[Marxism] NY Times profile on Evo Morales

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 20 08:02:34 MST 2005

(David Rieff is the son of the late Susan Sontag and a Cruise Missile 
leftist, as Edward Herman would put it. However, his latest book "At the 
Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention" seems to pull 
back from that position somewhat, as does George Packer's. This is probably 
more a function of the power of the Iraqi resistance than any genuine 

NY Times Magazine, November 20, 2005
Che's Second Coming?

The Bolivian Congress is an ornate building in the Spanish Colonial style. 
It is also a study in cognitive dissonance. Located on the Plaza Murillo, 
one of the central squares of Bolivia's main city, La Paz, it is flanked by 
the Presidential Palace, the Cathedral and the mausoleum of Bolivia's 
second president, Andrés Santa Cruz, who fought alongside Simón Bolívar. 
Around these decorous buildings, soldiers in red pseudo-19th-century 
uniforms stand at attention or march ceremoniously from point to point. 
Were it not for the fact that most of these young recruits have the broad 
Indian faces of the Andean altiplano, or high plains, and that those 
gawking at them in the square are also themselves mostly indigenous, it 
would be easy to become confused and believe you were in some remote corner 
of Europe, albeit the Europe of a century ago.

Inside the Congress, this effect is, if anything, even stronger: marble 
floors, waiters wearing white shirts and black bow ties, photos on the 
walls in the office wing of the building, many now yellowing with age, that 
show previous generations of congressmen among whom there is barely an 
Indian face to be seen. The burden of this faux-Europeanness seems 
overwhelming, until, that is, you walk down one of the main corridors and, 
at its end, find yourself confronted with an enormous, colorized, 
Madonna-like image of Ernesto (Che) Guevara, Fidel Castro's comrade in 
arms, the archrevolutionary who died 38 years ago in the foothills of the 
Bolivian Andes trying to bring a Marxist revolution to Bolivia, then as now 
the poorest and most racially polarized country in South America.

"This is a sanctuary to El Che," says Gustavo Torrico, an influential 
congressman from the radical MAS party, gesturing around his office. 
(Though mas literally means "more," the Spanish acronym stands for 
"Movement Toward Socialism.") There are not just a few pictures of Che; 
there are literally dozens of them, big, small and in between: Che with 
Castro, Che in the field, Che with his daughter in his arms, smiling, 
smoking, exhorting. The effect is overwhelming.

And yet, in Bolivia these days, Che's image is hardly restricted to the 
office of a few leftist politicians. To the contrary, it is everywhere. It 
stares down at you from offices and murals on city walls of La Paz and of 
Bolivia's second-largest city, Cochabamba, in working-class districts and 
slum communities and university precincts. In Bolivia, Che's image is not a 
fashion statement, as it is in Western Europe. When you see people wearing 
Che T-shirts, or sporting buttons with the martyred revolutionary's face, 
they are in deadly earnest. In Bolivia, only images of the Virgin Mary are 
more ubiquitous, and even then it's a close-run thing.

"Why do I like Che?" Evo Morales, MAS's leader and presidential candidate, 
said in response to my question, looking as if it were the most obvious 
thing in the world. Morales is the first full-blooded Aymara, Bolivia's 
dominant ethnic group, to make a serious run for the presidency, which is 
in itself testimony to the extraordinary marginalization that Bolivian 
citizens of pure Indian descent, who make up more than half of the 
population, have endured since 1825, when an independent Bolivia was 
established. "I like Che because he fought for equality, for justice," 
Morales told me. "He did not just care for ordinary people; he made their 
struggle his own." We were sitting in his office in Cochabamba, a building 
in a condition somewhere between Spartan and derelict that Morales uses as 
a headquarters when he is in the city but that normally serves as the 
headquarters of the cocaleros, the coca-leaf growers from the country's 
remote, lush Chapare region. Morales started in politics as the leader of 
these cocaleros, and he has pledged that if he wins the presidential 
election scheduled for Dec. 18, one of his first acts will be to eliminate 
all penalties for the cultivation of coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine.

