Monday, October 31, 2005

500 thousand migrants in Santa Cruz

One fourth of the inhabitants of Santa Cruz were born in some other region of Bolivia. According to this La Razon article, out of the 1.9 million of inhabitants, half a million are migrants. I post this information because a friend asked me if the migration was so massive that the proportion of seats in the parliament has to shift. The answer is yes. Take a look at the graphic below:

The first column, at the left, will show you that the Cochabambinos are the biggest group of "adventurers". The top table above shows you the amount of people that emigrate/immigrate from/to a given region. Not surprisingly (it is common knowledge in Bolivia) Potosi and Oruro top the charts for the regions that lose more population. Oruro was not always the biggest exporter of people, I suppose that the increase has to do with the closure of mine related industries in 1985. On the other hand Potosi is topping the three charts. Take this with a grain of salt, probably a proper analysis takes into account relative and not absolute quantities. I am just too busy to do arithmetics now.

What are the reasons to move to Santa Cruz? More jobs.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Lazy blogger shows his nose again

Hello there, readers! As you can see these last two weeks consisted of intense, almost feverish blogging inactivity! I spent a lot of time writing other stuff so that I got tired of even writing emails or blog posts. Things are getting better now that I am using an RSS feeds reader. I will explain for the readers who don't know what is that. An RSS feeds reader is a program checks for you whether there are new posts in blogs you usually read. Thus, saving the time you spend in typing the address in your web browser. It may seem silly but you do indeed save time.

Blogs and press
Since Bolivia's last elections there is a large increase of non-mainstream information about Bolivia. From the moment I left Bolivia I was a regular reader of online editions of Bolivian newspapers. At that time, however, that was all I read. Currently I can say that my main source of information comes from Bolivian blogs. Many of their writers go deeply into the news, trying to find an insight that is so often lacking in newspapers.

Let me give you an example. Bolivia's general elections are supposed to be on the fourth of December. They are the result of negotiations with social sectors in Bolivia who were deeply dissatisfied with the way the country was being run. So you can see these elections as the primary prerequisite for stability. Unfortunately, there is the risk of the elections being delayed. All that as a result of the unsolvable question of how to distribute congress seats following the result of the 2001 census.

Now, while the newspapers give you the latest information about the happenings (who doesn't agree, who is threatening, etc). They don't provide enough discussion for an informed debate. I would like to see them discussing the arguments of each side. Instead of that, one gets the impression that people ought to form a supporting unit behind the main protagonists without discussing whether or not that is the right thing. From time to time, some informative editorial or opinion article appears, but it is often loaded with rhetoric.

Fortunately, you can turn to the Bolivian blogs for more information about the topic. They spend more time than the newspapers discussing about the issues involved. They also offer possible motivations of the actors to act the way they do.

More specifically, about this topic, you can turn to MABB's post and another from Ciao explaining the whole situation. In short, many Bolivians emigrated from Potosi, Oruro (where I am from), and La Paz to Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. This has been quantified in the 2001 census where I participated as a voluntary. Now, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba are demanding that the number of their representatives is increased. However, that implies that La Paz, Oruro and Potosi must reduce their representatives, something they are not willing to do. The argument to go on with this change is straightforward: it is in the constitution; it is written that the seats have to be redistributed as the population fluctuates. However, the negatively affected regions reply that these elections are not completely in line with the constitution (because of the way they were conceived during the crisis earlier in this year) so that it can be followed non-strictly. Also there is the issue that there is another article in the constitution stating that the redistribution must be done "con equidad". That is, you must somehow take into account the situation of economically depressed regions.

Well, the point of this hand-wavy explanation of the problem is that it is complex and it requires debate: why are some viewpoints are valid and why others are not. Simply put, you can enumerate: we abide by the law, the law is not perfect for us the poor regions so let's discuss it and we (the Oruro/Potosi/La Paz representatives) don't want to lose our seats/jobs so we make the most noise possible to keep them.

Maybe the newspapers are not the place where to repeat this debate over and over, they just supply news. However, even if it is not intended, I can't help but feel that this is an issue of Us versus Them when reading the newspaper articles . I suggest reading MABB, The democracy center, Barrio Flores and Ciao for informed discussion of Bolivian news.

