Evo Morales: the unauthorised version

Ivan Briscoe
16 January 2007

Unusually for a politician, it was a fashion statement that put Evo Morales firmly on the map of world leaders. Days before his inauguration as Bolivia's president on 22 January 2006 - following his outright victory in the first round of the presidential elections on 18 December 2005 - South America's first ever indigenous president travelled the world, greeting the king of Spain and the leader of China in a striped sweater. The Bolivian president later confessed that he had only worn a suit just once in his life, and that was to play the trumpet in a dancehall.

The rebellious note struck by that first sartorial gesture has not been lost in the year since his inauguration. More so than his Venezuelan ally Hugo Chávez, Morales has waged a battle to bring about profound systemic change across Bolivia in the name of the country's indigenous majority. Protests against his heavy-handed rule and rhetorical venom against the "oligarchy" have risen in tandem. Almost all observers now agree that 2007 will prove a crucial year for the country, while some fear civil war.

A new book researched and written by the young Bolivian journalists Roberto Navia and Darwin Pinto - Un tal Evo: Biografía no Autorizada (Someone called Evo: An Unauthorised Biography) - offers the first unauthorised version of Morales's life. The El Deber newspaper colleagues have dug deep into a virtually inaccessible history so as to trace the roots of his political persona. It is an extraordinary tale, composed of windswept Andean plateaus, aching bellies and low-intensity jungle war: a cluster of hardships through which a football-addicted llama herder becomes his country's greatest indigenous leader.

It is clear, however, from an interview with the authors that - in a process they share with many of their fellow-Bolivians - admiration of Morales is rapidly being tempered by grave suspicion of his leadership. The first year of his rule has secured nationalisation of the country's gas resources - a long-held indigenous demand - and a revenue boom for the state. "We've given an economics lesson to the neo-liberals", vice-president Álvaro García Linera has declared.

Meanwhile, the conflict with the rich, creole-dominated business capital of eastern Bolivia, Santa Cruz, has brought threats of military repression from Morales, and of secession by the protestors. Skirmishes around the region and in other parts of the country are now daily news; clashes in January 2007 between police and protestors in the city of Cochabamba - earlier more famous for popular struggles against water privatisation - have led to deaths and severe injury.

Amid mobilisation for and against the government's huge programme to redistribute twenty million hectares of land to poor peasants, and bitter arguments in the assembly charged with drafting a new constitution in the legal capital Sucre, every deed of Evo Morales and his government is being exposed to ever-closer scrutiny. This political moment gives added value to Roberto Navia and Darwin Pinto's observation of their president.

Ivan Briscoe works at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride), Madrid

His analysis of Latin America and Spain on openDemocracy includes:

"Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve"
(17 April 2003)

"Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula" (30 July 2003)

"A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida"
(18 March 2004)

"Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco" (27 May 2004)

"The invisible majority: Venezuela after the referéndum"
(25 August 2004)

"All change in Venezuela's revolution?" (25 January 2005)

"Taking liberties: a review of Naomi Klein" (25 November 2004)

"Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell"
(25 May 2005)

"The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America"
(18 October 2005)

"The summit of the Americas' free-trade farewell"
(4 November 2005)

"The time of the underdog: rage and race in Latin America"
(19 December 2005)

"Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"
(10 February 2006)

"Fending off the iron fist: crime and the left in Latin America"
(21 April 2006)

"Latin America's new left: dictators or democrats?"
(28 September 2006)

"Never let me go: can Ortega reclaim Nicaragua?"
(2 November 2006)

A Bolivian dream

Ivan Briscoe: The portrait of Evo Morales's childhood and adolescence in your biography is truly shocking. Evo came from a desperately poor family and had virtually no support from the state while living in incredibly inhospitable surroundings in Bolivia's altiplano. How easy was it to delve into the past of such a man?

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pinto: We had to travel to very remote areas and speak with people who are not used to strangers. To get people to tell us what they knew about Evo, we had to start on other subjects, anything - the weather, or this year's harvest. Then, bit by bit, they'd tell us what they knew.

Ivan Briscoe: Now he is president, is he still conscious of these origins?

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pinto: Not only is he conscious of them, but he knows how to use the reality he endured to generate empathy with the public at large. His story - a poor child from Isallavi, a forlorn village that doesn't even appear on a map of Bolivia, who almost died at the moment of birth only to be saved by the magic of an elderly witchdoctor, whose four brothers and sisters didn't survive, yet who dared to become president of the republic - has stirred the admiration of millions of people.

