Friday, March 30, 2007

Tears and Fraud as the Door to Spain Closes

Estimates are that as many as 200,000 Bolivians have migrated to Spain in the last three years. LAB and Aerosur flights across the Atlantic have become notoriously full going east and notoriously empty returning west. Bolivian travel agencies plaster banners across their front windows, hawking not cheap fares but "guaranteed spaces."

The lines at the passport office here in Cochabamba have been so long for so long that people sleep by the door just for the chance to get a ticket securing a space to come back weeks later.

By the thousands, Bolivian families have scraped together money from every source they could to finance the airfares for children and siblings who practice the "I am here to be a tourist" stories they will tell nervously tell Spanish immigration officials at the airport in Madrid. I know a number of them, including two sisters I have known since they were little girls (here is my Blog post on their experience).

Sunday all that changes. The rush of Bolivians to Madrid and Barcelona has not been to beat the European summer heat. Up till now Bolivians have been able to enter the EU, and Spain in particular, without a visa, a process wildly easier than trying to scale the bureaucratic brick wall that keeps US entry out of reach for almost all Bolivians. On Sunday Spain and the EU close the door with new rules that will require Bolivians to have a visa to enter.

The scramble to beat the deadline has been one of frenzy. Some 900 passengers were booked on LAB's beat-the-deadline flights to Madrid that were cancelled this week. According to Bolivian press reports, not only are the people involved never going to make it to Spain, LAB also doesn't have the money in hand the refund the $871 each (equivalent to more than a year's pay at the minimum wage here) they paid for the tickets. The scenes at Bolivia's airports this week were full of panic, anger, tears, hunger strikes and ultimately the arrest of senior LAB executives.

It is a fact that one of Bolivia's leading and most lucrative exports is now its labor force, with as many as 1 in 5 Bolivians living abroad. The largest enclaves are in places like Barcelona, Buenos Aires, and the outskirts of Washington, DC. Money sent back home from these nannies, construction workers, and others is paying for home construction, school tuition, and even public works projects back home.

Capital, in 2007, can move with the click of a mouse almost anywhere in the word where it can earn its best return – be it for five minutes or a year. Labor faces long, sometimes hopeless lines in front of embassies and passport offices, faces fraud by those eager to exploit, and faces obstacles that remain as hard in many ways as when my grandparents made the long trip to Ellis Island by boat a century ago.

Note: One of the chapters in The Democracy Center's forthcoming book, "Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia's Challenge to Globalization" (University of California Press, 2008) is on Bolivian immigration.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Bad Month For Miss Bolivias

March has not been a good month for past winners of the Miss Bolivia competition.

Just last week Miss Bolivia 1988, Sonia Falcone, was (according to an AP report) "ordered to leave the United States after pleading guilty to employing four illegal immigrants as household servants at her $10.5 million mansion in Paradise Valley, Ariz." If all the former beauty queen did was hire undocumented immigrants to weed her lawn or mop her kitchen, the penalty seems a little rough, but I wasn't there.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Miss Bolivia 1993, Roxana Arias Becerra, according to the same AP report, was arrested at the airport in Santa Cruz, allegedly boarding a Brazil-bound flight carrying cocaine in the "false bottom" of her nylon duffel bag [Note: The Blog from Bolivia only deals in serious journalism and we will not stoop so low as to highlight the potential pun linking beauty queens and "false bottoms". That is beneath us.] The former Miss supposedly told authorities that she had just bought the bag at a Santa Cruz street market and the drugs must have been in there when she bought it. If that is the case, then Santa Cruz has a way more upscale cancha than Cochabamba.

All this is not good news for the already fragile world of Bolivian beauty competitions. Miss Bolivia 2004, Gabriela Oviedo, caused quite a domestic stir when the 6 foot tall beauty queen proclaimed during the Miss Universe pageant that year, that not all Bolivians were "poor people, short people, indian people," and noted that she came from, "the other side, from the east ... We're tall, white, and speak English." For reasons we will not delve into here, her comments were not well-received at the time in Bolivia.

These latest challenges to the ranks of Bolivian beauty queens may, in the records of history, end up as little more than a forgotten blip, unless of course some sort of scandal breaks in the near future involving either Las Magnificas or Las Chicas Premier. However, if Bolivian beauty pageant officials want to avoid further scandal, they might wish to encourage contestants and alumni alike to reflect on the moral lessons taught to us by that most elegant of all beauty pageant winners, Bolivian or foreign, Miss Piggy (pictured above and at left).

Twenty years after her crowning she remains a woman untainted by even the whiff of scandal or controversy, well except for that little unmarried fling she had with Kermit the Frog. But who could blame her, really?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Bolivia’s Gas Problems


Much of the recent news in Bolivia has been about the ongoing problems of the Morales Administration is having in implementing its much-heralded “gas nationalization” decree. The musical chair dramas of coming and going government gas officials, revelations about poorly drawn contracts, and a basic lack of professional capacity at the highest levels have cast real doubt over how much Morales can really deliver on the centerpiece of his government so far.

Aaron Luoma is co-author of the chapter on gas for The Democracy Center’s forthcoming book, "Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization" (University of California Press, 2008). Here he looks at the current comings and goings of Bolivian gas politics.

Readers interested can see the full collection of The Democracy Center’s briefing papers on the gas issue here. -- Jim Shultz


Last Friday, after just 14 months in office, President Evo Morales named his fourth president of Bolivia’s state oil and gas company (YPFB) in just over 14 months in office, Guillermo Aruquipa Copa. Bolivia’s oil and gas team has been a story of one turnover after another, including three heads of its regulatory agency and two energy ministers. The current minister, Carlos Villegas, submitted his resignation last month, but was talked into staying by President Morales.

This and other recent setbacks have left Bolivians questioning their government’s capacity to manage its all-important oil and gas industry.

Contract Problems

Manuel Morales Olivera (no relation to President Morales), who was replaced as YPFB president after less than two months at his post, had faced a wave of criticism over his role in the negotiating of 44 new contracts with 12 foreign oil and gas companies. After months of tense negotiations, on October 28th of last year the Bolivian government declared an important milestone in their nationalization process when the contracts were signed. The new contracts, approved by Congress on November 28, aim to give Bolivia a measure of control over its oil and gas and create higher taxes that would more than triple government revenue from those of 2004. This critical new revenue would provide Bolivia with an important source of funds to begin to address its social and development needs. But almost five months after their signing, however, the contracts are not yet in force.

