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Home » Geopolitics, Latin America

Tiny …. Bolivia?

Submitted by on February 21, 2014 – 8:08 am 7 Comments |  
Tiny BoliviaOne of my pet peeves is the journalistic use of the term “tiny” to refer to sizable but generally ignored countries. In my book, to be considered “tiny” a country must be small indeed, something on the order of Malta (316 sq. km or 122 square miles) or perhaps Luxembourg (2,586.4 sq. km or 999 square miles). (For countries smaller still, such as Liechtenstein [160 sq. km, or 62 square miles] or especially Monaco [2.02 sq. km or 0.78 square miles], I would be inclined to use a different term, such as “exiguous.”). Many journalists, however, use the term “tiny” for vastly larger states. On February 16, 2014, I came across the most extreme form of such adjectival stretching that I have ever encountered in a New York Times article entitled, “Turnabout in Bolivia as Economy Rises From Instability.” The offending passage runs as follows:

Tucked away in the shadow of its more populous and more prosperous neighbors, tiny, impoverished Bolivia, once a perennial economic basket case, has suddenly become a different kind of exception — this time in a good way.

Tiny Bolivia? Bolivia, with its 1,098,581 sq. km (424,165 square miles), easily makes the list of the world’s 30 largest countries, with an area roughly three times that of Germany and four times that of the United Kingdom. By any reasonable criteria, Bolivia is a large country.

It might be objected that the New York Times was referring to the population of Bolivia, not its area. But when such size terms as “tiny” are used for geopolitical units, the reference is generally assumed to be area and not population: would anyone, for example, call Alaska a “tiny state” owing to the fact that it has the fourth smallest population (731,000) in the United States, which is roughly one fifteenth that of Bolivia? I very much doubt it. But more to the point, Bolivia’s population, some 10 million strong, can hardly be considered “tiny,” as it outranks those of more than half of the world’s sovereign states. Nor is the population of Bolivia particularly small in contrast to those of its neighbors, excepting Brazil. Chile (16.6 million) is in the same general league, as is smaller Paraguay (6.8 million). In economic terms, moreover, Bolivia and Paraguay also fall into the same general category, with per capita GDP (PPP) figures of $5,000 and $6,100 respectively. (One can also object to the assertion that Bolivia was until recently “a perennial economic basket case,” but that brings up a different issue altogether.)

I suspect that the term “tiny” in this circumstance means something unrelated to size. It refers rather to perceptions of importance. It sometimes seems that in the minds of the journalistic elite, countries with relatively small economies such Bolivia are considered insignificant and hence ignorable so long as they pose no direct threats to the world’s “non-tiny” economic powers. What is more disturbing is the fact that even major events in vastly more economically important countries are often by-passed or downplayed by the mainstream media, as highlighted by an incisive recent post in Caracas Chronicles. As the author concludes,

The level of disengagement on display is deeply shocking. Venezuela’s domestic media blackout is joined by a parallel international blackout, one born not of censorship but of disinterest and inertia. It’s hard to express the sense of helplessness you get looking through these pages and finding nothing. Venezuela burns; nobody cares.

Today’s New York Times does cover the unrest in Venezuela, but it relegates the story to the fourth page.


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  • SirBedevere

    Actually, I have heard Wyoming referred to as tiny in a discussion that took place years ago in either Connecticut or Massachusetts. While Bolivia might not be tiny on any of those equal area maps, it is on most of the cartograms you were posting a few months ago. Many geographers (among whom I would include nobody connected with this site) seem to have a bizarre obsession with dirt. How many times have we been told how iniquitous it is to use a map that does not show countries with proportionate land areas? I am far more concerned that people get a sense of populations and economic importance. Chad has, I think, a much larger land area than Nigeria, but what happens in Nigeria I find much more important, since it has by far the largest population in Africa and an economy surpassed only by South Africa’s, as I recall. Quite honestly, while events in any part of the world should concern an American voter, I do not really follow Bolivia very closely. Both because of population and economics, though, any American who ignores Venezuela is a fool.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I agree with you, James, that Bolivia’s importance in the grand schema of things is debatable, but that’s the point: the word “tiny” refers to size and size alone, and here the author of the New York Times article was simply wrong (due most likely to ignorance)… Something that needs to be corrected! And yes, Venezuela is a mess and an important one.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      I agree that population is more significant overall than land area, and that Nigeria therefore deserves somewhat more attention than Chad. But size in land area does matter as well, and all parts of the world deserve some consideration.

      I would not have been bothered if the author of the article in question had written something on the lines of, “Bolivia, with its relatively small population and economy…”

  • noornaj

    I agree with the author. A journalist should not tinge their reporting with this kind of bias. To imply that a people and their nation are insignificant based upon their relative importance to America is a disservice. If we only read and learn about things that are strategically important right now, we’ll be ignorant of most things. What happens when things change and a place that had no strategic value suddenly is strategically important? Every place is important and significant to someone. You are free to skip over an article on Bolivia in favor of something else but the author who took the assignment and the paper that published it should provide the news as dispassionately as humanly possible. When they fail to do so they are not living up to their responsibilities..

    • Asya Pereltsvaig


  • Peter Rosa

    As far as most Americans are concerned, the only countries that matter are Islamic ones, because we’re deathly afraid of Muslims.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      And yet few Americans know that Indonesia is the largest Muslim country!