In the December 2005 election campaign, people would say things like: "maybe our former presidents weren't such enlightened people after all. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada [president 1993-97, and again July 2002-October 2003, when a popular uprising overthrew him] studied philosophy. And what did he do? He sold off the country. Carlos Mesa [interim president, 2003-05] was an historian and a journalist. And what did he do? He couldn't even govern."

For those reasons, voters gave virtually no importance to the professional background of any presidential candidate. But with the passage of time, Evo's story no longer generates the image ratings it did some months ago. Now Bolivians want results.

Ivan Briscoe: Do you think the deprivations of Evo's childhood have resulted in a politics based on envy and resentment? Does he regard himself as a victim of the Bolivian oligarchy, which he wants to destroy?

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pinto: On the day he took power as president of Bolivia, 22 January 2006, Evo Morales said his government would rule without resentment or thirst for vengeance against those people who throughout history have treated indigenous people - who represent over 60% of Bolivia's 9.2 million people - like animals. It's worth remembering that until the 1950s, indigenous people were not allowed to walk through Plaza Murillo in the centre of La Paz, home to the presidential palace and the city cathedral, because it was reserved for whites, oligarchs and politicians.

But as Evo has found his feet in government, and more so in his speeches than in his deeds, a new president has started to take shape, someone who has not shaken off his resentment, who in innumerable speeches attacks the oligarchy - very violently so in the case of business leaders from the lowland city of Santa Cruz. He declares that their time is over, and that he'll take back and distribute their land come what may. Some people question Evo because whenever he attacks, he does it with broad sweeps. He asserts that the oligarchs have damaged Bolivia, but he doesn't say who these oligarchs are.

Ivan Briscoe: A sociologist who knows Evo Morales well, José Mirtenbaum, says that the president has an extraordinarily large ego. In a Bolivian society riven by great divisions and tensions in Bolivian society, can Evo be trusted to find a peaceful resolution to the conflicts?

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pinto: Evo Morales governs Bolivia as if it were a trade union. The union method is of strict vertical rule, but the only way to pacify the situation in the country is if both sides (civic and regional leaders on the one side, the government on the other) come to some sort of agreement. But his Movimiento al Socialismo [Movement to Socialism / MAS] refuses to back down on its key claims, sparking tensions and intensifying conflict.

Under his government, coca farmers like Morales have been killed by the army on Morales's orders; tin-miners in Huanuni have fought between themselves, with a death-toll of sixteen; a community in Santa Cruz has witnessed attacks by Aymara and Quechua indigenous people on eastern indigenous peasants; and the pitched battles between supporters and opponents of Evo in the city of Cochabamba have claimed several lives. Before becoming president, Evo was a different sort of person, a democratic man driven by a relentless search for inclusion. But the presidency is changing him; power is working on him.

The war for Chapare

Ivan Briscoe: The campaign which turned Evo into a political beast and leader, according to your book, is the armed conflict in the Chapare region of eastern Bolivia in the 1980s between coca farmers and the security forces, supported by the United States. How did Evo emerge as the leader of this agglomeration of movements?

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pinto: In the 1980s and 1990s, the main government objective was to destroy the coca leaf, a target that was given greater priority than eliminating corruption or any of the other ills that are so deeply embedded in every corner of this land; from 1997 to 2001, for example, sixty peasants were killed.

But there was a problem. The real leader of the fight against coca was the United States, while the targets were thousands of ordinary people, former miners and other victims of the capitalist system - in other words, the coca-growers themsleves. In the space of just a few years, these farmers developed a sort of workers' union that was broadly modelled on the old miners' associations. Evo Morales played an important part in this process. In 1980, at the age of 21, he had fled to the region with his father during a terrible drought on the altiplano; a year later, he witnessed a fellow Indian farmer burn to death after being set alight by soldiers, an incident that he has said changed his life forever.

Evo's union went on to organise around 40,000 coca-farmers - many of them brought together by the football tournaments he arranged across the region, where teams composed of farmers played each other or teams of miners. They were practically at war; it was a fight for survival. This conflict caused many deaths, the dead became martyrs, then journalists came from around the world and Chapare became a global news item.

But the right wing governments of the time and the United States only got tougher. The conflict gave the coca movement strength, and the image of Evo rose too as he started to travel the world to denounce what was happening in Chapare. Chapare was his refuge, his school in union life, and the root of his politics.