Morales Olivera’s credentials had been questioned from the start. He had no previous experience in the oil and gas business before President Morales named him an advisor to YPFB’s president in January of last year. He did, however, come with significant party references - his father is a leading member of the MAS party, and his sister the director of Bolivia’s customs service. Last October opposition lawmakers accused him of favoring his father in the awarding of auditing contracts for gas fields. Then in January, over objections by critics that he was unqualified, President Morales tapped Morales Olivera to be YPFB’s president despite a YPFB statute that stipulates that the company's president should be a professional in the field, and have at least five years’ leadership experience in the energy sector.

One of Morales Olivera’s first moves as YPFB president was to suspend the implementation of the October contracts, stating that the state company was unable to “guarantee the necessary conditions for their implementation," citing transcription errors that he said did not affect the content of the contracts. On February 12th the Morales administration proposed an amendment to Congress to correct errors in 15 of the 44 contracts. The amendment is being held up by the opposition-controlled Senate that says there are both errors of ‘form’ and ‘substance’ in the contracts, and the impasse can only be overcome by passage of further legislation. The Senate is currently holding public hearings to review the contracts, saying they will take all the time they need to review in detail all the contracts and their annexes.

Secret Side Deals and Havana Nights

Issues of contention in the October contracts include errors such as incorrect company names and locations of gas and oil fields, and also more serious issues that would affect government revenues such as what company expenses are deductible. In grueling Senate testimony this past week, both Minister Villegas and ex-YPFB president Juan Carlos Ortiz said they were unaware that Morales Olivera, chosen by the Morales administration to head Bolivia’s negotiating team during the October contract talks, had made a verbal side agreement with Petrobras (Brazil’s state-private oil and gas company) in the final moments of negotiations.

The agreement Morales Olivera made was to “soften,” in the week after the contracts were signed, an annex that concerns what expenses by Petrobras are eligible for tax deductions. Morales Olivera, in his defense, said both Villegas and Ortiz were present when the decision was made to negotiate a different version of the annex. Earlier this month Morales Olivera blamed errors in new contracts on the company’s disadvantage in complex negotiations with foreign oil and gas companies: “on one side of the negotiating table sat professionals with 30 years of experience [in oil and gas], and on our side, people just 30 years old.”

Perhaps the final blow for Morales Olivera was the appearance in national media of a series of photographs taken last December showing him and his negotiating team of young professionals, who call themselves the ‘rug rats,’ enjoying the beaches and nightlife of Havana, Cuba. They had just completed a training seminar at a cost to Bolivian taxpayers of over $40,000. Vice President Garcia Linera has asked YPFB to justify these expenses.

What’s Next?

Upon taking office, the new president of YPFB, Guillermo Aruquipa Copa, former vice minister of oil and gas exploration, warned that any further delay in the application of the new contracts could have grave consequences for the country. He asked that the corrected contracts be approved this week. But getting the contracts through the Senate is no sure thing this time around.

On Thursday opposition party members and Evo Morales’ former first energy minister, Andres Soliz Rada, called for negotiations of contracts to start over, stating they were invalid. Roughly $4 billion in investments are pending, much of which will go to meet a quadrupling in gas export demand from Argentina, which are estimated to raise government oil and gas revenues to nearly $2.5 billion by 2010. It also delays the administration’s nationalization process, chiefly the buying back of a controlling interest in the five public-private capitalized companies involved in exploration, development, refining and distribution that used to make up YPFB - as mandated by the May 1 decree of last year.

A Democracy Center source within YPFB said that the refineries would likely revert to YPFB control, along with accompanying fuel distribution duties, this May. If recent history is any guide, however, that timeline may be overly optimistic. Critics say the government is asking YFPB to move faster than it can - that the operating funds and technical capacity are not in place yet to be able to operate efficiently in and oversee Bolivia’s oil and gas industry. Fuel shortages in the domestic market and a lack of spending on social needs and infrastructure, despite windfalls in oil and gas revenues, have also lead to continuing frustrations among the Bolivian people.

Minister Villegas claims the new contracts will net Bolivia $82 billion in revenue in the next 25 years. But implementing the government’s nationalization policy that would turn this potential into reality is no easy task. "We’ve got to turn a ministry that before only served to sign papers into a body that can design energy policy," explains Villegas. "We've got to turn a state company used to only rubber-stamped contracts into the main operator of a huge industry." To date, Bolivia’s lack of capacity has become the main impediment to real change.

In testimony before the Senate last week, former YPFB president Ortiz said the motive for his January resignation was the constant destabilization and sabotage carried out by government officials who started an “information war” against him after he called attention to the errors in the October contracts. Such in-fighting does not bode well for YPFB’s prospects of building a cohesive oil and gas management team that is fully capable of leading the development of Bolivia’s oil and gas resources.

Written by Aaron Luoma

Friday, March 23, 2007

Day of the Sea

Today the landlocked nation of Bolivia commemorates the Day of the Sea, or more accurately, the national goal of regaining the sovereign access to the Pacific that it lost 128 years ago today.

It was on this day in 1879 that Chilean troops seized Bolivia's last shoreline and the country never got control of it again. In Bolivia, this is not the stuff of ancient history.

School children are taught early on "that Bolivia must regain its sea." School celebrations of Bolivian independence often feature children dressed in the traditional costumes of each of the nation's nine departments, including a tenth dressed in black and in chains for "El Departamento Littoral" – the sea. La Paz hosts a museum dedicated exclusively to the sea and its loss.

The spark of the gas revolt here in October 2003 was not just the popular belief that President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was about engineer another bargain sell-off of Bolivia's gas and oil, but that the deal involved selling it through Chile. The two countries still do not have complete formal diplomatic relations.

Certainly, the Bolivian dream these days is a "Sea for Gas" deal in which Chile would grant Bolivia some form of unfettered access to a port to call its own, in exchange for being part of a gas export deal. It would be the South American equivalent of a "Land for Peace" swap in the Middle East and Evo Morales pulling it off would be the South American equivalent of Nixon going to China, sort of.

