South America's New Hero Indian, Coca Farmer, Bolivian President

Bolivian President Evo Morales has become a symbol for the left and for anti-American sentiment the world over. But is he really a socialist? A closer look at the peasant in the striped sweater.

By Jochen-Martin Gutsch


Bolivians have high expectations of President Evo Morales.
AP

Bolivians have high expectations of President Evo Morales.

The story Alex Contreras likes to tell could be true, or it could just be a good story. It's a tale of farmers, solidarity and the birth of a child -- a bit like the story of Jesus. Whether it's true or not, though, it would be a good start to a hero's life.

It was an October day in 1959, and María Ayma, a farmer, was about to give birth. The midwife, María's husband Dionisio Morales Choque and a few people from the village had been sitting with her for hours in the couple's wooden, straw-roofed hut. As María's bleeding became increasingly profuse, there wasn't much anyone could do anymore except hope and pray. The outlook for María and the child she was expecting wasn't good. Suddenly she developed a craving for fresh, warm bread still fragrant from the oven. One of the villagers was sent out to fetch a loaf. Unable to find any in Isallavi, he continued through the dusty flatlands of Altiplano, a high-altitude, sun-baked plateau in Bolivia located at 4,000 meters (about 13,160 feet) above sea level.

The man kept on until he came across another village, where he found fresh bread, and then he walked back home, tired but hurrying nonetheless, propelled by the fear that he would arrive too late and find a dead child or a dead mother. But he wasn't too late, and as he gave the mother the loaf of bread, it turned out that she hadn't wanted it for herself. She began dividing up the bread, tearing it into pieces with her hands, one for each person in the hut. At precisely this moment of sharing the bread, everything -- the pain, the fear and the waiting -- suddenly came to an end and María's contractions pushed out a healthy baby. His name was Juan Evo Morales Ayma. That's the story, or perhaps the legend. Someday it'll be part of the biography of Evo Morales, the new president of Bolivia. Indeed, the biography is almost finished -- Alex Contreras has been working on it for the past eight years.

Alex Contreras isn't just Morales's biographer -- he's also the president's press spokesman. He has a large, attractive office in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, a dark moustache similar to that of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, and very little time. He's currently inundated with inquiries. Documentary filmmakers, European journalists, television crews from California -- everyone wants to talk to Evo Morales. Not only is Morales the president, but he's also a South American Indian, a worshipper of revolutionary leader Ché Guevara, a man who refers to himself as the Americans' biggest nightmare, and a man some in the United States claim is nothing but a drug dealer and a terrorist.

Five presidents in five years

Still, despite the brief peak of world interest in this small Andean state in the heart of South America, being the Bolivian president's biographer and press secretary isn't terribly stressful. Bolivia has made world headlines two times in its history -- first, in 1967, when Ché Guevara was shot to death in the foothills of the Andes and then, in 1997, when his bones were found. Normally no one is particularly interested in Bolivian presidents. On a global scale, they're usually about as little known as Bulgarian presidents or Albanian soccer players. They usually don't remain in office for long, either because they're driven out in a coup or because they finally give up and resign when the Bolivians go on one of their frequent mass strikes and paralyze the country. Morales is already the country's fifth president in as many years.

Contreras says that what little stress he does have began with that accursed sweater. In December 2005, Evo Morales won the Bolivian presidential election. In early 2006, he traveled to Europe for the obligatory state visits with European leaders. "On the evening before his departure, we told him: 'Evo, take something warm to wear. It's cold in Europe.' He packed this odd-looking sweater that some woman had once given him.'" Standing next to the king of Spain, wearing his blue, white and red striped sweater, a Chompa, Morales looked like a street musician gone astray -- an Indian from the New World visiting the Old World, with its dark suits, shiny black shoes and receptions where protocol is strictly adhered to.

