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Bolivia: The Rise of Evo Morales

Evo Morales Aima

Evo Morales, former coca grower and Aymara leader, surprised Bolivia's political elite by winning 53.7 percent of the vote in the December 2005 elections.

I live in downtown La Paz, about 10 minutes away from the government palace. In the last couple of years, I've watched history unfold just outside my window.

I've seen tens of thousands of Aymara Indians from nearby shantytowns and peasants from remote corners of Bolivia marching into the city. They come bearing sticks and colorful flags and some of them are armed with dynamite. They demand everything from presidential resignations to rollbacks of tax increases on the poor to the nationalization of oil and gas reserves. I've watched violent clashes between protestors and government troops and seen my country on the verge of a civil war.

In the October 2003 uprisings against former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, more than 60 people died. And in summer 2005, street protests forced then president Carlos Mesa to resign.

Bolivia's social movements have gained power. They have taken down two presidents in the last two years, and now they have elected one of their own.

Forty-six-year-old Evo Morales Aima, former coca grower and Aymara leader, surprised Bolivia's political elite by winning 53.7 percent of the vote on December 18, easily defeating U.S. educated Jorge Tuto Quiroga. As Washington, D.C., sees it, Morales's victory is part of an unwelcome shift to the left in Latin American politics. But for Bolivians, especially for the majority of poor Indians, Bolivia's first indigenous president represents hope for real change.

Evo Morales at campaign closing event

Evo Morales and his vice-presidential running mate, Alvaro Garcia Linera, together on stage at the closing night of their campaign in La Paz.

I followed Morales during the last few weeks of his election campaign. Sometimes it seemed unreal that a man who wore the same pair of blue Nike sneakers regardless of the occasion was drawing so much attention and could be Bolivia's next president. The Indian activist from humble beginnings was now surrounded by hordes of international reporters from Reuters, AFP, AP, CNN, Fox, and BBC. Morales jokingly called us "paparazzi," but the night before the election, he took me aside and asked, "Do you know what the word 'paparazzi' really means?"

Morales waited for the election results at his home city of Cochabamba, set in the high valleys between the Andes and the Amazon. "It looked like any regular family gathering," said my friend Rodrigo Penaloza, who was there. "Food on the table, soda drinks, meat and potatoes. People ate from common plates in the traditional aptapi style of the Andes." He said that after television estimates projected a Morales win, "neighbors walked in freely to congratulate Evo, and his cell phone began ringing nonstop."

"One of the first calls came from Venezuela," Penalosa said. "It was President Hugo Chavez himself." Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, also called personally to congratulate him, and representatives phoned from Cuba and Brazil on behalf of Fidel Castro and Lula da Silva.

One of the most controversial issues behind the Morales campaign has been its support for the legal production of coca leaf, Bolivia's principal crop, and one the United States is trying to eradicate.

I waited for Morales with thousands of others on Bush Square in Cochabamba. People held whipala (the Quechan and Aymaran word for "banner") flags, danced and sang in celebration of Morales's victory, and let out a massive cheer when he arrived. Morales began his political career as a leader of the Federation of Coca Growers. His union supporters were out in force for Morales's first public appearance since victory was declared. He delivered an emotional speech.

Rally for Evo Morales Aima

The grassroots movement behind Morales is demanding nationalization of Bolivia's resources, particularly natural gas, and greater opportunity for the country's impoverished majority.

"This leaf," Morales said, holding a coca leaf in his hands, "gave birth to this political instrument," referring to his party, Movement Toward Socialism, also known as MAS.

Morales told the crowd that efforts by the U.S. to eradicate coca crops was "merely an excuse to build [U.S.] military bases and justify the [foreign] military presence in our country, and said the program "has not proved to be effective."

He also stressed that he does not want to have a country where drug production runs rampant.

Morales plans to fight drug trafficking, including instituting a "zero tolerance" cocaine program. His proposed program will start with an in-depth study to determine how much of the current crop is used for traditional medical and religious purposes and how much is used in the manufacture of cocaine. He says he will only allow coca leaf production for legal uses.

For thousands of years Aymara and Quechua Indians have used the leaves legally for medicinal and sacred purposes. These traditional uses don't involve any chemical processing, and the coca leaf, which is commonly chewed, is not considered a drug. The production of cocaine, largely for export, requires vast numbers of coca leaves and extensive chemical treatment.

"The U.S. should be equally responsible for diminishing the cocaine market within the United States as it is in fighting the drug elsewhere," Morales continued. He offered to work with the United States on alternative drug prevention programs, but added, "It would have to be a relationship of mutual respect and not of submission."

