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Radio Carlos Palenque

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in a 1995 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.


About two years ago, Bolivian station Radio Metropolitana (6195 kHz) treated several DXers to one of those truly wonderful Latin American veris that seem to be so rare in coming anymore. After about a year's wait (in my case) a veri letter, some station info, and a beautiful multi-colored frilled pennant arrived. How could it be any better? Well, it could. The veri-signer's signature on the QSL letters (actually a rubber stamp, but no matter) was that of Carlos Palenque, a prominent Bolivian political leader and presidential candidate, and a man who one day may well be president of Bolivia. There aren't many QSLs out there with a veri-signer this prominent! I had heard of Palenque before, but didn't know much about him. However, the QSL has prompted me to do a little more research into the man and his beliefs. As we will see, Carlos Palenque's connection to Bolivian broadcasting is a lot more than just a rubber stamp on some QSL letters.


First, a little Bolivian history to set up the story. Bolivia is the most Indian country in the world - around seventy percent of the population are full-blooded Indians, mostly Aymaras, with Quechuas being the only other significant group. Bolivia is also one of the poorest countries in Latin America. However, the fact that the Indians of Bolivia have survived all these centuries of Spanish domination with their culture intact makes them a force to be reckoned with. Since the 1940s, Bolivia has had some very strong labor/political movements centered around the Indian peasants. The harsh conditions of life in the mining towns and in the farming villages helped bring the peasants together. Just as important, however, is that immediately after World War II, Indians began moving into La Paz in search of a better life. These Indians brought their rural traditional values with them and serve as a symbol of the problems of the countryside. While previously La Paz was a mostly European city, it increasingly became a divided city, with more and more Indian neighborhoods. The Indians of La Paz became a catalyst for change right in Bolivia's political heart.

In 1952, the peasants of La Paz formed a coalition with labor leaders, small-business owners, and university students and faculty - the National Revolutionary Movement - and overthrew the ruling conservative military dictatorship after several days of bloody fighting in La Paz. The new government set about changing Bolivia from top to bottom by creating fair labor laws, legalizing unions, and nationalizing key industries like the mining industry. Although many of the MNR's policies like these were distinctly left-wing, the MNR government included a number of people who were linked with Latin American Fascist movements. Curiously, this kept Bolivia in the good graces of the US government, which, in the Red-scare days of the 1950s, saw the Bolivian government more as an ally against Communism than as a "fellow-traveler" like many other Latin American reformist movements of the day. The MNR was a very strange political mixture, and perhaps that is why its leadership gradually moved to the political center leading to a string of military governments between 1964-1982. (For more on radio and the Bolivian politics, see my article on Bolivian Miners' Radio in the June, 1994 Monitoring Times.)


Other than that he was born and raised in La Paz in a middle- class family, I can't find any background on Carlos Palenque's childhood. However, in the mid-60s he started a career as a long- haired singer of social-protest folk songs. Apparently he soon decided that wasn't the right road for his ambitions, and with some other singers he formed a pop-folk group named Los Caminantes, leaving the protest songs behind. Under Palenque's direction, Los Caminantes soon became one of the most popular groups in La Paz. After a few years, Palenque decided to go solo, but his career quickly faltered. He probably would have sunk into obscurity at that point, except for a quirk of fate. The Bolivian government's national TV station (then the only TV station in Bolivia), asked him to do a weekly live music show aimed at the Indian peasants who lived in La Paz. Palenque is not an Indian and he realized that to really connect with his audience he would need a little help. For a cohost to his show, he picked a typical "pollera" - an Indian peasant woman dressed in the bowler hat and wide "pollera" skirts worn by peasant women. Comadre Remedios, as she was known, wasn't an actress, but rather an authentic peasant woman. And, she was perfect for the role of being a bridge between Palenque and the audience.

It's very significant that in the show Palenque called her Comadre Remedios and she called him Compadre Palenque. These words, "comadre" and "compadre," can be translated into English as co-mother and co- father, or sometimes as companion or comrade, yet in English, we really don't have the concept they express. Normally, these are names used by people who are parents and godparents of the same child. Being chosen as godparents of a child represents a very important relationship in Latin American culture. The words will also sometimes be used between people who have strong social/friendship ties, but are not actually the godparents of one or the other's child. These words express the strongest social bond possible between unrelated people in Latin American society. By becoming a "compadre" to a peasant woman, Palenque voluntarily made himself one of the peasants, something very unusual for his middle-class colleagues in a society where Indian peasants were sometimes treated as little better than animals.

Palenque had a winning formula, and soon his show was one of the most popular in the country - and the most popular among Bolivia's poorest people, who gathered 30 or 40 to a room to watch him on the one small TV in their neighborhood. In the early 1980s, Palenque used his success to help finance the purchase of La Paz AM broadcaster Radio Metropolitana. Several years later, in the mid-80s, the Bolivian government opened up the TV spectrum for private channels. It was assumed that these channels would go to members of Bolivia's established upper-class business community, so when Carlos Palenque applied for a TV license, no one took him seriously. Those opinions changed when Palenque went on the air on his TV program and on the radio and appealed for support. "My compadres, the government doesn't want the humble people to have television..." With peasant and trade unions behind him, Palenque got his TV license. A few years later, Palenque entered the shortwave field by purchasing the frequency of a failed La Paz broadcaster.


