New Internationalist

Bolivia

Issue 217

new internationalist
issue 217 - March 1991

COUNTRY PROFILE

Bolivia

Where is Bolivia? 'Progress' has been slow to reach Bolivia, South America's least developed country. Social needs have generally been last on the agenda in a nation built on the exploitation of cheap, unskilled labour to extract raw materials for Northern markets. From colonial times, silver, rubber, cotton, tin and oil have each taken a turn at monopolizing production.

Since the 1960s, yet another commodity has been in demand from the North: the coca leaf, staple of highland farmers, ancestral element in ritual and healing. As with previous 'booms', most of the profits end up outside the country. Coca fields have become the battleground in the anti-drug war waged from Washington, and the Bush administration has conditioned economic aid to the coca eradication crusade.

Aside from coups and cocaine, Bolivia has a more positive claim to fame. Social organization is a national trait; almost everyone belongs to some local, labour or community group, and the COB - the central trades union congress - continues to unite workers from all sectors.

For 40 years, mining workers were the backbone of the labour movement. But in 1985 the collapse of the international tin market, coupled with the application of harsh monetarist policies, resulted in mine closures and thousands of job cuts. Coca growers, teachers and street traders are now key groups within the COB, whose strength has steadily declined under the New Economic Policy.

The New Economic Policy has been hailed as a minor miracle. Several years of stability are no mean feat in a country only recently emerging from a series of corrupt military dictatorships and inflation rates nearing 25,000 per cent.

Since the mid-1980s, two successive right-wing governments have overturned the State-oriented model installed after the 1952 popular revolution. They have swept away workers' rights, frozen the public sector minimum wage, freed controls on prices and imports and imposed job cuts. Protests are repressed. Foreign debt payments and military spending take priority over the people's needs, and apparent economic recovery is achieved at the cost of a disastrously unhealthy population.

While the wealthy cruise the downtown avenues in air-conditioned Range Rovers, Quechua peasants beg in bank doorways and street kids shine shoes, pick through rubbish tips or hawk cocaine-based cigarettes in the parks. The markets are bursting with contraband goods from Chile, Brazil and Argentina, but few can afford to buy them. Many of today's informal workers were once companions in the unions, but solidarity is out of place when you have to compete for scant trade with the next stall-keeper.

Susanna Rance

 

LEADER: President Jaime Paz Zamora

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $570 (US $19,840)
Monetary unit: Boliviano Oil and natural gas are now main export earners, replacing tin. Others are timber, soya and coffee. Coca leaf and cocaine paste are most profitable exports but earnings circulate outside formal channels.
Main imports are capital goods and consumer products. Almost half the workforce are peasant farmers who produce two thirds of the nation's food despite lack of credits and technical support. Urban employment is mainly in the service sector, family workshops and informal sector.

PEOPLE: 7.1 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 105 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Independent from Spain in 1825. Some 65 per cent of the population belong to the Aymara and Quechua peoples, 2.5 per cent to lowland ethnic groups; 5 per cent are of European origin.
Religion: Officially Roman Catholic, though cult and local religions predominate in rural areas.
Languages: Official language: Spanish. About half the population are bilingual, with Aymara or Quechua as their mother tongue.

Sources: Bolivia's National Population Council (CONAPO); UNICEF: State of the Worlds Children 1991; Bolivia's Central Bank.

Last profiled In March 1980

 

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[image, unknown] Rising in-equality under the present free market system.
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Tin crisis deprived the country of Its main export earner.
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Women work and organize but are denied social recognition.
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Economic and social minority
firmly in control.
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Women 65% Men 81% Better than many other countries but women still lag behind men.
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Eight years of democracy, but protest severely repressed.
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At 54 years, the lowest in Latin America.
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