I found another example of independent opinion in Eduardo's review of Bolivian blogs. It is a severe critic of the state university system in Bolivia. I am being quite mild at calling it severe, the post shows in all its horror how the state university is ruled by power struggles and corruption. It is the harshest critic I have read, a newspaper would not have published it. I am glad that well-written independent opinion about our universities is finding its way to the internet. It would be nice if some university worker could open an anonymous blog and show us all the things that happen within. Anyway, this topic deserves much more attention than it is given. Maybe in a future post.

It is a pity that the best blogs to read about Bolivian politics are in English. Maybe a political scientist out there in Bolivia is willing to fill in the gap.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

BRICs: The economic powerhouses of 2050

BBC Radio World Service has a series of four programs about the four biggest economies in 2050: Brazil, Russia, India and China; in short, BRICs. This claim has been put forward by the Goldman Sachs bank in this article. The abstract reads:

Over the next 50 years, Brazil, Russia, India and China-the BRICs economies-could become a much larger force in the world economy. We map out GDP growth, income per capita and currency movements in the BRICs economies until 2050.

The results are startling. If things go right, in less than 40 years, the BRICs economies together could be larger than the G6 in US dollar terms. By 2025 they could account for over half the size of the G6. Of the current G6, only the US and Japan may be among the six largest economies in US dollar terms in 2050.

The list of the world's ten largest economies may look quite different in 2050. The largest economies in the world (by GDP) mayno longer be the richest (by income per capita), making strategic choices for firms more complex.

Along with this BBC's documentary you will travel to all four countries to listen to interviews of many economical actors, big and small. The idea is that China and India will become the world leaders in manufacturing and services. The growing markets and industries will require resources, provided by Russia and Brazil. You can already see the flow of investment from China to Asia and South America. Is this scenario too optimistic? Aren't we forgetting the big problems that this countries face.

To provide balance, the reporter travels to poor neighborhoods to then talk with people living there. Understandably, they express skepticism at the BRICs thesis. The additional income of these countries flows slower into isolated or excluded areas. More problems include the huge belts of poverty around big cities, massive corruption both in public and private sectors, environmental disasters, health disasters, etc.

Nevertheless, an Indian economist (if I remember right) reminds us that all these problems were present in today's developed nations when they were becoming rich nations. About corruption, maybe the problem that makes us the most pessimistic, he tells that it is not an instrumental problem. As countries become more developed (rich) these problems slowly fade away. Also he points to the slums that existed in Berlin and London at the end of the 19th century and beginning of 20th century.

In the interviews you will listen to optimistic young people talking about their future. This good documentary gives you a foretaste of the interesting times to come.

You can download the four episodes from this webpage. You should click on "download mp3" in the right side panel to listen to the program. The next four episodes are available in the same panel, a bit lower.

If you are into podcasting, you may subscribe to the BBC Documentary feed. All feeds are available from here.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Gas shortage and smuggling

These last weeks there has been a shortage of liquid gas in La Paz. It seems that there are other affected regions such as Potosi. MABB reports on the situation with pictures.

Liquid gas is usually sold in metal containers whose English name I ignore. In Spanish we call them "garrafas". The shortage of gas in La Paz reminds me of some articles I read months ago.

This town is about one or two hours (I don't remember) away from La Paz. It is split in half by river Desaguadero, which is also the border between Bolivia and Peru. If you want to go to Peru you should go to migrations office fill a boring form, get a stamp and cross to Peru. As you cross the bridge you are surprised by the number of people going back and forth pulling and pushing wagons full of goods. This is called "contrabando hormiga" or ant smuggling. I don't know the laws precisely so I might say something incorrect. I think that if you transport merchandises in a relatively small quantity you need not pay taxes. The small quantity in transportation is the reason that the word "hormiga" is used :).

I believe that this year one of the newspapers La Razón or La Prensa made a thorough investigation of gas smuggling in the border town of Desaguadero. I will try to find it.

Given that gas is more expensive in Peru than in Bolivia, there were massive sales of gas "garrafas" to the Peruvian part of Desaguadero. Take a look at this article from La Prensa.

