It is hard to imagine descending from 5000 meters (17000 feet) to 2800 meters (10000 feet) in roughly an hour, except perhaps by air. Well, not only is it possible, but almost magical. And that is La Paz, Bolivia. From the closet peak of the Altiplano at 5500 meters (over 1700 ft), the view is incredible. Driving through – or skirting around – El Alto – the so-called flat city (as it fans out across the expansive high plateau) one can simply not deny the genuine poverty, thin air and virtually non-existent infrastructure. There are a million people living in El Alto and they speak Aymara.
- As a note to my friends at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the Aymara language (and the more broadly spoken Quechua language you reference in a recent article) is not a “traditional” language[i]. Rather, it is a “language.” Just imagine; “the people of Paris can be heard communicating in French, a traditional language.” Or, for force of comparison, Estonian, Basque, Irish, Welsh, Latvian or any other language less spoken than Aymara. In fact, should we expand the comparison to Quechua, we could discuss other quant, traditional languages such as, Danish, Norwegian, Flemish, Finnish, Swedish and Inuit (Eskimo is just wrong) – far smaller population, but geopolitically more important due to arctic sovereignty issues!
Cresting over the precipice from the Altiplano down into the massive valley that is La Paz, you cross the invisible line that separates the Altiplano people from Paceñas. Sunlight dances around different rocky points almost simultaneously and it is beautiful. The hectic traffic and pervasive graffiti of the city of peace is only partly distracting from the unimaginable topography and enticing mélange of architecture. Descending into the city centre, this fine city hosts a remarkable number of apartment towers. For a conglomerate region of two to three million, there are many towers refreshing the potentially repetitive colonial architecture. For the second poorest country in the Americas (after stubbornly last place Haiti), such impressive construction is a little mystifying. Unless one factors is narcotic-money laundering. So that should be factored in.
Measuring Bolivia´s coca production cannot be a simple task. Internal consumption – much as maple syrup in Canada – is legal, condoned and perfectly acceptable – in fact while writing this I am drinking coca tea and last night we ate coca-flavored chocolate. Illegal cocaine production is as unrelated to chewing the coca leaf as mountaineering it to a fish. Illicit drug production is geared to a more international market, but production for such markets remains behind that of Peru and Colombia. Needless to say, illegal drug production and distribution has played a huge role in the region. Yes, if a market did not exist for cocaine, production would wane. If, however, better economic opportunities existed for the Bolivian (and Peruvian and Colombian) people, narco-activities would be far less appealing. I once read the New York mafia began to lose power, in part because henchmen found better paying employment in legal activities. Seems fair.
Traveling further into the valley, houses become larger, the weather warmer and gradually the Aymara city of El Alta seems a distant plateau, much as high mountain peaks appear elsewhere in the world. The towering Cordillera Blanca – White Mountain range – is now distantly beautiful and even protective when viewed from the exclusive micro-climate around the Bolivian golf club (highest in the world) and the tennis resort, where we spent Easter Sunday. It was lovely.
Whilst at the resort, we met many friendly Bolivian families who told us of the disaster that is Evo Morales, Bolivia´s – and arguably South America´s – first indigenous president. Non-Aymara speakers explained to us is some detail how his Aymara is no good and others even suggest something radical needs to be done. Yet up, way up in El Alto, conditions are gradually improving. The society is formalizing and services are appearing.
Morales is different and Morales means something. But first, may I distance myself from the ugly populism that is most likely the result of even uglier dictatorships and the horrendous, imperial class structure that has defined this continent. Mr. Correa in Ecuador (despite some real advances within the country) and our ever-so-failing Ollanta Humala here in Peru are only shadows of Chavez in Venezuela and the ominous echo of Peron now cast through Cristina in Argentina. It is no wonder faith in democracy remains shaky in this part of the world. Nevertheless, when a majority of the population has never benefited from the wealth of a country, it would seem entirely understandably they would collectively – even popularly – speak up through whatever means available.
And just this Monday – in a clearly populist move – Mr. Morales raised the national minimum wage 20%, far higher than the inflation rate of 6.5%.[ii] The economist in me worries about such a high increase on top of already high inflation and I am sure those on the golf course also worry about the threat of spiraling inflation. They also worry about the fact such moves by the government are not done in consultation, but rather in spite of macro-economic considerations.
Yet, when seen from a slightly different perspective, an increase of less than $20 US a month just does not seem unreasonable. Sure the cost of living is lower in Bolivia than in countries with higher wages – but not that different! All foreign products including this computer are at least the same price, if not higher. The disempowered percentage of the population is so high, they almost do not factor into the national economic conversation. In fact, if it were not for noisy elections and regular road blocks up in El Alto, it could be easy to imagine that population almost totally forgotten.
Back in Cusco, we have had two more days of friendly, almost festive protests, once again focused on the cost of gas. Minimum wage here is $270 a month, but the cost of living notably higher than in Bolivia. During election cycles, politicians try to endear themselves to “the populist masses” by promising something that would genuinely make a difficult life a little more comfortable. The least they could do is keep that basic promise!
In the case of Bolivia, populist moves – based on some grounded economic sense and a genuine desire to address rampant poverty and inequality – can be overshadowed by billboards promoting the President. This reminds me of (and in no particular order): Ecuador´s support of Assange (Wikileaks) and catholic politics on birth control, Mr. Putin´s ranting about homosexuality and almost all neighbouring countries, Argentina´s return to the Falklands issue (and of course how Mrs. Thatcher benefited from it previously) and the rampant anti-Israeli rhetoric from regimes who could do with a little more introspection.
Of course as a Canadian I remember a verbose Jean Chrétien making serious commitments to the international community regarding Kyoto and climate change. Our utter failings as a country on this vital portfolio has been achieved with almost no discussion and will continue to weaken any authority Canada may have in the global community.
To my hard core leftist friends, may I point out that revolution after revolution has simply not bettered the conditions we lament while drinking wine. And to the right, with all your military might and contempt for the masses, may I point out that you still pay. You pay in private security, false high prices due to limited markets and private healthcare and you pay every time you leave your barricaded house for fear of kidnapping or theft. And you pay for losing the deep cultural heritage around you – in deference to social status and racism.
Sometimes it is not always clear to me exactly what I am doing here, but I do know I love the Andes. Back home the weight of bureaucracy and regulation can be crushing, yet here I find myself advocating for more rules and certainly enforced rights. With the amount of political posturing dominating the news these days – from Japan to Venezuela – I quite like being a small cog in a larger process. If only one person can revolutionize a country; one person can likely destroy it too! I am wonderfully impressed that Evo Morales has given a more solid voice to the Andean people of this continent and I hope he and his fellow populists will gracefully step aside – as did Nelson Mandela in South Africa – and let the process be bigger than the person.