Farmer turned saviour

High up on the Bolivian altiplano near Lake Titicaca, an Aymara priest holds a green plastic lighter to a carved wooden cup containing strips of paper. Despite the fierce gusts of the early morning wind, the paper catches and smoke billows forth. The priest, dressed in traditional, brightly coloured robes, holds the smoking vessel before the presidential candidate.

“We have lost perhaps 500 years,’’ says the priest.
“Mother moon, mother Earth, we ask you in this place to support us.’’ The candidate, smoke blowing in his face, looks deferential.

It is a symbolic moment in an extra-ordinary campaign that has seen this impoverished country of nine million take faltering steps towards recovering control of its destiny. Wracked by unrest, external interference, the International Monetary Fund and a corrupt elite, Bolivia faces an election on December 18 that could see the ascension of Latin America’s first wholly indigenous leader.

Barring mishap, Evo Morales, a former coca farmer and union chief turned leader of the Movement to Socialism (MAS), seems certain to win the biggest share of the vote. It is a prospect that has the US scrambling to label him a narco-terrorist and pawn of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. For many on the left, Morales is the poster boy of anti-globalisation, an iconic figure who will chart an independent course for Bolivia, setting an example to others.

But this being Bolivia, nothing is simple. Unless Morales wins more than 50% at the polls, the next president will be decided by a Congress vote—which is likely to go against him. The outcome could be catastrophic, the country becoming riven once again by protest and instability.

The Aymara ceremony is repeated two hours later at the sacred archaeological site of Tiahuanaco. It ends with trinkets being set on fire as an offering to the Earth. The trinkets are topped by two llama foetuses on skewers. The priest offers the congregation and the eager media coca leaves to chew.

Coca is at the centre of Bolivia’s election campaign. Morales (46) comes from a mining family, but when the mining sector collapsed at the end of the 1970s his family moved from the high plains in the east near La Paz and turned to agriculture in the lower, central lands. Coca was the most lucrative crop; but then the US cracked down on drugs, coca growers became criminals and the sector collapsed. Today a limited amount of coca is grown in Bolivia.

“I want to make an alliance with the US, with others, a real alliance against drug trafficking, but not against the cocaleros [coca growers],’’ Morales says, sitting in his campaign headquarters at La Paz. “Zero cocaine, but not zero coca.

“For the US, the war on drugs is an excuse to better control other countries. In Latin America it is narco- terrorism. In Iraq, preventative wars and weapons of mass destruction. And what do they really want? To control the oil.’’ Bolivia suffers from what one analyst terms the “resource curse’‘: it has oil. And natural gas. It used to have silver, but the Spanish took that to finance their empire.

Little has changed, a fact that Morales takes care to stress in his stump speech. “This election can change history,’’ he tells people gathered in Tiahuanaco’s town square. “If we don’t win, neo- liberalism and colonialism will deepen.’’ The small crowd waves the blue-and-black flags of MAS and chants one of many frankly optimistic slogans: “Evo, Evo, ya eres presidente (Evo, you’re already president).’‘

The Morales campaign event is a finely tuned machine. It starts with a procession into the square, a garlanded Morales with confetti in his hair leading party activists. After much hullabaloo, he takes the microphone. An assured speaker, his voice is booming, confident. Before a crowd he is warm and likeable and always connects with the people.

The first section of his campaign speech is on corrupt politicians. “I didn’t want to be a politician because politicians are thieves,’’ he tells the crowd in Viacha. “But then I realised that politics is the science of serving the people.’‘

Then it is on to policy, and neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism, the nationalisation of natural resources, indigenous rights, the need for a new constituent assembly, the appeal for national unity, the end of the old corrupt ways of doing things, the new beginning. He exhorts his supporters to help break the cycle of disappointment, disillusion and disaffection that afflicts democracy in Bolivia.

The first time we meet I ride in his car to La Paz from the airport. He uses two cellphones, issuing instructions about press releases, meetings and policy initiatives and dealing with the latest mishap—a party deputy and ministerial hopeful telling the media that if Morales did not become president there would be an insurrection. “Cabrona!’’ he exclaims—“Bastard!’’ But he moves on.

He returns to one of his campaign themes when we talk again—that he is a man of the people, that Bolivia is in his blood. “I studied at the best school, the university of poverty, exclusion, marginalisation, hate. We too have rights. And this is the proposal that we put forward, that Bolivia can be changed, there can be a democratic and cultural revolution.’‘

Mauricio Bacardit is a Jesuit priest who has been Morales’s mentor for 20 years, watching over him as he rose to become leader of the coca growers’ union. When I ask him whether he gives Morales spiritual advice he almost chokes on his whisky. “No, not spiritual advice. Power. Evo is a leader, leadership runs through him. He has responded to what the masses wanted.’‘

He tells me a joke about the 2002 presidential elections, when Morales lost by two points. “Evo is walking along the street and sees some children playing football. When they see him they start chanting, ‘Evo! Evo!’ He says why are you cheering me? They say, because daddy says that if you win the election we’ll all move to Miami.’‘

It is a tale that could easily be heard in Venezuela, where the advent of Chavez has led many of the middle classes to threaten to leave the country. Yet, at best, Morales is more like the Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a moderate in radical clothing. He does share one characteristic with Chavez; he does not look like the rest of Latin America’s ruling elite. “I have friends who call him an indio de meirda [shitty Indian],’’ says Bacardit. “Evo is a new image for Bolivia.’‘

Yet, casting around for an opinion in Bolivia I met no one who thought the next government would last more than six months. If Morales wins, the right and the US will force him out, or the same social movements that brought down the past two governments will take to the streets; if the right wins, there will be an uprising from the left.

“Bolivia is a tragedy that we’ve been living since 1985,’’ says Bacardit. “Whoever wins, we’re going to have problems.’’—Â

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