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?

Morales on Election Day. Click image to expand.
Morales on Election Day

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia—For an American inclined to think the worst of Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales, his victory celebration offered little in the way of reassurance. Even the choice of venue—the Cochabamba headquarters of the cocalero union, the movement of coca growers that launched Morales into national politics and has been at the forefront of the fight against U.S.-backed drug policy in Bolivia—could be taken as a provocation. Jubilant supporters, along with a bevy of journalists and cameramen, were packed into a narrow meeting hall adorned with black-and-blue banners bearing, as foreign observers never fail to note, the face of Che Guevara.

Before Morales took the stage, an official from Morales' party, the Movement Toward Socialism (known by its Spanish acronym MAS) instructed the crowd "to show a good face to the world." But instead of sounding a conciliatory note, Morales studded his speech with attacks on imperialism and neoliberalism and snide denunciations of his opponents. "To those who waged a dirty war against us, I can only say, 'Thank you,' " he sneered. He finished, in Quechua, with the battle cry of the cocaleros: "¡Kausachun coca, wanyachun yanki!"—"Coca live, Yankee die." The crowd erupted into a raucous "Viva!"

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According to preliminary counts, Morales will be the first president in two decades of Bolivian democracy to have won more than 50 percent of the vote. The magnitude of this victory may come as no surprise to Morales or his supporters, who made "50 percent plus one" a campaign slogan. But received opinion among the Bolivian chattering classes in the days before the election was that Morales' rhetoric was driving middle-class voters to the eventual second-place winner: Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, a Texas-educated and unrepentantly pro-American former president tied closely to the old political elite. The polls—and the predictions of most expert analysts—were off by almost 20 points.

Click image to expand.
Morales speaks at a coca market after voting

For Morales' most devoted partisans in the poor communities that dot the high Andes and ring Bolivia's cities, the explanation for his sweeping victory is simple: An Aymara Indian who grew up herding llamas before becoming a coca farmer and union leader, Morales will be the first indigenous president in a country that is two-thirds indigenous. "Evo is a campesino. He knows hunger and misery," a potato farmer named Remedios Quispe explained. "The other candidates are the descendants of the Spanish, who have always ruled over us." Morales, playing on this theme, calls himself "just an instrument of the pueblo" and the MAS a "second independence movement."

Indeed, Morales would rather think of himself as a Bolivian Nelson Mandela than as the second coming of Che. (One of his first trips abroad will be to meet with Mandela in South Africa.) He realizes that his victory is less about specific policies than it is about making a symbolic break—from 500 years of indigenous dispossession and 20 years of disappointment with neoliberal economic reforms and a democratic system controlled by elite interests. "This is not just about a change of government," Morales has said. "It is about starting a new history for the Bolivian people, a history free from corruption and discrimination." Bolivian analysts have rushed to note that, after dominating politics since the 1980s, the old parties got almost no support this time around.

But Morales has also clearly been emboldened by his margin of victory. To cast his vote in Sunday's election, Morales traveled into the Chapare, the swath of jungle where he got his start as a coca farmer and cocalero leader. (Coca is the base material for cocaine, of which Bolivia is the world's third-largest producer, but Bolivians also brew coca leaf into tea, chew it as a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant, and use it in a variety of indigenous practices.) Over a breakfast of fried fish, yucca, and nonalcoholic beer in a coca market, he promised to "bury neoliberalism," to "overthrow the capitalist system," and to "nationalize" Bolivia's natural gas resources. He declared his respect for Fidel Castro and his friendship with Hugo Chávez, who has lately replaced Castro as Washington's chief menace in Latin America. After voting, he ran his hand through a pile of coca leaves and pledged to "legalize coca in all of Bolivia."

Americans hear comments like these as taunts. Although Washington has recently refrained from open hostility toward Morales, it has resorted to cool formality interlaced with thinly veiled ultimatums. In the final days of the campaign, a State Department spokesman warned that "the quality, the depth, the breadth, of any relationship with the United States will depend upon the intersection of our common interests." Within Bolivia, almost no one was in doubt about what this meant: Cooperate on coca, or else—a significant threat, since $150 million in U.S. aid to Bolivia is contingent on its being certified as cooperative in the war on drugs.

Silvia Rivera, Morales' coca adviser, chewing coca leaf Click image to expand.
Silvia Rivera, Morales' coca adviser, chewing coca leaf

In reality, Morales' position on coca is less extreme than American drug warriors charge. The vast majority of Bolivians agree with Morales' criticism of U.S. drug policy—that it cruelly and corruptly focuses on poor farmers while ignoring the real roots of the problem and the beneficiaries of the drug trade. At the coca market on Election Day, Morales called his approach "zero cocaine, but not zero coca." The night before, I had asked him if he would be willing to compromise with Washington on drug policy—by, say, helping to prevent trafficking and to control the flow of other chemicals needed to produce cocaine in exchange for American acquiescence on the depenalization of coca cultivation. "Of course, that would be fine," he said. "I am not for drug trafficking." Silvia Rivera, a sociologist who advises Morales on coca-related issues, told me that his plan is to develop a "light industry" in licit coca-based products—everything from tea and baking flour to shampoo and perfume. The policy, she said, is "rational and economically smart, and above all, it will be the most effective way of fighting cocaine trafficking."

At any rate, there is little at this point that Washington can do to make the situation more favorable. When I asked Morales about the possibility of losing U.S. aid, he responded that it doesn't matter; the rest of the world will come to his rescue. His oil-billionaire friend Chávez has promised to help out, and Cuba has already begun issuing invitations to MAS activists for "training" in Havana. Many poor Bolivians are convinced that Castro will soon dispatch thousands of Cuban doctors to their neighborhoods, just as he has to Venezuela.

And the biggest concern right now—for both Bolivia and Washington—is not that Morales will succeed but that he will fail. For the past five years, centrifugal forces have been tearing Bolivia apart. The left has been pressing its demands—for more state control over natural resources, for an end to coca eradication, for indigenous rights and local autonomy—with paralyzing and occasionally violent protests. The more prosperous eastern lowlands, meanwhile, have been threatening de facto secession. When Carlos Mesa abandoned the presidency in June—the second Bolivian president to resign in the face of protests (led by Morales, among others) in two years—he warned of "civil war."

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.

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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