The night before winning the presidential election in Bolivia, Evo Morales surprised me. Leaning against a wall, exhausted, sipping beer from a plastic glass, he said campaigning had been easy and he was confident of victory, but governing the country would be a thorny adventure.
It was an evening of barbecue basted in tropical rain in the jungle village of Villa Tunari. The air was heavy and hot, like every night in this remote region of Bolivia, where most of the country's coca is grown and where Evo had grown up and become a leader.
He was wearing the same battered blue Nike shoes he wore throughout the campaign, at rallies, in meetings and on racquetball courts. Tonight Evo -- everyone calls him Evo -- had on black shorts and a Real Madrid soccer team T-shirt with the number 10 and his name imprinted on the back. He seemed calm and chatty while having dinner with old friends and a few reporters in the backyard of the modest El Cocal hotel.
As the night passed, he talked about obscure soccer players who had filled his dreams as a kid, the death of Lady Di and revolutions in Latin America. His eyes flickered with child-like mischief when he recalled having sent coca leaves to the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Daniel Rocha, as a Fourth of July gift in 2002, the same year he first ran for president. That year Evo narrowly lost to Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, whose campaign was run by U.S. political consultants, including James Carville.
During his campaign, Evo Morales became a skilled orator in engaging the populist voter, from indigenous peasants to local businessmen.
Having crossed Bolivia with Evo in this latest campaign -- from a 13,000-foot Andes plateau to the tropical forest -- I became familiar with his populist rhetoric and his skill at engaging voters, from indigenous peasants to local businessmen. Yet his comment on how hard it would be to govern surprised me. It's not the kind of frank admission one hears from most politicians on the campaign trail.
For Bolivian and foreign journalists, "Finding Evo" (with apologies to the Walt Disney tale of underwater adventures) was our mission. We were looking for the man behind the image of the exotic Aymara Indian who speaks defiantly against imperialism and has become the latest star of Latin American politics.
Politically, Evo Morales understands better than any other Bolivian leader the frustrations and anger of poor people hit hard by the anti-inflation and austerity policies of the 1990s. The so-called Washington Consensus was the neo-liberal economic plan imposed by U.S.-dominated international financial institutions across Latin America. Morales campaigned on a platform of "nationalizing" Bolivia's gas and oil contracts with multinationals and sharing the wealth with the country's impoverished people, who represent 70 percent of the population.
During the campaign, I found Evo to be a passionate, committed man who shares the Aymara-indigenous communitarianism, which opposes the idea that accumulation of wealth signifies success and its absence means failure. He reminded me of Don Quixote, the hero of Spanish literature who sees the world not as it is, but as it should be. Quixote combined utopian ideals with naivete in his fight for justice. When Evo speaks about nationalizing Bolivia's natural gas industry -- the country has the second-largest deposits in Latin America -- to get a better deal for Bolivians, I saw Don Quixote's dogma.
"Politically, Evo Morales understands better than any other Bolivian leader the frustrations and anger of poor people hit hard by the anti-inflation and austerity policies of the 1990s."
After an uncertain first three months in office, Evo made good on his campaign pledge, ordering troops to occupy the country's oil and gas fields and giving the government control over the energy industry. His May Day decree, issued on his 100th day as president, excited many Bolivians, but annoyed foreign energy companies such as Brazil's Petrobas and the Spanish-Argentine Repsol-YPF. (The U.S.-based ExxonMobil has a smaller stake in Bolivia.)
During his campaign, Evo also vowed to legalize the cultivation of the coca plant, setting off alarms in Washington, which has funded a coca-eradication program in Bolivia. Evo tries to make a distinction between growing coca as a traditional crop (which he favors) and using the coca leaf to make cocaine (which he opposes).
In trying to understand Evo's coca policy, it's useful to visit the region of El Chapare, where he arrived at the age of 15 and a few years later began his career in the Coca Growers Union near Villa Tunari. The village looks sluggish. Scattered palm trees rise above the few paved streets that shoot off the road linking Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, two large Bolivian cities. There are some foreign tourists wandering or taking pictures of spider monkeys and the river. In the central square, local youth hold hands and stroll while the sunlight fades. Most inhabitants are here because their ancestors were forced to migrate from the highlands when the mining industry collapsed and drought bankrupted the already-poor families. That's also the story of Evo, who left his hometown of Oruro with his father to start a new life in agriculture. Most farmers planted rice and coca leaf, the latter of which had been used for centuries for medicinal purposes. But in recent decades, coca has been used to produce cocaine.
Any traveler here will easily notice that the village doesn't have signs of misery as in the Andean towns or the capital city La Paz. In the market, shopkeepers wear gold earrings. No one will openly admit that narco-traffic money flows through the local economy. But it is evident.
