Monday, January 30, 2006

In Chavez's footsteps

This news article talks about Bolivia's new leader, Evo Morales, the challenges he faces, the promises he's made, and the hope I fear he is certain to squander. He's walking in the footsteps of Hugo Chavez:
[Bolivia] is one of South America's poorest nations. Officials are corrupt, roads are crumbling. Hospitals are decrepit. Racism against the Indian majority is severe.

Still, Bolivians have a big reason for renewed hope: The nation's proven natural gas reserves have increased substantially in recent years, giving it Latin America's second-largest supply after Venezuela.

Morales, the country's first Indian president, promises to harness that wealth to help all Bolivians by asserting more control over the profits and negotiating higher sale prices.

Bolivians also proudly tell visitors that their small, landlocked country is rich in petroleum, tin, tropical lumber and gold.


Yet the country's problems are so profound that Morales may find it hard to decide where to start.

Paving roads that become impassable quagmires each rainy season would help give the rural poor access to markets, education and services.

Or would the meager budget, sustained largely by foreign aid, be better spent fighting the disease and malnutrition that robs each generation of its human potential? What about eradicating the vast trade in contraband goods that leaves the government with pathetically low revenues?

Bolivia's central bank reserves are a paltry $1.6 billion about what the Tommy Hilfiger fashion company sold for last month. Bolivia's annual gross domestic product of $8.8 billion is what Americans spent shopping online two Christmas seasons ago.

Bolivians are so poor that Morales felt he needed to slash his salary this week to stay close to his roots. His new monthly paycheck 15,000 bolivianos, about $1,700 is still an excellent Bolivian wage, but it also is the official poverty level for a U.S. family of four this year.

More than two-thirds of the 8.5 million Bolivians live in extreme poverty. On average, they live until 64[,] 13 years less than people living in America.

At the emergency room of a public hospital in La Paz, the staff is overwhelmed by the crush of patients. Indian women bring blankets and soup to children lying listlessly 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 $5 for a prescription her husband needs for a skin allergy. "I hope he can change things."

In Bolivia's capital, boys as young as 5 roam the streets offering to shine shoes for one boliviano about 13 cents. Most wear ski masks for fear of being stigmatized later. Many end up homeless and sniffing glue....

Lawyer Ana Maria Balderrama lost a day of work waiting for her birth certificate.

"All these certificates are written out by hand, and it should all be computerized," she complained. "This is totally unjust."

Many people blame their poverty on foreign companies and corrupt politicians, accusing them of absconding with the country's riches just as the Spaniards did in colonial times.


Others argue that Bolivia's economy is too dependent on extracting natural resources and needs to diversify by building up other industries such as agriculture and textiles.

Whatever the reason, many Bolivians remain skeptical of politicians, including Morales. They look instead to figures like Ekeko, a chubby, mustachioed Indian figure revered in Bolivia as the god of prosperity.

A few days after his Jan. 22 inauguration, Morales officially opened the Indian festival of Alasitas, ushering in thousands of working-class Bolivians who made offerings to Ekeko in hopes of a lucky break.

People snapped up miniature houses, tractors and sport utility vehicles, wads of tiny fake $100 bills, and miniature bricks, wheelbarrows and power tools to build their homes. Ekeko, they pray, will make the trinkets grow to full-size in the coming year....
Bolivia's natural wealth has such potential to alleviate its poverty, but attempts to capitalize on it will be futile while Morales or any other socialist is in power. Without well-defined property rights, Bolivia will become just like Venezuela: rich mineral wealth, but increasing poverty because of a socialist government.

Morales promised this and that to Bolivia's poor, just like with Mexico's Manuel Obrador. Now that he got elected by essentially bribing enough of the voters, how will he fulfill his promises? Does he think that wasting money on a superstitious festival, which has no chance of hope, will do anything, or is he hoping it and his "anti-imperialism" rhetoric will be enough of a smokescreen? I cannot fathom how the people producing trinkets don't realize they'd have been better off producing things of practical value, because their society just doesn't have the wealth to squander.

By 2000, nearly half of Venezuelans lived in poverty, according to the World Bank. Despite all the oil wealth, poverty during Chavez's six years has increased about ten percent, so over half of Venezuelans now live in poverty. Is this the same fate that awaits Bolivians, over two thirds of whom live in extreme poverty? Are Morales' supporters really so out of their minds that they believe tiny representations will become the real thing? It's a madness far worse than counting on the lotto to solve your financial problems.

If Morales is really as socialist in policy as he appears, no one will want to do business in Bolivia. He must stop alienating wealthy countries, and he must negotiate free-trade agreements so that Bolivia can attract foreign investment. Yes, foreign investment means that foreigners will extract Bolivia's natural resources for other countries, but at least Bolivians will be earning money. Of what use are all those natural gas deposits if Bolivians are too poor to develop them themselves?

Some changes in Venezuelans' beliefs are also necessary. The quoted lawyer thinks it's "unjust" that her country isn't more computerized. Does she not see that a poor country simply won't have the resources to modernize itself? What does she think should be done, and does she buy into the myth of imperalist Westerners stealing Bolivia's wealth? I hope that, if anything, she sees the ineffectiveness and waste of Western countries' foreign aid.

What really got my attention was the mention of shoe-shine boys who wear ski masks. A little search engine query confirmed that they really do wear ski masks so they can't be recognized: it's a permanent stigma that can haunt them later when trying to get a real job. What kind of a society places a stigma on young boys trying to earn a little money? Why should they fear being recognized, when all they're trying to do is perform honest labor?

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