“Evo is president!” was the chant of thousands of Bolivians who took to the
streets on Dec. 18. For the first time ever in Bolivia, an Indian leader
had won the national vote for the presidency of this impoverished and
deeply traditional Indian country.
Aymara Indian farmer and longtime political leader Evo Morales, 46, won the
presidency of Bolivia by the strongest margin of any politician in decades.
Thus, one of South America’s most indigenous nations has turned a
milestone, with an Indian population turning out to vote en masse for their
preferred Indian leader.
Morales, who took 54 percent of the vote as of Dec. 21, won the early
capitulation of right-wing candidate Jorge Quiroga, his major opponent.
With a clear majority, Morales is assured the presidency; and in any case,
his political party, the MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), holds the largest
block of seats in the Congress. He will take power in January 2006.
In a country with some 60 percent indigenous (largely Aymara and Quechua),
the election of an Indian leader as president is a development akin to the
toppling of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Bolivia’s 9 million
inhabitants — 3.6 million voters — are the poorest in the hemisphere.
Their annual income of $2,600 per capita compares poorly with Argentina
($10,200) or Brazil ($7,600). These are the voters who provided Morales a
major mandate, including 78 seats in the Congress, but who also have high
expectations of his presidency. What has never been quite the case before,
an Indian nation-state with an Indian president and government directly
represented at the United Nations, is soon to be reality.
Morales’ election is perceived as a serious headache by the United States.
A steadfast opponent of the U.S.-led globalization of South American
economies, Morales defied the odds that any single candidate could win a
decisive majority. He is the first one to do so in a long time, stirring
passionate emotions in a long-downtrodden population whose society is
quickly educating its youth to leadership potential. A true grass-roots
hero, Morales is necessarily radical in a country where as late as the
1940s, an Indian’s eyes could be cut out for the mere act of attempting to
learn how to read.
Morales’ victory buttresses rejection to the U.S.-style trade pacts in the
region. His past leadership of movements to demand a stronger national
ownership of Bolivia’s vast natural gas reserves and other natural
resources, leave no doubt where he stands. His vocal opposition to
privatization is very popular with the majority of Bolivians. It will
likely discourage some foreign investment but will also likely steer some
of the country’s wealth to the poorest sectors of society.
While Morales might worry U.S. policy-makers, who are hard put to know how
to react to the effervescence of his popular support, the growth of his
movement follows two decades of economic belt-tightening as Bolivia tried
to service a debt amounting to some 60 percent of its gross domestic
product. The turn to the left by the voting masses in Latin America, who
are now highly literate, follows more than a decade of worsening poverty.
Bolivia is no exception, where the appropriation of national resources only
ushered in deeper misery for the highly marginalized lower-middle and poor
Morales has led the movement against U.S. efforts to eradicate the
production of coca. In this, too, he has depth as he represents the Andean
Indian approach to coca as a sacred plant, while apparently repudiating its
processing into cocaine and the corruption of narco-trafficking in general.
Morales, a coca farmer himself, resonates with a cultural reality long
dismissed or ignored by U.S. policy analysts: the spiritual and medicinal
relationship with the coca leaf and the plant itself, which is profoundly
imbedded in the Andean Indian consciousness. People are quite aware how
nearly 40 years of the so-called “war on drugs” has mostly generated huge
profits for the narco-traffickers while seriously corrupting institutions
and disrupting communities over a whole hemisphere.
Morales also led the national Indian movement to successfully pressure for
higher taxes on natural resources exploited by multi-nationals. As recently
as two days before the election, Morales chastised the United States for
the mode of “parasitic businesses that grow richer at the expense of the
poor.” He called himself the United States’ “worst nightmare” and has
challenged President Bush’s policies in Iraq and Latin America.
How much of this posture will be moderated, as political rhetoric gives way
to pragmatic reality of governance, is yet to be seen. It is hoped that
Morales and U.S. policy-makers will seek a respectful and nuanced
relationship rather than heightening tensions that would upset
No doubt, Morales’ political history will scare away American and, perhaps,
some European foreign investment. Nevertheless, in the energy sector,
Bolivia will diversify its development portfolio. Venezuela, the world’s
fifth-largest exporter of oil, is quickly stepping up to invest in the
region’s energy infrastructure. Morales’ first major move will be to
contract with Venezuela’s state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.,
to replace Texas-based ExxonMobil Corp. and another dozen multinational
companies up to now dominant in Bolivian exports. The new accord would be
more beneficial for the impoverished nation, which could boost its social
spending. It is the kind of move made possible by the growing presence of
Venezuela in South American politics and which would solidify the Morales
victory with its wide base in the population.
Venezuela’s record-level revenues from high oil prices will likely fortify
gas pipelines and build oil refineries in Bolivia. President Hugo Chavez,
51, has energy investment programs within the Caribbean and with Brazil,
Argentina and Uruguay. Even in the United States, Venezuela is reaching out
in a major campaign aimed at building direct relations with America’s poor
Among the most serious challenges for the new grass-roots Bolivian
president will be pressure from large corporations such as ExxonMobil and
the BG Group, in negotiations with the government over new hikes to gas and
oil fees. The companies charge that the government won’t honor its
bilateral investment-protection agreements. Messy international lawsuits
will likely follow.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is among the pragmatists
currently influencing Morales’ education in global finance. The importance
of foreign investment and of making good international agreements is a
common subject. Nevertheless, Morales is expected to request forgiveness on
Bolivia’s crippling $4.9 billion international debt from the Inter-American
Development Bank and other lending agencies. Morales is not a moderate by
U.S. standards; however, within Bolivia he represents an Indian national
approach that seeks to build coalitions with other, non-Indian sectors of
society. This makes him a moderate national democratic socialist who will
favor the Native and poor agricultural sector and who would nationalize
major industries without paralyzing the country’s economy. But he is not a
fundamentalist in the mode of other Indian and white leaders who threaten
profoundly dangerous social divisions. The Indian people, while highly
collective at some levels of community life, are also highly
entrepreneurial and the mode of most families includes small business
Morales is a leader whose movement has now toppled two administrations
within Bolivia. In this round he has gained hold of the helm.
We congratulate president-elect Evo Morales on his national victory in
Bolivia. May he remain true to his Aymara cultural convictions and help his
people improve their lives following centuries of land theft, human rights
abuse and neglect.