Thursday, June 14, 2007

The red ponchos and talk of civil war

The Aymara people, who represent about a third of Bolivia, have a tradition of putting on their red ponchos when they go on a war footing. So any display of this symbol can be interpreted as merely tradition or a threat.

On the day I arrived in Bolivia in September, the vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, recalled his days as a guerilla fighter and urged a crowd of indigenous people to have their rifles ready inside their red ponchos to fight against any attempt to divide the country.

He was talking about the eastern half of the country, known as the Half-Moon, which voted last July for autonomy, meaning more local control of its money and government affairs.

Talk of civil war heated up at that time and again in January when President Evo Morales, at a gathering of 10,000 Aymara in their red ponchos, called on them to fight against any attempt to divide the country. (People in the Half-Moon would say they´re not trying to secede, but they do want more autonomy.)

Morales´s Aymara host announced that day that he had 100,000 people ready to take up arms at a moment´s notice if the president wanted. You can imagine what a stir that caused. These images (the one at the top is from La Razon, the other is from El Nuevo Dia) were on TV and the front pages.

Morales, who has a very positive reputation in Europe and the U.S., frequently engages in saber rattling. When he was campaigning for office, for example, he ended speeches with, `Death to the Americans.´

The talk of civil war died down for a couple of months, but tension is growing again because of conflicts between the central government and the Half-Moon about everything from the Supreme Court to foreign trade agreements.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The people you meet in La Paz

In the Plaza Murillo, which faces the Presidential Palace and the home of the Bolivian congress, you see a mix of people in modern and traditional dress.

A military band performs on a Sunday morning on the Prado, the main drag in La Paz. They performed a medley of Strauss waltzes punctuated with a lot of heavy pounding on the bass drum.

This lovely woman was standing outside my hotel yesterday. An hour later, as I was working at a computer in the hotel lobby, she sat down at the computer next to me. During a cell phone call she identified herself as Carla Ortiz. She is famous as the actress in the most expensive Bolivian movie ever made, The Andes Don´t Believe in God. Its budget was $500,000. She was great in it, and I told her so. She was very gracious and friendly. She´s a native of Cochabamba here, but she lives in the U.S., where she appears in TV shows like CSI Miami. This photo is from La Razon newspaper.

Theese men in traditional dress were walking on the Prado yesterday. You more often see women in traditional dress. I followed them for a block or two trying to discretely photograph them. They all hopped onto a big tourist bus.

In La Paz you have much more sense of the indigenous culture of the country. There is a museum of traditional clothing here as well as the Museum of Coca, which chronicles the history of coca in patent medicines (legalized opiates common in drugstores in the last century), toothpaste and modern anesthestics. The coca leaf is considered sacred.

On the street of the witches, ironically right behind the main cathedral, locals come to buy the stuff needed to cast spells on enemies, bring good fortune and guarantee fertility. A typical store is below. Mummified llama fetuses are in abundance in many stores (not this one). Not sure what they’re used for.

Up until 1975, most people in Bolivia did not speak Spanish. The education system missed them. Two-thirds of Bolivians consider themselves to be members of an indigenous group, with 30 percent identifying themselves as Aymara (the group of President Evo Morales) and 27 percent Quechua. About six in 10 Bolivians speak an indigenous language, depending on which source you refer to. Last fall El Nuevo Dia published a language map of the country that showed some 36 languages spoken, but most of these are very small groups and their languages are in danger of dying out.

Mount Illimani looms over downtown La Paz. How high is Bolivia? The western third averages about 15,000 feet. A wall three miles high separates the plains in the east from the capital. Although it’s only 335 miles from La Paz to Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands, according to my World Book Atlas, a bus ride takes around 20 to 24 hours because of the twisting mountain roads. You´ve probably seen the pictures. I decided not to do it.

Flying is scary enough. La Paz is at about 12,000 feet, and its airport is higher than almost all of the Rocky Mountain peaks. The air is so thin that the takeoff run needed for a Boeing 737 to get airborne is about 30 percent longer than normal, which seems like an eternity when you’re in a passenger seat. The runway is almost twice as long as that of Reagan National.

Bolivia covers 1 million square kilometers, more than 8 times the size of Pennsylvania and 45 times the size of Maryland. Lake Erie has three times the surface area of Lake Titicaca, although the latter is much deeper.

Business note: There are 250 publicly traded U.S. companies that have higher revenues than the gross domestic product of Bolivia, which is $9 billion.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bolivia´s growth industry: contraband fuel

Bolivia is suffering from shortages of all kinds of fuel because its low, government-subsidized prices encourage transporting it across the border where prices are higher.
In October I was on the border near Brazil and saw lots of little roadside stands where families had set up shop to sell contraband gasoline. All of the official local gas stations had exhausted their supply, so the driver we had hired to take us to Brazil filled up a fuel can at one of these improvised stations (while one of the family members smoked a cigarette).
If they had been wearing suits and ties, these local folks would be called arbitrageurs. They go to service stations, buy fuel at the government-subsidized price of $1.75 a gallon, collect it in all kinds of improvised containers and sell it for $4 a gallon to Brazilians who come across the border. The Bolivians make a nice profit margin and the Brazilians get a big discount from the $6.50 they pay on their side. So there are spot shortages of gasoline in Bolivia.

