Bingo comes to Bolivia, by way of Russia - Monday 9th of February 2009

As Washington watches its influence wane in Latin America, Russia is picking up the slack, with military exercises and arms deals in Venezuela, billion-dollar gas pipelines across the continent, and now, casinos in Bolivia.

But Bolivian authorities are worried that foreign-run gambling is far from a boon for the country. Russian-owned Ritzio Entertainment Group is a key player, also operating Bolivias Bingo Bahiti clubs, best known for both electronic and live bingo, the same game played across the United States.

While bingo in the United States is generally associated with grandparents and retirees, in Bolivia its catching on with young people.

Diego Castro, 22, is a computer science major. He first started coming to the Egyptian-themed Bingo Bahiti flagship in Santa Cruz for drinks with friends from his university.

Now I come on my own, and I only order water so I can focus on the bingo, Castro said. Like many his age, Castro now favors casinos over bars or parties for socializing.

Ritzio is the largest of the Russian-owned casinos that have turned up in Bolivia over the past five years, as former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin cracked down on gambling.

LAWS TIGHTEN

Three years ago, a law passed in Russia declared that gambling would be barred from cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg by 2009, and restricted to four remote regions: Kalingrad, Primorye, Altai and Rostov-Krasnodar.

Two years ago, Ritzio earned about $1.6 billion in revenue from its gambling operations and began expanding abroad. In Latin America, it now operates clubs in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

According to Bingo Bahiti, the chain earns about $2.5 million a year in Bolivia; the government office that regulates casinos declined to discuss revenue or earnings.

When Bahiti started in Bolivia, there were just a couple of small casinos in the cities of La Paz and Santa Cruz.

TALE OF TWO CITIES

Today the chain is the largest in Bolivia, with 15 gaming halls. There are locales even in remote areas of the Amazon, and two mega-casinos are set to open in this year in the cities of El Alto and Santa Cruz.

No two Bolivian cities could be more distinct; impoverished El Alto -- a city of Aymara immigrants built in the cold, high-altitude plains -- cuts a sharp contrast to tropical Santa Cruz, the heart of Bolivias relatively prosperous eastern lowlands.

The fact that were simultaneously opening big clubs in two such different places really shows the universal appeal of Bahiti, said Jose María Peñaranda, president of Bingo Bahiti in Bolivia. He says Bahiti is for all ages: Families often come to enjoy lunch at the casino restaurants, and teenage girls often use Bingo Bahiti to hold their elaborate quinceañeras, a Latin American party that is a cross between a sweet 16 and a debutante ball, celebrating a young womans 15th birthday.

Yet officials like Carlos Bruno of the National Lottery pointed out that most of Bolivias nine million inhabitants live below the poverty line, and he wonders why international gambling businesses are interested in what he sees as a limited market.

People have been coming here and setting up gambling establishments in curious places, including small towns in the middle of nowhere. And foreigners just keep opening gambling businesses. Were concerned, Bruno said.

Bruno said he is especially worried about money laundering. He says that funds from narcotrafficking and from the bingo halls are being funneled through Santa Cruz, a city of nearly two million that until several decades ago was nothing more than a jungle backwater. But he said that current privacy laws make it difficult to expose wrongdoing.

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