Unlike Che, who was a kind of revolutionary soldier of fortune, Morales 
does not have to adopt the revolutionary cause of Bolivia. He was born into 
it 46 years ago, in a tin-mining town in the district of Oruro, high in the 
Bolivian altiplano. Morales's family history is similar to that of many 
mining families who lost their jobs in the 1970's and 1980's, when the 
mines closed, and migrated to the Bolivian lowlands to become farmers, 
above all of coca leaf. (Limited cultivation of coca in certain indigenous 
regions is legal in Bolivia, and the cocaleros insist that the coca they 
grow is used only for "cultural purposes," but the Bolivian government and 
American drug-enforcement officials say that as much as 90 percent of the 
coca in Morales's home region, Chapare, makes its way into the 
international cocaine trade.) As an adolescent and a young man, Morales was 
a coca farmer, but his political work on behalf of the cocaleros soon 
propelled him into the leadership of a coalition of radical social 
movements that constitute the base of the MAS party.

How seriously to take Morales's tough talk about drug "depenalization" and 
nationalization of natural resources - oil, gas and the mines - is the 
great question in Bolivian politics today. Many Bolivian observers say they 
believe that MAS is nowhere near as radical as its rhetoric makes it 
appear. They note that conservative opponents of Brazil's current leftist 
president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also predicted disaster were he to be 
elected, but that in office Lula has proved to be a moderate social 
democrat. And MAS's program is certainly much more moderate than many of 
its supporters would like. Washington, however, is not reassured. 
Administration officials are reluctant to speak on the record about Morales 
(the State Department and Pentagon press offices did not reply to repeated 
requests for an interview), but in private they link him both to 
narco-trafficking and to the two most militant Latin American leaders: Hugo 
Chávez, Venezuela's leftist populist military strongman, and Fidel Castro.

Rogelio (Roger) Pardo-Maurer IV, the deputy assistant secretary of defense 
for Western Hemisphere affairs and a senior adviser to Donald Rumsfeld on 
Latin America, said in a talk last summer at the Hudson Institute in 
Washington, "You have a revolution going on in Bolivia, a revolution that 
potentially could have consequences as far-reaching as the Cuban revolution 
of 1959." What is going on in Bolivia today, he told his audience, "could 
have repercussions in Latin America and elsewhere that you could be dealing 
with for the rest of your lives." And, he added, in Bolivia, "Che Guevara 
sought to ignite a war based on igniting a peasant revolution.. . .This 
project is back." This time, Pardo-Maurer concluded, "urban rage and ethnic 
resentments have combined into a force that is seeking to change Bolivia."

Morales has become almost as much of a bugbear to the Bush administration 
and many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle as Chávez or 
Castro. And for his part, Morales seems to revel in the role. At the summit 
meeting of the Organization of American States held in Mar del Plata, 
Argentina, earlier this month, he appeared with Chávez at a huge 
anti-American and anti-globalization rally just before the meetings began. 
The two men spoke in front of a huge image of Che Guevara. This is symbolic 
politics, but it is more than that too. The left is undergoing an 
extraordinary rebirth throughout the continent; Castro's survival, Chávez's 
rise, the prospect that the next president of Mexico will be Andrés Manuel 
López Obrador, the leftist mayor of Mexico City, and the stunning 
trajectory of Morales himself all testify to that fact. Pardo-Maurer is 
right that Morales's success reflects both Bolivia's current dire economic 
conditions and the perception of the indigenous majority that it is finally 
their time to come to power. But it is also a product of the wider popular 
mood in Bolivia and, for that matter, in much of contemporary Latin America.

For most Bolivians, globalization, or what they commonly refer to as 
neoliberalism, has failed so utterly to deliver the promised prosperity 
that some Bolivian commentators I met insisted that what is astonishing is 
not the radicalization of the population but rather the fact that this 
radicalization took as long as it did. Bolivia often seems now like a 
country on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Every day, peasants or 
housewives or the unemployed erect hundreds of makeshift roadblocks to 
protest shortages of fuel (a particularly galling affront in a country with 
vast hydrocarbon resources) or to demand increased subsidies for education 
or to air any of the dozens of issues that have aroused popular anger. The 
language of these protests is insistently, defiantly leftist, with ritual 
denunciations of multinational corporations, of the United States and of 
the old Bolivian elite, who are white, mostly descendants of Spanish and 
German settlers. Two presidents were chased out of office in the last two 
years by popular protests made up largely of MAS supporters: first Gonazalo 
Sánchez de Losada, then Carlos Mesa. (Since Mesa's government fell in June, 
the country has been run by a caretaker government overseen by a former 
chief justice of the supreme court.)

