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Bolivians do exist

Coca leaves: victims of UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. (Photo by Amelia Opalinska.)

Coca leaves: victims of UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. (Photo by Amelia Opalinska.)

At a restaurant in Bogotá in March, a Colombian lawyer announced that Bolivians did not exist. Evidence in support of the case was that the lawyer had never met a Bolivian, and that the concept of Bolivia had most likely been invented by Hugo Chávez to give the impression that Venezuela was not acting unilaterally in the world.

I was not able to investigate the claim at the time, as my friend and I were currently investigating members of another nationality whose existence had been periodically denied. I did ask the lawyer, however, whether he felt that Colombia was theologically entitled to Bolivian territory, at which point parallels with Palestine broke down.

Venezuelan unilateralism was again diffused this week with the emergence of a secret document belonging to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, according to which Venezuela and Bolivia were supplying Iran with uranium. I responded to the alert at my parents’ house in Buenos Aires by Googling Bolivian neighborhoods in the city and taking the train to one of them. On my way to the train station I passed the AMIA Jewish cultural center, site of the 1994 bombing that killed over 80 people; a 2006 article in La Nación confirmed the potential destructiveness of unilateralism in its description of the motive behind the attack, which Argentine prosecutors had attributed to the “suspensión unilateral” of nuclear technology transfers from Argentina to Iran.

I descended from the train in the alleged Bolivian neighborhood and was promptly flagged down by a sidewalk vendor from the Ivory Coast who inquired as to the nature of my visit. He interpreted my quest for Bolivians as a quest for cocaine and endorsed the denial of Bolivian existence, claiming to be able to procure the substance for me himself; when he was less certain about his ability to procure uranium, I crossed the street.

I approached a man drinking peach juice on the corner and requested that he identify his origins. He declared that he was from La Paz, and shrugged when I asked if Bolivia existed merely so that Hugo Chávez would not have to violate UN sanctions against Iran on his own. Failure to abide by sanctions had been one of the concerns reportedly expressed in the secret Israeli Foreign Ministry document; failure to sign nuclear nonproliferation treaties had not.

Other Bolivian violations of UN decrees had been revealed by Evo Morales himself in a March Op-Ed to the New York Times entitled “Let Me Chew My Coca Leaves.” In the piece, Morales explained his case for the “reversal of a mistake made 48 years ago”—i.e. the inclusion of coca leaves in the same category as cocaine in the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. As for mistakes made in 1948, my interlocutor from La Paz pointed out that unilateral rejection of UN resolutions was mitigated in Israel’s case by cooperation from the US and a host of other UN members, which led to a discussion of whether the nation of Palau really existed.

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