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).
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