government seems to have remained in the hands of the economic and social elite, with little of the country’s mineral wealth trickling down to the indigenous poor, until a widely supported revolution in 1952 brought the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement to power. Their policies of universal suffrage, land reform, rural education and nationalisation of the lucrative tin mines kept them there until, surprise, surprise, they were ousted by a military coup in 1964 – with, if we can believe Wikipedia, the assistance of America’s very own CIA, who were also instrumental soon after in the killing of legendary Bolivian revolutionary Che Guevara in 1967.

The remaining years of the 20th century seem to have been filled with a procession of military juntas and weak coalition governments characterized by corruption charges, violent suppression of opposition, free-market economic policies and privatization of state assets. Large-scale protest action increased from 1999, prompted especially by the transfer of water supply to private ownership and the consequent doubling of prices. Another key issue was the development of Bolivia’s huge reserves of natural gas – who would do it, where they would do it and who would benefit?

Street protests and general chaos continued for the first years of the new century, possibly explaining in part why a majority of Bolivian voters gave their support to Morales. His identity as a cocalero supporter, footballer, trade union activist, and his indigenous Aymara family background are perhaps also relevant. According to 2010 figures, 55 percent of Bolivia’s ten million people are Amerindian, and a further 30 percent Mestizo[2]. The Wikipedia entry claims that the country has 34 official languages – which may account for some of the difficulty in electing a representative government, and certainly adds lustre to Morales’s achievement in gaining a clear majority of votes.

One of Morales’s first acts as President was to reduce his own salary and those of his ministers by 57%. Undoubtedly, his government’s leftist policies of agrarian reform, combatting the influence of United States and trans-national corporations, increasing taxation on the hydrocarbons industry, and aligning the country with other ‘rebellious’ South American states like Ecuador and Venezuela, have provoked serious opposition from conservative groups within Bolivia, as well as upsetting those influential foreign corporations. At the same time, their attempts to compromise a little with the opposition have led to accusations from the left that they are forsaking their socialist agenda. Hard to please everyone.

Still, Morales’s football skills help to offset some of the criticism in a football-mad country – he is said to be the world’s oldest active professional soccer player! And the cocalero label is an interesting one too. Coca is a plant native to western South America whose leaves have been used for millennia by indigenous peoples. When chewed, they act as a mild stimulant while also suppressing hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue. ‘Addiction or other deleterious effects from the consumption of the leaf in its natural form have not been documented in over a 5,000 year time span, thus leading to the logical conclusion that coca left in its natural form causes no addictive properties at all.’

Interestingly, when I googled coca, I got 360 million results – all ten on the first page and 7 out of 10 on the second page referring to Coca Cola! The big problem with coca, of course, is that its active ingredient can be extracted and sold, as cocaine, to serious drug-users, especially in the United States. Isolation of the crucial molecule in 1898 is attributed to a German scientist, Richard Willstatter, who was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. While having some limited medical value as an anaesthetic, cocaine’s major use in those early years was apparently to increase the productivity of African American workers, giving them increased stamina and a resistance to extremes of heat and cold.

These days, however, usage has spread to wealthier sectors of Western societies. It is the second most popular illegal recreational substance in the USA, having acquired a reputation as a rich man’s drug – the business is said to have a street value exceeding the revenue of Starbucks. Understandably, then, the United States government is keen to cut off the trade at its source. Unfortunately, with the collapse of the Bolivian economy in the 1980s and the consequent rise in unemployment, profits to be made in exporting the product led to the establishment of coca as an important cash crop. Another example of unintended consequences resulting from meddling in the affairs of foreign states.

So, what is a Bolivian President to do? Clearly the chewing of coca leaf is a relatively innocuous cultural tradition of many of his voters. Equally clearly, imposing a total ban on growing the stuff will have undesirable economic and political consequences. The only long-term solution would seem to be controlling the local market, and developing the country’s economy to improve the conditions of the 53 percent of the population currently subsisting below the poverty line. Probably we should all be wishing him luck – but I suspect not everyone is. Nevertheless, from what I’ve been reading, Bolivia has a longish history of producing nationalist leaders capable of giving foreign interests a run for their money.

Rap music arrived in the world too late to get much of a hold on my musical taste buds – but as a teacher of young adults I’ve had some very peripheral contact – at least enough to have heard of Tupac Shakur, if only as a bad boy who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996. I was surprised to learn, then, that he is one of the best-selling music artists of all time – and that he took his name from the 18th century leader of an indigenous uprising against Spanish rule in what later became Bolivia. At that time, the rebellion was unsuccessful, and the Spanish took their revenge in the brutal manner popular with colonial powers.

The original Tupac Amaru

The original Tupac Amaru

That original Tupac, however, undoubtedly paved the way for the successful struggle, a few years later, of Simon Bolivar, whose triumph over Spanish forces led to the first union of independent nations in South America. At that time most of the present Latin American countries did not exist as separate entities, so Bolivar is seen as a key figure in the emergence of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, as well as Bolivia itself.

I wrote a previous post on the subject of benevolent dictators where I examined the legacy of Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. A key theme of that post was the esteem bordering on idolatry that citizens of modern Turkey hold for the founder of their republic – leading to the question of what other leaders occupy a comparable place in the hearts of their people. Well, according to Wikipedia, busts or statues of Simon Bolivar are about as preponderant in towns and cities of Latin America as are those of Atatürk in Turkey. Bolivia, of course, and, news to me, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela are named after him, as are the currencies of both countries. More surprisingly, there are also statues to be found in Paris, New York City, Ottawa and two small towns in Missouri and Italy. At least four towns in the United States are apparently named for Bolivar, as was a ballistic missile submarine of the US Navy. Ankara, New Delhi and Cairo have, respectively, a street, a road and a square named after him. Even Spain, despite losing the jewels in their imperial crown as a result of his activities, boasts a couple of monuments in his honour – and an extra-terrestrial rock in the asteroid belt is officially known as 712 Boliviana.

So go for it, Señor Morales. Left-handers of the world are with you!


[1] These coffee pots are now available in a left-handed version

[2] of mixed native American and European descent – not highly thought of by the 15% white minority


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