Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Looking for Change

On the ground in Santa Cruz de la Sierra the lure of global capitalism is alive and well in this urban center. Described as the most western city in all of Bolivia, its location in the most prosperous region of the country is easily felt. Walking the streets surrounding the city center of the Plaza 24th de Septiembre, one may not sense that they are in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. A number of stores feature designer clothing, consumer electronics and the cafes are filled with young people surfing the internet or sipping "los bebidas".

Besides the indigenous street vendors selling food, newspapers and small trinkets, the most curious individuals parading around the plaza are the money changers – men who walk along the square with wads of Bolivianos in their palms offering ¨"el cambio". Almost as soon as one enters the immediate perimeter of the plaza, the money changers approach, showing their stack of money, often bound with a simple rubber band. They provide the convenience of swapping euros and dollars into the local currency, but at a rate much lower than one will find just a few steps away at any number of money shops or banks surrounding the heart of the city.

At the larger banks, men dressed in military green complete with boots and automatic weapons stand guard at bank entrances and automated teller machines during operating hours. Around the plaza, the presence of money changers as well as a myriad of currency centers and banks indicate that money from the United States and Europe is encouraged and vital to the economy of Santa Cruz.

Clothing stores, with names like Manhattan and I Love New York feature European and American designer clothing with the prices listed only in dollars. Although outside of the main square, the purchase of a bottle of water or piece of bread may leave the vendor asking other customers if they have enough money to offer change in the local currency, Bolivianos.