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Bolivia shows signs of significant economic improvement

Bolivia shows signs of significant economic improvement

(The following article was written by William Neuman and was published in the New York Times on February 16, 2014)

Bolivan AgriclutureTucked away in the shadow of its more populous and more prosperous neighbours, tiny, impoverished Bolivia, once a perennial economic basket case, has suddenly become a different kind of exception — this time in a good way. Its economy grew an estimated 6.5 percent last year, among the strongest rates in the region. Inflation has been kept in check. The budget is balanced, and once-crippling government debt has been slashed. And the country has a rainy-day fund of foreign reserves so large — for the size of its economy — that it could be the envy of nearly every other country in the world.

“Bolivia has been in a way an outlier,” said Ana Corbacho, the International Monetary Fund’s chief of mission here, adding that falling commodity prices and other factors have downgraded economic expectations throughout the region. “The general trend is we have been revising down our growth forecast, except for Bolivia we have been revising upward.”

Bolivia has taken an unlikely path to becoming the darling of international financial institutions like the monetary fund, not least because the high praise today is coming from some of the same institutions that the country’s socialist president, Evo Morales, loves to berate.

Mr. Morales often speaks harshly of capitalism and some of its most ardent defenders, like big corporations, the United States, the monetary fund and the World Bank. He nationalized the oil and gas sector after taking office in 2006, and he has expropriated more than 20 private companies in a variety of industries. Yet while Mr. Morales calls himself a revolutionary, others have begun using a very different word to describe him: “prudent.”

Both the monetary fund and the World Bank, in recent reports, praised what they called Mr. Morales’s “prudent” macroeconomic policies. Fitch Ratings, a major credit rating agency, cited his “prudent fiscal management.”

While Mr. Morales remains firmly in Latin America’s leftist camp, on many economic matters he fits within a broader trend away from ideological rigidity in the region.

Not long ago, Bolivia was a focal point of political and economic instability, and while it remains South America’s poorest country, much has changed. Economic growth last year was the strongest in at least three decades, according to the monetary fund, and it continued a string of several years of healthy growth. The portion of the population living in extreme poverty fell to 24 percent in 2011, down from 38 percent in 2005, the year before Mr. Morales took office.

Though there is still much misery, the economic transformation is widely visible, in thriving urban markets or in the new tractors tilling land where farm animals pulled plows not long ago. In El Alto, a working-class city perched above the capital, the newly wealthy flaunt their success in the form of brightly coloured mansions. Another recent addition: the proliferation of bakeries selling elaborate cakes, a sign that even those of more modest means have extra cash to spend.

One of the most surprising developments is the way that Bolivia has amassed foreign currency, salting away a rainy-day fund of about $14 billion, equal to more than half of its gross domestic product, or 17 months of imports, that can help it get through economic hard times. According to the monetary fund, Bolivia has the highest ratio in the world of international reserves to the size of its economy, having recently surpassed China in that regard.

“We are showing the entire world that you can have socialist policies with macroeconomic equilibrium,” said Economy and Finance Minister Luis Arce. “Everything we are going to do is directed at benefiting the poor. But you have to do it applying economic science.”

The country is doing well thanks to relatively high prices for natural gas — its most important export — during Mr. Morales’s presidency. That enabled Mr. Morales to order in November that all government and many private sector
workers get double the customary year-end bonus of a full month’s salary. It was a populist move that critics linked to the coming election season — Mr. Morales will run for a new term in October. But it is consistent with a broader effort to redistribute wealth and direct some of the country’s natural gas income directly into people’s pockets.

Bolivia’s turnaround is noteworthy because for many years the country was a proving ground for the kind of orthodox, free market policies long promoted by the monetary fund and other international institutions. Grappling with a host of economic problems, including hyperinflation that reached 24,000 percent in 1985, the government cut spending, eliminated fuel subsidies, partially privatized government-owned companies and fired many workers.

