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Hammer, Nails, Brick And A Quiet Revolution


Letter From Bolivia

HAMMER, NAILS, BRICK--AND A QUIET REVOLUTION

If you wake up too late in the Bolivian altiplano, you'll miss the main event of the day. Before 5 a.m., a radio station's newscast in the Aymara Indian language is heard throughout the high plains. In Pucarani, 12,600 feet above sea level, families listen for the farmers' report before checking on their fragile potato, corn, wheat, and barley crops.

A couple of hours later, the sound of Pucarani changes. A carpenter drills a door into place at the town hall. A mason slaps a brick onto a rising sports center. A plumber installs a sink at the local elementary school.

NEW DEAL. If you listen carefully, you can hear a revolution taking place in the Bolivian countryside. The construction projects in Pucarani, 35 miles west of La Paz on the way to Peru, are part of an innovative plan by President Gonzalo Snchez de Lozada to decentralize government and redistribute tax revenue. The result is a wave of public-works projects in Indian villages. It's what might have happened had Franklin D. Roosevelt and Newt Gingrich ever met on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Before the plan, known as Popular Participation, took effect last year, all tax revenue went to the city where the taxable item originated. For example, proceeds from a liter of gas sold anywhere in Bolivia went to La Paz, home to oil monopoly YPFB. Now, revenue is distributed according to population, and the villages are responsible for how it is spent. La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba, the three largest cities, have seen their share of revenue drop from 86% of the total to just 28%.

Pucarani, nestled just beyond the shadow of the 17,000-foot peak of Huayna Potos mountain, is the seat of a municipality of 19,984 people and 2,400 square miles. The town itself, with a population of 1,400, has one community phone line and no paved roads. A few people own television sets. Radio is the daily link to the world.

Among the few reminders of the late 20th century are the American-style baseball caps all the men seem to wear with their farm clothes. Most people in the municipality speak Aymara and live in villages with such lively names as Chipamaya, Chojasiui, and Pantamanta, where a small sports complex is being built with Popular Participation funds. In 1993, the municipality received not a single peso of tax revenue. Last year, it took in the equivalent of $236,000, and this year, its share will rise to an estimated $442,000, more than $22 per resident. Overall, 162 jobs have been created through the public-works projects.

"BLESSED LAW." The person most responsible for how the money is spent is Mara Ada Lujn de Cabrera, a diminutive woman in her 60s with a creased, sunworn face. She wears a tan alpaca poncho typical of the region and speaks as if reciting dramatic verse. "It is a blessed law," she says of Popular Participation. "I received it with tears in my eyes." Other community leaders, seated with her at a long table, nod respectfully. A few are breathing heavily, their faces flushed, after having climbed a long flight of stairs to the town hall's meeting room. At this altitude, even the locals move slowly. No one looks as comfortable as the llama standing motionless a few feet behind the town hall.

To an American, the villagers' humility is embarrassing. Several addressed me as "honorable journalist" and asked for permission to speak even after I had asked them a question. "Before, we were totally abandoned," says Lujn de Cabrera. "We had to go to La Paz to beg for a table, a bench." Town engineer Nelson Lima adds that Pucarani residents often were turned away at the doors of federal government buildings for being dressed like the farmers they are.

Although as many as 85% of Bolivia's 7.7 million people have some indigenous ancestry, discrimination by wealthier descendants of Europeans is widespread. Snchez de Lozada, a self-made mining tycoon before entering politics, and Vice-President Victor Hugo Crdenas, an Aymara Indian, have tried to bring Indian villages into mainstream society. Under Popular Participation, hundreds of communities are being recognized as legal entities and are for the first time eligible for funding.

Pucarani is using its money to build new classrooms, housing for teachers, and the elementary school's first covered rest rooms. Until now, pupils had to use holes in the ground outside the school. About 4,000 people in the municipality soon will be hooked up to running water for the first time. And 10 town employees now receive salaries as high as $210 a month. Before Popular Participation, they all worked for free and made their livelihoods from other jobs. Throughout Bolivia, villagers are excited by the prospect of having a say in what happens in their hometowns and actually getting paid for it. Only two years ago, 60% of Bolivians elected to town councils never even showed up to accept the job. "Now, people campaign for these seats and talk about real issues, like in a real democracy," says Pinedo.

The pride of Pucarani is the sports center, similar to a high school gymnasium, under construction along the road leading into town. A sign outside posts the number of jobs the project has created, at last count 55. Nelson Lima supervises the construction as an elderly hunchbacked woman, oblivious to the bricklayers, herds a dozen sheep past the site. "This complex will transform the village," he says. "Now, people will have a place to play."

Pucarani is perhaps the only place in the world that can claim more auto racetracks (one) than paved roads, though even the track is dirt. The track itself was funded privately, but Popular Participation money was used to build its infrastructure: food stands and dorm rooms for visiting drivers. The idea is to attract tourists to races featuring visiting drivers. The autodrome's only real comfort is a set of concrete box seats built in case the President decides to visit. In fact, the town's brush with fame occurred when Carlos Menem Jr., an aspiring driver and the son of Argentina's President, attended the track's inauguration last year. When Menem Jr. died in a helicopter crash in March, Pucarani felt it had lost a famous friend.

"ROBIN HOOD." Critics in La Paz cite the racetrack as evidence that Popular Participation money is being poorly spent by unsophisticated villagers with no experience of budgets. To combat bad spending, community oversight committees are being formed. Snchez de Lozada, who sees himself as a Robin Hood in pinstripes, isn't worried. "The people in the neighborhoods can't do it worse than the central government," he says.

Despite the problems, officials from Peru, Ecuador, and Paraguay have expressed admiration for Popular Participation and plan to study whether they can adopt similar programs. "Within a few years, I think we'll be exporting workers to other countries to show off the Bolivian way of decentralization," Pinedo says. The people of Pucarani, many of whom have never traveled beyond La Paz, certainly would volunteer.IAN KATZ


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