What distinguishes the situation in Bolivia from that of some of its 
neighbors is the way that ethnic politics and leftist politics have fused. 
It is this hybrid movement that Morales has led with such popular success. 
The hopes of many indigenous Bolivians are now incarnated in Morales's 
candidacy, and even many members of the old elite, including former 
President Sánchez de Losada, seem to believe that if he wins, Morales must 
be given the opportunity to rule.

When you meet him in person or read transcripts of his speeches, Morales 
seems like an unlikely vessel for these hopes. Whatever his gifts as an 
activist, and despite his obvious commitment to his cause, to an outsider, 
at least, he seems too young, too naïve, too provincial to serve as 
president of Bolivia. And when he talks of depenalizing coca production, as 
he often does, and insists that there will be nonnarcotic markets for coca 
leaf in China and Europe, it is hard to know whether he is simply being 
loyal to the cocalero constituency that first propelled him to prominence 
or whether he sincerely believes what he is saying. Certainly, such 
statements have played into the hands of his political enemies within 
Bolivia and abroad, who routinely accuse him of being in the pay of 
narco-traffickers - a charge Morales angrily denies and for which no 
concrete proof has ever been offered.

One of Morales's supporters told me, "Evo is a desconfiado, a man who tends 
to mistrust people until they show him a reason to think otherwise." That, 
along with the naiveté, is certainly the impression he gives. And yet 
surrounded by his supporters, visibly basking in their affection - an 
affection that often seems to border on devotion - Morales, or Evo, as 
almost everyone in Bolivia calls him, is a man transformed, a natural 
orator with extraordinary charisma. It is worrisome to think what the 
reaction in poor urban neighborhoods and in the altiplano will be if 
Morales does not become Bolivia's president.

Certainly, the candidate is starting to behave as if the office will soon 
be his. A telltale sign of this is the way Morales and MAS, while not 
repudiating previous statements about the changes they want to make in the 
Bolivian economy, seem to be leaving the door open to a more moderate 
approach. Increasingly in speeches and interviews, Morales has taken to 
emphasizing that when, for example, he speaks of nationalization, he is 
mainly speaking of Bolivia's reassertion of sovereignty over its natural 
resources and of partnership with multinational corporations, not, à la 
Fidel Castro, of the systematic expropriation of the multinationals' 
interests in Bolivia. Morales commented to me that "Brazil is an 
interesting model" for cooperation between the state and the private 
sector, and, he added, "so is China."

Only on the depenalization of coca production does he remain absolutely 
adamant and defiant, and in this, it must be said, he enjoys considerable 
popular support among not just the coca growers but also many Bolivians who 
believe that the cocaine problem should be addressed principally on the 
demand side, in the United States and Europe. A popular T-shirt in the 
markets of La Paz reads, "Coca leaf is not a drug."

Assuming there is no attempt to cancel the elections outright, Morales's 
most difficult political problem may be that MAS's platform is actually 
quite a bit more moderate than many of its rank-and-file supporters would 
like - or, indeed, than they understand it to be. As Roberto Fernandez 
Terán, a development economist at the University of San Simón in Cochabamba 
and an expert on Bolivia's external debt, told me, "I have no great hope 
that MAS will make profound changes." Senior MAS officials insist, however, 
that their nationalization program alone would engender profound 
improvements in the Bolivian economy. By proposing that the Bolivian 
government renegotiate its contracts with the multinational oil companies, 
"we are literally proposing changing the rules of the game," said Carlos 
Villegas, a researcher at the University of San Andrés in La Paz and MAS's 
principal economic spokesman. "The current contracts say that the 
multinationals own the resources when they're in the ground and are free to 
set prices of natural gas and oil once it has been extracted." In March, 
the Bolivian Congress, under pressure from demonstrators, passed a law 
reasserting national ownership of resources, but, Villegas said, "it is not 
being enforced." MAS would not only enforce the law; it would also extend 
its powers.

