It has taken forever, but finally my chapter examining the politics of debt in Bolivia has been published in spanish. You can download it here (PDF, 464KB) or read more about the book here. It will be published in English in Britain by Merlin Press in September.
I looked at the bag. There were only two rolls not three. Ever since I
have been in Bolivia I have got three rolls for one boliviano (about 8
pence). It was very concrete evidence that prices are going up.
It has been in the papers for a while, but it is really in the last
month that every other conversation you hear is about rising prices. A
group called “Amas de casa” were out marching in Cochabamba earlier
this week. Whilst they are often dismissed as a front group for
opposition prefect, Manfred, the same can’t be said for the union
workers in El Alto who have expressed their “frustration” at food
prices and marched on Friday calling for the resignation of the Finance
And the rise in prices is probably the biggest threat to MAS’s
programme of changes. For discussions about ethnic identity and
plurinationality start to become irrelevant if people are paying more
for the basic necessities of life. In fact those who are most affected
are those who are the core of Evo Morales’s support: those on low
incomes who saw no benefits under years of neoliberalism and have hope
for real changes under Morales. With more than a third of the population
earning less than one dollar a day, a 30% increase in staples such as
bread is not something that can be easily absorbed.
Five-year old Rosemary tore into the sachet of milk with her teeth. She sucked contentedly. “Today’s breakfast is the one I like the best,” she said, pausing to take a munch on an empanada (pastry).
Ana next to her in Callapampa primary school, kept a shy silence hiding behind her hair when I asked her questions. Rosemary, Ana and another two hundred and fifty children’s breakfast at the school, in a strange way, are connected to a job and passion of mine in the 1990s.
Ten years ago, I got my first full-time job much to the relief of friends who had had enough of me scamming what I could to survive London life. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the office conditions contravened all health and safety laws. I was based with one colleague Celia in a plastic shed on a roof of a building surrounded by cardboxes full of leaflets and booklets that tottered high and dangerously above me.
During December, I would squat on the chair to keep my legs away from the freezing drafts of wind that whistled across the floor due to the clever design-planning of the shed that left a gap between the walls and floor. My first task was to input the first 80 contacts, friends of the founders of the organisation, onto a database. I was commissioned grandly to help build a global movement.
Four years later, I was in a much bigger office with another mountain of boxes, this time full of 24 million petition signatures, and the name of the movement was known worldwide. The movement was Jubilee 2000 and its aim was to cancel the debt of the poorest countries by the year 2000.
And Rosemary’s breakfast? Well it was funded with resources from debt relief, ensuring that every child in La Paz gets at least one nutritious meal each day.
Debt announcements are starting to remind me of Groundhog day - the corny but amusing film where actor Bill Murray wakes up each day forced to do exactly the same things and unable to escape from a provincial hell.
Well in the last couple of weeks, we have been entreated to lots of grand announcements of an "historic" groundbreaking debt deal that will once and for all tackle the problem of unjust and onerous debts. The figure of 100% debt cancellation has been plastered everywhere.
Funny, but I am sure I have heard such an announcement before.
Perhaps it was in March 1999 when Gordon Brown, the UK Chancellor, announced a great debt deal that would be a "major step towards wiping out unsustainable debt and poverty with it." Or perhaps it was in 2000, when he announced an historic breakthrough of 100% debt cancellation that would be a "crucial step towards the virtuous circle of debt reduction, poverty relief and sustainable development." Or maybe it was in September 2004, when the Chancellor announced a new debt deal of (yes you've guessed it), 100%, that would free countries from "the shackles of debt", I could go on....
Maybe I don't fully understand statistics, but I normally equate 100% debt relief with complete removal of a country's debts. Especially when that country happens to be one of the poorest and most highly indebted countries in the world. Yet a look at Bolivia's debt payments in the last few years show that the amount it pays in servicing its debts actually went up in the last few years.
"Love is..." must be one of the most annoying cartoon series in the world. Pictures of two cutesy individuals fondly holding hands with some cloying caption beneath.
