Saturday, July 14, 2007

Five Days in Santa Cruz, then off to Ecuador

The earplugs worked well in helping me to sleep through the wind. And within the few days, the wind went down. By the time I left, the sun had finally returned and people seemed to greet the day with a lighter, happier face. According to news stories, the cold was especially hard on the poor, who don’t have the clothing or houses needed to keep warm. On the front page of the newspaper was the wife of a construction worker, the mother of 6. Her toddler walked barefoot on the freezing ground, her baby was hungry, and they burned wood inside their home to try to keep warm. I read quotes from other poor families speaking about the difficulty of sleeping with cold bones.

From my new 7th floor window, I look right out at a construction sight. Until 9 p.m., the top story of a new multi-level building is illuminated by lights, construction workers in hardhats continuing their labors.

“Were they paid so poorly that their children went without shoes and heat?” I asked a co-worker.

“Yes,” she said. “People used in construction are common laborers, and they are at the bottom of the pay scale. Architects are paid well, but the workers don’t make much at all.” She told me she has friends who work in construction in the States and that they were shocked when they saw how workers in Bolivia are treated.

“We do our best as an institution,” she said, “by making sure we don’t hire companies that mistreat their employees or use child labor.” Noticing children is easy enough, but how one verifies that a company isn’t mistreating its employees in Bolivia seems a bit more difficult.

In an effort to help the common worker, President Evo Morales recently passed a law requiring that all non-management staff receive a 5% increase in pay, effective as of May. The problem is that many employers only have a portion of their employees registered officially, and the law will only apply to them. And there are those who say that the effect will be laying off some people to make up for the additional costs.

We’ll see. But the inequality is often so high. When the owners are making profits of thousands of dollars a month and the workers are making a measly $50-200, a five percent raise doesn’t sound so outrageous to me.

That reminds me of something I saw last weekend in my short visit to the U.S. I was in Southampton, the tony area of Long Island, outside of New York City. Driving down a residential street, I saw lines of Latino men lining the road – probably the same guys who’d get paid a pittance to do construction in Bolivia. There were so many of them that one couldn’t fail to take note. It looked like the corner near my house in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, where unemployed men stood around, hoping for contract work.

It turns out this was the same situation. Construction companies, landscapers, and others firms catering to the rich could stop by and pick up workers. A local told me they pay $10-15 an hour, significantly above minimum wage. But since they aren’t paying taxes, it comes out to be much cheaper for the company. And of course, it’s a great wage for the workers.

On this same street, on the 4th of July weekend, stood a group of white people, holding flag and banners saying “Deport illegal aliens.” The Mexicans and the Caucasians were only feet away from each other, and it seemed a potentially explosive situation. A cop car sauntered past, watching.

The same local resident told me that the mayor had proposed a space in a park for the workers, so that they weren’t lining the road. But people got upset that a park could be used for such a purpose. So now the township is suing the village, or the other way around, and the conflict continues.

Of course, the country needs to come up with a solution to the immigration issue. But the fault lies in Washington for the lack of a policy, not with people who are working hard to try to make a living. I found it hard to believe that these people had nothing better to do on a Saturday than to stand out on the street corner of a wealthy neighborhood and try to send poor people back home.

This week I celebrated my birthday in Santa Cruz and was able to see from the celebrant’s perspective how the locals treat birthdays. First thing in the morning, a whole stream of people came into my office, some of whom I didn’t even know their names. They all kissed my cheeks, wished me a happy birthday, and told me they hoped I had a “beautiful day.”

At lunchtime, my team took me out to La Casona, a tasty German restaurant, where I had pumpkin soup and strawberries with fresh cream. In the late afternoon I returned to my desk and found a giant red-glazed cake there (Congratulations jj written in white icing). Birthday gatherings are not allowed in the office, so that those not invited won’t feel excluded. So again, visitors stopped by, singly or in pairs, to give me their birthday wishes and simultaneously enjoy a piece of cake.

The cake was from a shop my Spanish teacher Oscar had recommended to me, Karmelle. And it was the best cake I’ve had in Bolivia – chocolate, filled with layers of strawberries and chocolate pudding, topped by a delicious fresh cream, sliced strawberries, and strawberry glaze.

The celebration was neither elaborate nor expensive. But it was clear people thought about the occasion and made an effort to make the day special. They succeeded in making me happy on what might have otherwise been a lonely, foreign birthday.

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