After these reports the government acted quickly. They stopped the excessive influx of garrafas to this region. They calculated how much the Bolivian population in Desaguadero would need to only ship the needed quantity. I translate the last paragraph from here.
Up to July, the demand for liquid gas in Desaguadero reached 11 thousand "garradas" per month, but the Superintendencia (a body regulating hidrocarbons trade and production) restricted the delivery to the [regional] distributors to only 3800 "garrafas" per month.
Now it seems that smugglers go as far as La Paz to buy "garrafas" and sell them to Peru. And the consequences, you see them now: shortage of gas in La Paz. I wonder if there is a another solution other than increasing the prices for gas. According to the article from La Prensa, a garrafa in Bolivia is worth 68 bolivianos while in Peru it is 80 bolivianos. Increasing the prices proved unfeasible because of protests. Of course shortage of gas provokes protests as well. Working in the government seems to be a very hard job indeed. I am happy to just be a humble computer scientist :).

A related article and another. The latter mentions that the garrafas make it as far in Peru as Arequipa!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Links to avian influenza sites

These last months the press has been bombarding us with news concerning a bird flu that can sometimes infect humans. Lately the tone has become more alarmist. Is there a pandemic looming? What will cause it?

This bird flu virus is currently spreading among bird populations. Sometimes it can infect humans, and when it does the mortality rate is of 55%. That is pretty bad if your job involves some kind of contact with chickens because currently you can only catch it from them. However, if the virus becomes able to travel from human to human, that is all you are going to see in the news for a long time to come.

There are two ways that this situation can come about. First, a human virus could acquire the deadly characteristics of the avian virus. This requires both viruses to be in the same host at the same time. In the second scenario, you have the virus mutating. I quote the following part from this sobering article:

...Unfortunately, scientists have never had the opportunity to use modern methods to study the emergence of a pandemic strain. Our understanding of how the human influenza virus incorporates avian elements is, as a consequence, very limited. Predictions that the current behaviour of the H5N1 avian virus is indicative of a growing pandemic threat are really just speculation.

There are really two quite distinct scenarios being promoted. Davis, along with many scientists, makes no real effort to distinguish between them. The first is the antigenic drift scenario described above. It is plausible, if poorly understood.

The second is the mutation scenario. This is the stuff of science fiction. It predicts the direct conversion of the H5N1 avian virus into, in effect, a human virus. The emergence of a brand-new virulent and highly infectious human virus is theoretically possible, but fortunately, as history teaches us, vanishingly rare. We have to look back to the sixth-century plague of Justinian, if not earlier, for a precedent. Predictions that we are now on the brink of such a rare biological event speak more to hubris than to good science.

It is of course very reassuring after one is done reading the article: it is not pessimistic. Even if such an epidemic takes place, people in many countries are better prepared than in previous pandemics (although I have many doubts about general practitioners in the Netherlands. I will leave that to another post). Yet his assessment of the second scenario has rebuked by some recent work.

As unbelievable as it sounds, scientists have managed to recreate the virus from the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic using tissue from a frozen body exhumed in Alaska. They showed that this strain is particularly virulent:
In the Science article, Terrence M. Tumpey and colleagues report that they generated a flu virus bearing all eight gene segments of the 1918 virus in order to study what made it so virulent. They exposed groups of mice to that virus and to other viruses in which some of the 1918 virus's genes were replaced by genes from recent flu viruses.

The 1918 virus turned out to be extremely virulent. Mice infected with it died in as little as 3 days, and mice that survived as long as 4 days had 39,000 times as many virus particles in their lungs as did mice infected with a control flu virus, a Texas strain of H1N1 from 1991. All the mice infected with the 1918 virus died, while those exposed to the Texas strain survived. Further, the 1918 virus was at least 100 times as lethal as an engineered virus that contained five 1918 genes and three genes from the Texas H1N1 strain.

They did a related experiment on human lung tissue obtaining similar trends. Now, the characteristic that relates this 1918 virus with today's situation is:

In the other study, researchers at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) report that the close resemblance of the 1918 virus to avian flu viruses suggests that the 1918 virus was an avian strain that managed to adapt to humans without first acquiring any genes from existing human flu viruses. Further, the researchers found that several of the same mutations that differentiated the 1918 virus from avian flu viruses are found in the H5N1 virus, which has killed more than 60 people in Asia. The report appears in Nature

This seems to support the possibility of scenario two.