All of this may be a dream for Bolivia, or at least something a long way from being realized, but you have to give Bolivia and Bolivians credit for never giving up on the demand to reverse an injustice done to the nation more than a century ago.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Plugs for Two New Businesses Catering to Tourists in Cochabamba

I have lived in Cochabamba for almost ten years now – through thick and thin – and it is a great place.

The people are wonderful. The weather is grand. The food (except for that lingering, unexplained lack of bagels and Thai food) is delicious. We've got one Jesus that cries human blood and another that is the tallest in the world (and illuminated in a lovely purple at night). We've got coca toothpaste and maracuya yogurt. We've got a 35 square block open-air market (la cancha) that makes Wal-Mart look like a 7-11 store.

Cochabamba, my friends, has it all. And now it also has two new businesses in town that speak to the rise in local tourism. With no financial reward or financial conflict of interest involved, I'd like to shamelessly offer up a plug for them both.

The Spitting Llama Bookstore and Outfitter
#615 Calle España

A young Bolivan/US couple, Rommy and Dave, just opened a sweet little store (on Calle Espana, a couple blocks north of Mayor Rocha) called "The Spitting Llama". It is as eclectic as it is small and definitely worth a visit. The store specializes in two things – books and travel gear – and has lots of both.

Bookwise, they have managed to put together just about every Lonely Planet Guide to Latin America ever written and also boast being the first bookstore to specialize in books written in Quechua. Their book collection includes 10 languages, though their English section is mostly the same bad airport novels most places have, with the exception of the one I bought on opening day, Danny Dinosaur Goes to Camp – "Riveting! Says the New York Times."

The Spitting Llama also has backpacks, hiking boots, flash drives, sorojchi pills, many maps of Bolivia, and just about everything else one can imagine that a tourist here might be looking for. As David wrote in his opening announcement, "a store so chaotically fabulous that most of you would probably steal from us." So do go visit them and tell them "Jim sent you". But do avoid actually stealing anything. I think they meant that as a joke.

Cochabamba by Double-Decker Bus
Plaza Colon

I truly did a double take this morning when I saw the red double-decker bus with the open rooftop parked alongside Plaza Colon. It was like the time years ago, when I was still living in San Francisco, that I saw a woman in full polera peering into the windows of the city's gay district (she turned out to be Lydia Cardenas, the wife of Bolivia's Vice President). I have been to London. I have seen red double-decker buses. I just never saw one before in Cochabamba!

As of Monday of this week you can now take a tour of Cochabamba (I am not making this up) in a bright red double-decker bus with no roof on top. Really. Cochabamba Turistica takes on passengers twice a day – at 10am and 3pm – at Plaza Colon. The two hour tour runs you by the city's main plazas and churches, past everywhere else one might want to classify as "tourist worthy" (I think that Dumbos ice cream is a stretch but, whatever) and of course up to the world's largest Jesus (which during the day only comes in white).

The whole thing costs 15Bs. I haven't been on the tour yet but, if they'll let us bring beer aboard, it might make for a creative way to have our next Democracy Center staff meeting.

All of this is a hopeful sign, I think, of increasing tourist interest in Bolivia and a chance to create some new small pockets of economic opportunity out of it. Of course, while neither of these businesses paid me to make this plug, I do have a self-interest that I feel compelled to confess. Where red double-decker buses and Danny the Dinosaur dare to tread, can garlic and onion bagels be far behind?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

New Bolivian Elections in 2008?

Last week the MAS government made a statement that the Constituent Assembly, meeting in Sucre to debate the elements of a new national constitution, would have to decide if that new constitution would include new national elections in 2008. Now to be sure, it is unclear to me that the Constituent Assembly will actually ever produce a new constitution, and much less what will be in it.

But, even the remote possibility of another round of national elections (these would be the third in six years) has set Bolivian politicians off in a wild dance of trying to position themselves.

Quiroga and PODEMOS – Not Ready for Prime Time

The distant second place finisher in the December 2005 elections, Tuto Quiroga and PODEMOS, are definitely not happy campers about the possibility of a new vote next year. Quiroga quickly announced his opposition to the idea and then added that, if it does happen, President Morales should be required to resign if he wants to run (The current Bolivian Constitution does not allow a standing President to run for reelection, but MAS clearly wants to change that.). Quiroga's resistance to the 2008 elections is not very hard to figure out. PODEMOS is in disarray; it faces a host of new rivals as lead opponent to Morales; and is about as ready to face the electorate again as an egg is ready to face an oncoming car tire.

Doria Medina and UN – Anything is better than 4.3%

The third place finisher in 2005, Samuel Doria Medina and the UN party, on the other hand, is excited and ready to go. When your last national vote tally was 4.3% (the July 2006 vote electing members to the Constituent Assembly) you have nowhere to go but up. The owner of Bolivia's Burger King restaurants assuredly sees a new vote as a chance to rise above the UN's current political status – roughly akin to that of a neglected French fry.

Manfred Reyes Villa – No Word from the New Opposition

So far I have seen no public word from the political camp of Manfred Reyes Villa. But a source within the prefectura told me that the people around the Cochabamba governor have been preparing for weeks for a possible new national vote in 2008. Reyes Villa jumped into national politics in December by allying himself with civic leaders from Santa Cruz and the other eastern departments, in his call for a 2/3 vote on all the separate sections of a new constitution and saying he would seek a revote on autonomy in Cochabamba. That move set in motion the chain of events (including the takeover of the city center by MAS backers) that led to bloodshed here in January and according to one poll, cost Reyes Villa a third of his popular support.

MAS – New Challenges

With the opposition on the right in political disarray and with Morales still enjoying strong popular support (64% in a recent poll), one might expect that a revote in 2008 would put Morales and MAS in a strong position. However, two factors are likely to threaten any vision that MAS has that a new vote would leave the party and Morales better off.

