Bolivian Story: Enrique MacLean and Paola Recacoechea

Posted on 28 February 2014

Our first trip out of La Paz after we arrived in Bolivia was to Lake Titicaca for a long weekend away. We spent a couple of nights on Isla del Sol in an eco-lodge, which is where we met Enrique and Paola. They became our very first friends here. During that weekend on Isla del Sol we enjoyed dinner together each evening, laughing and talking about everything from heavy metal to politics. Back in La Paz our friendship grew, including pot lucks at our home and sometimes Enrique and Jean would ‘jam’ together – Enrique on guitar and Jean on his clarinet. We have been enthralled by their comments and opinions on religion in this strongly Catholic place, their perspectives on world issues and, of course, all things Bolivian. In addition, Enrique’s passion for intellectual property law in a country where it seems no one respects or even understands this concept has been a regular topic of conversation – although, as he says:

patent law is my job, not my passion – I’m passionate about creativity and innovation, patent and trademark are just regulations to protect creative people.”

Paola’s work with French tourism in Bolivia has also been a source of regular entertainment and I will always remember how touched I was when she gave me a signed copy of her father’s book, American Visa, which was made into a famous film here. Recently this dynamic couple have had a very adorable baby girl, Alicia, and hearing them talk about their newfound perspectives and love have been very inspiring. This interview covers a bit of everything from their lives… We hope you enjoy this family interview.

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Enrique, lets start with you… what brought you to study law and why in particular, intellectual property law?

Actually, most people think that I did it because I planned to take over my mum’s business but really I didn’t know what I was going to be. I was very interested in astronomy first and then journalism and anything related to philosophy and history. But when I was in school there was a program where for a whole week you don’t go to class but you do lots of industry related activities. One teacher organised a visit to the local prison and I was very impressed. It was a shock for me. I got to interview high profile prisoners like drug dealers and such. When I was leaving the prison one of the poor prisoners handed me a heap of napkins with poems on them and he asked me if I could take them out to have them published. I guess he asked me because he had no friends or family but the police thought they were encrypted messages so they took the poems away from me. I felt very outraged by the system and the situation in jails so I thought “I am going to study law”. Criminal justice was very interesting for me, because it had a lot to do with civil liberties and restraints to abusive power by the government. I thought Intellectual Property law was something I could do with mum while I wrote my thesis.

At one point I was working for an NGO that dealt with legal assistance for prisoners and training in human rights for prisoners and those kinds of things. I never litigated and I regret that because I took the easy road. I was pretty worried about my mum actually because she worked really hard but she wasn’t well organised. She even had a bed inside the office and she slept there often. When my parents broke up she said she was certain her hours in the office impacted their marriage. So, I wanted to help my mother. I helped her reorganise the office, developed Intellectual Property software and got caught into it. In saying that, I always liked Intellectual Property law.

In my field of work the main thing I work with is trademarks – not the interesting stuff like patents and copyright, because Bolivia isn’t an interesting country for either of these. If you are an inventor and you want to invest and get recognition and retribution for your work this is difficult because this country is a pirate’s paradise. Bolivians are crafty counterfeiters. Companies register trademarks in our country but we are not even close to Ecuador’s trademark and patent filing stats.

There haven’t been enough incentives or political preoccupations on law enforcement to create an entrepreneurial class – so Bolivian “entrepreneurs” tend to be imitators. They use patents and trademark without authorization, there’s a huge market of pirated CDs, people don’t sympathise with the inventors or authors, and there’s a common belief that they are foreign corporate abusers that undermine local industry and commerce. Actually, this problem has to do a lot with cultural education and commercial poverty.

As an example, one day we were driving by a gas station in Sopocachi and we saw a restaurant sign saying ‘HOOTERS coming soon here’. This was a pretty weird location for a franchised restaurant but actually this was a trucho [fake] restaurant. A few days later I saw a post on facebook for the restaurant but it had an S before it – they changed it from Hooters to Shooters but the colours were the same, the logo was the same, and the concept was the same – girls in white shirts, with orange shorts selling junk food. The journalist was actually saying that it’s so good that to open this sort of restaurant, inspired by a foreign franchise. Even the media encourage this! So I wrote a piece denouncing the trucho culture, and false entrepreneurs. Here in Bolivia people are fond of what we call viveza criolla which is a quality that we admire whenever someone cheats the rules, in a funny way. In response to the post I saw on facebook I posted a comment on the Good Restaurants in La Paz page denouncing that even if the food is great, why is it neccesary for entrepreneurial people have to deceive Bolivians and prefer to imitate foreign trademarks instead of creating a new Bolivian franchise?

