Here in Bolivia things happen in front of my eyes and it sometimes takes a long time to figure out what it is that is going on. One of those things that happened in front of my eyes was Black February, 2003. Later, I figured out what was going on, based on Jim Shultz, Executive Director of the Democracy Center, in his book, Deadly Consequenses – The International Monetary Fund And Bolivia's "Black February." I described it in my novel, Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace,
In the novel, I cite Jim Shultz in the footnotes, so I was delighted to be able to speak to him.
LYNETTE: Jim, when did you first get interested in Bolivia? What inspired you to live here and dedicate your life to Democracy in the poorest country in the Southern Hemisphere?
JIM: While many people assume that I moved to Bolivia to be an activist, in fact the truth is the opposite. I moved to Bolivia to take a break from activism and circumstances caught up with me. My wife Lynn and I first moved to Bolivia as newlyweds in 1991, to spend the first year of our marriage away from the U.S., away from our mutuial work as social justice activisits, and to be volunteers in an orphanage. A friend of a friend had started a program for orphanded children in Bolivia, so off to Cochabamba we went.
What wove Bolivia into the fabric of our lives forever was a surprise, our adoption at the end of that year of one of our students, a five-year-old named Elly. Two years later on a return visit to Bolivia we adopted a second of our students (we had founded a school at the orphanage) Miguel. Both are now young adults. We later adopted a third child, a glorious girl who is now 7.
In 1998 we returned to Bolivia as a family for what was supposed to be a year. I had a grant to write a book about U.S. activism, The Democracy Owners' Manual (Rutgers University Press, 2003). Right around the time I was finishing the book the Cochabamba Water Revolt happened and I ended up square in the middle of it, writing the only international coverage from the streets. That helped make the story a global one and later The Democracy Center led, with others, the winning campaign to force Bechtel, the powerful US corporation behind the water privatization, to drop its $50 million legal case against the people of Cochabamba. So 12 years later here I still am in Bolivia and happy to be here.
What was your childhood like? What were your early influences?
I grew up in a small suburb of Los Angeles, Whittier, a town known to people over a certain age as Richard Nixon's hometown. I was a teenage there when Nixon was President and I think it was in reaction to Nixon and the War in Vietnam that drove me to be an activist. I worked like a crazy man in the anti-war Presidential campaign of Senator George McGovern, a noble man who list to Nixon in 1972. My parents were lower middle class, with neither having gone to college. My Dad worked at Mattel Toys in the warehouse and for a time I was a Mattel Toys test kid. After high school and another stint in a local congressional campaign I moved to Berkeley to attend UC.
What was your educational path? Who influenced you the most? A particular teacher? A book? Someone you met outside of academia?
When I think back on it, one extraordinary thing I recall was that until high school I had never met anyone who had moved away for college. That made a big impression on me and it became my small dream for myself. The most important teacher to influence my life at the time was one I never took a class from. His name was Christopher McKenzie and he was, like me, a natural outsider. He had a small group of students who he supported and nurtured through the trials of remaining true to ourselves. He was a gay man in a town where such things were not open and he was a wonderful spirit. I remain close to him for many years after and he spoke at my wedding, using the occasion to ask my family and friends to demand that I run for President of the U.S. (I never did, so far). In 1995 Chris dies of HIV/AIDS. I dedicated my first book to him.