LA PAZ, Bolivia – Bolivia’s new president Evo Morales has in-spired tremendous hope among his overwhelmingly poor citizens by promising to create a “new Bolivia.”
So what’s it really like, this “old Bolivia” that any progress would be measured against?
Among other handicaps, it’s poor, corrupt, racist, and marred by decrepit roads, hospitals and courts.
In fact, Bolivia’s problems are so profound that any new leader might find it hard to decide where to start. Paving the roads that become impassable quagmires each rainy season would certainly give the rural poor more access to markets, education and services.
But is Bolivia’s meager budget, sustained largely by foreign aid, better spent fighting the disease and malnutrition that robs each generation of its human potential?
Bolivia’s central bank reserves are a paltry U.S.$1.6 billion (euro 1.31 billion) – about the price paid for the Tommy Hilfiger fashion company last month.
Bolivia’s gross domestic product, U.S.$8.8 billion (euro 7.23 billion), sounds a bit more substantial – but that’s just what Americans spent shopping online two Christmas seasons ago.
More than two-thirds of Bolivia’s 8.5 million people live in extreme poverty. What does that mean in real terms?
For one thing, Bolivians’ life ex-pectancy is 13 years below that of Americans.
A visit to the emergency room of a major public hospital in La Paz suggests why. The staff is overwhelmed – Indian women bring blankets and soup to children lying listless on old metal beds. A woman shrieks in pain behind a dingy plastic curtain.
“I need medicine but it’s too expensive,” said Isabel Arce, a 23-year-old maid and Morales supporter who can’t afford 40 bolivianos (U.S.$5; euro 4.15) for the prescription drugs to salve her husband’s skin allergy. “I hope he can change things.”
In Bolivia’s capital, boys as young as 5 roam streets offering to shine shoes for one boliviano (13 cents, 0.11 euros). Most wear ski masks for fear of being stigmatized. Many end up homeless and sniffing glue.
In Bolivia’s Andean high plains, at an inhospitable 13,400 feet (4,082 meters), many peasants survive on an all-potato diet, freezing and dehydrating them to get a little variety.
They live in thatched adobe huts in sub-zero temperatures without electricity or clean drinking water.
Bolivians also get a raw deal as they confront the government bureaucracy.
Collecting a pension, obtaining an identity card or filing a police report requires waiting for hours in lines that snake down sidewalks, as people jostle for space among street vendors selling luggage, jewelry, sweaters and sodas in the gargantuan informal economy.
Lawyer Ana María Balderrama lost a day of work waiting for a copy of her birth certificate.
“All these certificates are written out by hand, and it should all be computerized,” she complained. “This is totally unjust.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez promised Morales funds to help rural Bolivians get identity cards.
Without them, many of these people are invisible in their own country, unable to vote or collect a pension.
Bolivians also have a big reason for renewed hope – in recent years, the nation’s proven natural gas reserves have increased substantially, giving it Latin America’s second-largest supply after Vene-zuela.
If Morales manages to assert more control over the profits and negotiate higher sale prices, Bolivia could eventually increase its annual revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Bolivians also proudly tell visitors that their small, landlocked country is rich in petroleum, tin, tropical lumber, and gold.
And so comes the inevitable question, tinged with incredulity: If Bolivia is so rich, why is it so poor?
Many Bolivians point the finger at foreign companies and corrupt politicians, accusing them of ab-sconding with the country’s riches just as the Spaniards did in colonial times.
Others insist that Bolivia needs to move beyond extracting natural resources and build other industries with great potential, such as agriculture and textiles. AP