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A middle-aged Bolivian English teacher, Mario, travels to La Paz to apply for a visa. He plans on going to the US to live with his son. When his application is denied, he decides to turn to crime. Along the way, he meets a stripper named Blanca and when his criminal activity fails, he realizes his life is better spent with her in Bolivia than in the US.
The Cochabamba Water War
Mario decides to go to the US at a very hard moment for Bolivians. They were facing war, not with Paraguay or Chile as they usually had, but water wars and gas wars. The water war began in Cochabamba in 1999. In the 90s, Indigenous groups continued to demonstrate for the protection of their lands, but not a lot was done by the government. By 1997, ex-dictator, Hugo Banzer, won the presidency with his respected center-right party and expanded neoliberal policies. By September 1998, the IMF agreed to give the Bolivian government a loan on the condition that they privatize many of their public industries. The next year, the Bolivian government signed a $2.5 billion contract to hand the Cochabamba Municipal Water System to Aguas del Tunari which was a subsidiary of the US company, Bechtel Corporations. In October of that year, Aguas del Tunari announced their plan and assured residents that they would generate electrical energy and irrigation water. They also promised that water delivery would increase by 93%. That same day, the government passed Law 2029 that legalized the privatization of state drinking water which would make residents pay full price for water services.
These prices however would not remain stagnant. In January 2000, protestors in Cochabamba shut down the city for four days because their water bills had doubled and in some cases tripled. Unfortunately, these protests turned violent in February when riot police showed up with tear gas. 175 people were left injured and 2 were blinded. By April, the whole world was watching as the entire country erupted in protest. Protest leaders like Oscar Olivera were arrested and Banzer declared a state of siege, but that would not calm the violence. On April 8, a 17-year-old boy was shot dead by an army captain who had been trained at the School of the Americas, a US military academy that trained Latin American soldiers in warfare as well as torture tactics. By April 10, the government was forced to sign a deal with Olivera’s organization, La Coordinada, to get control of the water supply.
Banzer was forced to resign (supposedly solely for health reasons) but Bechtel Corporations continued to defend its role in Bolivia and sought compensation for the broken deal, much to the chagrin of the Bolivian people. Almost the exact same thing happened in 2003 with the Bolivian Gas War in which the people protested the sale of natural gas reserves to the US through a Chilean port. If Bolivians hadn’t already been tired of US involvement, they were now. The year that American Visa came out, the people elected Evo Morales who drastically cut down US aid. The romance is finally over, but it’s a lesson that our protagonist, Mario, still needs to learn at the start of the film.
Mario’s American Dream
Mario grew up his entire life in a country that heavily relied on American aid and he didn’t seem to find any fault in it. The fact that he is an English teacher shows how important he thinks Bolivian-American relations really are and any problem area within the country he views as solely the fault of Bolivians. In one scene, he debates with men at a barbershop about what is the cause of Bolivia’s downfall. He mentions revolution, corrupt politicians, cocaine, but never America’s role in the country. The first scenes of Bolivia show a barren town filled with dust and unemployment. This is how Mario sees his country. He has completely bought into the American Dream. He even gleefully tells people that he will be working at IHOP when he gets to the US as if that is the height of luxury. His visits to the embassy are scored by the Bruce Springsteen music constantly playing on his walkman. Mario is totally in love with the idea of becoming an American rather than a Bolivian where the only thing you can be proud of is the fact that they have the capital with the highest elevation as he says.
Blanca’s Bolivian Dream
It’s only when he truly gets to know Blanca that he sees America and Bolivia for what they really are. Blanca dislikes everything American. She thinks all gringos are fat and plain and when Mario asks if she wants English lessons, she declares that it is an ugly language. She is all too familiar with the exploitative nature of America. She works at an American-themed strip club where she is constantly groped and objectified. She is even led on and exploited by Mario who at times views her as a mistress while he waits to be with his real girlfriend, the US. He begins to see things differently because of her. When he first applied for his visa, the embassy employees appeared sinister. The director filmed them like snakes lurching over at Mario, but he was clueless about that. He thought it was all normal bureaucracy. Towards the end, he tries to get a fake passport and finds that the embassy employees are the suppliers of the passports. It’s at that moment that he finally sees them for who they are and he realizes Blanca’s dream is far more important than his. Bolivia is worth fighting for.
Though the film includes some overdone scenes as well as an Anti-American theme that really hits you over the head, it is a powerful story about accepting your place in the world accompanied by a wonderful performance by Kate Del Castillo!