First, in December 2005 MAS had the political left all to itself at the ballot box, the product of skilled negotiation by Morales' running mate, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera. MAS repeated its dominance on the left in the Constituent Assembly vote six months later, thanks to a deal with PODEMOS that essentially eliminated all possibility that MAS critics in the social movements could qualify for the Asamblea ballot. But Morales's former mentor and ally, Filemon Escobar (also a former MAS Senator) has formed an alliance with Potosi Mayor Rene Joaquino (who, like Morales, is indigenous) under the banner, "Alianza Social" (Social Alliance). Morales and MAS would still be dominant on the left, but not alone like last time. It should be noted, however, that the Potosi Mayor also tried to launch a candidacy in 2005, one that fizzled out before it began.

Second, Morales and MAS are going to find it harder than before to hang onto the middle class support that help them trounce their nearest opponents 2-1 two elections in a row. In July 2006 PODEMOS ran a campaign that was All Hugo Chavez. Menacing photos of the Venezuelan President in a red beret were many times more common in PODEMOS ads than images of Tuto Quiroga, the party's leader. In July 2006 fear fell flat on its face as a campaign tactic, but today the middle class is much more nervous about Morales and MAS. While no opposition candidate has been able yet to convert that into public support for themselves, the ground is fertile and my bet is that Manfred Reyes Villa will head right for it if he runs.

Of course, in the end, this is all speculation, a convenient distraction for Bolivian politicians and political junkies. The most likely scenario is that there will be no new elections at all in 2008. But beware, I am also the skilled seer of the future who wrote in July 2005: I think that Evo has about as much chance of becoming President of Bolivia after next December’s elections as I have of being Bush’s pick for the US Supreme Court.

I gotta go, Justice Roberts says I keep holding things up.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Questions of Competency

I got another dose of it again recently. Take a Bush Administration official and give him or her the rhetorical shield of "off the record", or a private conversation, and you get dripping condescension attacking the competency of the Morales government.

Now let's be clear, the Morales government has offered up a pretty steady stream of examples to make the case. The government's leadership of its gas and oil nationalization efforts looks at times like a game of musical chairs at my four-year-old's birthday party. The government can't seem to get dented yellow gas tanks out in sufficient numbers to households, in a country lousy with the stuff. The newly established Ministry of Water is a complete mess and has spit out a host of talented Bolivian professionals who went there with good intent and strong skills. I am sure critics of Morales will take great glee in offering up other examples as well.

But let's be equally clear about something else. Being called incompetent by the Bush Administration is like, to use an old phrase, "being called ugly by a frog." Here are some questions that might be reasonable to ask Bush Administration critics of the Morales government:

1. How would you compare the level of incompetence in the Morales government, and its effects, with the Bush Administration's performance in its invasion of Iraq?

2. Where in the first year of the Morales government do you find the equivalent of tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands Iraqis dead? The Bush Administration, even though it unleashed the violence, can't even give us an accurate number for those killed.

3. Where in the last year in Bolivia do you see the equivalent of more than 3,000 dead US soldiers? The Bush Administration has now sent more Americans to their deaths in Iraq than Al Qaeda did with hijacked airliners on 9/11.

The same Bush administration attitude can be seen in its 193-country human rights report released last week. Ample criticism for everyone else (much of it accurate) but no mention of Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Where in the last year in Bolivia does the Bush Administration see the equivalent of the US Government-hosted torture in those places?

Even the Administration's diplomacy toward Bolivia has hardly been stellar.

In October 2003, after a weekend massacre in the altiplano by the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (during the gas revolt), that included the shooting of children, even his own Vice President, Carlos Mesa broke with Goni over the violence. But both the US Embassy and the State Department made bold declarations afterwards to keep Goni in office another week. Those who died during that time can look to the Bush Administration for the favor.

And here is my point.

People make mistakes (me too, big ones).

Government's made up of people (which includes most all of them) make mistakes.

The worst mistakes are not made through incompetence, but arrogance, by the attitude that we are right and have no real need to listen to those who might think otherwise.

The Bush Administration, wrapped in an arrogance of borrowed red, white and blue, will be remembered by history as the author of – to use a phrase from the Middle East – "The Mother of all Screw Ups" with a price in blood and purse so high that it is almost unfathomable.

Humility. Morales and MAS need it. The Bush Administration needs it. The Democracy Center needs it. We all need it. And when it is absent from those who have power, in a small country or especially in a large one, the results can be a disaster.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Trying to Open the Door to the Schoolhouse for Bolivian Children


At the start of each new school year here in Cochabamba it is a common thing to be approached by dozens of children asking for money to help with the long list of supplies (pens, paper, books) required by schools here. For families living on the economic margins (and there are many) paying for the $10 to $25 list of supplies is an impossible task. In fact, for many families it is the final economic barrier, among others, that makes sending children to school impossible.

In this post our research and writing team of Aldo Orrelana, Jonas Brown and Leny Olivera is back with a report on the Bolivian government's new program to offer public school students a twice per year payment from the nation's new oil and gas revenues. It is a look not only at the new program, but also at the larger issues that children face here.

Jim Shultz

Trying to Open the Door to the Schoolhouse for Bolivian Children

Angelica Ayala Rojas is a Bolivian mother with five children. This year, instead of advancing to the sixth grade, her oldest son dropped out of school to work in the family’s shop. Why could Mrs. Rojas afford to send her son to the fifth grade, but not the sixth grade? The answer hints at the both the benefits and limitations of President Morales’ recently inaugurated social program “Bono Juancito Pinto,” a 200 Boliviano ($25) annual subsidy awarded to children as long for as they are enrolled in the first through the fifth grades.

In Bolivia, economic realities often pull young children—particularly those from rural families—out of the classroom and into the workplace. Mrs. Rojas explained why her oldest son couldn't stay in school now that he is no longer eligible for the bonus. “I need my children to help sell my products. They go out into the streets selling for me. If the government made the bonus available for children who are in high school, that would be even more helpful. Then, our children would be able to study longer, and they wouldn’t grow up uneducated.”

The “Bono Juancito Pinto,” which became law last October, benefits approximately 1,200,000 public school students, from roughly 13,000 schools across the nation. Over half of the children targeted by the law—those between the ages of five and ten years old—have never attended or do not currently attend school. The new program will cost $30 million annually, and it will be funded by the additional revenues gained through the nationalization of hydrocarbons. The money is distributed in cash directly to the children in nationwide ceremonies conducted with the help of the armed forces. It is paid in installments of 100 Bolivianos, one at the beginning and one at the end of the school year. All public school children who are in the designated grade levels qualify, regardless of the family’s financial situation.