Bolivia has considerable oil reserves and, far more crucially, has the 
second-largest proved reserves of natural gas in South America after 
Venezuela - some 54 trillion cubic feet. Talk to ordinary Bolivians, and it 
often seems as if their profound rage and despair over what is taking place 
in their country is at least partly due to the gap between Bolivia's 
natural riches and the poverty of its people. "We shouldn't be poor" is the 
way Morales put it to me. This perception is hardly limited to die-hard MAS 
supporters. In the campaign ads being run by Morales's two main rivals for 
the presidency - Samuel Doria Medina, a wealthy businessman, and Jorge 
Quiroga, a former president - each candidate makes populist appeals. Doria 
Medina, in his ads, says he will "stand up" for Bolivia. And lest there be 
any doubt about what he is referring to, at the end of his ad he looks 
straight into the camera and says that if elected he will tell the 
multinationals, "Gentlemen, the party is over!"

If Petrobras, the oil company that is partly owned by the Brazilian state, 
can prosper, MAS supporters argue, why can't Bolivia adopt a similar 
strategy and flourish as a result? In any case, they point out, a large 
part of the population derives what little hope it has from Bolivia's 
hydrocarbon reserves. "The population," Carlos Villegas told me, "is 
demanding to know why these resources haven't lifted the country out of 
poverty. And they blame the privatization imposed by international 
lenders." At least according to Villegas's argument, taking back control 
over oil and natural gas would allow Bolivia to get a fair price and to pay 
for its industrialization, in the process creating employment and thus 
alleviating poverty, and escaping the problems that afflict so many 
resource-rich countries from Gabon to Indonesia. "Look, this is not a 
fantasy," he said at the end of our interview. "It's a perfectly feasible, 
practical program."

At least some well-informed outsiders agree. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel 
laureate who was formerly the chief economist of the World Bank and is now 
a professor of economics at Columbia University and a stern critic of many 
international lending institutions, put it to me this way: "They could do 
it." If Bolivia abrogated its existing contracts, he said, some of the 
non-Western oil giants would gladly negotiate new deals on better terms. 
"Petronas" - the Malaysian state oil company - "would come in, China would 
come in, India would come in." If Morales did nationalize the country's oil 
and gas, the multinational oil companies that currently hold the Bolivian 
concessions, including Repsol, a Spanish company, and British Gas, would 
probably sue Bolivia in an international court and try to organize an 
international boycott. But Stiglitz dismisses that threat: "If you had 
three, four, five first-rate companies around the world willing to compete 
for Bolivia's resources, no boycott would work."

Of course, there are strong countervailing views not only to MAS's 
nationalization program but also to any sweeping criticism of the policies 
of the principal international lending institutions: the World Bank, the 
International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank. 
"People criticize our recommendations," said Peter Bate, a spokesman for 
the IADB. "But before the international financial institutions intervened, 
Bolivia's inflation was running at 25,000 percent per year. What should we 
have done, let that continue?"

For Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz's colleague at Columbia and a former 
economic adviser to the Bolivian government, the problem was less the 
international lending institutions' recommendations than the lack of 
follow-up on the part of Washington. Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, the first 
of the two presidents ousted in Bolivia's recent wave of protests, has said 
that when he went to see President Bush at the White House in 2002, the 
president talked of little except Afghanistan. As Sachs put it later in an 
op-ed piece in The Financial Times, the Bush administration "proved to be 
incapable of even the simplest responses to a profound crisis engulfing the 
region." In an e-mail message to me, he said he had "never seen such 
incompetence" as the Bush administration's approach to Latin America, which 
he characterized as comprising "neglect, insensitivity, disregard, 
tone-deafness." Sachs cited one damning example in Bolivia: as his 
government teetered on the verge of collapse in 2003, Sánchez de Losada 
asked the U.S. government for $50 million in emergency aid. Washington made 
$10 million available. As Sachs put it bitterly, the decision in effect 
invited MAS and the social activist movements - peasants, coca growers, 
laborers and the unemployed - "to finish off the job of bringing down the 