Morales was disarmingly relaxed on the campaign trail. Back in his hometown, he takes time out for a game of racquetball.
Coca plantations were reduced in recent years by a counter-narcotic military squad funded and supervised by the United States. The coca eradication programs of the past decade have been extremely violent and harsh toward farmers. Evo was beaten several times in the 1990s while trying to protect farmers' rights in the face of the new antidrug crusade.
Now Evo says he will continue his opposition to coca eradication policies. He says he wants to cooperate with the United States in a campaign against drug traffickers, but only on his own terms. By that he means making this region a transitional cultivation area with controlled coca parcels for peasants and a commitment from Washington to fight cocaine demand in its own territory.
The "anti-Yankee" oratory of Evo's campaign may be old-fashioned, but it has spread beyond Evo's rallies to the conservatives. A conversation I had with a young, articulate right-wing politician, Toto Loaiza, confirmed this. I met Loaiza at the PODEMOS Party headquarters, a comfortable house behind tall walls near Isabel La Catolica Square in La Paz. Loaiza represents the new, white, educated right wing in Bolivia's fractured society.
"We don't have any pre-electoral tie with Washington -- and we don't want it!" exclaimed Loaiza. "Bolivians have to solve Bolivian problems." That declaration may have shocked his party predecessors, the white elite that has ruled the country since independence from Spain in 1825 and maintained close links with Washington for the last half-century.
Evo has repeatedly used his poor origins to gain popularity, but the reality is that he still lives a very simple life. His team is basic: a friend and adviser, Alex Contreras, is his spokesperson; an old neighbor, Javier, drives his car; and an efficient secretary, Janet, survives Morales's workaholic habits.
"During the campaign, Evo often traveled by himself. I remember seeing him walking out of the La Paz airport alone, a sleep-deprived, grumpy passenger like any other. On Election Day, I saw him hitch a ride on a small private plane rented by a group of journalists."
During the campaign, Evo often traveled by himself. I remember seeing him walking out of the La Paz airport alone, a sleep-deprived, grumpy passenger like any other. Most times, he would make his own flight arrangements.On Election Day, I saw him hitch a ride on a small private plane rented by a group of journalists.
Right after his victory, Evo embarked on a brief "meet the new president" world tour. He traveled with just five pieces of clothing and scandalized Spaniards for meeting King Juan Carlos wearing an informal red and blue sweater. The episode triggered a surrealist wave of reactions in the media. Journalist Jorge Berlangas compared Evo's look to children on UNICEF postcards; Manuel Rivas wrote in the Spanish newspaper El Pais that Morales's sweater was a protest against "basic unsatisfied needs"; journalist Rosa Belmonte suggested that Evo's fashion was inspired by the uniform of les sans culottes, who stood against the bourgeoisie in the French Revolution.
Evo laughs a lot about how he is portrayed in the world's media, especially when he is compared with Che Guevara.
I mentioned to Evo that when Guevara, an Argentinean, arrived in Bolivia in November 1966, he was determined to spark a revolution throughout the continent against the United States. Did that make Evo feel a kinship with Guevara? I asked. He shook his head in friendly disapproval.
Evo was cheerful the afternoon I spent with him at the decaying building of the Coca Growers Union of Cochabamba. Next to his office, in a small, gloomy room with glassless windows and a few scattered chairs, a group of people were patiently waiting to have a minute with him: shamans willing to bless him, coca farmers, old friends, international journalists and a Swiss woman looking for support to build a Che Guevara museum.
It was in this building that Evo had learned the rules of politics. As the president of the Coca Growers Union, Evo had built national support to create his party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), and reached the Bolivian congress in 2002. "Once you learn how to do politics in the syndicalism [trade union] environment," one of the union leaders told me, "then you are ready for any other arena."
Evo's other stronghold is the working class neighborhood of El Alto, a suburb of La Paz. El Alto is like most suburbs in Latin America, except for the 11,000-foot altitude. The rest is familiar: modest houses; no urban planning; a radio playing happy songs; kids kicking a soccer ball in the street; rail tracks carrying only a few trains a week; tired cholitas selling vegetables on the sidewalks; the naked walls of an unfinished building, from which bricks steadily disappear.
Evo does have critics in El Alto -- they think he has not moved fast enough to deliver what he promised Bolivia's poor and marginalized -- but his support remains strong. On the foreign policy front, however, relations with the United States are deteriorating, aggravated by Washington's decision in February to reduce aid to Bolivia.
If Evo were Don Quixote riding his horse, he would probably be telling companion Sancho Panza: "I hear barking Sancho, a sign that we are moving."