“Evo Morales is doing a good thing,” said America Diaz, another mother benefiting from the bonus. She has three children, only one of whom qualifies. The others are too young. “At least the money helps somewhat. When you have two or three children in school, you receive a pretty good amount of money. Though with only one in school, it’s not a lot. . . . I wish I could enroll my younger two,” she half-joked, referring to her two- and four-year-old.

Juancito Pinto, for whom the bonus is named, was a 12-year-old military drummer during the War of the Pacific (1879-1884), in which Bolivia lost its last strip of sea access to Chile. During the Battle of Alto de la Alianza, Juancito famously exchanged his drum for a rifle and died in combat. His name has become a national symbol of tenacity, and in particular of Bolivia’s ongoing efforts to regain access to the ocean.

Today, Bolivian children are not confronted with warfare, but are likely to find themselves on the economic battlefield. In a country of only 8.6 million people, approximately 800,000 children are working, representing 21% of the nation’s workforce.

About 120,000 of Bolivia’s child laborers are employed in small-scale mining, a brutal living even for adults. The Winter 2005 edition of the American Bar Association’s “Human Rights Magazine” provided the following description of a child miner’s experience:

“[They] are subjected to backbreaking physical labor, hauling dynamite, debris, and water. They witness deadly mine accidents . . . Many children who work in the mines do not attend school at all, and those who attempt to balance work and school often find that mining interferes with their education. The children in the mining town of Uncia in the Department of Potosí gaze at visitors with eyes and faces that look old beyond their years. . . . . They sit slumped in their chairs, tired and listless, and describe the harshness of their lives in a matter-of-fact way. They accept the situation as their fate and their duty.”

The “Bono Juancito Pinto” appears to be exactly the type of change President Morales had in mind when he declared himself, on election day in 2005, "the candidate of those despised in Bolivian history, the candidate of the most disdained, discriminated against."

The scenario is a populist’s dream: Money that was disappearing overseas into the coffers of large natural gas and petroleum multinationals is now being placed directly into the hands of small public school children.

However, the bonus is not without its critics. While 40% of Bolivian children finish primary school, only 20% graduate from high school. As pointed out by Mrs. Rojas, the new law’s focus on primary school does not necessarily encourage families to make a long-term investment in their children’s education. President Morales addressed this issue publicly in November of 2006, suggesting that with interest earned by investing its growing financial reserves in overseas banks, the country may soon be able to afford to extend the “Bono Juancito Pinto” to include middle and high school students.

Adolfo Soliz, the physical education teacher at Rivera de Guzman Primary School in Cochabamba, suggests another potential weakness: “We recommend that parents [spend the bonus on their children], but, ultimately, we don’t know what the money is spent on.” Some have suggested that rather than cash, the government should distribute vouchers, which could only be spent on specific goods for children. Others worry that families will become dependent on the fund, which is vulnerable to fluctuations in world oil prices.

Perhaps most importantly, some argue that the law provides superficial relief, because it does not attack the deep economic and social structures that create the widespread need and tolerance for child labor.
Despite these potential shortcomings of the “Bono Juancito Pinto,” most experts agree that improving access to education is an important step in breaking the economic and social cycles that have mired Bolivia in poverty. In a country where 60% of the people live below the poverty line and where it is a notable achievement when a rural child completes primary school, many of the country’s least fortunate find hope in the humanitarian spirit of the law. Mr. Soliz puts it simply: “[The government] is not able to give a lot of money, but it is always a help to the families.”

Developed and written by Aldo Orrelana, Jonas Brown and Leny Olivera.

Another Excellent Bolivian Film: Los Andes No Creen en Dios

Last night, here in Cochabamba, I attended the premiere of yet another excellent Bolivian film, this one the ambitious early 19th century period piece, Los Andes No Creen en Dios (The Andes Don't Believe in God), from filmmaker Antonio Egunio. You can see more, including an on-line preview here.

The film is set in 1927, in Uyuni, where tin and silver mining was a major business, making some people wealthy and making thousands of others essentially paid slaves. But the film (as some critics might point out) is not really as much about the brutal exploitation of miners (in fact working miners are almost a non-presence in the film) but about conflicts of morals amidst the better-off living in the city made by the mines.

An almost all-Bolivian cast creates vivid characters, including: Joaquin (Milton Cortez), a young transplanted Cochabambino man who misfortune in love and work eventually makes a wreck; Claudina (Carla Ortiz), a very sexual and free-willed transplanted Cochabambina who makes a lot of men wrecks; and Alfonso (Peruvian Diego Bertie) who navigates everything from banking, getting shot, and getting trapped in a mountain storm, to survive better than any others. I should also make mention of the casting of the respected Bolivian Journalist, Luis Bredow, a friend, as the sanctimonious Roman Catholic priest. Luis was great.

The filming is spectacular and the whole recreation of a time period is on par with any more expensive film coming out of Hollywood – from the costumes, to the trains, to the filmmakers' reconstruction of a whole hotel.

Last night's premiere was like a mini-Hollywood come to La Llajta, complete with vintage cars, late-arriving stars, and strange after-screening hourderves that my daughter wouldn't eat.

Los Andes No Creen en Dios is the latest in a string of recent Bolivian films that are must-sees for anyone interested in the country, including Quien Mato la Llamita Blanca (Who Killed the Little White Llama?), American Visa, and Los Hijos del Ultimo Jardin (Children of the Last Garden).

Monday, March 12, 2007

New Poll Numbers: Morales Support back to 64%

Today's Los Tiempos has coverage of a new poll by the firm, "Equipos Mori Consultores Asociados, conducted in early February in five Bolivian cities: Cochabamba, El Alto, La Paz, Tarija and Santa Cruz. The poll shows President Evo Morales' support numbers up again, to 64% favorable and 32% unfavorable.

The poll also reports that 70% of those surveyed have a positive impression of the main government authorities in the country and feel that there is less corruption than before. The Constituent Assembly is the least popular part of the political system at the moment.

