Evo Morales, re-elected president of Bolivia in a landslide in December, is a self-described “Marxist-Leninist” and the country’s first indigenous president. He is a close ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and frequently describes the United States as the “Empire of the North.” As recently as the Copenhagen meeting on climate change, Morales blamed global warming on capitalism. Therefore, it is understandable that many Americans might assume he’s just another blow-hard demagogue. But that’s a mistake. Washington would do well to pay more attention to Morales, who may be a bellwether for significant changes underway in South America.
Unlike Chavez, Morales has initiated the most profound social and political reformation since Bolivia won its independence from Spain in 1825. Stereotypes of him are not helpful. There is a real revolution underway in Bolivia, something not clearly seen amid the misunderstandings about Morales and his movement:
Misperception No. 1: Evo is a simple cocalero (coca grower). Because he got his start in politics as a leader of the coca growers’ union, he’s just a front for the cocaine producers, who are tied to the Mexican and Colombians mafias.
Fact: Morales’s defense of coca’s – not cocaine’s -- role in a millennial culture and in the daily life of millions of Bolivians is understandable. His thinking has been shaped by America’s ‘War on Drugs,’ conducted mostly in Bolivia by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, with its emphasis on coca eradication. Eradication is a failed policy that has been ineffective and destructive wherever it is followed. It punishes the coca growers for the sins of American and European cocaine consumers and the foreign and domestic mafias that enable and promote it.
For the coca grower on the ground, it is little wonder one would choose to plant coca instead of corn or oranges when it brings in hundreds of times the revenue? Poverty is the problem here, not drugs. Nevertheless, it is true that Morales has turned a blind eye to increased cocaine production and will have to address this in his second term or risk seeing increasing drug-related violence in Bolivia. American officials quietly say he’s aware of that.
Misperception No. 2: Morales lacks intelligence and is overly influenced by radicals in his immediate circle and by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and the Castro brothers in Cuba.
Fact: Morales has little formal education; his intelligence is native and was gained on the streets. That said, he is bright, charming and charismatic and his four years in office have shown steady intellectual growth and increasing maturity. He is wily, and not to be underestimated. Those around him are manipulative and don’t always have the president’s interests at heart. What’s new in that? That said, Morales needs to show the world he’s not a Chavez puppet.
Misperception No. 3: Evo is a communist and he wants to create a Cuban model.
Fact: Morales calls himself a “Marxist-Leninist,” and his vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, is a lifelong Trotskyite who once belonged to a guerrilla group and was convicted of terrorist acts. Immediately after his re-election victory, Morales said he intended to “deepen and accelerate the process of change” and he has already moved to seize farmlands belonging to his opponents in the southeastern region of Santa Cruz. But the land seizures, despite the rhetoric accompanying them, are not ideologically motivated. They are about settling scores. Bolivia in fact is a deeply capitalist nation. Small business entrepreneurs are the heart of the country’s economy, and even the coca growers that Morales still formally represents are highly competitive and capitalist at heart.
Misperception No. 4: Morales’s socialist government is an aberration and things will eventually return to the status quo in Bolivia.
Fact: Morales is the most popular political leader in Bolivia since Victor Paz Estenssoro led the 1952 national revolution that extended suffrage to the country’s indigenous majority and public education to the rural areas and began a process of land reform. Morales is continuing a process that was begun then and later halted through a series of military and conservative-backed coups -- the redistribution of power, privilege and wealth from the traditional landed aristocracy and urban rich to the poor, mostly indigenous majority. Not surprisingly, that is a popular thing for most Bolivians and highly unpopular with the country’s middle and upper classes.
The changes underway in Bolivia are deeper and more lasting than any that Venezuela’s demagogic leader Chavez has either promised or carried out. Morales is altering the structures of power and the balance between rich and poor. He has empowered the once-powerless majority; there is no going back.
Misperception No. 5: What happens in Bolivia is not applicable to other regions.
Fact: Bolivia has the same sort of poverty, unequal distribution of wealth and racial divisions that exist in other countries of the region. What happens in Bolivia is being intensely watched by groups in Colombia, Peru, Mexico and even Venezuela. The use of the electoral system to overthrow and radically alter the country’s liberal institutions may be a model that pops up increasingly throughout the region. Watch Bolivia. Evo Morales is on the move.
Finally, misperception No.6: Morales has said he thinks little has changed in Washington since the election of Barack Obama, except the color of the president’s skin.
Fact: He is wrong. Morales should stop listening to his more radical advisers. The Obama administration appears ready to forge new, radically different ties to leftist regimes in Latin America, especially those that do not threaten America’s interests. Morales should work with Obama to make Bolivia the test case of this new real politick toward the region.