Rioters and Street Fires in Bolivia

In 2003, Bolivians took to the streets of La Paz and set fire to government buildings in what became known as the "Black February" riots.

The issue of respect is central to the social movement that carried Morales to power. Seventy percent of Bolivia's population is indigenous and poor. Since the Spanish colonial conquest, they have been exploited and oppressed. Until 1952, indigenous people were not even allowed to vote. The agrarian revolution of the early 1950s took land from the rich landlords and gave it back to the indigenes, along with the right to vote. But that revolution didn't change the power structure, and the government remained in the hands of a wealthy, light-skinned, Westernized elite. In recent years, that elite has sold off the country's natural resources -- oil and natural gas -- to multinational corporations.

Today the grassroots movement behind Morales is demanding nationalization of Bolivia's resources, particularly natural gas. They want the profits to be used for social spending to benefit the impoverished majority in what is Latin America's poorest country. This is the real challenge for Morales. Several of the more radical groups supporting his campaign have already issued ultimatums to Morales: Nationalize or face the consequences.

"We have an enormous responsibility to change our history," Morales told his post-election rally. "The neo-liberal model has blocked the economic growth of our nation."

In Bolivia, neo-liberalism is the name given to a series of economic reforms that began in 1985. World Bank and the International Monetary Fund encouraged the Bolivian government to privatize government-run industries and search for international investors in order to spark a depressed economy. Bolivia sold its national oil and gas company, YPFB, and signed more than 70 generous contracts with multinational energy giants, granting them permission to exploit Bolivia's extensive natural gas reserves. Claims of mismanagement and corruption have plagued the decision ever since.

Evo Morales and an Aymara healer

Evo Morales with a traditional Yatiri (Aymara healer and clairvoyant) at the close of his campaign in La Paz.

Water systems have also been privatized, but not without the fierce resistance of several civic organizations. In April 2000, an uprising in the city of Cochabamba, provoked by a huge hike in water rates, forced Aguas del Tunari, a subsidiary of the U.S. company Bechtel, to stop the privatization and leave town. Similar protests nearly drove another Bechtel subsidiary, Aguas del Illimani, out of the city of El Alto in 2005.

Morales has won the hearts of the indigenous majority, but many Indian activists remain skeptical of any Bolivian government in La Paz. "The state has always been there to exploit us, the poor," says indigenous leader Felipe Quispe (El Mallku).

"Some factions of Bolivia's radical left think the post-colonial state as it is known today should not even exist," reporter Luis Gomez told me. "There should only be self-governing indigenous states."

Bolivia could be entering a period of radical change. Beyond legalizing coca growing and nationalizing natural gas, Morales also has a desire to make Bolivian agriculture 100 percent organic and to prevent genetically modified seeds and products from entering the local markets.

"For the first time in our history, Bolivia will have a government that is in the hands of the poor and that works for the poor," says Ivan Canelas, a newly elected senator from the MAS party and a firm believer in Morales.

But Bolivia's first indigenous president has his work cut out for him. He must deal with a volatile mix of long-suppressed Indian aspirations, the demands of coca growers and drug traffickers, the hostility of Washington, and the urgent need for economic development in a desperately poor country.

Yet another country in Latin America is turning away from two decades of conservative U.S. economic policies. Everybody will be watching what Evo Morales does next.

Tupac Saavedra is a reporter and documentary filmmaker who divides his time between California and his home in Bolivia.

Related Story

Watch our story "Leasing the Rain," about the Cochabamba water wars.


David Anderson - Barrington, NH
It is important to remember that Bolivia's indigenous people had been politically marginalized until recent democratic reforms opened up the doors of participation to them. The success of Morales and the MAS is a sign that the nation's indigenous majority now enjoys the right to participate in Bolivian democracy. As the majority, they have the right to decide what happens to Bolivia.

Maputo, Mozambique
Thanks for information. many interesting things

I suffered a lot because of socialists and communists. Evo is not like the classic totalitarian socialist people in any way. They would call him a capitalist. Evo is a people's man and wants the market economy to benefit everyone not just a high profile elite. I don't see him as one of the socialists that brought great suffering to my kind of people and me. He's a great guy and I want him to succeed in everything. Good job Evo, keep up the good work.

Sam Briggs - Galesburg, Illinois
I would just like to add that it's important to not lose focus when talking about what a "good" economy or "good" government are. An economy where 'free' market neo-liberal capitalism has only increased the margin between the rich elites and the people, where 70% of the people still live in poverty -- this is not a "good" economy. If your people are poor, then a government who takes its queues from the poor, is working for its own people. A crazy idea, I know.

