Since arriving in Bolivia last week we have learned of two new federal laws. The first, the Coca-Cola Law, degrees that as of December 21 (summer solstice—an important indigenous ceremonial day), Coca-Cola will be banned in Bolivia. On pain of arrest and jail time, no one can buy, sell, own or drink Coca-Cola, that dark devil liquid produced by the evil empire of the north. Seriously.
But in the meantime, ads for the drink continue to dominate bill boards and TV time, announcing to all citizens that Coca-Cola is the “chispa de la vida” (the spark of life). When I asked why the government was permitting the ads, my friend told me it was to help the supermarkets, small business owners and restaurants that need to get rid of a huge inventory before December 21. On that date, the spark of life will leave Bolivia.
This reminds me of the time in the 1980s when MacDonald's left Bolivia. This time it was at the instigation of the company, having determined its profit margin was not large enough in Bolivia. The government was not involved. MacDonald's had become a prestigious gathering place for Bolivia’s youth, and the company’s decision stung. I remember newspaper headlines lamenting, “MacDonald's! Why Have You Abandoned Us?”
I’m not seeing any public laments over the exit of Coca-Cola, and that may have something to do with the second new law. This one is more serious. It’s an anti-discrimination law, directed against a real problem of racial and ethnic discrimination that has plagued Bolivia ever since the Spaniards discovered her. Now, with an indigenous president and more even ethnic representation in congress than ever in the country’s history, some of the ancient wrongs are being righted. Yet people continue to carry their prejudices. And express them. This is the point the new law addresses.
It is now against the law to insult or verbally discriminate against anyone of another race, social class or ethnic group. Of course, such discrimination is never right, but turning verbal expression into a crime is dangerous in itself. Recently several newspaper and television reporters have been arrested for publicly criticizing the government. The government agents involved claimed, on the basis of the new law, that these reporters were verbally discriminating against them.
My friend warned us not to criticize the government while we were in La Paz, or to mention anything that might be considered discriminatory during our consultation on the gospel and culture. This conversation took place in a barrio restaurant, as we sat there, wondering about the future of the country, sipping our cokes.