Bolivia: On the Road With Evo
The making of an unlikely president
BY Tupac Mauricio Saavedra and Gabriel Dvoskin
May 04, 2006
Producer Gabriel Dvoskin shares his reflections of the new president after crossing Bolivia with him on the campaign trail.
Bolivian Tupac Mauricio Saavedra (right) is a documentary filmmaker. He recently completed Bolivian Baroque, a 42-minute documentary that aired on European and Bolivian television. Earlier this year, he reported in Cuba, and he plans to film in Peru, Uruguay and Bolivia this summer. Gabriel Dvoskin (left) covered Latin America in the 1990s for Argentinean news agency NA before continuing his career in Paris as a Reuters Fellow and correspondent for the Italian news agency ANSA. In the last six months, Dvoskin has reported on elections in Bolivia, Chile and Peru.
Politics, at some level, is theater, and last week, Bolivia's controversial new president, Evo Morales, made the most of it. Donning a white hard hat from Bolivia's state-owned energy company, Morales took center stage at a natural gas field, declaring in a nationally televised address, "The pillaging of our resources by transnational companies is over. From this day forward, all hydrocarbons in the country are nationalized."
It was May Day, the worker's holiday, and his 100th day in office. His decree was the fulfillment of a campaign pledge that swept him into power last December. Bolivia's first indigenous president -- he's an Aymara Indian -- was reclaiming the country's natural resources. Adding to the pageantry, a banner behind him proclaimed: "Nationalized: Property of the Bolivian people." And with a director's sense of drama and spectacle, Morales ordered troops to occupy more than 50 gas and oil installations across the country.
As with many theatrical openings, the reviews were mixed. In Bolivia, among the vast majority of poor and indigenous, Evo (as everyone calls him) was fulfilling his populist mandate. But the foreign energy companies operating in Bolivia -- Brazil's Petrobas, Spain and Argentina's Repsol, British Petroleum, the United States' ExxonMobil -- were, predictably, annoyed.
An adept politician, Morales might be playing a sophisticated game: boldly pronouncing "nationalization" to satisfy his constituents, but actually stopping short of expropriation, giving companies six months to renegotiate their contracts. There's no doubt that Bolivians want a greater share of the profits generated from their vast natural gas reserves -- the second largest in Latin America -- but Morales may not be quite so eager to expel the companies that provide expertise and investment.
In this week's Rough Cut, we present an insightful, and very timely, portrait of Evo Morales as he campaigned for the presidency last December. Like any good campaign film, On the Road With Evo combines public performance with private moments. The filmmakers -- Tupac Mauricio Saavedra, Gabriel Dvoskin and Raquel Maria Dillon -- were able to get close to Morales. Bolivian-born television cameraman and documentary filmmaker Tupac Saavedra had a certain inside track and an added connection: Like Evo, Tupac (named for an indigenous Bolivian leader, not the rap star) also has indigenous roots.
The result is a video that helps to explain Evo's popular appeal while also managing to provide rare glimpses of the man off-stage. In those candid scenes, we meet a person who seems both confident and disarmingly relaxed. An effective, if long-winded orator, Morales appears to love the crowds and the spotlight, but he's also completely at ease, sipping a fruit drink, chatting with friends, hanging out on dusty small-town streets. I was amazed to see how lightly he traveled -- without entourage, booking his own flights on small planes, with little or no security. That, no doubt, has changed now that he is President Morales.
On the Road With Evo also provides some history and context. You'll understand more about the origins of this maverick politician, meet his sister, visit the coca-growing region where he grew up, see the soccer fields where he began his rise as a leader and watch how he blows off steam on the racquetball court.
The 46-year-old former coca grower is still a leader of the Coca Growers Union, and he has alarmed Washington by vowing to legalize the traditional Indian cultivation of coca for medicinal and religious purposes while insisting that he has "zero tolerance" for the production and marketing of cocaine. Among narco-traffickers and U.S. drug agents determined to eradicate coca fields, Evo's policy -- coca yes, cocaine no -- may be too fine a distinction to preserve.
"The next six months will be crucial for the Morales government," says reporter and producer Saavedra. In a dispatch for this Web site last January, fresh off the campaign trail, Saavedra wrote: "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."
