BOLIVA; A land close to the heavens. . .and poverty
La Paz, Bolivia
This is a land of people close to the heavens.'' So goes a popular song heard in the cantinas and youth hangouts that dot Bolivia's capital, La Paz. At two miles up, this city in the rugged Andes is the highest capital city in the world. Here, ''skyscraper'' is an accurate term for most any building.
But if Bolivians are close to the heavens, they are even nearer to poverty. This country is one of Latin America's poorest lands. Its very location - high in the mountains and without access to the sea - helps to keep it out of the mainstream of Latin America progress.
La Paz is the antithesis of modern cities. Its streets are not laid out on any grid pattern but seem to have been dropped helter-skelter. They go up and down, over and around the small hills that lie like mounds in the nearby valley. Visitors may huff and puff as they climb these streets but the men and women of La Paz - even those carrying heavy loads on their backs - seem to glide effortlessly up the inclines.
To many, there is a hopelessness about things here. Yet Bolivians themselves are far from hopeless.
This is a country of more than 6 million hard-working descendants of the Quechua and Aymara Indians who roamed the mountains before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century.
A hardy people, many are able to eke out a living by selling vegetables raised on tiny plots in the bleak, haunting altiplano.
''I hike over 10 kilometers (six miles) to get here from those hills over there,'' says Maria, a regal-faced Indian woman squatting in front of her small stall in the central market of La Paz.
Maria daily totes to town the tomatoes and other fruits that she and her family carefully nurture in a small green garden carved out of the scrubby landscape. Irrigated by fresh water from the snowcapped volcanoes that tower 18, 000 feet in the distance, this produce keeps Maria and her family of nine children fed and clothed.
She speaks limited Spanish; her husband speaks a little more. Three of their children, who have been to school, know Spanish well. But the language in the home is Quechua.
Maria's family is typical of most Bolivian families. In fact, about 60 percent of Bolivians are Indian - a very high percentage, even in Latin America - and they are only slowly being integrated into the country's political structure.
Change, however, is coming. Those skyscrapers are one signal. So are the modern Swedish Volvos and German Volkswagens that buzz down the city's streets - and the children, including one of Maria's, who are in high schools and universities here.
But Bolivia has a long way to go to catch up with its neighbors. The per-capita income here is about $510 per year. Unemployment, which cannot be clearly measured, is believed to be very high. Only about 12 percent of population is employed in tin-mining - the mainstay of the economy - and in manufacturing. Neither of these industries is doing well in the commercial markets. Most of the rest of the population is engaged in subsistence farming.
The country has known precious little stability in either the economic or political sphere in its 150 years of independence. Bolivia has had almost 200 governments in that period.
Faced with an inflation rate of 100 percent between January and August of this year, and a foreign debt estimated at $2.8 billion, the government devalued the peso by 60 percent in mid-November. It also increased food prices by between 47 and 79 percent.
One result was a protest by 13,000 workers through the streets of La Paz. Industry closed down temporarily and the nation went on strike.
Bolivia's President, Hernan Siles Zuazo, is struggling to merely stay in power. But there appears to be a determination on the part of many Bolivians to bring their nation into the modern world.
One signal of this desire is the title given to a recent political meeting here: ''Hope for Bolivia: the modern, progressive future.''