Bolivian polling, to be sure, is always a little suspect, especially because public opinion in rural areas (which appear to have been left out of this poll) is both different and commonly underrepresented. In the case of Morales that usually means that polling data that undercounts rural areas and over counts cities tends to undercount his political support. This has especially been the case in pre-election polls where Morales has been on the ballot.

If that is the case in this poll then Morales' support, while it varies significantly from region to region (91% support him in El Alto, 53% disapprove of him in Santa Cruz), is very high nationally. To put that support in perspective, President Bush's national support in the US is currently 29%, according to a March New York Times/CBS News poll.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Volunteer and Internship Openings at The Democracy Center

They just keep showing up! For the past few years, The Democracy Center has been blessed with the arrival of one great volunteer after another. There were Caroline and Nick, two students from the University of Washington who helped do a lot of the research to make possible our report on the role of the IMF in Bolivia. Here’s a profile about them and their work with us in the Seattle Times.

More recently we had the era of Caitlin and Alex, two gifted young journalists who put together The Democracy Center’s new magazine, Jallalla. You can have a look at their fine handiwork here.

The Democracy Center is looking for a couple of great volunteers to follow in these footsteps. We need, for help in our office in Bolivia, people with a clear commitment to social justice, an interest in all things Bolivian, and gifts for research, investigation, writing and advocacy. We also have relationships with “distance volunteers” who help us with these things via the Internet from wherever they may live in the world.

If this seems like something that might be of interest to you, have a look at our Volunteer Page (here) for details and our application requirements. Many thanks!

Friday, March 09, 2007

President Bush Takes his Unpopularity to Latin America


Yesterday US President George W. Bush headed off for a six day visit to a region of the world where his public popularity is even worse than it is at home in the US – Latin America. Alongside the expected red carpets and state parties, the Bush trip will be flanked from start to end with mass public protests and strategically placed sharpshooters to guard against attack.

To examine that visit The Democracy Center yesterday published an issue of our email newsletter dedicated to it, a closer look at the botched landscape of US/Latin American relations. You can read the full article here. The introduction is below, along with a link to the full article as well.

Jim Shultz

President Bush Takes his Unpopularity to Latin America

Cochabamba, Bolivia: A January poll of 603 prominent Latin Americans (leading politicians, government officials, academics and journalists) found that 86 percent gave the Bush administration a fair or poor grade for its handling of the region. Poll after poll in the region shows that Bush's resounding unpopularity looks just as deep both on the street and even among self-described conservatives. It is likely that more people believe that professional wrestling is real than believe the Bush Administration is much of a friend south of the border.

To be sure, Bush has launched his trip with rhetoric as sunny as the South American summer into which he is headed. Bush told Colombian TV. "It's nothing more than to say we want to be your friends, and we've got a very strong policy of improving the lives of others. My trip is a chance to tell the people of Colombia, Uruguay and Brazil and Guatemala and Mexico that the United States cares deeply about the human condition."

South Americans aren't buying it.

In Bogotá, Colombia this week, a full three days before Bush was even set to arrive, more than 2,000 people filled the streets to protest his visit. More than 6,000 protested today in Sao Palo Brazil, Bush's first stopover. Similar greetings await him at most every visit ahead. In a region of the world that once named broad avenues after modern US Presidents, Mr. Bush is not even likely to score having a bus bench erected in his name.

The Roots of US Unpopularity

Why is Bush, and by association the U.S., so unpopular here? Certainly many Bush backers will argue that his antagonists in the region (and he has many) have made it standard practice to blame the U.S. for every ailment the region suffers – from economic catastrophe to natural disaster. There is some truth to this. It is the nature of politicians to look for ways to blame everyone but themselves. What, for example, hasn't Bush himself blamed on the attacks of 9/11? From the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, the US has been blamed for all manner of problems, including a good many that are homegrown.

But the tide of anti-U.S. sentiment keeps rising here, not because of false concerns, but real ones. Consider a few: [Read the full article here.]

Thursday, March 08, 2007

International Day of the "Warmi"

Today is International Day of the Woman (Woman in Quechua is "Warmi"). To mark the day we have a great member of our Democracy Center team here in Cochabamba, Leny Olivera, honors the women of Bolivia by offering us profiles of three women here in Cochabamba, to offer our readers a more up-close look at the day to day realities about what it means to be a woman here in Bolivia. You can also read the full interviews in Spanish and listen to them here. Felicidades to all our women readers!Jim
[Note: This article was translated to English by our wonderful assistant director, Melissa Draper.]

Three Cochabamba Women -- a Look Up-Close

This week I had the chance to speak at length with two women—Cochabambinas—who, through our conversations, opened a special window into their daily lives. From their stories comes an important reminder of the often tireless and impressive work that makes up a regular day for most Bolivian women:

Maura—mother, wife, cook, business-woman

Maura Salvatierra, 38 years old, is married with two children who study in the local university of San Simon. She works in the cafeteria of the downtown market selling food. A normal day for her begins at four o’clock in the morning so she can get to the market in order to receive begin to heat the huge caldrons of water that will cook the potatoes and rice she Hill sell for the day; she cleans the tables off for her early customers and arranges the chairs.

Then, together with her husband, they embark on a vegetable-buying excursion to find the best price for the vegetables that are needed for her recipes for the day’s food. She returns to the house to prepare her two sons for classes at the university and heads back to the market to marinate the meat before it must be cooked. She serves her customers until four in the afternoon. That’s just in time for her to return to the house to prepare something for dinner for their family. On top of that she Works to arrange the house and finally rewards herself with a shower before she heads to bed.

After explaining her daily activities, Maura admitted that the time she dedicates to her small business left her no time to go to special events, or go out in the evenings. She works every day of the week, without a break, every month of the year including holidays. Unfortunately, since her husband works as a taxi driver at night, she is left responsible for the taking care of the house on top of her daily work in the market.

When asked about what she thought of the international women’s day, she commented “It’s great that we have this day to remember [women] because the entire world works, but we have to recognize that women work in the home as well as outside the home.”

Sara—wife, mother, vendor

Sara Flores, 40 years old, who is also married and the mother of two children works in the same market selling make-up and miscellaneous beauty products.