Once there even was a fake Hard Rock Café here! They lost their case though and got fined – but just two weeks later their sign was up again! That’s why we don’t have registration patents and trademarks like other countries. Can you think of a Bolivian trademark that has succeeded outside Bolivia? There are very few and are only known in nearby countries like Peru or Argentina. This is doing a lot of harm for the Bolivian industrial community. Pollos Copacabana is a very successful fast food restaurant in La Paz but it hasn’t even expanded to the nearest big city Cochabamba! We don’t think of exporting our ideas abroad, we conform to being an importer country! I have never received instructions to file a patent application registration from a Bolivian applicant to be filed abroad. We just had a case of a very well known pharmaceutical trademark to be filed in Spain. We lack confidence. We lawyers get called corporate whores because we make things difficult for Bolivian counterfeiters, who think of themselves as innovative entrepreneurs.

Personally, I’m involved in a project with a long time friend of mine, who is a musician and sound engineer. We are opening the only audio mastering studio, in my grandparents’ house in San Pedro. We both love music, both used to play together in a band, and I told him that since we are going to have lots of artists coming we should provide legal assistance at a low cost. I think that if you give legal assistance to a talented artist it could be very interesting for the future. I think many artists don’t give themselves ambitious goals for their music because it’s a very difficult environment. But maybe if they feel confident that they can sell their art through legal means and using legal tools they will expand more. The problem is that even if you are a very talented artist you need some guidance in marketing, business administration, accounting, sponsoring – knowing that you need a manager to take care of business. Paola’s father is probably the most talented writer in Bolivia right now but doesn’t make any royalties from his book, American Visa! The publishing house doesn’t even report how many books they’ve sold. He is so frustrated that he wouldn’t even send them a letter to ask how many books were sold. He just wants his books to be sold. Artists here are romantic. Most musicians record without a producer, for example. How can you get a fresh and expert mind if you only talk about your music with your drummer whom you have known for ten years? I want to bring this to artists because we as artists didn’t have this chance. This is why I’m grateful for having chosen Intellectual Property law. It is a good business. It gave me everything I have – the house I have, the economic certainty, and also the chance to learn from businessmen because they were my clients. I also got to see how they think- both the greedy and the naïve ones have something to teach you. I consider myself an amateur entrepreneur. At this point in my life I would be happier working for five talented and responsible troubadours in La Paz than filing trademarks for huge corporations for the rest of my life.

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Speaking of Paola’s father, I really enjoyed the book you gave me that he wrote, American Visa. The way he describes underground life in La Paz, the vivid descriptions of cholitas [indigenous women wearing traditional clothing] sitting on the streets selling their vegetables and the desperate quest the main character has to get to the US all made me understand this place I had moved to a little bit better. This has become a famous movie here… can you tell us a bit about him, the book and the movie? 

P. My dad [Juan Recacoechea] doesn’t really care about the business aspect of literature – he is a true artist in that sense. American Visa remains his most successful book to date. It has become a classic in Bolivian literature and yet, for the past few years he hasn’t received any royalties. He is not interested in filing any lawsuits at this point; he just wants people to read his work. I guess that’s what I learnt from him, to be passionate about something regardless of the difficulties.

E. What I admire about him is that he has a disciplined obsession. He may be watching the best movie on TV but if he has decided to start writing at 3 pm, he just gets up and writes. I also like to write, but I’m very undisciplined and messy. I would like to write like your father – one page a day.

P. When I told my parents I wanted to be a writer and study literature, they said: “no way!” as he really struggled for money and had to do other things than writing to support his family. Maybe I’ll write when I’m older but I never got to study literature like I wanted. But then again you don’t have to study literature in order to become a writer right?

E. American Visa was published in 1994, but the movie in 2005. Juan won the National Bolivian literature prize, the highest award for literature in Bolivia.

P. The movie was very successful but many people didn’t know it came from a book as people here don’t read a lot. For me personally, I think that the book is much more powerful than the movie. I think the movie could have been a lot better. The book develops other interesting characters that don’t appear in the movie.

E. When I read the first draft of the movie script it was clear that it wasn’t close to the book. The script that I read was very commercial, very cheesy.

P. Also, the main character in my opinion, is not true to the character in the book. In the book, Mario Alvarez is a typical middle class Bolivian. He is shy and insecure and not in control of his life. In the movie he is portrayed as fighter, someone who knows exactly what he wants and very extroverted.

E. One of the characters portrayed very nicely in the movie was Don Antonio. My uncle, Alberto Etcheverry was the actor that played Don Antonio. Coincidentally he was also related to the novel’s author, my father in law. My uncle was a commercial pilot, manager of an airline, and turned into acting when he retired. He was known for talking a lot. He was so enthusiastic playing Don Antonio that he was even signing the book even though he didn’t write it! The sad thing is that he died before he even could see the movie.

