Michael Batson

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Flying High with the Bolivian Air Force - 6 May 2020

Travelling in Bolivia is a challenge of world-renown, one of those destinations your mother warned you about. The roads are rough, few are paved. The terrain is intimidating with high mountains and deep gorges best described as lethal. Transport infrastructure is rudimentary or was when I went in 1991, especially air travel. Safety leaves much to be desired. Up in the air you can be flying by the seat of your pants. The term was probably invented for the experiences the country has to offer. Bolivia is the country where just travelling from one town to another could be described as adventure tourism, and probably isn’t covered by your travel insurance, assuming you have some.

 

To get from La Paz, Bolivia’s national capital, to Sucre, the country’s constitutional capital, it can be better to save time and fly. This is not only faster and less tiring but being a way to avoid Bolivia’s notorious road infrastructure. The distance between the two capitals is just 414kms in a straight line but given the country’s rugged topography not everything in Bolivia is in a straight line, certainly not some of the roads. The road trip takes more than 12 hours over 687kms via Oruro (though I’m assuming this is a guide only), though by air it took over two hours because back then the Bolivian Air Force flew antiquated turboprops.

 

The benefit of flying is you can avoid some of Bolivia’s more bizarre tourist attractions, unless that’s why you came. Nearby La Paz are the Roads of Death. These comprise the North Yungas Road, 95kms from La Paz northeast to Coroico. A second Yungas Road, known as Chulumani Road, connects La Paz east to Chulumani, and is considered to be nearly as dangerous as the north road. The Yungas Road is legendary for its extreme danger.  In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank christened it as the “world's most dangerous road” that is, outside of a warzone. One estimate is that 200-300 travellers are killed annually or one vehicle every fortnight.

 

I didn’t know the involvement of Bolivia’s armed forces in commercial travel, so when the travel agent suggested flying from La Paz to Sucre, rather than risking the road, via TAM, the military airline, I was somewhat surprised. I guess I figured the air force is just as capable of getting me to my destination as a civilian airline, so why not. Interestingly Bolivia, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest landlocked country, also has a navy, but that’s another story.

 

The military has dominated Bolivia since independence from Spain: its society, power, politics, economy, and trade both legal and illicit—there was the explosion of drugs under the dictator General Hugo Banzer—and even transport, probably handy in the drug trade. The country’s air force operated commercial airlines; one for passengers from 1945 until 2019 when it lost its safety rating for good, and another for freight

 

Bolivia’s first ever president was a soldier: a Venezuelan, Simón Bolívar, known colloquially as the Liberator or El Libatador; rich, white and privileged. He was credited with leading independence of Latin America’s Andean and major Caribbean countries, from Spain. The majority of Bolivia’s presidents were military men who often gained office through violence and military coup, and just as often lost office by the same method; it was a cycle, almost rhythmic. The country experienced 14 military coups between 1899 and 1980; three of those coup leaders were themselves later deposed in military coups.

 

Bolivia has had 68 presidents to date including the incumbent—curiously the country’s second president was also the “sixth” given the number of times the post has been held temporarily—all men and all white, save for one of indigenous (“Originarios”) descent, Evo Morales, and now the latest, a woman, Jeanine Áñez. Even Morales was “asked” to step down by the military as recently as 2019, and Áñez appointed by them, albeit also temporarily. Bolivia has the largest proportion of indigenous people in Latin America. Figures from 2018 show the country’s population as: originarios at 20 percent, mestizo “mixed race” at 68 percent, and white just 5 percent, plus smaller numbers of other groups. Indigenous Bolivians may be forgiven for thinking they’d swapped one set of European rulers at independence in 1825 for another as effectively these figures demonstrate that between 1825 and 2005, 66 of Bolivia’s presidents, being white males, came from just 2.5 percent of the country’s population.

 

Transporte Aéreo Militar (TAM) was the airline of the Bolivian Military, the civilian wing of the Bolivian Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Boliviana or FAB). FAB also has a civil transport airline—Transportes Aéreos Bolivianos—known as TAB, operating Lockheed Hercules around Latin America and to Texas and Florida via Panama. Given Bolivia produces approximately 40 to 45 percent of the world's supply of coca leaf and coca paste you could be forgiven wondering what is being carried. The original name of TAM was El Escuadrón de Transporte Aéreo (ETA). Then it became known as El Grupo Aéreo 71 (Air Group 71), this heritage was reflected in the words “Grupo Aéreo 71” appearing as part of the TAM logo, or it did. In 1953 the name was changed to Transporte Aéreo Militar. In 1955, TAM began commercial operations with newly acquired Douglas C-47s, probably surplus planes from the US Army Air Force after WWII, then the world’s largest airfleet (it had 80,000 planes). TAM ceased operations in 2016 and after a couple of attempted restarts died altogether in 2019.

