Bolivia’s Man of the Moment

June 30, 2011

Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia, by Martín Sivak, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 241 pp., $27 (hardback)


The plurinational state of Bolivia, the republic named for Simón Bolívar, has long been one of the hemisphere’s most unfortunate countries. It was ransacked for silver and tin, defeated in wars with Peru and Paraguay, and left desperately poor and with sharp linguistic and social divisions. For centuries a Hispanic minority ruled over a suffering Aymara and Quechua majority. Then, in 2005, the election of President Evo Morales, an indigenous Bolivian and leader of the country’s coca growers, caused the world, and especially the United States, to sit up.


Here was a leader, sympathetic to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and even closer to Fidel Castro, who opposed U.S. influence in Latin America. He was willing to stand up to transnational companies, initially sought to nationalize oil and gas interests, and try to stop U.S. attempts to eradicate the production of coca, the raw material for cocaine. In 2008 he expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg for interfering in Bolivian internal affairs.


Martín Sivak, an Argentine journalist who was given access to Morales in 2006–7, has written the first English-language biography of a man who is not widely understood outside his own country. According to Sivak, outsiders have too readily grouped Morales as part of a leftist, anti-American clique, seeking to renew socialism and national sovereignty in Latin America. They have not focused enough on the indigenist and traditional elements in his personality and approach. Sivak seeks to remedy this.


Evo Morales is a hectic, exciting biography, dashing around Bolivia and the world, which is more concerned with the charismatic leader than his policies. As in other insider accounts, it is sometimes hard to follow the chronology in Sivak’s account—in this case the events beginning with Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party standing up to President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada and his U.S. friends, and culminating with his electoral triumph. But there is a large amount of detail and inside information that academics and students of Bolivia will find invaluable.


Sivak presents several key themes. One is Morales’s support for the coca growers’ cause. Bolivia is the third-largest producer of coca, chewed for centuries by overworked peasants and laborers in the harsh Andean highlands. Morales led their union, challenging a U.S. drug enforcement policy that gave preference to targeting producers in developing countries rather than eradicating the epidemic of cocaine consumption at home.


A second theme is the endless U.S. manipulation of Bolivian politics. Leaving aside any anti-American bias, Sivak presents enough solid examples of U.S. interference to justify Chávez’s critique of “the empire.” The role of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz would simply not be acceptable in many other countries. Morales has had little reason to find the Obama administration more sympathetic.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the biography pays special attention to Morales’s long-overlooked indigenous worldview. Like other indigenous peoples, the traditional inhabitants of Bolivia have asserted themselves as having a special bond with the earth, and this has been reflected in both Morales’s rhetoric and policies.


These efforts have earned Morales international recognition. In October 2009, he was named World Hero of Mother Earth by the UN General Assembly, and the following January 2010, he was praised as “spiritual leader of the indigenous people of America” in the pre-Columbian ruins of Tiwanaku in western Bolivia.


Some of his hostility toward extractive industries in Bolivia, at least in his rhetoric, can be explained by his sense of belonging to the country’s indigenous majority. Upon taking office he employed traditional rituals involving alcohol and burned sugar to clear the presidential palace of bad energy. He is influenced by nocturnal dreams. He has told crowds that his government is run according to the Inca maxims ama sua, ama quella, ama llulla—do not steal, do not be lazy, and do not lie. Although his political party is called Movement Toward Socialism, it is clear that Morales’s first commitment is to his indigenous compatriots, rather than to any ideology.


This is not a critical biography, or one that focuses on the difficulties Morales ran into. For example, for most of his time in office he has struggled with the wealthier, eastern part of Bolivia, where gas resources and agriculture are concentrated and where departments have called for autonomy and begrudged the transfer of resources to the Andean highlands. Although Morales triumphed over his conservative opponents in Santa Cruz, the regional, linguistic, and socio-political divisions within the country remain. Moreover, in just three years he appointed six different presidents to head the nationalized state hydrocarbon company, YPFB. It was supposed to be the flagship for state action but was badly managed and had difficulty maintaining gas supplies.


Morales also made embarrassing blunders in international affairs. In 2006, for example, he had a serious spat with former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who bitterly complained that Morales turned up the heat on the Brazilian state energy corporation, Petrobras, right in the middle of Lula’s reelection campaign. As a part of Morales’s campaign to nationalize Bolivian gas and oil producers, Morales pressed Petrobras for better terms of sale on the Bolivian gas that Brazil’s industrial south-central region has come to depend on. The same year, Morales accepted the Muammar Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights.


The left has criticized Morales on the grounds that his economic policies are too orthodox and not that different from those of his predecessors. Lula also faced this criticism. But in fact Bolivia, like Brazil, has prospered: The country’s currency, the boliviano, has appreciated against the dollar, and the country’s financial reserves have increased. Bolivia has largely avoided the banking and debt-induced recession in the United States and Europe, and the inflation that has gnawed away at Chávez’s economic policies in Venezuela. Furthermore, the Bono Juancito Pinto program has delivered school vouchers of $28.50 a month to more than 1.8 million low-income children, increasing elementary school attendance, according to a report issued by the UN Economic and Social Council in 2009.


This biography paints the human side of Morales—a hyperactive man, without any private life, whose relaxation is to play soccer. Having struggled to make it to the top, he is a poor delegator. Sivak once asked him why he continued to concentrate so much power in himself, and why he personally made so many decisions every day. “Well, I have to follow the issues,” Morales explained. “Think about Fidel and Chávez—they know every detail. And also, so many things occur to me.” This is a populist formula, but not one that promotes a steady administration.


It is too soon to weigh up Morales. Hopefully this biography will go into another edition, after he is out of office, with even more inside information. But what is undoubted is that he has taken Bolivia in a new direction that respects its indigenous majority and seeks to obtain a proper return on its substantial natural resources. In this sense, Morales has achieved a democratization on par with that of Nelson Mandela in 1994, when the African National Congress won a majority in the first elections in which all South Africans could participate. As recently as 2001, Bolivia was ruled by a former military dictator, Hugo Banzer.


It is not clear how far Morales’s indigenist approach will be taken up elsewhere in Latin America, although other countries like Guatemala also have a history of Hispanic suppression of indigenous rights. In any case, Sivak has provided a unique insight into Bolivia’s man of the moment.



Richard Bourne is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. A specialist in contemporary Latin America, he is author of Lula of Brazil: The Story So Far (University of California Press, 2008).


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