In Bolivia, South America's poorest country, where about 70 percent of the people are indigenous, Morales has endeared himself to the people with his public appearances. His behavior only reinforces the image of a new Bolivian president who refuses to subjugate himself to the culture of the West, because it isn't his culture. Morales made headlines in Europe, where commentators tried to attach meaning to the colors and pattern of his now-famous sweater. Indigenous people are always puzzling, especially when they're socialists. "I come from the people, and so I dress like the people," Morales said.

The spread of "Evismo"

There's a feeling in South America right now that the entire continent is in upheaval and shifting quickly to the left. South America has always had the best heroes -- handsome like Ché, gentle like Allende and riding on a dark horse like former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. They embodied the old dream of something new, something more just, a laid-back brand of socialism in a balmy country, led by well-intentioned, relaxed people -- as mellow as good rum. If Asia is known for its economic miracles, revolutions are Latin America's claim to fame. And that seems to be precisely the direction in which Evo Morales is headed. After his election, he first paid a visit to Cuban President Fidel Castro, whom he called a friend, and then to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whom he called an ally "in the battle against neo-liberalism and imperialism." He spoke of the struggle against "the empire" -- by which he means the United States -- and of his conviction that the culture of the country's indigenous people is a culture of life and the culture of imperialism is a culture of death.

Alex Contreras says that "Evismo" is beginning to spread through South America. But what is Evismo? A political movement, a new social theory? "We're not quite sure yet," says Contreras, "but we're currently studying the phenomenon."

Evo Morales is the child of farmers. Four of his siblings died before the age of two, but he himself attended all 12 grades of school, has been a llama shepherd, a trumpet player, a marathon runner, a bricklayer, a soccer coach and a coca farmer. He believes in Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and in the four commandments of the Aymara Indians: Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie. Thou shalt not be lazy. Thou shalt not be submissive. Perhaps his connection to these commandments alone is enough to make him the ideal candidate for the job of revolutionary in the cold days of globalization.

At times, Morales already seems to be taking great pains not to make any mistakes that could upset this image of him. On a Sunday morning on La Paz's Avenida Ecuador, he quickly jumps out of a black BMW 7 Series, as if to demonstrate his discomfort at being seen with such a big, shiny automobile. He quickly walks through the waiting crowd, guided by a bodyguard wearing a bomber jacket, mounts a stage hastily nailed together with a few boards and sits down on a plastic chair.

The politics of symbolism

Morales is late, and the crowd is impatient. He's here to officially open the new headquarters of his party, the Movement toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS) -- the same building where Bolivia's constitutional convention will be organized. The three-story building used to house Morales' opponent, Jorge Quiroga. But then a few members of the "Satucos," or MAS supporters, laid claim to the building by simply painting a large picture -- a rising sun, a pale, god-like Ché Guevara and the blue-and-white colors of the party -- on a wall across the street.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was presented with a charango from Morales on a visit to Chile in March.
AFP

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was presented with a charango from Morales on a visit to Chile in March.

Morales would like to see a new constitution for Bolivia, one that guarantees the country's Indian majority a full share in the political process. Indeed, a new constitution will certainly come in handy if Morales is to make good on his promise to "re-found the country." Morales glances at his mobile phone, and then he places his hands into his lap. He's wearing a brown leather jacket, gray jeans, white athletic socks and light blue Adidas sneakers. He looks like a soccer coach.

Ché Guevara addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 1964 dressed in guerilla garb. Evo Morales sticks to leather jackets and athletic shoes. It's the politics of symbolism, and it's the best he can do -- for now.

Four days after being sworn in as president, Morales cut his own salary by more than half. He now earns 15,000 bolivianos, or about €1,600. He rarely stays at the presidential palace, instead preferring a communal apartment he shares with a few trusted friends and he fired the tailor and the laundry woman who normally work for the Bolivian president, saying that he preferred to wash his own clothes. He also moved up the start of the workday at the presidential palace by three hours -- to 5 a.m. At his first meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Chile, he gave her a guitar decorated with coca leaves.

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