So, just what has made Palenque so popular? Remember, his TV and AM stations really only reach the greater La Paz area, and his shortwave license is a newcomer to his media network. Out in Bolivia's altiplano - the high plateaus between the Andes mountains - life is very harsh. The Aymara Indians of the Altiplano are very community-oriented. Families can not survive alone; mutual dependency and reciprocity are a necessity of life. The people care for one another, and, as people work together, everyone in the community is equal. Since the 1952 revolution, Aymaras have continued to immigrate to La Paz from the countryside. However, life in the city is a shock to them. Mutual dependency doesn't work the same way in the dog-eat-dog city. A few people become richer than others. Most become a lot poorer.

Palenque has developed a political philosophy he calls the "casa grande" which speaks to the Aymara traditions of working together. Society, Palenque says, is like a family and everyone must share. In a family, no one should go without, and nor should anyone in society. Of course, the members of a family need to communicate with one another, and likewise, Palenque's 'casa grande' needs a method of communication between its members. Radio is the most important component for communication in the casa grande. Most peasants, even in La Paz, do not yet have televisions, so radio continues to be the center of entertainment and information in the home. Furthermore, people listen to radio while going about their daily lives, a role that television will never be able to fill. As Palenque puts it, radio "is the place where we daily converse like a family."

According to Palenque, the close relationships which exist between members of a family and between members of a small community can very easily be replicated in the relationship between an audience and the person behind the microphone. "... Little by little you have learned to trust your station in its midday programming, because with plain words, plain like the people, we understand each other every day and share moments of bitterness and moments of happiness." Palenque, of course, takes on a fatherly role as leader of the casa grande. He uses radio well, appealing to his audience's emotions and traditional values. In one speech he addressed the issue of homeless children: "I want to construct a home for the children that sleep and suffer in the streets. I want to give them warmth. I want to take them in my arms and take them from that place where they sleep in the streets. I want to carry them to the big house so that they don't suffer." Still, Palenque emphasizes that the mutual dependency of the casa grande by frequently thanking the people for teaching him and helping to make him what he is today.

A strong religious thread runs through Palenque's politics. He says that his movement follows the example of Jesus Christ and that to serve the people, as he does, is to serve God. He frequently draws parallels between political power and life. Both will one day end in a judgement, one by the voters and the other by God. Political corruption is to the people as sin is to God, and the day of judgement will come to politicians who do not, as characterized by Palenque, serve the people.

Until his purchase of a shortwave frequency a few years ago, Palenque's media outlets only reached the greater La Paz area, so it should be no surprise that his main political strength is in La Paz. Under the banner of his CONDEPA party (Conciencia de Patria or National Conscience), Palenque has been a fourth place also-ran in the past two Bolivian presidential elections. However, his politically-ambitious wife Monica, a former Spanish dancer, was easily elected mayor of La Paz in the last election and Comadre Remedios, Palenque's old TV sidekick, is one of several CONDEPA deputies in the Bolivian Congress.


While Palenque is admired by La Paz's Aymara population, there are others, however, who see Palenque in less favorable terms. Some characterize Palenque and his wife as a sort of political version of Jim and Tammy Baker, the US tele-evangelists gone astray a few years back. Through his radio and TV stations, Palenque has become a millionaire. That money came not only from large advertisers, but also from poor peasants paying to air personal announcements on the air and for their unions to broadcast programs. Palenque has used that money to buy a huge house in the most exclusive, luxurious neighborhood in La Paz, to buy expensive cars, and to live a life very different from those peasants he claims to identify with. Others go further and claim that Palenque is a demagogue who rouses the poor people and then channels their frustrations to his own political benefit. Some even compare him to Hitler. On the other hand, most criticism of Palenque comes from Bolivia's non-Indian minority, who traditionally control Bolivia's politics and economy. This group clearly fears how Palenque, primarily through radio, appeals to Aymara values and is trying to rebuild the unity and community responsibility of the Aymaras within La Paz.

Just who is Carlos Palenque? Is he a hero of the people? Or a demagogue? Or a smooth-talking swindler? I won't venture an opinion, as I really don't feel I know enough about the man. But, there is no question that he is one of those fascinating people behind-the-scenes that help make Latin American DXing all the more interesting. Regardless of his politics, I can't help but hope he wins the next presidential election. After all, think of how special it would be to have a QSL signed by the president of Bolivia ... even if it is just a rubber stamp.

In the meantime, amigos, why not try to hear Carlos Palenque's radio station for yourself? Here in North America, the 6195 frequency has been coming in between 0900 and 1000 UTC when the BBC is not there. When South American conditions are good, pull yourself out of bed and listen for some Andean folk music with talk in an unusual sounding language (that's Aymara) with a few Spanish words thrown in. If you hear it, you might want to send your own report and go after one of those QSL letters with the rubber stamped signature of the man who just might be the next president of Bolivia!

(Postcript: Several years ago Radio Metropolitana changed its name to Radio Carlos Palenque.)


This article is copyright 1995 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.

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