This photo of a gasoline stand at the Brazilian border is from the daily El Deber. Who´s worried about safety?

On the other side of Bolivia, the border with Peru supports a thriving industry of contraband liquefied gas used in cooking and as fuel in vehicles. In Bolivia a 22-pound canister of this fuel sells for $2.82, a government-subsidized low price. The market price in Peru is nearly four times higher, or $10.
So enterprising Peruvians and Bolivians buy low on one side of the border and sell high on the other. That´s why Bolivians can´t always get this essential household fuel.
The smuggling is so institutionalized that the customs officials from both countries have a gentlemen´s agreement not to enforce the laws on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The canisters pass through unchecked. The authorities also benefit from the contraband.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

People and places around Santa Cruz

These schoolteachers not only get low salaries, they get paid only once a month AND have to stand in line to collect it. You have to stand in line for everything in Bolivia. To pay your phone, electric and water bills you go to a bank or the utility offices and take a number. The post office doesn't do local mail delivery so you can't pay by check. (Your bill comes by courier.)

To buy a plane ticket, you go to the airline office and take a number. Or you can use a travel agent, but you still have to go to the office and pay in person. You can't pay online. People here accept the lines. Poor service to the public is endemic in government and business.

This little boy comes with his mother every morning as she cleans the classroom building where I'm working these days. Despite her son´s shirt, she is not a graduate of the University of Michigan or a fan of Wolverine sports. Used clothing floods into Bolivian markets from the U.S. and is killing local manufacturers and retailers. The government recently outlawed importing of used clothing, just as Santa Cruz was filling up with street vendors hawking cold-weather gear (it's winter here) from the States.
Cheap shoes made in China, for as little as $2.75 a pair, are another import that hurts local businesses.

Alvaro Garcia Linera, 43, is the vice president of Bolivia and attracted a mob of newspeople when he visited Santa Cruz in March. The newspeople here do act like a mob, especially the television people, who have to get close enough to make pictures and capture sound bites. I decided to watch and shoot from a distance.

Garcia Linera has a reputation as being quite the reader and intellectual. In the 1990s he was part of a leftist rebel group and was arrested and charged with being a terrorist. He spent five years in prison, where he studied Bolivian political history and read Karl Marx's Das Kapital "letter by letter, word by word."

Eduardo Bowles is the director (we would call him editor-in-chief) of El Nuevo Dia newspaper in Santa Cruz and loves to relax at his house in the country, where he keeps and rides quarterhorses. He is demonstrating the correct Santa Cruz hammock technique, with one foot out for balance, ideal for making quick turns to see what's going on. This photo is from Christmas week, high summer, during a churrasco, or barbecue, at his house.

Eduardo's great-great-grandfather came to Bolivia from Cincinnati, Ohio. He had served in the Civil War on the Confederate side and came to capitalize on a rubber-industry boom in Beni, in the Amazon basin to the north. He started many businesses, including Bolivia´s first ice-making plant. Bolivians pronounce the W in his name like a B, so it's pronounced BO-blase.

A construction supply magnate built this castle as a way to advertise his company. It sits on the third ring road here in Santa Cruz. Note the horse. It´s common to see them out scrounging around, even in heavily traveled parts of the city.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The traditional Bolivian barbecue

In the great plains of Bolivia, they raise cattle and celebrate with big barbecues they call churrascos. "Let's have a churrasco" seems to be the perfect way to mark any occasion, big or small. Here Jorge and Grover, two staff members of the weekly business paper Santa Cruz Economico, work the grill with a typical churrasco offering of beef, sausages, chicken and innards.

I've been working with the staff of Santa Cruz Economico once a week since January, coaching them on everything from in-depth reporting to meeting deadlines to advertising sales strategies. They have many of the same challenges that we had at the weekly business journals in the States. It has been great fun to see the impact of these coaching sessions. For months, Jose Miguel Sanchez, the editor (standing, third from left), has been promising to have a churrasco so that we could get together in a social setting, but it has always been delayed. To get things moving I offered my apartment as the site. We had it Saturday. In the photo above, the owners of the paper, Fernando Neumeyer and Elenir Centenaro, are at the right with their toddler, Nicolas.

One of the paper's struggles has been how to maintain editorial integrity when some of their competitors offer to write stories about businesses in exchange for agreements to advertise. Some of our competitors in Baltimore did the same, so I was able to give them some strategies and language to use to counter this.

Bolivians have a talent for making you feel at home. The pace of business is slower. The family comes first. People who arrive late for meetings are always forgiven. Every excuse is acceptable. The person is more important than the work. They work hard, but in a different way.