Moving to nationalize the country's oil and natural gas fields only raises the stakes.
As Morales asserts himself -- only the latest Latin American leader to defy Washington -- we can't predict what he might do next. But if you watch On the Road With Evo, you'll have a better sense of who he is and why his country elected him.
stanley Small - culver city, California
What a beautiful human being Evo is. For too long the U.S. has been trying to buy their way into power and keeping the voice of the people from being heard in Latin America. The outdated drug laws in the U.S. need not be handed down to anymore countries. Bolivia under Evo's leadership has done more for it's people than any president. Nationalizing Bolivia's resourses is the right move now to share the wealth of universal healthcare and food for children in schools. Now educating and building infrastructure, bringing energy needs to it's people are the steps he is taking. Man has used drugs since the dawn of time and will not stop. The big drug companies are controlling flows of narcotics and the Government needs keep all avenues open for the people to decide what they want to use. U.S. jails are overflowing because of their outdated laws on drugs. Bolivia will rise up while the U.S. is drownding in debt.
Gustavo Gutierrez - Tempe, Arizona
Quhubo: As an Opata Indian I totaly support Evo Morales, =!Que Viva Evo.!
Anthony Black - Shonto, Arizona
It's about time that there is a Native leader that has been placed in power by the people of the country, that makes 75% of the population. As a member of the Navajo Nation (USA), i'm very happy to hear and see a film about natives taking back what is theirs, it's about time. And our time has come to take back what is ours!!!
Kenton Dunbar - Copiapo, Chile
"Our goal needs to be to forge a real integration to 'live well,' because we do not aspire to live better than others. We do not believe in the line of progress and unlimited development at the cost of others and nature. 'Live well' is to think not only in terms of income per capita but cultural identity, community, harmony between ourselves and with mother earth." --Evo Morales, October 2006 to the heads of states of South America as quoted in Maude Barlow's "Blue Covenant" p. 176.
Finally, the meek are beginning to inherit the Earth. Y Bah'u'l-Abh
It's about time that these poeple had self-determination. No people should be used like that ever. Viva Evo!
Patrick - Allen, TX
I like this video because it tells the story of such an unlikely person taking control and bettering his country. I only hope that this Bolivian government can stay uncorrupt, something that every administration before it has failed to do. I have faith in Morales that his humble beginnings will keep him grounded and focused on his goal of helping the Bolivian people. So far he has apparently stayed clear of corruption and is indeed helping the poor population of Bolivia but there is still the speculation that Morales will be the one who benefits the most from nationalizing the Bolivia's industry.
Gabe - Los Angeles, California
This one is for Demis:
Demis you are absolutely right. Evo does not represent all Bolivians, but he does represent the majority including myself. That is factual since he won by an overwhelming majority (more than half). All you are doing is throwing statements without any basis to back them up. The only basis that you are using is that you are Bolivian and you are seeing everything first hand. Talk is cheap, if you want to make an argument put some content to it, don't just blurt out statements. How come there were no comments about Hugo Banzer being not only a bully but a criminal and corrupt dictator? Jaime Paz Zamora, one of the most corrupt presidents involved with drug dealers. Let's talk about Sanchez de Lozada and the people who died under his presidency. Most of the opposition leaders now are people that were involved with dictatorships or corrupt goverments and suddenly now they are the champions of democracy, tolerance and freedom...hummm. Makes you wonder doesn't it? Why is that not mentioned on your comments? Now Evo is [being called] a "bully" for being honest, delivering what he ran for: Nationalization, and the redistribution of land that had been acquired illegally.
Joe Camacho - Los Angeles, CA
A year has passed and the evidence is in. Evo has turned things around for Bolivia on many levels:1) He has shown that he is not corrupt and Bolivia has dropped from being the most corrupt South American country to middle of the pack in the Western Hemisphere;
2) He ended the transfer of Bolivia's wealth to transnationals by renegotiating contracts successfully;
3) According to international financial entities, he has prudently managed Bolivia's finances;
4) He produced a historic surplus in Bolivia's budget and it enjoys the best economic times in almost a century;
5) He passed universal health care and provided financial assistance for children to study instead of work;
and so many positive things that the majority of Bolvians have what we lack hope in their leadership.Yet I doubt the anonymous posters and their slanderous remarks will change because their unsupportable opinions are based on their racism not any facts.
