Today's date:
Spring 2006

Is Evo Morales an Indigenous Che?

Jorge Castañeda, the former foreign minister of Mexico, is author of Companero, the best-selling biography of Che Guevara, and Utopia Unarmed, about the failures of revolution in Latin America.

Mexico City—Evo Morales, Bolivia’s new president, is not Latin America’s first chief executive of indigenous origins. That was Benito Juárez of Mexico during the second half of the 19th century. And Bolivia is not “Latin” America: It and Guatemala are the only nations in the hemisphere where indigenous peoples represent the majority of their populations.

Nonetheless, the importance of Morales’ electoral victory should not be underestimated, both because of its symbolic importance, and because of the implications it may entail for the rest of the hemisphere.

In a region where the concentration of power and wealth has always been outrageous, and greater than anywhere in the world, having a president belonging to the indigenous communities is not a minor affair.

Bolivia has always been a somewhat paradigmatic country: The 1952 peasant and tin-miners revolution was one of only four truly popular Latin American revolutions in the 20th century (along with Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua); it was tragically and mistakenly chosen by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Régis Debray in the mid-’60s as a launching pad for guerrilla movements across South America; and it was, along with Chile, the first country to undergo “structural reforms” or “Reaganomics in the tropics” back in the mid-1980s. 

The reconstructed and aging leader of the 1952 revolution, Victor Paz Estenssoro, advised by Jeff Sachs, attempted one of the more radical and initially successful “shock treatments” against hyperinflation and subsequently against extreme poverty. Over time, neither worked very well, but they became emblematic of analogous efforts elsewhere.

Similarly, United States drug-eradication campaigns often refer to or replicate what from a certain perspective was seen as a huge success: the crop substitution and military intervention in the Chaparé region near Cochabamba, also from the mid-’80s onward. In fact, coca-leaf cultivation was simply transferred to the Upper Huallaga Valley in Peru, leaving behind a large number of furious and impoverished growers in Bolivia. Among them, of course, was Evo Morales.

His accession to the presidency, with nearly 55 percent of the vote and a majority behind him in the legislative branch, may well have implications for the region and for US-Latin American relations.

There is a leftward drift in Latin America today, but it is not homogeneous. Those parties of the leaders of the left who spring from an old Communist, Socialist or Castroist tradition (with the exception of Castro himself) tend to have crossed the Rubicon to market economics, representative democracy, respect for human rights and a responsible geopolitical stance. Belonging to this crowd are Chile’s Ricardo Lagos and his successor, Michelle Bachelet; Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva; and even perhaps Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez.

But those whose roots plunge deep into the Latin American populist tradition, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner, Mexico’s potential new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Bolivia’s Evo Morales are of a different strain. They are far less convinced of the imperatives of globalization and orthodox economics, of the intrinsic value of democracy and respect for human rights, and like nothing better than baiting the White House, and particularly its current tenants. 

The “new left” of Chile, Brazil and Uruguay that comes from the “old left” has not only reconstructed itself after experiencing firsthand the disasters of the former Soviet bloc and Cuba; it possesses a domestic agenda that harks back to its roots: combating poverty; reducing inequality; improving health, housing, education; etc. Its foreign agenda can on occasion lead it to disagree with Washington— Chile did so on Iraq, Brazil does so on trade—but without stridency.

The populist left, on the other hand, does not have much of a domestic agenda—populism rarely does, except for giving away or spending money for political purposes —but burnishes its left-wing credentials the old-fashioned way: with an anti-US, pro-Havana foreign policy.

In all likelihood, this is what Morales will do in Bolivia. He does not have much leeway on issues such as natural gas, US and foreign aid and debt, support from the World Bank, etc. Being too radical on any of these fronts will not only alienate foreign financial aid and investment but could intensify the centrifugal, quasi-secessionist forces at work in the eastern, more prosperous lowlands of the country around Santa Cruz. Furthermore, enormous efforts have to be carried out in order to combat extreme poverty in Bolivia (it and Haiti are the poorest nations in the hemisphere), but here also the results will not be spectacular in the short run.

So Morales will have to do what populists of this variety always do: bash Washington and ingratiate himself with his core constituency, i.e., the coca-leaf growers from Chaparé, where he began his political career years ago. He has started off unambiguously with the US: His first trips abroad were to Havana and Caracas, and he will do everything possible to include himself in the so-called “axis of good” founded by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.

And by not only refusing to continue the coca-eradication programs but indeed announcing that he intends to increase acreage under cultivation—since coca leaf is a traditional article of consumption in the Bolivian highlands—Morales accomplishes two objectives at once: picking a “politically correct” collision course with Washington, and playing to his most extreme base, something George Bush understands well.

Yet at the end of the day, it is unlikely that Evo Morales will resurrect Che Guevara or become an Andean Fidel Castro. His country, which borders on four others, is tragically poor (though rich in natural gas reserves), depends dramatically on foreign aid and has a history of instability like no other Latin American nation. If the US plays it cool, and Brazil finally steps up to the plate in hemispheric affairs, Morales will make news, but not history. Hopefully, everyone will be able to tell the difference.