TAM Lockheed L-188A Electra

 

La Paz’s El Alto International Airport is the fifth highest commercial airport in the world (the top four are all in China) and at 4.068m above sea level, is the world's highest international airport. The concrete runway is 4kms long allowing large aircraft operations at higher altitudes—there’s a parallel grass runway for emergencies. There’s been an airport at La Paz since 1929 but the current airport facilities weren’t inaugurated until in the mid-1960s with a longer runway being constructed and new terminal buildings. The airport was reconstructed; enlarged and modernised in 1974 when it was officially known as JFK, as in New York’s main airport, but under the government of General Hugo Banzer Suárez, twice Bolivia’s military dictator, became El Alto International Airport.

 

Banzer’s rule had its own name, the Bolivano Banzerato and he was ruthless. He had his predecessor President Juan José Torres hunted down by death squads in Argentina and killed, and had other rivals, and even co-conspirators and cabinet ministers killed. He employed former Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, to whom he granted Bolivian citizenship, to refine the secret police’s repression techniques and receives Bolivian nationality. During the Banzer government, drug trafficking experienced an unprecedented expansion that lasted until the 1980s. Because the airport is so high, the average temperature is only 6 degrees Celsius, wide-body aircraft like Boeing and Airbus cannot operate at full load capacity so these run from Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city 550kms away.

 

In the early hours at El Alto we hung around in the small terminal before being ushered onto the tarmac. It was dark and cold, the average temperature at El alto is just 6C and this was summer, which afforded little comfort. On the way to the airport we passed small cafes and restaurants already busy in the darkness. It seemed bleak and inhospitable. I remember seeing some people defecating by the roadside. In Bolivia’s highly stratified society, often divided along ethnic lines, this is where the rubber hit the road.

 

There was coffee. I never experienced good coffee in my time in Latin America. Despite there being countries with a dedicated coffee growing industry, cafes only offered up was sacheted variety usually Nescafe, or versions of it. Despite there being some 27 different versions of potatoes, all I ever found was deep-fried chips. It was someone had stolen their soul, and probably had. The name once used on the La Paz airport, came from the country most guilty of stealing the continent’s soul, the USA. Like the US-centric global map featured in the Economist in October 1999. There’s North America distorted dominating the globe. The Pacific is for Huntin’ and Surfin’; the Atlantic for Fishin’; Europe, Africa and Asia for Fightin’; and Latin America for Exploitin’. Aside from that Latin America is just coffee and cocaine.

 

We got the call to board, and a walk across the windswept tarmac in the dark. The plane was a four-engine turboprop though I am unclear of which manufacturer and model. It may have been a Lockheed Electra as these were around in Bolivia at the time, though mainly flown by LAB airlines (Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano) forerunner of today’s Avianca and one of the oldest airlines in the world. More likely, it was a Douglas C-54 Skymaster, workhorse of the US military and used for a multitude of tasks everything from cargo transporter, to presidential and VIP taxi, to civilian airliner, and derived from the famous twin-engine DC3 (the Dakota).

 

Túpac Amarú II

We got strapped in. I was in the last row next to the window and the emergency exit. We prepared for take-off only for this to be aborted as one of the planes’ engines refused to start. So off we got, down the airstair and back up again to an identical plane parked adjacent on the tarmac. The stewardess was resplendent in her uniform and the highest stilettoes I’ve ever seen worn by cabin crew. Accelerating for take-off took an age. I thought we’d never get there and had visions of ending up in tangled wreckage at the end of the runway, another statistic. The reason for this is the altitude, hard on humans and on machines alike. The higher the altitude, the less the air pressure. Less ambient air pressure at higher airport elevations means that the aircraft must go faster over the ground to create the same amount of air flow over the wings. In other words, the runways have to be longer because it takes more runway to reach the same “airspeed.”

 

We’d left La Paz in darkness and cold and arrived at Sucre’s Juana Azurduy de Padilla International Airport in bright sunshine and blue skies. Like many airports in Latin America, Juana Azurduy de Padilla airport was only open during daylight. The altitude also caused the airport to be excessively cloudy at times, making approach difficult, which may explain all the plane wrecks, though it remains a base of the Bolivia Air Force—perhaps on the rationale if you can land there you can land anywhere. In 2016, after 41 years of service, the Juana Azurduy de Padilla International Airport ended its commercial flight service and operations moved to Alcantarí International Airport 30kms to the south of Sucre.

 

At Sucre there were palm trees; La Paz at El Alto seems barely to have a blade of grass. At 2,800m, the city has a subtropical highland climate with mild temperatures year-round; without the tropical climate of the lowlands, or the wind chill of the altiplano. I looked out the window to see plane wreckage fly by my line of sight. Then there was another, and then one more. It seemed to say welcome to Sucre but watch how you go. Rather than clear the wreckage, the crumpled planes had been left as some kind of reminder of the perils of travels in Bolivia; relief markers you’d arrived, like some kind of medal.