I like many Bolivians have reason to be proud of being Bolivian for verifiable reasons other than self-esteem.
bob mercado - los angeles, california
we need to remember how evo got to where he is. he began as a worker and made his way by telling people what they wanted to hear. typical politician. he fed the indigenous w/ what he knew that they needed to hear in order to get what he wanted. he "won the presidency" by garnering almost 60% of the vote. remarkably, that is about the same percentage of the indigenous population. but now that he is there, the people will soon learn that his talk is bigger than his walk. the huge division in the departments should be evidence enough of evo's inability to "nationalize" Bolivia
Amar Weisman - Baltimore, MD
Left-leaning South American leaders have been promising their followers a more equitable economy for decades. The proof is in the pudding, but if I had to guess, I would say that Evo's Ecuador winds up destitute and desperate, kind of like Castro's Cuba and Chavez's Venezuela. The leaders may change, but this kind of economic reform leads to predictable results. If the people want to be fooled by this kind of rhetoric, they will get what they asked for.
Absolutely fabulous. I hope he can accomplish everything he sets out to accomplish. Vive Evo!
Ivis Orlando Martinez - Vancouver, BC, Canada
Thank you, Frontline, for your unbiased take on Bolivia and their new president.
Isabel Munilla - Washington, DC
Sounds like Bolivia didn't need just a leadership change, but a change in the culture of its leadership. I sincerely hope that instead of tossing away all Western-style approaches to governance and management, Evo and his government look for those that can complement and enhance their political agenda. Plenty of other governments, socialist or otherwise, have tried a variety of bureaucratic structures, land management schemes, etc. I hope that Evo doesn't waste time or resources on strategies that other governments have spent billions on, to find later that they don't work. To centralize power and most importantly, management authority, while still providing a voice, participation and justice to the people, without creating a wealthy elite, is an incredibly difficult process to implement. While Western/imperial governments are by no means perfect, they have invested sizable fortunes in creating public structures for managing citizen health & natural resources, while keeping the government accountable. Other governments could show their support by sharing their own experiences with what has worked and what has not so that Bolivia can pull from a wealth of ideas as it furthers its development. But most importantly, Evo must be fully recognized as a democratically elected leader, and treated like a peer by other leaders. This must be given an honest chance to work. Who is the rest of the world to tell Bolivia what is right for Bolivia? Clearly, everything else has been tried. I truly hope that the world adopts a sense of openness, optimism and support for this Bolivian phenomenon. This video, if circulated as widely as possible, will help to do just that. Thank you very much.
Jennifer Rllis - South Bend, IN
Evo Morales has good intentions, or so I believe. But don't good intentions pave the road to hell? Many Latin American revolutionaries start out on noble idealistic paths and then end up isolated with all of the power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It will be interesting to see if Evo will be able to resist the forces of corruption that will be pulling at him. Will he stick to his ideas of freedom and prosperity for his country's people or will his own power become more important to him? I guess we will have to wait and see.
Demis Quiroga - Cochabamba, Bolivia
First off foreigners (I'm Bolivian) need to understand one thing. Evo does not represent ALL Bolivians. He's nothing but an incompetent, racist, bully who will doom my country for good. Outsiders don't see what he's doing to my country on a daily basis. The decisions he's making and the road he's leading us down are disastrous. He will go down as Bolivia's worst leader.
Christina Ivazes - Sacramento, CA
This was an extremely interesting window into what seemed to be a "fairy tale" election. It will be even more interesting to follow what Evo Morales does and I DO pray he will be able to prove to the world that honest government is possible and that socialism can work in a country after the special interests are removed. I send the people of Bolivia a prayer of strength to fend off American influences and maintain their position as a proud indigenous people, deserving of peace and quality of life!