I am trying to read a bit more to learn about it. If you want to do the same the Flu Wiki is a good place to start.

Saturday night and working!

It is not like me to post so often to my blog. Often meaning two posts per week :). I am currently working a little bit. I am just in the right mood for it. I decided earlier today I would sleep early. It didn't happen, it is past two already and the clock is still ticking.

So what have I been up to? Yesterday we celebrated the graduation of a Greek friend. It was a night out in the center, from bar to bar. The main event was staying in a Greek restaurant that becomes a Bouzouki in the evenings (if that is how it is written). Traditional Greek music and drinks. Ladies dancing but the guys sitting (and occasionally dancing too). We were next to the band so you had to put more effort to speak. It reminded me of peñas, places with traditional groups where you can sit, eat, drink and of course dance to the music. I enjoy such activities as long as it is not too crowded. You have to like the music, otherwise you can't enjoy as much as the natives do. So yesterday I realized what might a foreign person feel when they go to a peña for the first time.

Eventually, we (the non-Greek people) left that restaurant for a bar. Thus, resuming the usual course of events for a weekend: some drinks and chat. For some reason all of us got very hungry; when we ordered drinks some sort of snack was ordered as well. I seriously missed a tradition from my home town in Bolivia, Oruro. There, as I go back home, I stop by my casera to have some ranga. The ranga is a thick soup made from cow's stomach. Not any of the stomachs (I believe there are four), you use the one that has the texture of a towel. It is the softest one, sometimes we call it toallita. This yummy soup (that for many readers will sound yucky) is a spicy, thick and tasty concoction. If you happen to be an uninitiated, ask a fellow Orureño to take you to the best rangas in town.

Yesterday my evening ended with a prepackaged Japanese soup. Not bad, but there is nothing like the real thing.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Comments about emigration article

Recently a Bolivian reader told me that she is soon moving to the Netherlands. This reminded me that the number of Bolivian students around Utrecht has decreased. A reason for this perception might be that I stopped attending student parties here. So if you are Bolivian and living in Utrecht (or in the Netherlands) drop me a mail. You can find my email address on the left side of the blog. Sorry if you cannot copy/paste it or just click on it. With that sacrifice of yours I have less spam to go through!

Have you checked out this article from La Razon? It says that Bolivia gets more money from expats working abroad than from the sale of gas. It is estimated that 860 million dollars will be sent to Bolivia this year, 40% percent of exports. The Multilateral Investement Fund (FOMIN) conducted a poll on 1523 persons that receive money from abroad. The study cannot use just money transfer numbers from financial institutions because 38% of people receive money directly from travelers. (This reminds me of the Bolivian tradition of sending food, drinks, money with travelers that your family or you happen to know. Only in a few cases I heard of Bolivians using the post or banks for such purposes :).)

FOMIN also calculates that there are one million Bolivian migrants sending money home. Half of them live in Latin America and the other half in Europe and the United States. MABB posts a full English translation of the same article (including a nice chart). Regarding the conclusions in his post:
Two negative aspects are important to consider. One is that by trying to encourage a massive transfer of dollars from the world into Bolivia, inflation could be triggered. The other important aspect is for the government not to encourage emmigration. The brain-drain problem in Bolivia is bad enough as it is.
I am more optimist about the outcome of emigration. Migrant Bolivians are making trade links that are going to be extremely useful for the future. I believe that, for instance, India is doing better currently because of the connections that it developed thanks to emigration.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

"Alexey writes" mentioned on Global Voices

Eduardo from Barrio Flores posted a review of the Bolivian blogosphere to Global Voices. Now, I begin to understand the sudden surge of traffic! Thanks to Eduardo for including the ramblings of this blog in that list.

As mentioned there, the topics that incite more interest in this blog are comments about trips and adventures with cooking. My blog does not feature a particular topic, as such I am afraid I don't have a regular readership. A few times I naively attempted to talk about politics and the obtained effect and feeling is what has been commented in Revisión de todo un poco.

This blog will continue featuring random stuff about my daily life. Despite this, I have the hope that some people will keep interested in coming back for more. More regular posting should help. I will figure out how to do that without losing the scarce time I currently have.