Volume 19 Number 4
A Different Light on Bolivian Politics
01 August 2006

Why is Bolivia’s controversial new President so popular in his country? Andrea Cabrera Luna explains.

ON 18 DECEMBER 2005, Evo Morales made history by becoming Bolivia’s first indigenous President.

Morales’ victory, which captured 54 per cent of the vote, is a milestone in Bolivian and South American history. It brings hope to indigenous Bolivians, who have been marginalised and exploited over centuries, and to many outside Bolivia who are also struggling for a just and equal world.

Only 50 years ago, Bolivia’s indigenous population could not vote or even walk on the sidewalks in the cities. Ninety years ago there were cases of indigenous people whose eyes were plucked out or fingers chopped off if they learned to read or write. Today, one can see deputies chewing coca leaves in the halls of Parliament.

The coca issue is one of the reasons why Morales is so controversial. A coca-grower himself, he has insisted on the importance of rationalising its production. He makes the distinction between coca leaf, which is an ingredient in making cocaine, and cocaine itself. In its natural form coca is an important part of Andean culture. It is used to treat such ailments as altitude sickness (La Paz is at an altitude of 4,000m) and colds, and is also brewed as tea and chewed during the day. Morales has proposed an agreement with the US to fight cocaine trafficking, but defends the use of coca leaf. ‘I’m saying Oxfordno to zero coca, but yes to zero cocaine,’ he says.

Morales has been accused of being a drug-trafficker, an assassin, a terrorist and a member of the coca mafia. ‘The Americans say that I have received money from the Farc (paramilitaries who control cocaine production in Colombia), from Cuba and Venezuela. None of this is true,’ he says.

In his first presidential address, Morales called for one minute’s silence for Tupaj Katari, who fought for Bolivia’s independence; Che Guevara; the citizens of El Alto, who were massacred in October 2003 by military forces under the orders of ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada; and anonymous heroes who have sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom.

When he took power, Morales was wearing a leather jacket with colourful embroidery. As President he has been criticised not just for the way he dresses, but also for the way he speaks. Spanish is not his first language and he is scrutinised and criticised for any error, however minor. He is a campesino or man of the land. Hence, sections of the so-called educated elite have labelled him ‘peasant’, ‘uncouth’ and ‘uncultivated’.

His reforms have also been a cause of criticism. Among his priorities are the nationalisation of gas and oil and the redistribution of land. He said: ‘It is a challenge for all Bolivians to industrialise all our resources in order to overcome poverty.’

Some have said that his policies ‘seem to be born more of a desire to pander to supporters, pay homage to Cuban leader Fidel Castro and anger the US than to give his country any serious chance of improved growth or of closing the wealth gap’.

It is an irony that the Latin American country with the second largest natural gas reserves is also the continent’s poorest country. National resources such as water, coca and oil have played a key part in awakening political consciousness in Bolivia. In the last five years Bolivia dismissed the American transnational, Bechtel, blocked low-price exports of gas and oil to the US, and resisted the International Monetary Fund’s recommendations on payroll taxes and other measures. All these changes made the powerful tremble. Morales insists the necessity now is to create local policies which benefit local people instead of importing them from foreign countries for the benefit of the rich.

Morales’ alliance with Alvaro García Linera, who had once been tortured by the Bolivian army, played an important part in his election success. García Linera was Morales’ unofficial representative to those social movements that were more sceptical about his party, Movement Towards Socialism.

When talking to an audience in August last year in Cochabamba, a town that strongly opposed the privatisation of water, García Linera said: ‘We cannot win the two things we are demanding — a constituent assembly (to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution) and the nationalisation of gas and oil—through resistance. Such demands can only be won by taking control of the Government.’

In 2003, the people of Bolivia took to the streets to protest against the proposal to export the nation’s gas to the US through a Chilean port. As a result, President Sánchez de Lozada was forced to resign.

The next two years saw continued unrest, and two short-lived presidencies. Finally, in December 2005, Morales was elected, in spite of American threats to withdraw their financial support to the country.

The nationalisation of gas and oil has created uneasiness in such companies as British Gas, Repsol from Spain, Petrobras and Shell. However, Morales maintains that it is necessary to increase fiscal income and renegotiate the contracts that have favoured the interests of transnational companies and not those of the country. This negotiation, he stresses, will have to be a ‘responsible’ one. President of Mexico Vicente Fox has said that Bolivians will have to ‘eat’ their gas to survive if no one buys it.

The nationalisation of energy is also intended to distribute income from national resources more equitably. After achieving this, President Morales has plans for land redistribution. According to government officials, the dictatorships of the 1970s gave many properties to wealthy landowners without payment. Anyone who cannot prove the legality of their land will have to return it to the state. Twelve million acres of state-owned land will be redistributed to indigenous rural workers.

It will not be easy for Morales and García Linera to improve growth and development in Bolivia, particularly because of international pressure and scepticism. García Linera has said frankly: ‘It’s going to be very difficult to govern, to make lines of change; but everything in time.’

The reason why Morales has gained so much credibility inside and outside Bolivia is because up to now he has listened to his people’s needs in his governing. Since the socio-economic structures of the nation have been created to serve the interests of elites and not the majority of the population, time will tell whether his reforms will succeed.

Bolivian indigenous groups have adopted the Wipala, a multi-coloured flag that represents equality in diversity. That translates into respect for difference. Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano explains: ‘According to tradition, the flag was born of the encounter between the female and the male rainbow. And this rainbow of the earth, which in the native language means “woven of rippling blood”, has more colours than the rainbow of the sky.’