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Enrique, you are a strong atheist in a strong Catholic society… How did this happen and why are you so vocal about it? Why is it important to you?

Regarding my atheism, I’ll try to keep it short, despite it’s one of my favourite topics. I wasn’t an atheist, nor an agnostic, until I reached my 30s. I was however always very critical about the whole idea of churches and power structures using shameless metaphors and fairy tales to control people’s sense of moral and politics. I thought there was a cosmic force connecting everything and, sorry for using the title of your blog, helping making sense of things. In school, we did have religion as a mandatory class. I hated it. I hated church, hated priests… I regarded them as sexually repressed conmen. I hated the idea of intermediaries.  I even allowed my father to perform an esoteric ceremony before our civil wedding. He was the “priest”. I did it for a dishonest reason: to please my dad. No one should blackmail you, however subtle the blackmail may be, with your personal affections to participate in rituals that make feel dishonest just to please other people’s superstitions.

What changed? When I went to San Francisco in 2009, I went to a lousy hotel that fortunately had HBO. I returned late from the meetings and Bill Maher was on. I loved the show, his critiques about religion and his humoristic take on them. Then I watched Religulous, his documentary. I started taking interest in his atheist guests like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and specially Christopher Hitchens. I followed up all of them through Youtube upon my return. I bought their books and got to talk about them with other atheists, like my mom’s husband, Guillermo. We were already great friends by then. I watched documentaries, got interested in philosophy, evolutionary biology, and cosmology, which was already an interesting subject for me.

My concern about religion changed from the corruption of organized religion creating bureaucracy between believers and this “superior” force to the dangers of taking things on mere faith, failing to be sceptical, assuming truths over sheer authority of people we respect / fear. I can’t possibly know if there is a God or not, but it makes sense, especially from a lawyers point of view, to demand some evidence for it, with logical consistency. If you question faith in this way you are met with accusations of being intolerant, a bigot or even a fanatic. I still regard that as a form of intellectual oppression, both to theists and atheists. Religion causes people to place their hopes in the void and feeling forever guilty or fearful, and be fearful of whoever contributes doubt to the discussion. It also promotes feeling suspicious of anyone that may have questions or doubt about it. That way of thinking has promoted violence, slavery, genocide, and dictatorship. It still causes harm in the pursuit of equality and human rights. Religion creates imaginary battlefields and turns them into real ones and, it is its nature to annihilate empathy, people’s curiosity, critical thinking and confidence before majority accepted laws and principles. There is no intrinsic moral value to it, because I haven’t become a psychopath just because I renounced to the idea of a Celestial Judge, supervising everything I do, and keeping a detailed record that will be used for an indictment on Judgement Day. From the cosmological point of view, it is of no moral relevance to know what caused the Big Bang, but it is important to understand our overall insignificant place in the Universe, but that such space has unmatched value because it holds every one of us in it. Even so, we won’t be here for long, the Sun will die, and the world will burn… if we don’t blow it up first. No God is going to save our planet from our own stupidity. Only science can provide us with hope for the future.

I am grateful for having evolved from my prior deistic believes to a militant activism regarding scepticism, critical thinking and anti-theism, because I am now responsible for a new life. I understand that most people are reluctant to ask questions about their faiths because that would imply that the people that they love have not been intellectually curious or honest with them. That’s a very difficult thought to overcome. I wouldn’t want my daughter to think of me in that way. Whatever path she chooses, and for whatever reasons, I’ll do my best to show her that she does not need to follow anyone’s rules, precepts and truths, just because she has doubt and fears, or because the one promoting this idea seems to be an honest person. Ideas have to stand up for themselves, and evidence should be the lighthouse of our lives. She should believe and know thing because her intelligence reaches to reasonable conclusions about it. I’ll do my best to teach her to be critical, sceptical, curious and always aware of the potential of her own brain. We live in a very poor country, especially in terms of education. I went to one of the most expensive schools in La Paz and none of these questions were ever raised -very poor science, very poor philosophy, almost no critical discussions. Biology class was embarrassing. I might as well have gone to a public school, which should be labelled as waiting rooms for early-age manual underpaid workers. This is the legacy of many corrupt military governments, and an oligopoly on private education held by the Catholic Church. I have a cause to speak against them, and not be afraid of social rejection. Underdevelopment is not only a mere economic problem. Religious thinking is used to create loyalty to political movements and agendas that, like the one of the current ruling party (MAS), have no visible interest or priority in improving education, science, health, social security or justice administration. All of Evo Morale’s rhetoric against imperialism and oppression should include religion. We are, at least, a secular country (Art 4, of our Constitution)… we should start acting like one.