Augusto Toledo - Dallas, Texas
I was born and grew up in Comarapa, a small city in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. I moved to the U.S. in 2001. I know what it was like to be in poverty, because I lived in Bolivia all my life. I saw my parents working every day. They owned some land where they had all kind of produce. The sad thing is that after so much work the produce was worthless and the insecticides were so expensive that many times they couldn't afford it. That is the reality in Bolivia; the people who have the power do not help others as they are supposed to do. They get rich and live as most of our leaders do. But, I believe that Evo is president for a reason. The fact is that all those voices needed to be heard and now it's the time. God bless Evo and my dear country that needs a true leader.
Evo Morales is a criminal just like Hugo Chavez and Castro. His day will come when he gets arrested like Noriega and spends the rest of his life in prison.
I really appreciate this piece. I was traveling in Bolivia in 2003 and I was caught up in the uprisings. I wondered if Bolivia would even exist much longer as a country. This is the best political/country profile on Bolivia I have seen to this date. Thank you.
Jeff R. - Curitiba, Parana-Brazil
Evo's actions nationalizing natural resources made significant waves here in Brazil. Our president Luiz Incio "Lula" da Silva fumbled and bumbled negotiations and assurances with such nave amateurship that has left us flabbergasted. We too are guilty of underestimating President Evo Morales, yet we all hope he will be able to start lifting his people out of the deep poverty imposed onto them by five hundred years of colonial rule. Viva Evo! We must learn to respect him and his mandate as the chosen leader of sovereign country.
New Orleans, LA
I studied Bolivia, its changing administrations, coca as a national product, eradication and interdiction involving other countries. Evo Morales was a small figure in these documents, and sometimes portrayed as a comical aside. I never felt that way. My heart went out to this guy almost 5 years ago. He spoke for people who had no voice, in fact he himself had no voice. Yet he fought year in and year out. And look at him now. Evo is no laughing stock. Ask the oil industry how funny he is now. Ask the water interest how funny he is. And ask the coca growers how real he is.
thomas meece - west pelzer, sc
I certainly believe that Evo will succeed. As long as the corrupt American leaders will keep their noses out of Bolivia's business, Bolivia will prosper. We need a champion for marijuana here in the USA like Evo is for the coca leaf.
Will Bellamey - Minneapolis, MN
An excellent, high quality documentary. I'm amazed by the window to the world that the internet can provide us, allowing talented international filmmakers to be heard no matter what the corporate press says.
lance charles - simi valley, CA
Thank you for this important insight. Perhaps with the Bush regime busy pulling the wing off the flies in the Mideast they will leave Bolivia alone long enough for the people to get some strength back.But I doubt it.We must all keep watch and pray that no harm comes to this great man.Viva Evo, Viva Bolivia
rob scag - overland, ks
That was a wonderful video and I am profoundly appreciative of being able to view it.
Mike Garcia - Naperville, IL
Frontline/World did a nice job covering Evo's recent election and his importance to the majority of Bolivia's poor; however, I think the narrator's tone at the end of the piece sums up my opinion on the new Evo/MAS administration. I'm paraphrasing here - "being indigenous may not be enough to pull Bolivia out of poverty, but at least I was there to see how the story began". The narrator's sobering last thoughts gives viewers the impression that nothing substantial may ever come from Evo's win. Every Bolivian government since its independence from Spain has been elected on the backs of promises to the poor, and then it breeds its own brand of corruption and greed and finally gets kicked out (sometimes through violence). It's the typical Banana Republic playbook dusted off for the 21st century. In my opinion, repatriating private industries will be the first step toward a more corrupt central government than Bolivia had in place before the rise of MAS. I won't be surprised when Evo benefits the most from repatriating his country's energy industries instead of the people of Bolivia he's supposed to represent. If you don't agree, look at his mentor as an example; Fidel Castro was recently named the seventh richest leader in the world thanks to his hands being in every nationalized industry within Cuba . . . viva la revolucion, right. I look for Frontline/World to be back in Bolivia soon to cover the fall of its first indigenous leader and introduce us to the next great promise maker.
Vineet Wats - Bangalore, Karnataka
This is a bold step towards anti-globisation and voicing concern against neo-colonisation which will set a precedent for other Latin American countries to rise up to exploitation they have been subjected to.