Vicente Farina - Philadelphia, PA
Just what the world needs, one more "viva la raza" ...socialist leader. So today we have Castro as a role model for a successful economy? Morales, Chavez and Lula, who's next, Ortega in Nicaragua? Now Morales has nationalized the oil biz like his buddy Chavez. Is it okay to call them "BIG OIL" now?

P D - Mayfield, NY
Viva Evo!!! Viva MAS.

Boli-Nica - Miami, Florida
It is false and/or a blatant mischaraterization to claim that Bolivia "sold its national oil and gas company, YPFB". It transferred half of the equity to the pension fund of all Bolivians to stop politicians bleeding it and using it as a patronage factory. The other half of the equity in the units of YPFB were sold to private investors, in exchange for guaranteed capital investment. As a result 3 billion dollars of investment were made. There may be more than 70 contracts, but the biggest investors were Brazil's National Oil Company and Spanish company REPSOL.

Mike Garcia - Chicago, Il
I'm sorry, but Evo Morales will fail like the dozens before him, like all Banana Republic leaders eventually do. These populist leaders make great promises of change, cater to the "under-represented" and play on their ignorance. Like a house of cards, they all eventually fail due to the lack of results and corruption.
Bolivia, like many third world nations, needs to reform their economic policies to encourage free market capitalism. A well run economy doesn't take its queues from the poor in order to make a stronger economy. Governments brought in by the poor, elected on the backs of promises to change the fortunes of the poor, soon realize that the only way to really increase employment, GDP and reduce poverty is to have an open and free economy and provide the necessary protections for individual rights. Since this is normally seen in Latin America as catering to the wealthy, the government gets kicked out of office (sometimes through violence) and the whole process starts all over again. Make it easier for all citizens to create a business by protecting personal rights, reduce the government's role in "crafting" fair markets, thus removing the corruption, and you'll improve the situation. It's worked everywhere from the USA, to Latvia, to Poland to Chile.

Gunther Chesnut - Santa Barbara, CA
Having lived and worked in Bolvia for several years, I find it an amazingly beautiful place. It is with trepidation that I receive the news reports of events in Bolivia, including this essay. Evo Morales has promised so much to so many that undoubtedly some will work for his ouster. In addition, the newly elected governors create an added level of complexity to his work, and he faces a moral hazard with respect to the drug trade and whether he will "look the other way" to the increasing illegal drug trade, while speaking only to the legal uses of coca. Lastly, in Santa Cruz, where the hydrocarbon industry is located, the governor has a proposal for "autonomy" from the federal government. The governor and most in the region disagree strongly with the President. In short, the future is filled with hazards for President Morales, and I am not optimistic for its smooth and successful denouement.

Renaldo Rodriguez - Boonton Twp, New jersey
It is with great joy that I read your article. As an inmigrant from Guatemala, and as part of the Latino class, I say it's about time that my Indian half receives as many advantages and privileges as my Spanish half. In Central and South America we are an amalgam of social, religious and philosophical thought. Notwithstanding, there is one struggle that unites us all: Freedom. No conservative or liberal norteamericano will impede our self determination. Our cry must always be: Viva La Raza!

Boonton Twp, New jersey
It is with great joy that I read your article. As an immigrant from Guatemala and as part of the Latino class I say it's about time that my Indian half receives as many advantages and privileges as my Spanish half. In Central and South America we are an amalgam of social, religious and philosophical thought. Notwithstanding, there is one struggle that unites us all: Freedom. No conservative nor liberal norteamericano will impede our self determination. Our cry must always be: Viva La Raza!

Anny McCrea - Mt. Kisco, NY
It's rejuvenating to see positive change occur in South America, a continent that has so much potential to be a world leader. President Morales will have many obstacles to face that mainly comprise of the poor vs. the rich. Let's just hope he creates a balance where no one will be against the other because THAT would be an ideal South America. What better country to start than the place where Simon Bolivar rejoiced freedom.

Lillian Reeves - Kalamazoo, MI
As a high school student, we are currently debating this topic in our Model United Nations group. As an American it is hard to approve of legalizing a plant that is used to make such a prominent illegal drug. However, there are legitimate purposes for coca leaves, and if the United States is so concerned with an increase in cocaine production, maybe our government should work a little harder on our drug trafficking control! I am glad that there are articles like this that can help Americans see things outside of our own country lines!

Brent Everett - Garden Grove, CA
Great story! We count on Frontline to keep the truth of the liberation of South America in the US media. Just yesterday (1/22/06) Sen. John McCain apparently referred to "those whackos in Venezuela," which is indicative of our attitude toward any who disobey our plans for them.