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You mentioned your daughter and how you want to raise her in regards to religion but we are also interested in what it means to become a parent here in Bolivia where many people have around 6 children. How has society treated you differently since you became parents?

E. There has been a slight change, but it’s too soon to tell. Here, becoming parents is seen as your greatest accomplishment. It’s not like a normal event but more like being honored with a Nobel Prize. Culturally, having lots of children gives you status, and social security – if you come from the lower classes you’ll put them at work etc. It’s a pervert system but it exists.

E. Having a baby is the most beautiful thing in the world, but it doesn’t have an impact on my ego. Paola and I feel the same as a couple – a happier version – but we recognise each other. Some friends who had babies changed in their preferences and the way they talk to their partners, and to us.

P. I have to say, the first week I had the baby blues and was a bit depressed. I was feeling sad because of it, and I knew it was related to the pregnancy and the hormones. But then, to everyone else, you have to look like you are great. The first day I had 20 people in my hospital room! That was a bit overwhelming but of course it’s nice to see that people care, want to meet our daughter, share our happiness and want to support you. It’s a nice feeling. This is a big part of Bolivian life.

E. Bolivians sometimes take it to extremes with family. Like when you go to lunch you have to invite all 8 of your cousins, your aunts, everyone. Bolivians abroad marry each other, don’t bother meeting people from different backgrounds or cultures, etc… but you do feel lots of support from friends and family, like when we received Alicia. We had many people coming on their own initiative. Perhaps it is because we only shared few photos on Facebook? If you act as the journalist of your baby’s life, it may be different, because there is nothing to be curious about.

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What sort of support do you receive as pregnant mum in Bolivia?

P. First at my work, people were really supportive. They treat you differently when they know you are pregnant. They are lot nicer! I didn’t want special attention, as I don’t think being pregnant is a condition that you have to care excessively about. The main difference for a pregnant woman in Bolivia is the subsidy that the government enforces your employer to give starting from month 5 of pregnancy until the baby is 1 year old. It really helps economically and the products are really healthy. All the products are native, like amaranth, quinoa, lots of cereals, quinoa yoghurts, milk, soy and granola. It tastes like it’s homemade and you can’t buy these in the normal markets and supermarkets. It was really a great surprise for me. We get it once a month. You have to take 2 suitcases and a big backpack to get it all! My company pays for it – it’s the health insurance from my work. This means that people who are not formally employed don’t receive this subsidy.

E. The whole social security benefits is based on the condition that someone has to be formally employed. Whoever gets to be affiliated to social security has different services – you could go to caja nacional, caja petrolera, which are all state run. But not all of them are that good and they require that you have a higher minimum wage than the one stipulated by the government. The minimum wage is 1200 Bolivianos a month. The value of a monthly subsidy is equivalent to this amount but people aren’t accustomed to eating grains and cereals like quinoa or amaranth [even though these are their traditional grains] or even yoghurt so they sell the whole packet. Also, there is discrimination against women because pregnant women are less likely to be hired. That doesn’t happen in my company because I prefer working with women. They are more responsible and less conflictive. But then, on the other hand, some women get pregnant just to keep their job because you can’t get fired until your baby turns one. From the moment your baby is born, you get 1000 Bolivianos every month, plus the subsidy – but again, only for the formally employed people. You get this even if you come from a rich family. We could afford this subsidy [the food] actually, and we would pay if we were asked but most people can’t afford it and don’t necessarily see the health benefits and that’s why they sell it.

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How does the government justify that the people who need the most aren’t receiving the subsidy?

E. I think that most of the middle class here is self-employed. They don’t care if the government provides subsidies since it’s more important not to pay taxes than eating healthily, so, there’s no need for the government to justify the exclusion. We have a very serious nutrition problem in Bolivia. People tend to add too much spices, fat, carbohydrates, potatoes… the subsidy is seen as an economic incentive, not as a healthy alternative. It’s not a cultural priority to eat well here. Cholitas [indigenous women who wear traditional clothing] often give tea with maraqueta [white bread rolls] to their babies instead of milk!  The political advantage of giving the subsidy is that you keep a populist discourse. Not even the most right-wing governments have considered taking away this right. But it’s like taking care of just of a portion of the society, with a socialist discourse, despite the fact that the state is not paying for this system… employers are. These products aren’t paid by the taxes. That’s my main criticism to this particular government. They were supposed to be radical socialist. They should have taken care of these sensitive issues like health, education and security, but they invested in populist infrastructures like stadiums, football fields, minor infrastructure, and bonds, etc… They do give a 100 Bolivianos bond incentive to register your kid at school but this is so low it’s ridiculous; it wouldn’t cover the schooling materials at all. I wanted to sign up all my employees to a decent social security alternative so they are all registered with the caja petrolera which is the best one. But with all these health insurances if you want a medical appointment, you need to go wait in queues at 6 am, no matter how old or sick you are! And they treat you like crap.

