Sunday, August 12, 2007

the rich and the poor

This morning I met my friend and colleague Maria. She works in Santa Cruz, but comes from Cochabamba. Her sister Laura, a student in enterprise administration, joined us as we went to visit the Palacio Portales, a home built for Bolivian legend Simon Patino.

Patino is a rare, inspiring Latin American story in that he was born into poverty, yet rose to become one of the richest people in the world in his time.

He was born in the village of Caraza (now called Santivanez) in the Cochabamba region in 1860. His father abandoned the family. As an adult, Patino adopted his mother’s last name and passed it down to his descendants. The name is legendary throughout Bolivia, and his father lost out on infamy through his irresponsibility.

At the age of 22 he began to work as a salesman for an important company in Oruro, a major mining center in Bolivia. He realized that the future of the country was in mining and he soon gave up his job, holding several mining positions before becoming an important employee at the Fricke mining company in Oruro.

After a meeting with the entrepreneur Jorge Oporto, he found the opportunity to run his own mine. Oporto owned the Juan del Valle mine, where rumors ran of a large tin seam. Many people had prospected it, but without success. Patino and Oporto joined together to form a company that would explore this mine.

After two years, with nothing to show, Oporto moved on. Patino continued on. He and his wife lived in the harsh, high altitude conditions of the mountains. Only after the age of 40 did he finally strike tin. The mine became the largest in the country and he the most important tin baron in Bolivia, as well as one of the world’s richest men.

Due to his humble beginnings, he was always conscious of his role in helping his co-nationals. In 1931 he founded the Simon Patino University Foundation in La Paz in order to train local intellectuals and reduce dependence on foreign specialists. He built baths and showers at the Palacio Portales for the common people to use, and the library now housed by the Palacio is the best public library in Cochabamba.

He founded the Banco Mercantil, today one of the leading Bolivian banks, and began to invest in mining operations overseas. By the late 1930s his foundries process over 60% of world tin deposits.

He moved to France in 1912, later to New York, and then Argentina. He was never able to return to Bolivia because of the altitude. In 1924, during a visit to Bolivia, he suffered a serious heart attack.

He built the Palacio as a family residence. It was built between 1915 and 1927. But by the time it was finished, he’d already suffered his heart attack and couldn’t return to Bolivia. His family didn’t want to be there without him, so for several decades it remained empty, until his descendants donated it for use as a cultural center.

The palace, designed by French architect Eugene Bliault, assisted by 40 artisans, is an impressive eclectic structure, made largely of marble and timber. As we walked through the elegant rooms, the guide pointed out to us the chandelier brought from Italy, the damask imported from Malaysia, the curtains with his wife’s initials made in France, the wood brought from Lebanon, and the geometric wooden parquet patterns on the floor of each room. We walked from the dining room, which had a hand-made French tapestry, a marble fireplace, and a ceiling fresco of nymphs into the billiard room – an Arabic room lined with mosaiced arches that were replicas of the Spanish Alhambra.

“I feel like I’m in Europe,” Maria said. She’d last visited the palace as a 7-year-old and remembered feeling awed by her surroundings. She was curious to see whether she’d still be impressed as an adult. She was.

After looking at a photo exhibit in the exhibition gallery and strolling around the Japanese-designed gardens, we took a taxi to the center of town. There, they showed me the 1571 neoclassical cathedral church and the central plaza. The church was nice, but not as impressive as the Jesuit missions I recently saw. It’s tough to beat those. I liked the plaza, where children extended their hands, filled with seed, to the pigeons, vendors sold fresh-squeezed orange juice, cotton candy, and balloons, fountains tinkled, and people rested on shaded benches.

We had lunch at a popular local restaurant, La Estancia. It was filled with families, enjoying their Sunday lunch today, like in Santa Cruz. Its specialty is meat and fish, but it also had a great salad bar, which I loved since I find it challenging to get enough vegetables in Santa Cruz.

I then walked with them to the local supermarket, where they purchased ingredients for their dinner that evening.

I noticed a lot of very poor people, mostly women and children, in indigenous dress, begging along the roads. They come from Potosi.

“They come for a couple of months, until they get enough money to buy seeds and whatever else they need. Then they return home,” Maria told me. “They come to Santa Cruz as well, but there are more in Cochabamba.”

“Why are there mostly women and children?”

“Because it’s more effective to collect money that way. Sometimes the children are not even theirs. They just take some children along so that people will feel more sorry for them.”

These people truly are poor, and I try to give to them, but I felt a bit overwhelmed today. I passed them too often and didn’t always have change handy.

In my very short time here, I’ve had the impression that while security is still an issue, there is more integration between the classes here than in Santa Cruz. When I went out for dinner last night, many children came into the restaurant to sell gum and cigarettes. While I saw a clear difference between the rich and poor, their interactions seemed to be more friendly, more respectable, more accepting of each other. In Santa Cruz, I feel more distrust, fear and resentment between the classes, and not much interaction. I asked Maria whether this impression had any validity.

“Yes,” she said. “There is a much larger middle class here.”

Having that larger mass in the middle, rather than the stark divisions between rich and poor, seems to facilitate interaction. In my opinion, this makes the atmosphere more pleasant.

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