A chaotic sprawl high in the Andes, the Bolivian city of El Alto has a fearsome reputation for altitude sickness, poverty and violent uprisings that topple governments.
Yet years of economic growth and relative stability are changing attitudes as well as fortunes in one of Latin America’s poorest nations. Entrepreneurs are even waking up to El Alto’s potential.
Its first supermarkets, shopping centers and cinemas are planned — multimillion-dollar private sector investments that would have been unthinkable almost anywhere in Bolivia a decade ago.
Banks and pizza delivery stores have set up shop in the city’s traffic-choked streets and its bare brick buildings are climbing higher into the thin air as local commerce thrives 4,050m above sea level.
“People hardly bought anything in the past. With this government there’s business,” said Alicia Villalba, 33, selling Brazilian-made aluminum pans at a twice-weekly market where about US$2 million changes hands every day.
Seven years since they helped elect leftist coca farmer Bolivian President Evo Moraless — the first president of indigenous descent — there are subtle signs of change among El Alto’s mainly Aymara Indian population too.
“El Alto was always where conflicts kicked off. Why? Because people had nothing to lose. That’s not the case today,” said Alejandro Yaffar, a prominent businessman who owns a new fast food court in El Alto.
However, much remains to be done. Heaps of garbage and packs of stray dogs blight the bleak urban landscape. Water and drainage are inadequate, and local businesses complain about rising crime and scant policing.
Public infrastructure projects have struggled to meet the fast-growing city’s needs or the expectations of residents and some are disappointed with Morales and the pace of change.
“Here in El Alto we all voted for him, myself included,” said Nora Villeros, 65, as she sat in front of her busy store. “He promised us miracles, but the first couple of years went by and then he forgot about us.”
El Alto is not the only place that is changing in Bolivia, a landlocked country of about 10 million that sits on South America’s second-biggest natural gas reserves and rich deposits of silver, tin, zinc and other metals.
In the capital, La Paz, which lies in a crater-like valley below El Alto, low unemployment and affordable credit are fueling a construction boom and consumers feel unusually well off.
“There’s more work and more money around. I think people are living better than they were six years ago,” said Marco Arkaza, 33, a bank employee.
After seven years of economic growth averaging 4.7 percent a year, Bolivia joined the World Bank’s list of lower middle-income countries in 2010. The ranking allows more credit access.
Government officials say up to 1 million Bolivians have entered middle-class ranks under Morales. They credit policies such as welfare payments for school children and pensioners for lifting almost 1 million more out of extreme poverty.
In 2006, 38 percent of Bolivians lived in extreme poverty, data from the state-run INE national statistics shows. That has fallen to about 25 percent, though nearly half of Bolivians are still poor, according to the UN.
Some sectors have done better than others. Critics say a disproportionate amount of public money has been poured into the Chapare region that is home to much of Bolivia’s illegal coca crops and a Morales stronghold.