Today (Sunday) is a nation-wide mandatory election day for Bolivians. And no, we are not talking presidential elections – just judicial (Supreme Court). Today, nobody can drive without special permission. Instead, all are expected to walk to the thousands of nearby polling centers. Today, individuals like our cousin, Ines, are required to work at voting centers (another form of civil duties, like “jury duty”). There are no volunteers. Today, Bolivia shuts down in order to move forward.

The peculiarity (from an American paradigm) of this voting scheme is best understood in the context of Bolivian history. Bolivia is a young democracy: open elections have only occurred since 1985. Prior to that, dictators, military coups, counter-coups, and other strong-armed politicians reigned while the people submitted. In fact, the early 80’s where one of the most tumultuous times in Bolivian history, beginning with the violent coup of Luis García Meza Tejada. Now imprisoned for human-rights abuses and murder, Meza initiated an era of political and economic stability where fear and hyperinflation ruled. Carolina’s grandfather, Hugo Añez, recalls receiving suitcases full of the Bolivian currency in exchange for a single cow from his ranch. He says he needed to take the money immediately to the bank to exchange it for U.S. dollars before it devalued further overnight. From 1980-1982, 5 different forces dictated rule in Bolivia, including 3 separate military governments succeeding Meza.

Throughout Bolivian history, when these domineering regimes wanted to save international “political face,” they held “elections”: aka rigged voting where their constituents would vote multiple times while the opposition stayed home, trembling in fear. It is out of this past that Bolivia has chosen to mandate voting. And, we think Americans should take note…

Yesterday, the government shut down liquor sales – a costly sacrifice in an attempt to keep the masses sober and focused (see picture). Today, Bolivians must vote if they wish to do any of the following over the next 3 months: (1) Have access to bank funds, (2) Receive national documentation, and (3) Maintain privileges in coming elections. Think this is harsh? Maybe we should re-visit history and see “freedom” from the lens of elections in some of the other 193 countries (according to the UN registry) around the world?

Afghanistan The first free presidential election in Afghanistan was held on October 9, 2004. This day marked the first time in history Afghan women could vote.

Libya – This northern African nation spent 40+ years under the corrupt dictatorship of Colonel Qaddafi until he was expelled from power in August of this year. The uprising and current fighting in Tripoli has lead to optimism after decades of oppression. Yet, a transitional government is all this nation currently has to show for months of violence. (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/libya/index.html)

Somalia – The last presidential election was held on June 26, 2010 – a mere 664 days after the originally planned date of August 31, 2008. All the while, the incumbent stayed in power.

Yet, despite being the “land of the free” and the birthplace of the internet, America seems uninformed. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/voting/cb09-110.html), only 64% of Americans voted in the last presidential election. Just imagine what this figure would be if the people (rather than the executive branch) elected the Supreme Court.

Unexpressed freedom is not freedom at all. It’s like a slave being set free, but choosing to maintain his position for fear of the unknown.

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” – Mark Twain

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” – Ronald Reagan

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it.” – John F. Kennedy

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