Now that Evo is in power, Chapare's tensions have calmed. Yet coca-farmers elsewhere are still being killed under Evo's rule [for example, two were killed by the security forces on 29 September 2006, allegedly in a raid against a plantation intended for cocaine production. Current government policy is based on the slogan "zero drugs".]

Also on Bolivian politics in openDemocracy:

Nick Buxton, "Bolivia in revolt"
(8 June 2005)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia's retreat from civil war"
(June 2005)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia on the brink"
(October 2005)

John Crabtree, "An Andean crisis of democracy"
(November 2005)

Nick Buxton, "Revolutionary times in Bolivia?"
(16 December 2005)

John Crabtree, "Evo Morales's challenge"
(January 2006)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia stakes its claim"
(May 2006)

Andreas A Tsolakis, "Evo Morales's project: the limits of nationalism"
(14 June 2006)

John Crabtree, "Evo Morales: the force is with him
(July 2006)

Mariano Aguirre & Isabel Moreno, "Bolivia: the challenges to state reform"
(15 September 2006)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: the battle for two-thirds
(18 September 2006)

A radical turn

Ivan Briscoe: What is Evo's attitude to the United States? Is it true that he has grown closer to Washington in recent months?

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pinto: There is what we might call a tense calm. The US embassy says very little, except when the situation demands it - such as when it feels it must say something about coca eradication. In 2006, George W Bush appointed Philip Goldberg as its ambassador to the country, replacing David Greenlee, who had served in Bolivia for more than three years.

Goldberg is a career diplomat: his previous job before Bolivia was chief of mission in Pristina, Kosovo. He was a deputy chief of mission in the US embassy in Chile, and also worked as a consular and political officer in Bogotá, Colombia. Morales has expressed an interest in securing better relations, but when he is in Cuba or alongside Hugo Chávez, he spares no strong words against the empire or against the selling of Bolivia to foreign interests.

Ivan Briscoe: What about his relations with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez?

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pinto: The image of Fidel does not affect Evo, but Hugo Chávez has irritated Bolivians after apparently meddling in our internal political affairs, such as saying that Venezuela would support Evo if the oligarchs ever try to destabilise Bolivia's democracy. Even so, his Visión Milagro campaign, involving 2,000 Cuban medics dispatched here to carry out free operations on the poor of Bolivia, has been very well received. The literacy campaign funded by Venezuela has also received some praise.

Ivan Briscoe: There's no surprise over the radical turn taken by the opposition to Morales, above all in the four "departments" of lowland, eastern Bolivia, the so-called media luna (half moon). But what are the possibilities of more extreme political confrontation, or even of armed, violent conflict?

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pinto: The constituent assembly, elected on 2 July 2006 and in session since 6 August, is meeting to draft a new constitution for the country. MAS has slightly over half the delegates to the assembly, while the main opposition parties have just over a third. In clear violation of the law, MAS originally wanted the new constitution and the individual decisions that lead towards it to be approved by an absolute majority, whereas the law states that it requires the approval of two-thirds of the delegates [on 10 January 2007, MAS finally agreed to adopt the two-thirds rule after months of resistance].

Such contempt for the rules has caused those sitting on the fence, particularly in the mestizo and middle classes, to join the supporters of regional autonomy, and prompted large protests in the big cities. This in turn has strengthened the opposition, whose leaders are from the upper classes of the eastern states. Their main motivation is to recover the power they lost when Evo became president, but they also now represent all those who are fed up with an authoritarian government for the poor majority, of the sort that MAS appears to be trying to impose.

So far, this opposition is not yet thinking of secession from Bolivia, which would be a process lasting many years. But since Evo took power, the country has been changing everyday. Indigenous power is enormous, and it's possible that 2007 will be the key year for Bolivia: either a social pact is signed to satisfy everybody, which is almost inconceivable at the moment, or the conflict is solved by force, by a civil war. Certain initiatives from Evo's government, such as seizing the land of big-estates owners in the eastern states and giving it to peasants from the western highlands, could easily trigger off such violence.

Ivan Briscoe: A film called Evo Pueblo about the life of Evo is reportedly being shot at the moment. After all your investigative work, you must be curious to see the film.

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pinto: Absolutely, though less for the revelations it might make than for the beauty of the locations in which it will be based. During our visits to the west, I was surprised to see men with faces exactly like that of Evo, as if they had been made from the same mould. I also look forward to seeing how the actor will represent the charisma that the real Evo Morales has shown all his life.

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pincto

Roberto Navia & Darwin Pinto, Un tal Evo: Biografía no Autorizada is published in Bolivia and Chile on 17 January 2006

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