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Your views are often quite different to many other Bolivians we’ve met and we often wonder… How has your experiences living abroad affected you?

E. I travelled a lot for business, but you end up with the same routine, the same hotels, the same business cards, etc. I prefer to travel for tourism or pleassure. I lived in Germany for 6 months when I was a teenager and that was a very important experience for me. Nevertheless, I think you need not go to far away to experience new thing. That’s why it was so refreshing to go to Isla del Sol when we met you… travelling here in Bolivia! Often when you travel, you tend to follow a routine. You need to take lots of pictures, see things that your friends want you to see. After the trip to Isla del Sol, I took the interest of going to places where I can meet other people living other lives. Going to places with your own money, not having to take a loan, and without a business routine,… that opens doors for you. That’s where I realised how lucky I am to be my own boss. I don’t want to buy a Porsche, nor invest in any luxuries. But I wouldn’t hesitate to invest my money in travelling with my family as much as I can… and not just to leisure destinations.

P. I think travelling is probably the most important thing you can do in your life. Meeting new people, different cultures and ways of life, gives you a sense of humility and wonder. The world is so rich culturally and naturally that it forces you to open your mind and helps you shape your life and values. As a parent, you must teach your kids to become interested in discovering other places: that is the only way they will grow up to be tolerant and creative persons.

E. Your country is not the only place where you can be someone. You realise you are not that unique. When we went to the museum of El Prado in Madrid with my mum we went to see Velazquez’ “Las Meninas”, and my mum told me and my brother to remember her whenever we see this painting, that she kissed us both in front of it. So it’s a wonderful memory both of my mum and of this art. Even in the strangest place you can find the most valuable things in life.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

We have never met a couple like you anywhere, ever. You are so passionate about certain things, that made us changes our minds about different aspects of our lives. We think it’s very noble from you to have had the idea of interviewing your friends – such a selfless act of gratitude. What I personally learnt from you is to be selfless, to listen to other people, to be tolerant, eating well, to question things like the environment… In Bolivia, people talk only about themselves. I would be very interested to do an interview of you – not only about your time in Bolivia, but how you got here. Many foreigners like living in Bolivia because they can party a lot and they want to travel a lot because it’s cheap. But with you it’s different because you wanted to settle here, because you followed your passions.

Thank you!! We’ve really enjoyed this friendship too. Is it so different to your other friendships? How are friendships in Bolivia?

E. I think, at least with my friends, we are very dependent on routine – we cover certain topics, contexts and ways. I consider myself a friendly person, but I couldn’t say I’d place my trust in any of them equally. The fingers on my hand would suffice to count the people I would feel comfortable seeking for advise or company.  I have other good friends but I feel it would be too much for them. Maybe they would get offended or not want to discuss things too much. There is a paradigm where we are very suspicious of each other, even with your own friends. We put boundaries and create roles. I now try to ask more questions with my friends, exploring every topic without being awkward is the richness of friendship. That’s what happens with my dad. He set some boundaries and wants to talk only about astrology. I have friends who have lived abroad but then they only talk about their professional success, not necessarily about their feelings and their struggles. I would have loved to talk with them about the emotions I experienced after my travels to Germany.

What are your dreams for the future?

P. Since I have a baby, I want her to be happy. As simple as that!

E. Paola and my parents-in-law always see me as a paranoid that worries about everything. Now that I have a daughter I do feel more alert, less self-absorbed. Now I’m trying to stop doing trivial/selfish things with my life and want to do everlasting things for my daughter. Some people really don’t think about their bank accounts in 15 years. But with my daughter, if I am run over by a truck tomorrow I want to leave something to her, a good financial situation, education and memorable happiness. It really sounds like the speech of a beauty queen. I don’t try to over flatter you, but you guys are an inspiration. I would be happy if my daughter would see life and people as you do… be nice, be concerned, be interested and be honest. Don’t be polite for the sake of it. Engage your friends in meaningful conversation. Be nicer to your family. I have really felt admiration for my mum since I got to see what women go through in delivering a baby. Whenever you have the experience of your own child, you are seeing a piece of your own life that will outlast you and carry your memory and teachings to future generations. You are only a chain in life. Be humble about it… but meaningful about it too.

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