An Evo-lutionary visit

The visit to South Africa by Evo Morales, the recently elected President of Bolivia, was an evocative reminder of the spirit of 1994. He came looking for solidarity, ideas and concrete assistance for the future. He left with all three. He will need all three.

Morales is the first indigenous president in a country where a largely white elite has hitherto enjoyed an oligopoly of political and economic power.

Morales told South Africa’s last minority president, FW de Klerk, that 63% of the population in Bolivia are indigenous. From the teeming township of El Alto that overlooks the capital, La Paz, to the racial discrimination against indigenous people, to the Constitutional Assembly that begins its work shortly, the similarities with South Africa are striking. Now Bolivia faces a moment of truth, a historical watershed, comparable to the one South Africa faced in 1994.

Morales’s December 18 election victory was extraordinary in many ways.

Morales was born into a poor, Aymarayan family — one of seven children, only three of whom survived beyond the age of one. He has had to overcome many obstacles, among them a lack of formal education and the vilification of the United States, which in the run-up to the 2002 election chose to describe him as a ‘narco-terrorist” because of his profile as leader of the coca growers of the region of Cochabamba.

Whereas Gonzales Sanchez de Lozado won the election four years ago by the slenderest of margins, but with barely 23% of the vote, in the recent election Morales was the first presidential candidate to win more than 50% of the vote in 50 years. It is a powerful mandate that pivots around the issue that more than any other has driven Bolivian politics over the past decade: a natural resource — not coca, but gas, most of which is owned by foreign corporations.

As he was at pains to explain at every point during his three-day visit to South Africa, it is the central plank of his anti-poverty policy agenda — to return Bolivia’s extensive gas reserves to public ownership. He told reporters towards the end of his visit: ‘It is essential to recover all natural resources for the Bolivian people. We are going to be the owners of what is under the earth. Equally, we will be owners when the gas comes up to the surface.”

But he was at equal pains to speak about ‘partnership” with multi-national gas corporations. It is likely that the detail of those partnerships and their negotiation will be a decisive factor of his presidency. He predicts resistance from the corporations, but, he told reporters, ‘we must remove the bottle from the baby”.

He also predicts obstruction from the US. But in a potentially key statement, made in the Union Buildings shortly after his hour-long meeting with President Thabo Mbeki, Morales adopted a conciliatory tone.

Asked by a reporter about a statement from the State Department proposing dialogue with Morales, he said simply: ‘The language of dialogue is the language of my people, the Aymara.”

It is in this context that Morales embarked 10 days ago upon a whistle-stop global tour that included Spain, China and Brazil. Facilitated by the latest new foundation of former presidents, the Club de Madrid, with its local host partners, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, President-elect Morales — he will only be inaugurated on January 22 — added South Africa to the itinerary. He was treated to a series of obvious displays of solidarity such as the West Wing-steps greeting by Mbeki that is usually only reserved for formal state visits, but also a proposed bilateral agreement between the two countries, and offers of technical assistance from Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel and Revenue Service Commissioner Pravin Gordhan.

Pretoria has developed an expertise in such agreements and, after 10 years in the job, is eager to share experience and lessons, as much as the Mbeki administration is quick to recognise the importance of progressive alliances among countries of the South, and to turn talk to action.

Alongside the gas issue, perhaps the greatest challenge Morales will face is to keep the current elite onside, both politically and economically. Thus, the symbolism of his meeting with De Klerk, as well as with Cyril Ramaphosa — who interrupted his holiday to make a 250km drive to meet with Morales — and Archbishop Desmond Tutu was important for his domestic audience, as a gesture of reconciliation.

The challenge Morales faces is enormous, despite his magnificent electoral victory. The pressures from both right and left will be intense. But he is clear about this too: more than once he stated unequivocally, ‘It is better to be overturned by the empire than by the people.”

‘Evo”, as he is colloquially known by many in Bolivia and around the world, is now a revolutionary figure of hope for the global left. As one senior government minister remarked on meeting Morales: ‘Yours is a victory not just for the poor of Bolivia, not just for the poor of Latin America, but for the poor of the world.”

A self-declared disciple of Che Guevara, Morales is clearly his own man. Distinctive, yes, for his attire — The New York Times snobbishly noted his refusal to wear a tie or suit when meeting with the Spanish prime minister, while the London Guardian playfully offered the striped jersey with which he greeted Mbeki as the latest in political chic — but no less for his measured, calm tone.

There is a steely focus in his eye and in his incisive choice of words, but he is no Hugo Chavez, the voluble Venezualan President with whom Morales enjoys close relations. There is a humility, a lack of pomposity and a gentle charm. Strategically, as other commentators such as John Pilger have noted, Morales will probably tread a path somewhere between Chavez and Brazilian President Lula da Silva.

Much of the exchange of ideas settled on how to find the right balance between social transformation and the need for political and economic stability during an epic period of transition. Elected in 1998 to lead the Movement for Socialism, Morales chose to take the democratic path, playing by the rules of the game, and has been rewarded with a historic, inspirational victory.

Finding that delicate balance, bolstering his presidency and the technical capacity of his government to deliver coherent policy change, and forging strategic international alliances — all topics on which South Africa is aptly placed to contribute — are essential to ensure that the sweet fruits of victory do not rapidly sour.

Richard Calland has visited Bolivia seven times in the past three years. He was part of the team that organised Morales’s visit to South Africa

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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