Bolivia – the beggar seated on a throne of gold

Leaving Bolivia was a bitter-sweet experience, since I have had a truly amazing time traveling through this geologically diverse country over the past month (it has been, by far my favourite country in South America).

As I crossed the border into Peru (to the town of Puno) I was surprised with how little things had really changed, everything felt extremely familiar; there were the same markets in similar looking towns, with women wearing pretty much the same traditional wear.

After learning more about the Lake Titicaca area I began to understand why. It’s not that as countries, Peru and Bolivia are or ever have been similar; they have simply shared the same beginning.

Until the arrival of the Inca civilisation (surprisingly only 100 years before the arrival of the Spanish in 1531) the entire area surrounding the Andes was effectively made up of many different indigenous tribes (some of which, although small, were civilisations in their own right).

The Incas were the first of these many different tribes to actually expand and build an Empire (something the Europeans had been doing thousands of years prior). The United Kingdom of Peru actually included Bolivia (known as Alto-Peru) and spread as far south as Chile and as far north as Columbia.

Given that the Incas beliefs were very similar to that of Bolivia ( the Tiahuanaco people) in that their gods had risen from Lake Titicaca, I can understand how such a unification was possible and why I have noticed so many similarities.

However, as I traveled further into the interior of Peru, I have quickly realised that culturally they are in fact very different. My initial impression is that the Peruvians are generations ahead; dare I say it, more civilised even.

This has led me to want to attempt to understand why there is such a divergence between these two countries. Given that a country is really its people, I thought a good place to start would be to understand the Bolivian Culture.

I apologise now for such a wordy blog update (it does go on and probably doesn’t read very well) but it is my attempt to try to understand why Bolivia (the poorest country in South America) is what it is today based on what I have seen and my experiences here.

When we first entered Bolivia from the southern region of the Atacama desert , we had a very different impression of the Bolivians than we do now. Our first exchanges with the locals were by no means pleasant ones. Initially we thought they were simply a reserved and shy lot, however we soon began to feel that they were simply extremely rude. I would even go as far as saying that some were in fact racist towards us; giving us the distinct impression that they didn’t want us there and were not fussed about our business.

This type of reception, in addition to some other observations (listed below) led me to a fairly harsh initial conclusion; that Bolivia is the poorest nation on the continent for no other reason than the Bolivians themselves.

1. Generally we felt that there was no real business acumen; in spite of all of the produce and the thousands of markets around the country, everyone is selling the same products at the same prices, with no one willing to negotiate on price. It’s no wonder that the business is spread so thinly across every market trader which in turn keeps them all poor.

2. Their unwillingness to open up to the rest of the world has left them isolated. Having seen first hand how rich the country is, in terms of its natural resources, I couldn’t understand why the country was not exporting more and riding the wave with the rest of South America. After spending time here and seeing the many different protests about pretty much anything and everything, I got the distinct impression that the general public see most foreign trade as the selling of their riches that should be kept for their own people and no one else, irrespective of whether they have an internal demand for it or not.

3. With such strong protests regarding national resources, you could easily be mistaken to believe that Bolivians are really patriotic with a true respect/concern for their wonderful land.

This I can tell you is not the case at all; we have been appalled by the way we have seen locals treating their environment. Some of the most naturally beautiful places in the world are covered in litter with no attempt or desire to clean it up. Towns and cities across the country simply dispose of all their garbage at the end of town. Now before you think that this is simply bad management by the state (which of course in part it is) the people themselves piss and shit everywhere, even in their own rivers!

4. As a people they only appear to be looking out for themselves and have no sense of civic duty. Bolivians are not simply one race, the country is a complex mix of many different indigenous groups which have all had some form of infighting over the course of the country’s history. As a result there is a huge amount of prejudice internally, especially between the Cambas (lowlanders) and Kollas (highlanders).

5. A lost generation of men? The men of the country don’t seem to actually do anything. Whilst I appreciate that this is a huge generalisation, we have only really seen the women actually working (i.e in the markets, in shops etc). The men simply seem to sit around and get completely shit faced on 98% alcohol on a daily basis. What’s even more bizarre is that it seems to be totally accepted with mothers and wives somehow encouraging it! A Bolivian man is very much a mothered child. From the day he is born to about the age of 6 he is held close to his mother (using traditional cloths tied around their backs). This I believe sets the foundations for a lazy man; every child should be walking on their own from the age of 4 at the latest!

However, over the course of the month (as we moved further north), we had begun to see a very different side to the Bolivians; beginning to understand them more with every local interaction. Ironically, despite our first impressions (which are still valid) we have left Bolivia with a real appreciation of the locals and their rich, fascinating culture. I would even go as far as saying that it was the actual people who were the highlight of the time we spent here. Which when you consider the many natural wonders of the world found here, is a true testament to the people of Bolivia.

If you think this sounds like a massive contradiction; you’re right it is! The country is one big contradiction hence the reason it is known as ‘the beggar seated on a throne of gold’.

In order to even attempt to explain this further I think it’s important to understand a little more about the history of Bolivia.

Since independence in 1825 via liberator Simon Bolivar, it has shrunk to a quarter of it’s size at just over a million sq km, with only 8 million inhabitants that earn as little as $2 a day.By way of comparison, Germany fits into Bolivia three times having in excess of 80 million inhabitants earning over $80 a day.

Two major defeats have helped define Bolivia’s national identity, the loss of the access to the pacific to Chile in 1879 and the loss of the Chaco region to Paraguay half a century later.

Ironically these important loses helped to finally unify and integrate its indigenous minority to finally become a true nation-state which is still really in its infancy.