In this, Joseph Stiglitz agrees. "One of the main stories" from Latin 
America's period of austerity measures imposed at the urging of 
international institutions, he told me, "is the gap between what was sold 
and what was delivered." In countries like Bolivia, he added, "people went 
through a lot of pain, and 20 years later now they don't see any of the 
benefits. Leaders in the anti-inflation fight gave the countries that 
followed their recommendations A-pluses. But few of the results in terms of 
incomes of the average person and poverty reduction had been yielded."

Many Bolivians, and certainly almost all MAS supporters, are more than 
prepared to blame the Americans for much of what went wrong during what 
Roberto Fernandez Téran, the economist from the University of San Símon, 
described to me as "the lost decade of the 1980's and the disappointments 
of the 1990's." A joke you hear often in Bolivia these days sarcastically 
describes the country's political system as a coalition between the 
government, the international financial institutions, multinational 
corporations and la embajada - the U.S. Embassy. But while it would be 
unwise to underestimate the force of knee-jerk anti-Americanism in Latin 
America, the ubiquitousness of leftist sentiments in Bolivia today has more 
to do, as Joseph Stiglitz points out, with the complete failure of 
neoliberalism to improve people's lives in any practical sense. It is 
almost a syllogism: many Bolivians believe (and the economic statistics 
bear them out) that the demands by international lending institutions that 
governments cut budgets to the bone and privatize state-owned assets made 
people's lives worse, not better; the Bolivians believe, also not wrongly, 
that the U.S. wields extraordinary influence on international financial 
institutions; and from these conclusions, the appeal of an anti-American, 
anti-globalization politics becomes almost irresistible to large numbers of 

If Bolivians who support Morales and MAS seem drawn to thinking in 
conspiratorial terms about U.S. actions in the region, the mirror image of 
this attitude is to be found in Washington. There is a powerful consensus 
in U.S. government circles that holds that Morales is being bankrolled by 
Chávez - a charge that the Bolivian leader flatly denies. Roger Noriega, 
the former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, 
repeatedly made the point during his tenure, echoing background briefings 
by Pentagon officials. "It's no secret that Morales reports to Caracas and 
Havana," Noriega said last July, just before leaving office. "That's where 
his best allies are."

Publicly, Thomas A. Shannon, Noriega's successor, has taken a more low-key 
approach. But the Bush administration's view of Morales does not appear to 
have changed significantly. Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the 
Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington, and one of the 
shrewdest and most experienced American observers of Latin America, told me 
that he has been struck by the depth of conviction in Washington that 
Morales is dangerous. "People talk about him as if he were the Osama bin 
Laden of Latin America," Shifter told me, adding that, after a recent 
lecture Shifter gave at a military institution, two American officers came 
up to him and said that Morales "was a terrorist, a murderer, the worst 
thing ever." Shifter replied that he had seen no evidence of this. "They 
told me: 'You should. We have classified information: this guy is the worst 
thing to happen in Latin America in a long time."' In Shifter's view, there 
is now a tremendous sense of hysteria about Morales within the 
administration and especially at the Pentagon.

It has happened before. During the 2002 Bolivian elections, when Morales 
was a first-time candidate little known outside of the country, the U.S. 
ambassador at the time, Manuel Rocha, stated publicly that if Morales was 
elected, the U.S. would have to reconsider all future aid. Most observers, 
and Morales, too, who speaks of the episode with a combination of amusement 
and satisfaction, say that it got him and MAS at least 20 percent more 
votes. The current U.S. ambassador, David Greenlee, has been far more 
circumspect. But if anything, Washington's view of Morales has only 
hardened. And the reason for that, unsurprisingly, is Hugo Chávez's 
increasing role. As Michael Shifter puts it, "There is this tremendous fear 
that Chávez is living out the Fidel Castro dream of exporting revolution 
throughout Latin America and destabilizing the region - something that 
wasn't done during the cold war and is now being financed by Venezuelan oil."

