LA PAZ – The COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis have forced many Bolivians to reinvent themselves and the struggle to put food on the table is a bigger concern for most people than the Oct. 18 elections meant to restore democratic order after a year of “interim” rule.
Before the coronavirus, Alexandra Encinas worked as a housekeeper for an elderly woman and the roughly $120 she earned was enough to support herself and her four children.
But that income disappeared when her employer became infected with COVID-19.
Alexandra tells EFE that her attempts to find another position as a housekeeper have run into the refusal of potential employers to allow her to bring her two youngest kids, ages 1 and 3, to work.
The 26-year-old single mother has nobody to look after the little ones while she works.
For four months, Encinas “survived” by brewing flaxseed soda and selling it on the largely deserted streets of La Paz. Now, she peddles homemade gelatin.
With the baby in a carrier, she takes the 3-year-old in one hand and totes the basket holding the gelatin with the other. Despite the effort, she makes less than $10 a day on average and remains in search of other ways to provide for her family.
“Be what it may – doing laundry, going to clean houses – whatever presents itself. Making money is the thing,” Alexandra says.
Bolivia’s economy shrank 7.9 percent in the first six months of this year and unemployment climbed to 11.8 percent, according to the National Statistics Institute, which blamed the five-month-long pandemic lockdown for the slump.
The jobless rate was 4.8 percent at the end of 2019 after several years that saw Latin America’s poorest nation lead the region in economic growth and make significant progress in reducing poverty.
Francisca, who declined to give her last name, tells EFE that when her usual line, selling clothes, turned unprofitable, she decided to use the money she had on hand to amass an inventory of face masks, disinfectant and other pandemic necessities.
As the sole provider for two children, she had no choice but to reinvent her business and begin peddling her wares from a wheeled cart.
“Before, I was embarrassed to sell. That I will go out on the street – impossible,” Francisca tells EFE. “But for my daughters, I have fought. I’ve left all the fear behind and I’ve had to face everything.”
In downtown La Paz, a fenced-in construction site has become an improvised employment fair where scores of people show up every day in search of a chance to earn a few dollars.
Attached to the fences are help-wanted notices for a wide range of occupations: from baker to nanny, from bricklayer to lawyer, from security guard to publicist.
Job-seekers can be seen snapping photos of the ads, while others jot down the information and still others go directly to the office of the man behind this “enterprise,” Rodrigo Antezana, to get the relevant information in exchange for a fee of 5 bolivianos (less than $1).
Standing in line at the door of his small office are first-time jobseekers, along with plenty of people at or beyond retirement age who are looking for work.
Antezana, 22, says proudly that of the hundred or so people who come to him every day, he is able to connect at least 20 of them with employment.
The fees he collects are enough for the young entrepreneur to pay his university tuition and cover the rent on the home he shares with his uncles.
The president of the Confederation of Micro and Small Firms (Conamype), Nestor Conde, cites figures showing that more than 120,000 formal and informal businesses have shut down during the pandemic, leaving as many as 360,000 people without work.
In some cases, the owners of those operations have been forced to sell equipment and other assets to subsist, which will make it difficult for them to start over when the economy improves, according to Conamype.
The interim government led by Jeanine Añez, a previously little-known lawmaker from a right-wing party that got 4 percent of the vote in the October 2019 elections, launched what has proved to be an inadequate stimulus package valued at roughly $2.23 billion to counter the economic effects of the pandemic.
Polls show former Economy Minister Luis Arce, the candidate of ousted President Evo Morales’ leftist MAS party, as the front-runner with less than two weeks to go before the election.
Many Bolivians credit Arce for the strong economy during the 2006-2019 tenure of Morales, who was pushed out a year ago by the military following a disputed election.