Another important consideration, is the fact that at any given time, up to one-third of the Bolivian work force has been dependent on the coca industry. With the help of a fascinating Coca Museum in La Paz, I began to understand why the country’s history and the culture of its people is so interlinked with that of the humble Coca plant.

As you can imagine, given that there is a dedicated museum to this one plant, there is an awful amount of information to get through. In light of its importance in understanding Bolivia today, I have attempted to pullout the main points below.


The coca leaf dates back well before the conquest of the Incas some 4500 years ago.During the Incas, the coca leaf was the centre of magic-religious activities.

It was used by the Spanish to support slavery since they found that the chewing of coca leaves stimulated the starving slaves and gave them relief from their pains becoming known as ” the secret potion”. Ironically, before the Spaniards had realised it made the indigenous slaves work harder, it had been band since they considered it to be satanic and an obstacle to Catholicism.

The Spanish even went as far as making its consumption obligatory by the mine workers who were forced to work 48 hour days without adequate breaks or food, other than the coca leaves to chew.

(the chewing technique has been developed over the last 4500 allowing the consumer to extract over 90% of the leafs contents by adding an alkaline substance (llycta) to the mix)

As with most things, the Spanish conquistadors seized control of coca production, requiring the indigenous people to effectively sell their souls to the devil to obtain it.

During modern times, coca’s stimulating and anaesthetic attributes became known world-wide, becoming transformed into one of the primary pharmaceuticals employed. This paved the way for history to effectively repeat it self as Bolivia’s secret conquistadors scrammed to seize control of its production once again. Although land was given back to the indigenous once Bolivia became a republic, control of the coca remained in the hands of foreigners, as it did in colonial times.

In 1886 coca formed the main ingredient of a soft-drink launched in the U.S.A by Dr. John Pemberton called Coca-Cola. Interestingly it was Dr Sigmund Freud who was the first cocaine (in which a paste derived from coca leaves is treated with kerosene and refined into powder) user in history (1884) which helps explain a lot!

The fate of Andean villages effectively did not change – instead of coca being controlled by the Spaniards, now it was large multinational corporations who controlled it.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t big business that gave coca production back it’s “satanic” reputation. That was due to the laws of the United Nations and the “Harrison’s Law” in the U.S.A which prohibited the legal use of cocaine in 1914.

However, it was only really since the 1950s that the actual coca plant was considered harmful to society, after an American banker (Howard Fonda) declared that “…the chewing of coca is responsible for (mental slowness) and poverty in Andean countries”….which of course is a preposterous statement to make, but then again it doesn’t surprise me considering he is an American banker who probably worked for Goldmans.

What was even more ridiculous was that the United Nations decided at the Geneva conference in 1961 that coca should be eliminated based on this one bankers absurd theory! Of course they allowed the continuation of its growth by industry (for the obvious monetary benefit of their own nations).

This set the stage for the “War on Drugs” (which was fuelled further by the crack epidemic in the U.S in the 1980s ) which I feel has played a crucial role in Bolivia’s modern-day culture. If foreigners know one thing about Bolivia and its neighbouring countries, it’s their affiliation with the coca leaf and the refinement and trafficking of cocaine. It is far and away the most lucrative of Bolivia’s economic mainstays; estimated to generate more that $1B a year, of which less than half actually stays in the country!

‘The U.S represents 5% of the world’s population, yet consumes 50% of the cocaine that exists on the planet.’

It’s should then be no surprise that the U.S has given Bolivia hundreds of millions of dollars in form of credit to fund the Bolivian anti-drug policy. I find it somewhat ironic that the Bolivian police, who have already limited resources of their own, are forced to rely on international aid in order to enforce a Geneva Law! Even more ironic is that the actual problem of cocaine exists outside of Bolivia!

Interestingly the chemicals used to actually make cocaine are illegally imported into Bolivia by well-known, legal manufactures in the U.S and Europe! These companies deliver the chemicals directly to the drug manufacturing plants in the Bolivian jungle. Without them being delivered through Bolivia’s international airports, there is little the police can do to counter the import of the chemicals and so the production of the actual drug. If this war on drugs is really focused on getting to the root of the problem, why isn’t more being done to regulate the production of the actual chemicals?

It also makes me question the war on drugs in general. For the first time in history, our society has prohibited an illness ( that being drug addiction) and even declared war against it, using guns and entire armies perhaps causing more deaths than the illness itself. I can’t help but think this is really a war driven by big business that with the help of governments goes on under the disguise of the drug being enemy.

Is it any wonder that the people of Bolivia are weary of the outside world; a world that has only ever raped the indigenous community of their country. On top of this the Westernisation of the cities and towns are threatening their unique indigenous culture. The west’s growing appetite for cocaine is also one of the main reasons for the insane amount of corruption within the government. The corruption is at every level of government and the police force and is crippling this country. I honestly do believe that this is one of the major factors causing Bolivia to be behind the rest of South America.

The pics below paint an interesting take on this particular issue.

Within this context when evaluating my initial conclusion; If a society has no real democracy and foreign involvement tends to be at the root of most problems, it is easy to understand why characteristics I had previously outlined exist. Yet in spite of this I have the culture here to be a loving and welcoming one where people simply crack on with the situation at hand, making the most out of it.

They say a picture paints a thousand words so although I have probably written over a thousand, I will finish this post with a beautiful mural that I have seen in La Paz which really does help explain why Bolivia is what it is today.


2 comments on “Bolivia – the beggar seated on a throne of gold

  1. I liked the way you travelled through your own initial assumptions and prejudices in this post and arrived at a very different conclusion. I think it’s really important for us in the West to try and learn about and understand the legacies of oppression that we have imposed, historically, on other nations.

    • totally agree, i am reading an amzing book at the moment called open veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano which tackles this very issue. You should read it if you havent already!

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