A normal day for Sara starts at five in the morning so she can arrange things in the house before heading to work at 8am. Some days she has to get up at 4am to prepare food for her son, who is doing his obligatory military service. Sara stays in the market selling her goods until 9pm. She’s worked like this--12 hours a day, every day of the week—for the last 15 years. As she told me, “you have to work everyday in order to eat every day.” International women’s day doesn’t mean much to Sara, as she never gets a chance to take a break or celebrate it. For her, Bolivian’s National Women’s Day (October 11) and Bolivia’s Mother’s Day (May 27) are the holidays she most celebrates.

Sara’s advice to young women is that they do all they can to study. “If you become a professional, at least you get to have Saturday and Sunday to be with your family.”

Alicia—mother, drink vendor

Alicia is 35 years old and the single mother of a 17-year old daughter. Proudly dressed in the traditional clothing of her home village in the highlands near Oruro, Curawara de Carangas, she Works now as a drink vendor in Cochabamba’s main market. The special drink she prepares “batido de huevo,” made with a raw egg mixed with a low-alcoholic beer, is a popular drink in Bolivia. Her day starts at 5am when she gets u to prepare breakfast and prepare food for her daughter’s day as a student in junior high. She works to be able to provide for her and her daughter, especially to pay the costs of her daughter’s education. Her small business selling drinks barely keeps up with their expenses, so she washes clothes for extra income. When asked what she most wants for her daughter, she replied, “I want her to study because I don’t want my daughter to have to be a street vendor.”

To read the full version of Leny’s article and to listen to the actual interviews (all in Spanish) click here.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

US Calls Prosecution of Bolivia Ex-Presidents “Politically Motivated”

The US State Department yesterday released its annual “Country Reports on Human Rights”. Like its report a week ago on anti-drug efforts, the report is a lengthy country-by-country assessment of how 193 nations stack up on human rights.

As with the “drug war” report, the country most notably missing is the US itself. In the face of an Iraqi quagmire, abuses at Guantanamo, illegal surveillance of US citizens, and a host of other abuses by the Bush Administration, it is not likely that the US would have scored too well by the standards it set for others. But at this point, pointing out that the Bush Administration has a wanting record on human rights is a little like pointing out that Britney Spears is a bit unstable – it isn’t really news anymore.

That said, the item from the report on Bolivia that the local media chose to highlight was the State Department’s expression of concern about the government’s effort to prosecute all of the most recent still-living residents of the Presidential Palace: "The government attempted to bring criminal charges against five former presidents for reasons that appeared to be politically motivated."

That refers to the Bolivian government’s pending charges against:

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (for deaths at the hands of the government during the October 2003 “Gas War”)

Jorge Quiroga (for gas contracts signed under his administration)

Carlos Mesa (also for gas contracts signed on his watch)

Eduardo Rodríguez (for allegedly allowing Bolivian missiles to be handed over to the US government)

Jaime Paz Zamora (for drug offenses).

From my perspective the issue is that the pending charges against Sánchez de Lozada, which are serious and valid, are getting lost in a blizzard of “prosecution overkill”, and that is unfortunate.

I think that the Morales Administration can claim a good deal of the blame for this. I don’t know the specifics of the charges against Mesa, Quiroga, Rodriquez, or Paz, but the real case here is Goni and seeking prosecutions against everyone still alive who has held the Presidency in the last 20 years both trivializes the Goni case and invites exactly the kind of “politically motivated” label that the Bush Administration would like to stick on it.

The Goni case is also a good deal different than the others, in terms of the US, because since October 2003 Sánchez de Lozada has been living comfortably under US political protection in suburban Maryland. The formal request by the Bolivian government (pre-Morales) in June 2005, to the US, that it formally notify Sánchez de Lozada of the case has never received a formal response from US officials after nearly two years (in diplomatic language this is called “blowing you off”).

In mid-January, the Bolivian Supreme Court declared that the US no longer needed to notify Goni for the case to move forward. Citing, among other things, Goni’s chatting about the case on CNN, the Court declared that the ex-President was clearly aware of it already and set in motion a direct extradition request.

To be clear, the Bush Administration (and for that matter none of its likely successors) is never going to send Goni back to Bolivia. I know of no instance in which the US has ever returned a former head of state home to stand trial. Even Jimmy Carter (who arguably was the most sincere in his commitment to human rights of any recent US President) gave refuge to that champion of rights, the Shah of Iran – an act, it should be noted, that didn’t turn out too well for the US, or for Carter.

To be even more clear, the real US response to the requests from Bolivia about Goni has been to lay the groundwork for exactly the charge it launched with the new human rights report – that the prosecution (again, one initiated long before Morales took office) is all politics and no justice. I was one of the people that the State Department consultant interviewed last year in its internal investigation of the case. I was never asked a single question about what Goni actually did or why his prosecution is important to the families of those killed in October 2003. The interview was a search for any tidbit that might help make the case the US already planned to make that the Bolivian courts are incapable of rendering actual justice.

So, for those watching the US moves on the Goni case, look at the language in yesterday’s State Department report as a preview of coming attractions for whatever formal response it might later offer to the Bolivian Supreme Court’s extradition request. And credit the current zealotry to prosecute “en abundancia” as a gift to the Bush Administration in making that case.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Reyes Villa says Morales Has Spies Following Him

Cochabamba Governor Manfred Reyes Villa told reporters yesterday, according to an article in this morning's Opinion, that the Morales administration, via the Government Ministry, has clandestine agents following him about Bolivia as he carries out his official duties. According to Reyes Villa, a team of 14 agents has been following him to Santa Cruz and La Paz, as well as during his movements about Cochabamba. "We intercepted these people," the governor is quoted, "and they admitted that they work with the Ministry of Government."

Reyes Villa also announced to reporters that he had proof to back his accusation, including photographs, which he declined to show the press on Monday but said that he would at sometime in the future.

[The Democracy Center, however, through our clandestine contacts within the governor's office, secured one of the photos of the MAS administration agents, which appears in the upper left hand corner of this post.]

