How Bolivia Lost Its Hat


Diplomacy hasn’t really changed that much over the years, has it?

In 1867, the British ambassador to Bolivia fell afoul of its dictator, Mariano Melgarejo, by refusing a glass of chicha, a cloudy drink based on fermented maize. Opting for cocoa instead, the ambassador got more than he asked for: Melgarejo, incensed, forced him to drink an entire bowl of liquid chocolate. He then paraded him three times around La Paz’s main square, tied up and seated back to front on a donkey, before shipping him back to London.

When the disgraced ambassador related his story to Queen Victoria, she was not amused at all. Her Majesty resolved to have the Royal Navy bombard Bolivia’s capital in retaliation. Consulting a map of South America, she soon discovered that La Paz lay far inland on the Andean altiplano, well beyond the reach of British cannon. So she simply marked the offending country with an X, pronouncing: “Bolivia does not exist”.

The story is related in the 1971 book “Open Veins of Latin America,” Eduardo Galeano’s critical analysis of imperialism in Latin America. The book rocketed up the best-seller lists when Mr. Chavez gave it to newly elected President Obama at a Summit of the Americas in April 2009.
Several variations of the original story exist, adding color but subtracting veracity: that Melgarejo invited the ambassador to the senatorial inauguration of his horse, or the official presentation of his new mistress; that he challenged the ambassador to kiss his mistress’s behind, or that the ambassador pooh-poohed the glass of chicha even though offered by Melgarejo in person; and that the dictator forced an entire barrel of cocoa down the ambassador’s throat.

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