For his part, Morales is unapologetic and, when pressed, grows more rather 
than less defiant. At his rallies, Cuban flags are ubiquitous, as are Che 
Guevara T-shirts and lapel pins. But he is at some pains to make the point 
that neither Venezuela nor Cuba is a model for the kind of society he wants 
Bolivia to become. Castro and Chávez, he told me, are his friends, but so 
are Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations, President Jacques 
Chirac of France and Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain. 
Morales also makes a point of emphasizing that the era of "state socialism" 
is past. Even when he is talking about the nationalization of Bolivia's 
natural resources, which with the depenalization of coca cultivation is the 
central plank of his campaign, Morales is at pains to point out that the 
model he has in mind is closer to Brazil's state-owned oil giant, 
Petrobras, than to anything Castro would endorse.

When you spend time with Morales, it is hard not to conclude that he wants 
to have it both ways where his links with Chávez and Castro are concerned. 
For while he denies any particular affinity with either regime, there is no 
doubt that these two "radical" leaders are the ones to whom he has turned 
time and again for advice. Certainly, Hugo Chávez has made no secret of the 
sympathy he feels for Morales's campaign, while the state-run Cuban press 
has lavished a great deal of attention on Morales. MAS seems unsure of how 
to present these links. In Morales's campaign biography, there are angry 
sentences denying a connection to Chávez. But on the same page where these 
lines appear, there is a photograph in which Morales and the Venezuelan 
strongman are posed together.

On the campaign trail, "populist" doesn't even begin to describe the 
Morales style. He seems genuinely indifferent to creature comforts. He also 
seems committed to a kind of political campaigning that more closely 
resembles the labor activism that catapulted him to fame than to political 
campaigning in the classic sense. Morales has drawn a number of important 
Bolivian economists like Carlos Villegas to his side, but he seems most at 
ease among his rank-and-file supporters. The overwhelming majority of MAS 
activists appear to be volunteers, and while they seem to view Morales's 
candidacy almost as a sacred cause, it quickly becomes obvious that most 
have little experience in electoral politics. Morales's two bodyguards 
didn't seem to have the first clue about how to protect their charge. He 
travels without any serious security, almost always moving from place to 
place in a single S.U.V., accompanied by only a driver, an aide and 
whomever he is meeting with at that particular moment. MAS campaign offices 
are almost all utterly unadorned except for the usual campaign 
paraphernalia and posters and images of the candidate, his running mate 
and, inevitably, Che.

Even without apparent resources, MAS is surging, and the most recent polls 
put Morales ahead of his two principal rivals. Yet many Bolivians, 
including some who are sympathetic to MAS, say privately that Morales 
remains something of an unknown quantity. Shifter suggested to me that 
Morales is "still a work in progress," and a number of well-informed 
Bolivians I met agreed. The problem, of course, is that given the severity 
of the Bolivian crisis, the militancy of so much of the population and the 
impossibly high level of expectations that a MAS government would engender 
among Bolivia's poor and its long-marginalized indigenous populations, 
there is very little time. It is quite accurate to speak of the rebirth of 
the left in Latin America, but the sad truth is that the movement's return 
is more a sign of despair than of hope. Almost 40 years ago, one 
self-proclaimed revolutionary, Che Guevara, died alone and abandoned in the 
Bolivian foothills. Today, another self-proclaimed revolutionary, Evo 
Morales, could become the country's first indigenous and first 
authentically leftist president. But as was true of Che himself, it is by 
no means clear that Morales has any hope of fulfilling the expectations of 
his followers.

On a stage in a soccer stadium in Mar del Plata, before a rapturous crowd 
and with Hugo Chávez beside him, or on the campaign trail back home, 
surrounded by people who look as if they would give their lives for him, 
Morales exudes confidence. And the more Washington makes plain its 
opposition to him, the greater the fervor he inspires in his supporters. 
But if the history of the left in Latin America teaches anything, it is 
that charisma is never enough. The fate of Che Guevara, who failed to 
foment a Latin American revolution and left no coherent societal model 
behind for his followers, should have taught us that already.

David Rieff, a contributing writer, is the author, most recently, of "At 
the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention."

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