Evo Morales

John Paul Rathbone

Presidents Raul Castro of Cuba (L) and Sebastian Piñera of Chile during a summit of Latin American states on Monday (Reuters).

It all went surprisingly well. Latin America, in sentiment if not in deed, presented a united front to its European guests at the summit of EU and Latin American leaders in Santiago, which wound up on Monday. With customary politesse, local differences were mostly swept under the carpet.

Nobody in Chile kicked up a fuss that communist Cuba will now head the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (Celac) – even though democracy is one of Celac’s core goals. The region’s free-trading Pacific countries –Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile – agreed to drop tariffs to speed the creation of their “Pacific Alliance”, a “free-trade” block. (By contrast, Mercosur, a rival regional trade pact led by more protectionist Brazil and Argentina has been negotiating an EU trade deal for over a decade.) A handful of business deals were signed. And a long and flowery letter, supposedly written by Hugo Chávez from his sickbed in Cuba and that called for Latin American unity, was read out, which lent some colour to the last day. Read more

In our Reporting Back series, we ask FT foreign correspondents to tell us about a recent trip.

Andres Schipani, the FT’s Andes correspondent, visited Bolivia, spending time in La Paz, Colquiri (a mining village around 150 miles southwest of the capital) and the salty desert of Uyuni, close to the Chilean border.

Why now? There aren’t many countries that can match Bolivia’s record of venal rulers, coups and indigenous uprisings. But this Andean country, the landlocked heart of South America, has experienced profound transformation since Evo Morales, a former llama herder and coca leaf farmer, became the country’s first indigenous president in 2006. Over the past six years, he has granted sweeping rights to the country’s majority of Amerindians, a majority that has been neglected for centuries (to give you an idea, serfdom was only abolished in 1945, and until early 1952 indigenous people were not allowed to walk around the square by the Presidential Palace).

Evo Morales in La Paz on July 2, 2012. (Aizar Raldes/AFP/GettyImages)

Last month Morales was asked by his party to run for a third term in next year’s elections. But the president once known as the champion of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, has been digging and drilling the country. This is alienating a chunk of his political powerbase, with some indigenous protesters now voicing environmental and other concerns.

What were some of your lasting impressions? I have been to Bolivia many times in the past, but the ethnic, cultural and geographical diversity of the country always amazes me. It is also a lasting shock to fly across the Andes mountain range and then suddenly drop and land at an airport 4,000 metres above sea level. This is the case when arriving at La Paz’s airport stationed in the capital’s satellite city of El Alto – a terribly poor metropolitan area that sprawls across the altiplano, or high plains, and is Latin America’s largest indigenous city. With so much poverty, some believe the only advantage people who live here really have are the views, overlooking the rounded valley that hosts the capital. The downside, of course, is that after a hard day at work selling trinkets in the town centre, the indigenous women, or cholitas, with their bowler hats and layered skirts have to labour up the steep rutted streets back to their shacks or shanties of cinderblock bricks. To my mind, this suggests a broader truth about the country: it sits on top of a stunning wealth of natural resources but is on an uphill rocky road to development. Read more