Monday, March 05, 2007

Amnesty International Talks About the January Violence

A two-person delegation from the UK chapter of Amnesty International has spent the past week and a half in Bolivia, on a pre-scheduled fact-finding visit to look at the state of human rights in the country. Not surprisingly, AI focused a good deal of its attention on the street violence that rocked Cochabamba on January 11th, leaving three men dead.

Today's Los Tiempos carries a short article covering AI's news conference in La Paz, following its meeting with Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera.

"There either hasn't been any investigation or what investigation has taken place hasn't come to any conclusion," said AI's Esteban Beltran. "That leaves the impression that one can act with impunity."

Amnesty's point is well taken. Three men are dead (and more than a 160 other people were injured) and political authorities from all sides seem like that fellow in the soda ad from a few years ago, who accidentally knocks out the lights in an entire city and than slinks away to pretend like nothing happened.

To be sure, the key political actors involved have gone through elaborate public motions to place the blame on everyone else.

The Morales administration, whose backers occupied the city and blocked roads in and out, sought to blame Manfred Reyes Villa for not being present in Cochabamba. Tuto Quiroga and PODEMOS, finding itself being replaced by Reyes Villa as the leading opposition voice, also tried to pin blame on the Cochabamba Governor.

UN party deputies blamed MAS and called for prosecution of MAS Senator Omar Fernandez and other party leaders. Reyes Villa went on a world tour to try to put full blame on Morales. The Governor also announced with great fanfare in January that Human Rights Watch had committed to sending an investigative team to Cochabamba by the end of February, but to my knowledge no HRW team has been sent.

None of this is the same as an actual investigation to uncover the facts, carried out competently and by officials who's political neutrality is above suspicion.
Who murdered the three dead men – one city youth and two campesinos – and under what specific circumstances? Who had guns and where did they come from? How did a collision of protests turn into violent confrontation? What role did all of the various officials play in either sparking the violence or trying to prevent it?

If and when the truth comes out there will likely be ample blame to spread around. When blood is spilled, as it was here in January, truth needs to trump political loyalty and the blame game. Bolivian officials, at every level, should be capable of seeking out that truth, without relying on foreigners who drop in for a week to have a look.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Switzerland Invades Liechtenstein (by accident)

This is a true news item from today's New York Times (with a few minor additions by me).

A battery of 170 Swiss soldiers accidentally invaded the tiny republic of neighboring Liechtenstein (population 33, 987) on Thursday. According to AP, after wandering 2 kilometers into foreign territory, the soldiers realized their error and rushed back to their own country. Liechtenstein officials didn't seem to mind much. ''It's not like they stormed over here with attack helicopters or something,'' the government said.

The White House, meanwhile, was quick to seize on the incident. "Actually, as it turns out, we really invaded Iraq by accident," said Bush spokesman Tony Snow at the morning press briefing. "As the Swiss have now shown, these things can happen to the best of us."

According to a declassified intelligence report released Friday morning by Vice President Dick Cheney's office, in March 2003 a brigade of US soldiers stationed in Kuwait inadvertently crossed into Iraqi territory looking for beer.

"The soldiers then encountered a group of Iraqi citizens who, by pure coincidence, were pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein with cords tied to the dictator's sculpted head. Upon seeing the uniformed Marines the crowd immediately greeted them as liberators and initiated a broad scale rebellion. When the Marines failed to show up for dinner service at their base, a search party of 150,000 soldiers was sent to investigate."

Snow went on to explain that once in Iraq it just seemed logical to military planners for the US to maintain its presence there. The intelligence report also noted that the "Mission Accomplished" banner that President George W. Bush displayed months after, during his aircraft carrier landing off San Diego, was actually one created by the Marines to mark the expected return of their fellows with the anticipated beer.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The US Releases its Annual Report on the War on Drugs

Today, March 1, is what people in the field refer to as “Certification Day.” Every year on this date the US State Department issues its annual: International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, a six-continent review (nothing on Antarctica) of the anti-drug policies and achievements of almost every country (except the US) on the planet. One year I would love to see a coalition of reviewed counties offer up their own report evaluating the US’s inadequate efforts to provide drug treatment, or the way in which US criminal laws treat drug offenders.

The report offers everything from complaints about Canadian marijuana and Belgian ecstasy (the drug, not the state of mind), to praise for Australian law enforcement.

Bolivia, a producer of the coca leaf, is always high (no pun intended) on the report’s South American radar screen. This year it got mixed reviews amidst the schizophrenic “You're okay, You’re not okay” relationship the US maintains with the Morales government. You can read the Bolivia section of the report here.

On one hand, the U.S. cast a positive light on Bolivia’s new approach to alternative development, “…which notably raised the income levels of farmers in the Chapare, shifted to a more integrated approach, with an emphasis on sustainability and increased participation by communities in developing, implementing and monitoring programs.” One of the major failures of US alternative development programs for years is that it didn’t take such an approach and instead basically burned people’s coca plants (and sole source of income) while nudging them into dubious banana and pineapple growing programs that never worked out too well.

On the other hand, the US criticized the Morales government, modestly, for its coca eradication efforts, “The Government of Bolivia (GOB) met its coca eradication goal of 5,000 hectares by mid December 2006. However, this year represented the lowest level of eradication in more than ten years.”

The bottom line is that the US and Bolivia remain divided on the essential philosophy behind the war on drugs. The MAS government’s stated approach is “Coca Yes, Cocaine No.” To be sure, there is still a lot of Bolivian coca headed for uses that don’t involve people chewing leaves or brewing coca tea. This is the basis of the US’s stated concerns about the growth of the country’s coca crop.

That said, the US policy of, essentially, “Coca is Cocaine” is wrongheaded and shortsighted. The coca leaf has been a part of Bolivian culture for thousands of years and no amount of US propaganda or political pressure is going to change that, nor should it. As I have written here before, if the US wants an approach that is practical and not just blind ideology it should help lift the international ban on coca tea and let Bolivia seek a flourishing market for it in the US, Europe, and elsewhere.

The US Embassy in La Paz formally recommends Bolivian coca tea in its health advisory on altitude sickness, “Camomille (manzanilla) and coca tea may help alleviate nausea.” If it is good enough to recommend officially, why shouldn’t Bolivians be able to legally sell it in health food stores in California? That would create a market that is a good deal better for everyone than selling it outside on the street as something else.