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Poverty Confronts Presidential Candidates in Guinea-Bissau


Voters in Guinea-Bissau go to the polls Sunday to choose a new president. Economic growth and security dominate politics in one of the world's poorest countries.

In the eastern city, Gabu, an old man pushes a wheelbarrow of used shoes past the terrace of a once-grand home built by Portuguese colonialists. The windows are gone. A broken bicycle leans against the front steps. Local health workers use the foyer to teach malaria prevention.

Of 178 populations measured by the United Nations, only Liberians, Burundians, and citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo are poorer than the people of Guinea-Bissau.

Life expectancy here is 46. Electricity is available a few hours a day in the capital, where there is still no central trash collection.

Slightly more than 40 percent of people have access to clean drinking water. Each rainy season brings another cholera outbreak. Last year's killed more than 200 people.

A secondary school teacher in Gabu says something has got to change.

He says the people of Guinea-Bissau cannot continue like this. Although he has not yet decided who to vote for, he says the people need a president who is a good person, who can develop the country and bring peace.

This is a vote to replace long-time President Joao Bernardo Vieria, who was killed by mutinous soldiers in March, hours after his chief political rival died in a bomb blast.

Instability in a country with a history of army mutinies and coups is made worse by Latin American drug gangs using remote airstrips to smuggle cocaine to Europe. Just 12 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys finish primary school in Guinea-Bissau, so cocaine trafficking is an easy source of work for uneducated youth.

Silvia Luciani represents the United Nations Children's Fund in Bissau.

"There are no jobs here," Luciani said. "There are no jobs because, with the continued instability, there are very few companies that are willing to invest in Guinea-Bissau, although there is potential. So the issue of drug trafficking really is a risk for young people because young people can get involved in this drug trafficking just because they are looking for opportunities. It is an easy source of money."

And, there are few easy sources of money in a country without facilities to process its major cash crop - cashews. That means traders buy on spot markets, knowing the nuts will spoil if sellers hold out for a higher price. A kilo of cashews last year earned growers about 35 cents. Now it is worth just 20 cents.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been more active in Guinea-Bissau since 2008. But most foreign investors are awaiting the outcome of this election to determine the stability of doing business here.

The U.N. Development Program's Vladimir Montiero says Sunday's vote is a chance to restart the process of economic development.

"When you have instability, the donors just run away and invest somewhere else," Montiero said. "You have other neighboring countries where the situation is stabilized. These elections, if they bring, and we hope that it will that, if they bring stability, the investors will come and they will take advantage of the resources Guinea-Bissau has."

In addition to cashews, there are rice and raw materials, including bauxite in Guinea-Bissau.

The Angola-Bauxite Company says it is investing more than $280 million to build roads and a deep-water port 300 kilometers south of the capital.

National Electoral Commission President Desejado Lima Da Costa says Sunday's vote could make Guinea-Bissau an example for the sub-region.

Da Costa says this is a decisive election that could relaunch the nation's economy. Although no vote can resolve all of the problems confronting the country, he says it is an important step toward establishing stability.

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