- Associated Press - Friday, December 10, 2010

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Bolivia enacted a law Friday lowering the country’s retirement age to 58, bucking a global trend in which countries push people to work longer due to rising life expectancies and strained national treasuries.

Critics say the law, which also nationalizes the pension system and expands coverage, is overambitious and unsustainable.

President Evo Morales signed the legislation surrounded by members of the Bolivian workers federation, a group comprising 50 workers organizations and thousands of members that helped him put together the law. It takes effect in a year.

The current retirement age in Bolivia is 65 for men and 60 for women.

The law also extends pensions to the 3 million people — 60 percent of the working population — who labor in the informal economy in everything from street vending to bus driving.

“We are fulfilling a promise with the Bolivian people. We are creating a pension system that includes everyone,” Mr. Morales said at the signing ceremony.

“It is a historic day,” said transportation union leader Franklin Duran, “because never until this moment have we been taken into consideration … We have always had to live by our own means.”

The new law will allow Bolivia’s 70,000 miners to retire two years earlier — or as soon as age 51 if they have worked in life-sapping conditions deep underground. Mothers with more than three children will also get special treatment: the right to retire at age 55.

“Evo Morales thinks about the poor people, so they can have something for when they get old,” said Juan Quispe, 45, a father of three without a pension who sells ice cream on the street outside the National Palace.

Mr. Morales, an Aymara Indian and the country’s first indigenous president, grew up a dirt-poor llama herder and later went on to become a coca-growers’ union militant.

The socialism he preaches is rooted in the communitarianism of his native culture. Since taking office in 2006, he has put this landlocked Andean nation’s natural gas reserves, main phone carrier and electrical grid under state control.

But critics say the new law could hurt the economy.

Jacob Funk Kierkegaard, an economist at the Peterson Institute in Washington, says he knows of no other country lowering its retirement age at a time when higher life expectancy is burdening national budgets with pension obligations.

“I would say that they are setting themselves up for a train wreck down the road,” he said in a telephone interview. “That they should be willfully going down this road strikes me as very, very short-sighted.”

Other countries are moving in the opposition direction. France has led the charge to raise the minimum retirement age in Europe, increasing it last month to 62, with full benefits not available until age 67. Even socialist Cuba has raised its retirement ages from 60 to 65 for men, and from 55 to 60 for women.

Bolivian Deputy Pensions Minister Mario Guillen says Bolivia cannot be compared with the rest of the world, however.

“A lot of Bolivian workers perform jobs that are eminently physical, not intellectual, and this means that at age 55 they don’t have the ability anymore to keep working,” he told the Associated Press. “Yet we made them continue.”

Bolivia’s average life expectancy is 65 years for women and 62 years for men. The global average is 66.

In addition, Mr. Guillen said, the conditions that are spurring European governments to raise the retirement age — more elderly people and falling birth rates — don’t exist in this country of 10 million, where per capita annual gross national income was $1,620 in 2008.

Lowering the retirement age had long been a priority for the labor federation, a strong backer of Mr. Morales.

Bolivia’s business community is not pleased, however.

The president of the country’s Federation of Private Businessmen, Daniel Sanchez, called the new law unsustainable and complained that his group was never consulted on it.

The law’s most contentious features are the return of pension funds to state control and their extension to informal workers.

“The government is preparing a banquet for 300,000 people, but inviting 3 million to partake,” said pensions expert Alberto Bonadona. “It will collapse.”

Thirteen years ago, Bolivia privatized pension funds after a state-run system collapsed under a cloud of mismanagement and theft.

Currently, Bolivia’s two pension funds, covering 1.2 million private- and public-sector workers, are privately run by Zurich Financial Services and the BBVA bank. Together, they administer $4.5 billion.

Bajak reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press writer Carlos Valdez in La Paz contributed to this report.

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