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Jewish World Review March 25, 2002 / 12 Nisan, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

The American President and the Peruvian Shoeshine Boys | Something tells me President Bush didn't bump into my friend Walter the shoeshine boy in Peru last weekend.

It's too bad. Walter lives somewhere within the vast sprawl of Lima, a surprisingly modern Third World city of 8 million mostly poor people who inhabit a seamless mix of dangerous shantytowns and solid middle-class neighborhoods.

Every day Walter shows up to work on the busy sidewalks of the up-market tourist district of Miraflores, which is where the President and his thick blanket of security slept Saturday night on their fabulous Latin American goodwill tour.

Walter is 14. When I encountered him last fall he told me he is the oldest of many brothers and sisters. Persistent as a street preacher, he wears a baseball cap and is armed only with a few words of English and a home-made wooden shoeshine box over his shoulder.

Walter's never set foot inside the lobby of the J. W. Marriott Hotel and Stellaris Casino, where Bush et al. stayed. And with terrorist car bombs going off in Lima for the first time in years, the bustling, store-lined streets of Miraflores were swept clean of Walter and his compadres long before the President arrived.

President Bush, the first sitting U.S. President to visit Peru, saw little of the Lima Walter knows. Saturday he met in a suitably plush Spanish Colonial palace with Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo and other Andean leaders, and then was whisked around town in an armored limo.

From the windows of his presidential suite at the Marriott, Lima looked like Los Angeles or even Santa Monica, not a teeming, noisy, crazy, humming metropolis.

The Marriott is perched on a cliff high above the gray, polluted Pacific. During lunch, a harpist plinks away in one of its restaurants. Across the street, clinging in tiers to the steep hill side, is Lima's trendiest mini-mall. Its tenants include expensive alpaca sweater shops, Subway and Planet Hollywood.

If President Bush had really wanted to see what Lima was like, or merely practice his street Spanish, he should have done something brave and crazily unpresidential Sunday morning. He should have gotten up early and sneaked off alone for a long walk along Avenue Jose Larca.

If he did, Walter probably would have found him quickly. Norte Americanos are like 747s on his tourist radar. He would have spotted the boss of the Free World a block away and hounded him until he agreed to let him whiten-up his walking shoes for the going rate - five soles ($1.35).

After bonding with Walter, what if the Prez took a quick tour of the city visiting dignitaries never see? The pair could have hailed one of Lima's ubiquitous, traffic-law-defying cabs and visited one of Lima's gray, gritty and ungoverned slums, which spring forth spontaneously, illegally and ever-hopefully - brick by brick, room by tin-roofed room -- on unpaved streets.

Then the President and the shoe-shine boy could have visited the mad, commercial frenzy of central Lima's shopping district. There the President would have beheld a frightening sight, even for a pretend free-market capitalist: hundreds of storefronts and miles of sidewalks jammed with people buying and selling everything from batteries and Toyota floor mats to cooked turkey, watches and U.S. currency.

On the sidewalk in front of Peru's Congress, the President could have met the man who weighs people on a bathroom scale for 10 centavos - about 3 U.S. pennies. Like the rest of his 27 million countrymen, the old Peruvian has figured out a way to eke out a living in a nation where public welfare as-we-know-it does not exist.

If the President wanted some intellectual stimulation and an optimistic view of Peru's economic future before he left town, he should have buzzed over to the Institute for Liberty and Democracy, the free-market think-tank run by Hernando De Soto.

De Soto, the brilliant defender and student of Lima's so-called "informal" or underground economy, believes Walter and Lima's 300,000 other virtually unregulated sidewalk capitalists are the best long-term hope for turning Peru into a healthy, wealthy First World country.

De Soto is no ivory-tower dreamer. He has studied Third World economies in depth and urged Peru's presidents to privatize the railroads and free-up some of their country's still too socialized economy from top to bottom. He could probably have given President Bush some sound advice along those same lines, or perhaps just loaned him a copy of his best-selling book, "The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else."

In the real world, of course, President Bush never got a chance to experience even a second of Walter's Lima. He arrived and departed in the usual gust of pomp and media circumstance. But there is someone President Bush did see a lot of last weekend who could tell him what Lima's wild streets and sidewalks were really like - Peru's President Toledo.

Toledo is no raving apostle of the free market. And he is not the kind of enlightened leader De Soto says Peru desperately needs. But long ago, when he was seven and very poor, and long before he went off to Stanford to become an economist, Toledo - like little Walter -- was a shoeshine boy.

JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald