Bolivians too busy scratching out a living to focus on election

By Yolanda Salazar

La Paz, Oct 5 (efe-epa).- The Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis have forced many Bolivians to reinvent themselves and the struggle to put food on the table is a bigger concern for most people than the Oct. 18 elections meant to restore democratic order after a year of “interim” rule.

Before the coronavirus, Alexandra Encinas worked as a housekeeper for an elderly woman and the roughly $120 she earned was enough to support herself and her four children.

But that income disappeared when her employer became infected with Covid-19.

Alexandra tells Efe that her attempts to find another position as a housekeeper have run into the refusal of potential employers to allow her to bring her two youngest kids, ages 1 and 3, to work.

The 26-year-old single mother has nobody to look after the little ones while she works.

For four months, Encinas “survived” by brewing flaxseed soda and selling it on the largely deserted streets of La Paz. Now, she peddles homemade gelatin.

With the baby in a carrier, she takes the 3-year-old in one hand and totes the basket holding the gelatin with the other. Despite the effort, she makes less than $10 a day on average and remains in search of other ways to provide for her family.

“Be what it may – doing laundry, going to clean houses – whatever presents itself. Making money is the thing,” Alexandra says.

Bolivia’s economy shrank 7.9 percent in the first six months of this year and unemployment climbed to 11.8 percent, according to the National Statistics Institute, which blamed the five-month-long pandemic lockdown for the slump.

The jobless rate was 4.8 percent at the end of 2019 after several years that saw Latin America’s poorest nation lead the region in economic growth and make significant progress in reducing poverty.

Francisca, who declined to give her last name, tells Efe that when her usual line, selling clothes, turned unprofitable, she decided to use the money she had on hand to amass an inventory of face masks, disinfectant and other pandemic necessities.

As the sole provider for two children, she had no choice but to reinvent her business and begin peddling her wares from a wheeled cart.

“Before I was embarrassed to sell. That I will go out on the street – impossible,” Francisca tells Efe. “But for my daughters, I have fought. I’ve left all the fear behind and I’ve had to face everything.”

In downtown La Paz, a fenced-in construction site has become an improvised employment fair where scores of people show up every day in search of a chance to earn a few dollars.

Attached to the fences are help-wanted notices for a wide range of occupations: from baker to nanny, from bricklayer to lawyer, from security guard to publicist.

Job-seekers can be seen snapping photos of the ads, while others jot down the information and still others go directly to the office of the man behind this “enterprise,” Rodrigo Antezana, to get the relevant information in exchange for a fee of 5 bolivianos (less than $1).

Standing in line at the door of his small office are first-time jobseekers, along with plenty of people at or beyond retirement age who are looking for work.

Antezana, 22, says proudly that of the hundred or so people who come to him every day, he is able to connect at least 20 of them with employment.

The fees he collects are enough for the young entrepreneur to pay his university tuition and cover the rent on the home he shares with his uncles.

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