Critics say that while those policies tamed inflation, they also did long-term damage, exacerbating the unequal distribution of wealth, pushing newly out-of-work miners and farmers into coca farming that increased cocaine production, and ultimately contributing to the social unrest that helped usher in Mr. Morales as president.

“The Morales administration has basically cast off the recommendations of the I.M.F. and other huge international lending organizations, and for the first time, during his tenure, you see those macroeconomic indicators improve significantly, which finally gains the approval of organizations like the I.M.F.,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a research group based in Bolivia.

Bolivia has taken an unlikely path to becoming the darling of international financial institutions like the monetary fund, not least because the high praise today is coming from some of the same institutions that the country’s socialist president, Evo Morales, loves to berate.

Mr. Morales often speaks harshly of capitalism and some of its most ardent defenders, like big corporations, the United States, the monetary fund and the World Bank. He nationalized the oil and gas sector after taking office in 2006, and he has expropriated more than 20 private companies in a variety of industries. Yet while Mr. Morales calls himself a revolutionary, others have begun using a very different word to describe him: “prudent.”

Both the monetary fund and the World Bank, in recent reports, praised what they called Mr. Morales’s “prudent” macroeconomic policies. Fitch Ratings, a major credit rating agency, cited his “prudent fiscal management.”

While Mr. Morales remains firmly in Latin America’s leftist camp, on many economic matters he fits within a broader trend away from ideological rigidity in the region.

Not long ago, Bolivia was a focal point of political and economic instability, and while it remains South America’s poorest country, much has changed. Economic growth last year was the strongest in at least three decades, according to the monetary fund, and it continued a string of several years of healthy growth. The portion of the population living in extreme poverty fell to 24 percent in 2011, down from 38 percent in 2005, the year before Mr. Morales took office.

Though there is still much misery, the economic transformation is widely visible, in thriving urban markets or in the new tractors tilling land where farm animals pulled plows not long ago. In El Alto, a working-class city perched above the capital, the newly wealthy flaunt their success in the form of brightly coloured mansions. Another recent addition: the proliferation of bakeries selling elaborate cakes, a sign that even those of more modest means have extra cash to spend.

One of the most surprising developments is the way that Bolivia has amassed foreign currency, salting away a rainy-day fund of about $14 billion, equal to more than half of its gross domestic product, or 17 months of imports, that can help it get through economic hard times. According to the monetary fund, Bolivia has the highest ratio in the world of international reserves to the size of its economy, having recently surpassed China in that regard.

“We are showing the entire world that you can have socialist policies with macroeconomic equilibrium,” said Economy and Finance Minister Luis Arce. “Everything we are going to do is directed at benefiting the poor. But you have to do it applying economic science.”

The country is doing well thanks to relatively high prices for natural gas — its most important export — during Mr. Morales’s presidency. That enabled Mr. Morales to order in November that all government and many private sector workers get double the customary year-end bonus of a full month’s salary. It was a populist move that critics linked to the coming election season — Mr. Morales will run for a new term in October. But it is consistent with a broader effort to redistribute wealth and direct some of the country’s natural gas income directly into people’s pockets.

Bolivia’s turnaround is noteworthy because for many years the country was a proving ground for the kind of orthodox, free market policies long promoted by the monetary fund and other international institutions. Grappling with a host of economic problems, including hyperinflation that reached 24,000 percent in 1985, the government cut spending, eliminated fuel subsidies, partially privatized government-owned companies and fired many workers.

Critics say that while those policies tamed inflation, they also did long-term damage, exacerbating the unequal distribution of wealth, pushing newly out-of-work miners and farmers into coca farming that increased cocaine production, and ultimately contributing to the social unrest that helped usher in Mr. Morales as president.

“The Morales administration has basically cast off the recommendations of the I.M.F. and other huge international lending organizations, and for the first time, during his tenure, you see those macroeconomic indicators improve significantly, which finally gains the approval of organizations like the I.M.F.,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a research group based in Bolivia.

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