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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What is Bolivia?

In the book of international stereotypes, the very same book which contains the greedy hamburger munching American and the inscrutable, resource hungry Chinese businessman, there is no page marked The Bolivian. It is fair to say that the landlocked South American nation in question is not a big name in current global affairs, not in the eyes of the geographically (as well as culturally) distant global North at least.

From Cochabamba’s cameo appearance in the renowned 1983 drug-thriller ‘Scarface’ to the story of imprisoned drug trafficker Thomas McFadden in ‘Marching Powder’(2003), Bolivia’s brief flirtations with Western pop-culture often leave it looking like a country beyond the reach of the law, in a state of disrepair. Despite the link between Bolivia and Cocaine being damagingly exaggerated, the country is not without a plethora of other unsolved socio-economic problems. In the urban agglomeration of La Paz – El Alto (the latter of which is one of the fastest growing cities in the Americas) the numbers of impoverished scratching a living on the fringes of the informal economy is hard to comprehend. 

Mathematicians, economists and scientists alike have been unable to solve what has become known as the mystery of third world city survival when incomes are so meagre. Comparisons could almost be drawn with the heaving metropolises of Sub-Saharan Africa similarly suffocated by the unrelenting flow of rural-urban migration. There is no comforting way to view a bare footed hunched over old lady begging for money on the pavement, victims who inhabit the vacuum created by a total lack of established state social security are everywhere to be seen on the streets of La Paz; these invisibles play as an omnipresent reminder of progress that is yet to be made.

In answering the question ‘what is Bolivia?’ it’d be all too easy to follow the path more trodden and go about mimicking the sentiments of guidebooks by indulging in creative writing pivoted around impacting words and phrases such as undiscovered, colourful, diverse, rugged, vibrant, and indigenous (all Lonely Planet Bolivia, Edition 8, 2013). Similarly best avoided when trying to understand Bolivia (and Bolivians) are the unique experiences and real opportunities to get under the skin of Bolivian culture suffered and then written about by wave after wave of backpacker, many of whom are more than likely still convinced that their blogs are of interest to somebody (heaven knows who) other than themselves. The question also not being asked is what was Bolivia, whilst there is little ground for dispute over the interest value of this nation’s fascinating past, be it in the pre-colonial, colonial or independence era, history alone cannot answer the question of what Bolivia is in the present day.
Salt Flats in Bolivia

However, when examining what could be the answer to all of Bolivia’s prayers for prosperity as well as what could define it in years to come; Lithium; one must look, if only briefly, in to the past. In Bolivia, deals involving the international community and natural resources have more than once ended in serious conflict and suffering. The twentieth century war with Paraguay was arguably the result of a conflict of agendas between British and American MNC’s, whilst in 2000, World Bank imposed restructuring of water resource distribution led to violence and disarray in Cochabamba. Chinese enterprise has poured in recent years billions and billions of dollars of investment in to public service and infrastructure improvement in to resource rich poverty stricken nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola in exchange for a healthy share of these countries’ mineral wealth. Yet Bolivia remains, perhaps understandably, reluctant to engage in exercises of mass-extraction of it’s Lithium reserves which, in a slightly cruel twist of fate are located below the Salar de Uyuni, the country’s most famous and profitable tourist attraction.

Perhaps the fate of the Salar is a microcosm for the fate of Bolivia; will it chose to modernize, prioritizing commerce and economic development over the outstanding natural beauty and intrigue that the Lonely Planet so raves about and that has defined this often lagging nation for so long? Whatever the answer turns out to be, the reasoning behind it is sure to be colourful.   


Written by Josh Purwar

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