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99 Luftballons

South America has had and continues to have a legacy of presidents who are in it for themselves. Hugo Chavez died with a net worth of $1 billion while the people of Venezuela starved.

Just last week two nephews of Hugo’s successor, President Maduro, were arrested in Haiti trying to smuggle one ton of cocaine into the US using diplomatic immunity.  

One of president Maduro’s friends and close allies is the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, who People magazine declared to be the highest paid politician in the world pulling in $58 million last year – with a net worth hovering around $185 million. Not bad when you consider the minimum wage of Bolivia last year was $240 a month ($2,880 a year).  

You can imagine that with such overwhelming income potential, it’s safe to say all members of the family contribute… Before I go on, I’m not saying putting kids in labor camps 7 days a week, 15 hours a day is the answer. I’m saying allow kids to work before and/or after school to make a few bucks to help the family. Nothing as romantic as the paper route I had when I was 12-14, but a job sweeping out a bus or shining a shoe is part of the culture in South America.  

In 1999, President Morales drafted a bill that would make it illegal for kids ages 5-14 to work. Much to Evo’s surprise, this triggered violent demonstrations from the children who wanted to work. In 2014, the bill “Code of Children and Adolescents” was changed to allow kids as young as 10 to work independently (sweeping buses, shining shoes, etc..) as long as they attended 2 hours of school per day and didn’t work after 10 p.m.

President Morales is buddy buddy with the current president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa. Correa is not as much of a nut job as past Ecuadorian President Abdala Bucaram, who was elected in 1996 and known as “El Loco” (“The Madman”), a nickname he used to refer to himself.  

Among Bucaram’s great accomplishments during his 6 months as president:

-He danced on stage with young girls to celebrate his presidential victory.

-He released his album “A Madman in Love”, while in office and handed it out to other presidents.

-He put his 18-year-old son in charge of the Ecuadorian customs office, where in only 5 months he made his first million dollars.

-He had a presidential banquet in honor of Lorena Bobbitt. Yep, the one and only.

-He bankrupted the country forcing it to adopt the US Dollar as currency.

Rafael Correa is a bit different in that he is currently serving his 3rd term as president, mostly because of the $50 stipend he gives to the poor people of Ecuador, whose monthly income hovers around $300 a month. Correa provided that $50 stipend with all the oil money Ecuador WAS making, but with oil down around $45 a barrel there is no more money to pay for the people’s “loyalty,” and his popularity isn’t as high as it once was.  He too, has done a few, less than presidential things recently:

-2 weeks ago, when compared to Hitler, he tweeted in response, “Heil Hitler!”

-Last week when a lawmaker opposed him, Rafael challenged him to a fight, mano-a-mano, saying he (Rafael) was ready “to defend the country with my fists and my life.”

-He has threatened to put political cartoonists in jail for mocking him, charging them with terrorism. This would include HBO’s John Oliver who recently gave him a ribbing.

-Recently, in the middle of a police revolt, Correa ripped open his shirt to expose his bare chest, daring somebody to take a shot.

-I could go on, but will stop with this epic event. He stopped his motorcade to berate a teenager who flipped him the bird from the sidewalk, and punished the kid with 20 hours of community service. Ironic since he made it illegal for kids to work, which brings me to the point…

As mentioned above, Ecuadorians on minimum wage make about $300 a month. From the families I’ve had the chance to work with and help, family sizes range between 5-9 kids – mothers in their 30s. The goal of the Working Boys’ Center, where we are currently volunteering, is to help these families achieve economic freedom and give them the training they need to acquire high paying jobs ($900 a month), while also teaching them how to save money to buy a house or business. The Centre feeds 600 people, 3 meals per day, all of which is free to them so they can save their money to achieve financial freedom. The cost to do this is less than $5 per person per day.

With 5-9 kids, it helps the family out a great deal if the kids can work – shining shoes, sweeping buses. Anything to help the family. There are not enough schools in Quito for all the kids, so there is a morning school for half the kids and afternoon school for the other half, so during that time off the kids could work, and they want to work.

However, it appears that Rafael and Morales like to implement the same laws, no matter how crazy. For example, in 2008, Ecuador passed a constitutional amendment that recognized “Mother Nature” as a legal entity. In 2011, Bolivia did the same thing, meaning this non-human deity has more legal recognition than, say, the Basques, Kurds and/or the Tamil.

Last year president Rafael decided to follow in Morales’ foot steps and made it so that kids under 15 in Ecuador can no longer work. Only there were no protests from the Ecuadorians – probably because they are the nicest people on Earth. As someone recently told me, “no child would ever be homeless in Ecuador, the poorest of the poor would take in a child before allowing them to be homeless.” Rafael also made it illegal for kids to learn a trade until the age of 15, which is the age most stop going to school and start making families.  

This brings me back to The Working Boys’ Centre. The Centre decided to create “clubs” that the kids can join for free if they so choose – wood shop club, welding club, auto-mechanics, club, industrial sewing club, economics club etc. These “clubs” were created in light of the new laws, which prevent kids from “working” a trade during the day when they should be at school. Before coming to the Centre, kids would sell candy, shine shoes or sing on buses and made approximately $20-$40 per month to help their family. But now, they are prevented from assisting their families. Going to school and learning a trade so that they can graduate and get a good paying job is the best solution.

However, we still have the issue of the kids under 14, who in the past were seen shining shoes throughout the streets of Quito, making money to help support their families, which is now illegal. So these kids are left to beg, which apparently is unwanted, but perfectly legal.

Yesterday, a bunch of important politicians came to the Centre to pat each other on the back for being so awesome. They all pulled up in their fancy cars, parked them in the dirt soccer field, where the kids play, to come and see the good work being done at the Centre and release balloons to eradicate child begging.  

The irony was thick. The first thing they did was ask for free labor from the Centre, after all who was going to “serve” them their coffee and breakfast. The Centre declined. Then they requested to see the tech programs, the ones that are “illegal” for kids under 15 to be in, so they can see first hand, and no doubt give themselves credit for, the successful tech program…er I mean clubs here at the Centre.  

When I say successful tech program, I mean that with all due respect to the man who started the program. His name is Marco Polo and he has been here for 30 years. His program has been awarded the best technical school in the nation in 1997 and 2002.

So at last, there was a balloon release; and just like that, hundreds of kids suddenly looked up in the sky and stopped begging, thanks to the miracle we call helium.


In other news, dozens of speckled bears have been found dead along with hundreds of sea turtles washed up on shores, all dying from a diet of deflated balloons.

Of course, the reality is all this is so insignificant. Today I heard Khloe Kardashian contracted a serious staph infection and it’s so bad she’s had to cancel a portion of her book tour. The people of Ecuador stand with you Khloe.


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