Can Bolivia's new coca-farmer president heal his country?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 22 2005 1:36 PM

Bolivia, After the Election

Can a president whose campaign slogan was "Coca live, Yankee die" get along with Washington?

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Morales, whatever his flaws, presents the best hope for averting such a fate. The decisiveness of his victory offers him at least a chance to establish effective governance, something recent Bolivian presidents have failed to do. The radical social movements that have been behind much of the recent chaos will likely give him a several-month grace period before heading back into the streets to press their demands.

But Morales has not found a way to mend the basic ruptures in Bolivian society. On the main points of controversy, he has talked out of both sides of his mouth or tried to obscure irreconcilable difference with windy slogans. He has, for example, promised to nationalize Bolivia's abundant natural gas resources, while assuring the private sector that he will respect private property—an attempt to appease the mass of Bolivians who think that they should be benefiting more, without provoking legal action or a complete withdrawal of investment by international energy companies. As a silver bullet, he offers up the constitutional assembly that will happen sometime next year. It is, he says, a chance to "re-found" the country, even though it's not clear what that re-founding will mean. When I asked Morales about all the problems he will face, he shrugged and said, "There are problems, but that's why we need a change. The important thing is to be honest and transparent." Even his close advisers admit that he doesn't really know what he's going to do once he gets into power on Jan. 22.

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I met one such adviser a few days before the election. As we rode around Cochabamba in a black hatch-back covered in Morales posters, the white, upper-middle-class former journalist talked about how her friends and family had reacted to her support for Morales: "Another candidate approached me and said, 'You are white, what the hell are you doing with the MAS?' " I asked her why she had decided to work with Morales. "So many different people believe in him for so many different reasons," she replied. "For me, this is the crucial thing: that an Indian will be president of this country."

But she had no illusions about Morales' prospects as president. "Evo has rebellion in his blood, and I am trying desperately to give this rebellion a logic. … He has no idea how he's going to run the country, and I don't either." Later, at Morales' victory celebration, the adviser was gloomy. "I feel sorry for these people," she said, surveying the crowd. "They think everything will suddenly change."

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.

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