 

Juana Azurduy statue in Buenos Aires

The name “Juana Azurduy de Padilla” has much significance in Sucre, in Bolivia and farther afield in Argentina and Peru. Juana Azurduy de Padilla (1780 –1862) was a female guerrilla military leader from Sucre who fought for Bolivian independence alongside her husband, earning the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. They showed strong support for and military leadership of the indigenous people. Together they joined the Chuquisaca Revolution, a popular uprising in1809 against the governor and intendant of Chuquisaca (Sucre), partly in response to the indigenous revolutions led by Túpac Amarú II—not a rapper from south central Los Angeles—but the indigenous leader of a large uprising against Spain in Peru, and last of the Incan Lords, for whom the rapper was name, Túpac meaning “royal” in Quechua. The Spanish executed him, and his face appears on some of Bolivia’s many iterations of banknotes, resplendent with a flowing mane of black hair I know, I kept some examples all these years. The de Padillas fought for, amongst others, General Manuel Belgrano, the new head of the Army of the North. Belgrano was an economist, lawyer, politician, as well as a military leader. He created the flag of modern Argentina in 1812. The original flag he designed, or so it is claimed, is in the Casa de la Libertad in Sucre. He fought against the British invasion of the Rio de la Plata. Ironic, as the cruiser, ARA General Belgrano, was sunk by the British some 160 years later.

 

The de Padillas commanded the "Loyal Battalions," a fighting force of indigenous men and women known for their fierce loyalty to their commander. During the battle at Pintatora, Azurduy in 1815, Juana left the battlefield to give birth to her fourth son. In an act that would become legend, returning hours later to the front lines to rally her troops, and personally captured the standard of the defeated Spanish forces. Later at the Battle of La Laguna in 1816, Juana, who was expecting her fifth child, was injured, and her husband was shot and captured by Spanish forces while trying to rescue her. He was beheaded by Royalists. She led a counterattack to recover the body of her husband.

 

She died in 1862 largely forgotten and in poverty, but was remembered as a hero only a century later. Her remains were exhumed 100 years later and moved to a mausoleum constructed in her honour in the city of Sucre. In 2009, the Argentine president raised her posthumously to the rank of general of the Argentine Army. She also has “The National Programme for Women's Rights and Participation” of Argentina named after her, also became the subject of a children's cartoon designed to promote knowledge of Argentine history. In 2014, a bas relief sculpture of her was displayed as part of an outdoor exhibition of famous Latin Americans in the Pan American Union Building in Washington. In 2015, a 25-tonne, 16m high statue of her was erected in Buenos Aires was an exemplar of the forgotten or suppressed history of the nation's indigenous populations.

 

Sucre is where the Judicial Branch of the Bolivian government and Supreme Court are located. It’s called “The City of Four Names”. Charcas was the indigenous name for the place upon which the Spaniards built the colonial city. La Plata was the name given to the emerging Hispanic city of privilege and honour. The name Chuquisaca was bestowed upon the city during the independence era. Sucre dates from 1839 in honour of Don Antonio Jose de Sucre the great marshal of the Battle of Ayacucho (fought in December 9, 1824), the battle considered to have ended the Spanish American wars of independence. Sucre was Venezuelan, and a close friend of Simón Bolivar, for which Bolivia is named.

 

Sucre

The city attracts thousands of tourists every year due to its well-preserved downtown with buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1991 Sucre became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you can see why. It has tree-lined avenues, plazas and many colonial era buildings set out in a grid pattern. Sucre remains the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Bolivia, and a common sight is members of religious orders dressed in traditional costume. For much of its colonial history, Sucre's temperate climate was preferred by the Spanish royalty and wealthy families involved in silver trade coming from Potosi, where the climate is harsh and life for most, brutal.

 

Evidence of this can be seen outside the city. Castillo de La Glorieta (The Castle of La Glorieta) looks like it’s been transplanted out of Seville. Bolivia’s only principality lasted 35 years until 1933 and represented by a fairy-tale castle  built by “royals” Francisco and Clotilde from wealth of the Huanchaca Mining Company. No sooner does a country gain independence from a royal house, someone wants to replace it – it’s often said the most ardent royalists can sometimes be republicans.

 

Sucre's University, often abbreviated USFX (it’s easier than Universidad Mayour Real y Pontificia de San Francisco Xavier de Chuquisaca) is one of the oldest universities in the Americas. Its departments can be found all around the city but the main building is magnificent. Cafes nearby are invariably filled with students, who largely seemed more sedate than their contemporaries in Western countries, alcohol being largely absent in any quantities. I spent an evening at a packed cinema watching the Terminator, the film on offer. The next stop was Potosi this time by bus. The road was bumpy and the going slow. It wasn’t a patch on flying with the Bolivian Air Force, a trip to remember.

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