The View from Plaza Eduardo Abaroa
by Kari Lydersen
In October of 2003, protests, strikes and violence rocked La Paz and all of Bolivia in an uprising that led to the resignation and departure of president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
On a sunny afternoon in late February, the Plaza Eduardo Abaroa in La Paz reflects an apparent calm. Just beneath the surface, however, the plaza reveals the country's stark divisions between rich and poor, its racial divisions, and the debilitating effects of globalization and corruption. A poodle in a red sweater catapults over low walls playfully chasing a delighted little boy in camouflage pants. A fashionably slender, light-skinned girl in pre-faded bell bottom jeans of the type popular in the United States strolls by holding a tiny puppy. Kids careen around in small motorized cars; a little girl bawls as her father lifts her off the car to give her sister a chance.
In the same plaza, indigenous women with their babies on their backs sell saltenas (chicken-filled pockets of dough) and trinkets. Little boys and young men dressed in dark clothes troll the plaza with wooden shoeshine kits. The ski masks or rags covering their faces give them a menacing look. Some just point at people's feet and are waved away or granted a shoe shine.
Cousins Christian, 8, and Enrique, 10, sit protectively next to each other across the street from the plaza on the steps of a café serving mostly wealthy Bolivians and tourists. Christian and Enrique have worked as shoe shine boys on weekends since their families moved to El Alto four years ago from the country town of Warisata.
When asked why some shoeshine boys cover their faces, the boys give an answer that contradicts the sinister aspect of the masks.
"Because they're ashamed," says Enrique, noting that Christian often covers his face. "They don't want their professors from school to see them."
The boys go to school during the week. Enrique wants to be a lawyer, "to defend our people, because we don't have anyone to defend us." Christian says he wants to be a police officer, but when Enrique tells him that the police are bad he changes his mind and declares he will be a professional soccer player.
The boys' whole families work in the informal economy. Christian's father washes cars and his brother shines shoes. Enrique's mother sells vegetables and his father "is in the cemetery being eaten by ants."
Alvaro Garcia Linera, a sociology professor at the Mayor San Andres University, says that a full 68 percent of Bolivia's population work in the informal economy today, up from 50 percent in 1980. Official unemployment has tripled from four percent in 1980 to 12 percent today. Unofficial church figures put the number closer to 40 percent. He says the average annual wage in 1980 was $950. Today it is $830.
"The process of globalization and integration (into the world market) have really hit the local traditional economies hard," he said. "Especially the labor sectors with little competitive capacity and archaic technology. We were thrown into the open market before we'd developed the competitiveness for it."
When asked what the coming months or years hold, Garcia draws a rainbow-shaped graphic to show the possibilities. "There are three things that could happen," he explains. "We could go back to the old regime, through a violent coup, and it would become an authoritarian regime enforced by violence. Or we could have moderate reforms driven by the people. Or we could have a revolution led by left wing forces like Evo Morales (a leader of coca growers who came close to winning the presidency in 2002) and (indigenous leader) Felipe Quispe."
"Social movements are a powerful part of democracy," Garcia says. "Usually you have a social movement hitting the old regime, then you have a period of transition, then you have the new regime. We're in the period of transition now, and we hope we're heading toward a new regime. But we're fragmented, so we're in crisis."
As in many Latin American countries, one of the effects of economic distress and dislocation caused by privatization and globalization has been migration within and out of the country. Thousands of campesinos and indigenous people are leaving their homelands to try to survive in the cities. El Alto, the working class city on a plateau above La Paz was the cauldron of the October uprisings. El Alto is made up largely of former miners, campesinos and indigenous people displaced from their homes.
"There have been big social consequences from globalization," said Elizabeth Peredo, a social psychologist who works with the La Paz-based anti-globalization group Fundacion Solon. "People are going to the cities looking for work, even though there's almost no work there. People will live by selling lemons, even though they might only sell four lemons a day for 10 bolivianos (about $1.30). Barely enough to eat. But they'll be out there the next day selling lemons."
Finding they can't make a living in the city, thousands of Bolivians leave the country each year, mainly to Argentina and the United States. The large population of Bolivians in Argentina face xenophobia, labor exploitation and discrimination, while those who travel thousands of miles and pay thousands of dollars to enter the United States illegally find the typical challenges of undocumented workers: low-paying and insecure jobs, the constant threat of deportation and separation from family. There are about 500,000 Bolivians in the United States, with the majority living in the Arlington, Virginia, and Washington D.C. area, as well as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
As in other Latin American countries, immigration has changed the nature of rural Bolivian life. "Women are being forced to do what used to be considered men's work, because the men are all gone," said Peredo.
Despite the ravages of globalization and poverty, she sees some hopeful signs. "People don't turn to delinquency here, you don't have to be afraid to walk in the street like in Colombia or Peru," she noted. "Even in this globalized culture where people want comfort and all the material things, we maintain our humanity and moral values. This is a form of resistance against globalization."