Worst of all in London I ended up seeing the series every day whether I wanted to or not when the London underground (for some bizarre reason) decided to use the series to encourage commuters not to leave fish and chip wrappers on the seats.
I have been thinking recently that it was time for a new series without the cartoons: Poverty is....
Why? Well, poverty is the reality of life for many people here. Bolivia has 60% of the population below the poverty line, but what that means in terms of daily life and experience is another matter.
How do you turn that statistic into something that can be understood and felt?
What has surprised me is that coming to live here doesn't automatically give you an insight into poverty. In fact it is too easy to be blind to that reality, to live a cocooned life either in ignorance or fear.
Many middle and upper class Bolivians do exactly that, living in big houses behind high walls covered with cut glass and protected by a security guard who sits in a small booth outside.
Some may talk about the problems of poverty in Bolivia, and some may even be active in development organisations making a difference. But the walls don't hide the fear: the warnings to take taxis after dark, the stories of robberies in the market, the refusal to visit certain 'barrios' in the city.
I was asked by one of my teachers to write an essay this week on how volunteers can confront the reality of life in Bolivia. I started writing about various attitudes that I felt a volunteer would need: openness, political commitment, curiosity, humility etc etc.
But I ended up concluding that it was ridiculous to think that I (or any volunteer from the West) could confront the reality of life here for the majority in Bolivia.
My background, the opportunities I have been given up to now, the fact that I can afford to live here, to eat in good restaurants (and may well be ill if I ate in the market), the middle class high-walled house I am staying in, the choice I have to leave - all put a huge distance between me and the majority of people here.
Even if I moved in tomorrow with the families who live in make-shift houses and tents on the outskirts of Cochabamba, I wonder how I could really understand what it must be like to scrape by every day not knowing whether you will have enough food that day, and without any hope of the security of a house, good education for your children and proper hospital treatment when you became ill.
That doesn't mean that I won't have any insights into poverty here. However from my experience so far it will more be about showing the huge gulf between my life and the life of many Bolivians, than it will be about giving an insight into what it is like to be poor.
This was highlighted for me by an experience in La Paz. I used to walk back to my hotel every night past mounds of rotting rubbish spilling out of bags across the street. It both slightly irritated and puzzled me as I couldn't understand why the local tourist shops and restaurants did not wrap the rubbish up carefully.
Then one night, I came back at a different time, and saw a mother, and her two young children poring through the rubbish pulling out plastic bottles and other items - looking for anything with the slightest resale value.
My annoyance suddenly seemed shameful and also an indictment of the waste that I regularly cast aside without thinking.
So am I going to work on a series of Poverty is...? I don't know, but I hope that I can from time to time share small experiences like my experience in La Paz to give a tiny insight into poverty here. It means that I will need to keep my eyes open, be prepared to move from behind the walls, and ask the right questions.
But ultimately, I won't the best person to do this. I hope therefore while I am here to work directly with Bolivians to tell their own story, to turn the blog from my impressions and interpretations to a space where Bolivians can talk to you directly.
The Democracy Center have published a critically important report looking at the deadly and violent consequences of IMF-promoted policies on Bolivia. It tells the story of how IMF policies were linked to the death of a nurse, Colque, and 33 other Bolivians who died in February 2003 during protests against a tax-increase that the poor could not afford.
It has been published as the annual IMF and World Bank meetings take place in Washington. Deadly Consequences is a very vivid case-study of how the market fundamentalism the IMF promotes is not something confined to the dense reports you can find on their website, but is an ideology that leads to policies that have a very real human and devastating impact.
Did you know that last year Latin America received more money from immigrants living in Spain, Europe and the US than it received in aid and foreign investment? No, I didn't either. According to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank, Latin America receives $45 billion dollars a year from immigrants overseas.
Clearly, immigration to countries like the UK not only benefits us economically and culturally, but also plays a crucial role in the economies of developing countries. I was very aware of the importance of remittances when I travelled in Central America. I kept meeting people who had families in the US, or who were hoping to go to the US in order to earn money to support their families. So far, I am less aware of it in Bolivia. The economic links here seem to be much stronger with surrounding countries (Brazil, Peru, Argentina).