On Adam Smith and Coca Tea

05/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There aren't many places in the world where one can buy Nintendo Wiis, dried llama fetuses and bananas by the ton, but La Cancha is one of them. A series of interconnecting outdoor markets, stands, tiendas and shopping malls that stretches over nearly a hundred square blocks in the heart of Cochabamba, La Cancha is both the city's bustling commercial center and a physical manifestation of Bolivia's economy, encapsulating both its strengths and weaknesses.

My first visit to La Cancha was an overwhelmingly mix of sights, smells, sounds and jabbed elbows. Crossing Calle Aroma, the traditional northern border of the market, there is a veritable assault of vendors vending from above and below, from left and right, from the streets, sidewalks and storefronts. The sheer variety of products makes Wal-Mart look like a provincial corner store: flat-screen televisions and empanadas, coca leaves and Nike cleats, Levi jeans, hand-made jewelry and imported French colognes. The market is chaotically well-organized; there's no map or guide to the endless labyrinth, but Cochabambinos can steer helpless gringos to rows of belts, wholesale fruits, electronics, kitchenware, and artisan goods (a mortal tourist trap).

The market's physical form reflects a hierarchy of income: at the higher financial end, individuals sell their wares from rented or owned shops; outside these stores, salesmen and women rent street and market stalls, while circling around them others set up shop on corners and on the edges of sidewalk; finally, thousands more ambulate, selling from wheelbarrows and baskets. These layers also represent a chronological progression - the market has slowly grown over the preceding decades, expanding both in territory and in density as the region's population has swelled and as more and more of the economy has moved to the streets.

Not all of Cochabamba exhibits the same frenzied economic activity; in fact, in the city as a whole, there is a far more relaxed attitude towards commerce than one would find in any Western country. On any given street, three or four out of every ten stores may be closed - because the owners are on vacation, because business is slow, because no one has yet arrived to open it. As in many other Spanish-speaking countries, lunch is the primary meal of the day, and many businesses close from 12:00 to 3 to allow their employees to return home to eat. This holds not only for small family corner stores but for large banks, cell phone distributors and government offices. Hours are not only endlessly variable but invariably unposted. In the same vein, customer service could not be described as highly prized - there is an underlying assumption that the stores are providing a service by being open for business in the first place. Because chain stores are rare and most operations are family-owned and independent, there is an unpredictability and informality to business that - for better or worse - is rare in the ever-orderly commerce of the United States.

But things are different on the south side of Calle Aroma. There, stalls open bright and early Monday through Saturday, and lunch is taken on the job. Each and every vendor is eager for your business - because if they don't get you, the competitors on either side, in front and behind surely will. The intensity of competition gives new meaning to the term marketplace - in the central clothing region, there are at least two hundred stalls selling virtually identical selections of jeans; the laws of supply and demand unfold in real time. Capitalism sparks in the air from the sheer energy exerted to make sales and turn a profit.

The products on display, meanwhile, speak to Bolivia's integration into an ever-more global economy. Tens of thousands of pirated DVDs go for a few bolivianos a piece. [Even more appealing than the prices are the astonishing provenances of the movies - a recently purchased copy of Inglourious Basterds was dubbed from French to Spanish, filmed inside a movie theater using Russian subtitles.]

Next to the DVDs are ripped software packages - a program as expensive as Microsoft Suite goes for less than $2. Shampoos, cell phones, vacuums, cameras, mugs, backpacks, pencils and polo shirts all bear the stamp of intercontinental commerce. Meanwhile, imported used t-shirts, button-downs and trucker-hats from the US fill street after street, dressing lower-income Bolivians in bizarrely retro outfits ("Give Hugs not Drugs," reads my local fruit-seller's baseball cap). Nowhere is the turbo global-consumption more evident than in the sneaker neighborhood, where Puma and Nike battle it out with Adidas and Reebok, all competing against identical Chinese knock-offs in every imaginable shape, size, color and quality. Never could I have imagined that were so many varieties of shoe-wear in all the world.

Yet despite the tremendous range of goods -- and the cornucopia of sneakers -- La Cancha bears little relation to modern malls. It is a unique hybrid of traditional Bolivian commerce and modern capitalism, of dead baby farm animals and Nintendo gaming systems; it is a collision of worlds. Unlike other more traditional businesses in Cochabamba, La Cancha is always open and the customer is almost always right. But as in traditional Bolivian towns, Wednesdays and Saturdays remain Market Days, when the already crowded streets are flooded with more goods, products and peoples. When it storms, the streets are literally flooded, washing the debris of twenty thousand people along the ankles of buyers and sellers alike. Imported home theaters go for $5,000 while home-grown bananas sell seis por un peso (42 bananas for $1 US). Cactus fruit fight for space with the latest Abercrombie & Fitch designs. The rich come for computers and the poor for rice.

It is this collision that makes La Cancha such an accurate microcosm of the Bolivian economy. Like any market, it is a site of commerce and competition. Money is exchanged, profits earned, goods distributed. Bolivia's economy functions like any other Western economy in this regard, providing for consumer freedom and protecting private property. But capitalism requires much more than free exchange - it requires the aggregation and investment of capital. It is here that Bolivia lags behind. Virtually all electronics, heavy machinery, luxury goods and processed foods sold in La Cancha are produced in foreign countries, and the real profits from their sales return home. There is no industrial base in Bolivia, nor any domestic demand - given the globally enforced trade liberalization policies - to stimulate one. Without that industry, without organic economic growth, there is a sharp disparity between the goods for sale and the conditions in which they're sold, between the dollar-priced electronics and Boliviano-priced vegetables, between the luxuries of the upper-class and the necessities of the lower. While La Cancha has received the goods and absorbed the forms that constitute Western commerce, Bolivia still lacks the economic content that would truly drive growth.