Bolivia's media titans and a photojournalism show

This is Jose Pomacusi, who is Bolivian President Evo Morales's scourge in the news media. Pomacusi, 41, is the news director for Unitel, the country's most-watched television network. It has grabbed ratings with its soap operas and its sensationalistic and right-leaning news coverage. When Evo Morales talks about the press being his No. 1 enemy, Unitel is at the top of the list.
The station is owned by the Santa Cruz-based Monasterio family, whose interests include soybean farming, banking and other businesses. Monasterio reflects sentiments of most businesspeople in Santa Cruz, who oppose the government's plan for redistributing land to indigenous people, the nationalization of various industries and the centralization of political power in La Paz.
Pomacusi told me in an interview that he is not trying to advance any particular political philosophy, only to serve the public. However, neutral observers can easily identify the station's anti-government and pro-business tendencies.

Pedro Rivero is director (editor-in-chief) of El Deber and son of the newspaper's founder. The Rivero family is one of the few media owners in the country whose primary business is media. That is to say that most news media owners use their outlets to advance political or business agendas, like the Monasterios. El Deber has the highest circulation of any newspaper in the country, about 30,000 daily and 50,000 Sunday (figures are not audited and some say these numbers are on the high side), and is the voice of the Media Luna, the four eastern provinces which favor autonomy.

The Riveros take journalism very seriously, and their news columns are generally very balanced and fair in their treatment of issues. Their editorial page reflects Santa Cruz sentiments, but El Deber also carries opinion pieces by those who favor President Morales and his party.

Big complaints about the news media

When conversations turn toward the news media, few have anything good to say. The general public complains about sensationalism in television news coverage, particularly aggressive coverage of grieving families. The commonly expressed view is that the press is unethical, politically slanted, nosy, tasteless and too concerned with trivia, celebrities and sensuality.

The socialist government complains about right-leaning news coverage from media that are owned by, in their words, big land-owners and big businesses with an opposition agenda.

Erick Torrico is being interviewed here as he presented a study by the Media Observatory, a nonpartisan organization which describes and analyzes the performance of news media in the country. A lot of its funding comes from European and U.S foundations. No surprise that the observatory found big weaknesses in the press in terms of training, execution and fairness. Although there was a fair amount of publicity about his presentation, only a handful of people showed up.
El Deber summarized the study in today's paper.

The organization asked 33 "social leaders" in the community of Santa Cruz, "Do journalists work in a professional manner?" Only one-fourth of those polled responded "always" or "nearly always" and 39 percent responded "almost never." Of those polled, 4 in 10 felt that the press's professionalism had deteriorated in the past five years. And finally, when asked which news medium had the best information, printed media came in strongest with 48% of those polled, radio 39% and TV 3%. Nine percent didn't like any news medium.

At a time of big changes in the country, every story is a political story. For consumers of news, that often leads to baffling news articles in which there is extensive coverage of opposing views of an issue (nationalization of the gas industry) with too little probing into the facts at the root of the debate. A reader often is left with many, many questions. Still, daily newspapers tend to be voices of reason in the media landscape, with the space and time to give some depth and balance to issues.

A push for controls on the news media

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Assembly is in the process of drafting a new constitution for the country, and indications are that there is strong sentiment for putting controls on the news media. El Nuevo Dia had a story about this in yesterday's paper......

One part of the draft says that the ownership and control of news media "shall not reflect a monopolistic or oligarchic character in opposition to society in general and indigenous people, workers and those of African descent." This sounds as if it would outlaw most of the mass media as they now exist.

Given the complaints about the media, controls could win popular support. There is fear that Bolivia will start to follow in the footsteps of Venezuela, whose president and Morales supporter, Hugo Chavez, has fined and closed down opposition media.

Work by Santa Cruz photojournalists

All of these photos were in a photojournalism show here in Santa Cruz
This little boy showed up for the first day of school without his uniform. The Superman symbol seems to be no consolation.

A supporter of the president´s MAS party shows her displeasure with one of a group supporting autonomy from the central government Dec. 15 in San Julian.

This year´s El Niño effect produced widespread flooding in farming areas.

Bodies of victims of a bus crash are lined up along the road. Fatal crashes are common. Drivers are overworked and often drunk. Guardrails are rare.

Most public schools here are in sorry shape.

Winter arrives in Bolivia

Winter here means cold winds from the south and temperatures in the 50s, occasionally dipping into the 40s. Few homes and commercial buildings have central heating, so temperatures in the 50s mean people feel the cold. Notice that the guest speaker in my ethics class, Hernan Cabrera of the journalists' federation, keeps his jacket and sweater on. Below, Abraham Carrillo, a reporter for Santa Cruz Economico, wears his hat and scarf as he works in the newsroom. At bottom is a photo from El Nuevo Dia of a school that has no windows. The kids are bundled up.