A system of (dis)trust

Aug 5, 2019 by

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A long time ago, Ona, a leader in the Bolivian Mennonite Church, made an offhand but accurate comment: In Bolivia, everything is negotiable. I’ve found that to be true even now, more than two decades later.

For example, there are traffic lights now, but no one steps off the curb for a green light without making sure traffic is, in fact, stopping. Drivers don’t always stop. It’s not uncommon just to keep driving through — until the light has been red for a while. And then, as if at the end of a stretched-out elastic band, they finally stop.

The lights are not ignored, but you still negotiate your way through an intersection — making eye contact, offering a hand signal or the beep of a horn. It’s an honor system based on trust and distrust at the same time.

Drivers are defensive, trusting no one, and that keeps them relatively safe in the congestion. But they are also aggressive because, unless they are, the congestion will intimidate them to the curbside. They seem to trust that others understand how this all works, but distrust is the fundamental glue to the safety of the system.

Much of the Bolivian economy is informal — based, I think, on the same dynamic that keeps people safe in an intersection. There are plenty of laws and regulations, but successful arrangements still often depend on having the right connection.

A friend told me that when she needed to get her money out of a bank, she got it because she had a friend inside the bank. In North America, we like to think the automation of our systems no longer requires us to deal with humans; the system and regulations will protect us even if we don’t quite have our wits about us. In Bolivia, the glue to how things work seems more relational.

The 100,000 Bolivian Mennonite colonists know how to work with this system. Many of the colonies have a lot of rules about how to maintain their tradition-based life­styles. The rules vary from colony to colony, but for the majority, one of the more visible traditions is the use of steel wheels on self-propelled equipment. Others include not owning cellphones. Not having electricity on farms. Not having air-conditioned cabs on tractors and combines. Only 50 hectares of land per family. Not learning too much Spanish.

In short, rules regulate their lives. But that same culture of regulation has found a way to work with the relational and informal system that is still so strong in Bolivia. My guess is it’s a bit like surviving an intersection in Santa Cruz. It’s based on trust that we all understand how the system works, coupled with the distrust and defensive driving that are so important to surviving an intersection.

Consider this example of negotiation: In two adjacent Mennonite col­onies, one forbids telephones and the other permits them. A farmer in the “have” colony kept getting visitors from the “have not” colony who needed to use his phone. The interruptions were becoming problematic, so he installed a phone in an old refrigerator, which became a sort of telephone booth. He buys the air time he wants and leaves a box so whoever makes a call can tell how much time he or she used and what the cost is. It’s in constant use, and this informal system mostly works. He said he’s rarely short money.

Most of the Bolivian Mennonite colonists’ rules are strictly adhered to and enforced. But in the relationships and arrangements that are not so prescribed, they have learned to live with flexibility and informality, sometimes at high risk. I’m not sure I understand the paradox they live with, but I wonder if part of the reason they adhere so strictly to their rules and traditions is because that is the security from which they are able to accommodate the everything-is-negotiable life in Bolivia.

Abe Janzen lives in Calgary, Alta., attends an Evangelical Mennonite Conference congregation and works with Mennonite Central Committee Alberta. He blogs at Messy Notes, where this post first appeared.


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