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.
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.
Part II: But Is He a Socialist?
The Venezuelan and Cuban ambassadors have joined Morales on the stage, which will likely irritate the North Americans yet again. If so, the affront is probably intentional. The Cuban ambassador is also wearing a leather jacket and Venezuela's ambassador is sporting a baseball cap. No one is wearing a tie. In fact, no one in the Bolivian government wears a tie these days. After all, why should workers and farmers wear ties? The necktie is a symbol of capital, of business deals and of exploiters. It's not an article of clothing, it's an idea.
For his inauguration, Morales grudgingly had a few suits made by fashion designer Beatriz Canedo Patiño. After all, not even the Bolivian president can manage completely without a suit. Morales had two requests: no tie and the suit had to reflect his Indian roots. Ms. Patiño sewed an indigenous pattern into the suit. She gave him a 5 percent discount, and Morales paid for the suit in two cash installments.
It was probably a good compromise -- a suit, but an indigenous suit, capitalism, but played by local rules. In fact, the suit is indicative of Morales' entire political platform.
The sun is burning on the improvised stage. Morales glances at his mobile phone again, squinting. He tries to put on a blue party cap to shield himself against the sun, but his head is too large or his hair too thick -- either way, the cap doesn't fit. A man approaches the president from behind, a man wearing a dark uniform and a white hat, perhaps a military attaché. He opens a white umbrella and holds it over Morales's head. Morales leans forward to get out of the shade, but the umbrella follows his forward movement. He bends forward even farther. The umbrella follows again. It's like a game. Morales is fleeing from the umbrella, because he knows full well that umbrellas are for queens or the rich -- he knows that the umbrella could completely ruin his image. People like Morales can never sit underneath umbrellas. It would be the opposite of the kind of symbol Morales tries to embrace.
Huge energy reserves
"Our brother, comrade and friend, Evo," a man in a blue party jacket finally announces, and Morales quickly stands up and escapes the offending umbrella. He grabs the microphone with both hands, holding it in front of his chest. In his speech, he paints a picture of a society marred by injustice and discrimination. "We need women and men, once again, who love the country," says Morales. It isn't a remarkable speech, and it doesn't tell his listeners who he is or what he represents.
Is he a socialist? A revolutionary? Or at least a bit of each? Morales leaves the small makeshift stage. He has talked about the country's natural gas industry, which he wants to nationalize. It's his big plan in a country with South America's second-largest reserves. An extremely valuable natural resource lies beneath Bolivian soil, and Morales has just told his audience, as he told other audiences before, that it's a resource that has always benefited others, foreign corporations, for example, and that it must be returned to the Bolivian people.
The audience applauded, but the applause was for Morales, not his speech. Morales himself is his best political program, his life his most effective political capital. He is a poor farmer and the first indigenous Bolivian to become president, not one of those upper class boys who wear clean polo shirts, attend college in Florida and later enter politics. Stories about self-made men are always popular, especially in Bolivia. It's a country that has always been at the losing end of things -- wars, revolutions, significance on the international stage. Bolivia suffered its greatest setback in 1879, when it lost its access to the sea to neighboring Chile. The yearning for heroes is always more pronounced in countries that are often dealt a losing hand, and the most successful presidents of such countries are those with the capacity to be saviors.
Morales has hardly walked a few steps before the hands start appearing -- hands trying to grab hold of him and touch him, if only a small piece of the man, his arm, his hair, the hands of adoring supporters yearning for Morales as if he were a small deity. He retreats into his new party headquarters, where girls wearing blue party jackets serve coca leaves on silver trays. Pictures of Ché Guevara line the walls. These are the kinds of moments that reveal the amount of pressure a hero faces.
From coca farmer to soccer coach
Morales's old house still stands on the outskirts of the village of San Francisco located in the warm lowlands of the Chapare region, a coca farming center. He moved there in the early 1980s from the Altiplano highlands looking to become a coca farmer. The unassuming house -- a wooden structure without windows or doors and made of thin boards -- looks much like every other house in the village, making it difficult to find. But someone has mounted a blue-and-white MAS flag on the roof, as if to proclaim Morales's victory. San Francisco consists of one school, a bumpy soccer field, the surrounding coca fields, the jungle and days that are always the same. They begin with a morning rain that softens the paths, followed by the noontime heat and rain again at night -- at times the precipitation falls as quietly and softly as though coming out of a spray bottle.
Coca is a good crop for beginners because it's easy to grow. The plant itself is a robust shrub that requires little attention, except that its leaves are harvested three times a year -- and it's practically sacred in Bolivia, where everyone chews coca leaves or drinks coca tea. Morales, who was trying to make ends meet as a beginning coca farmer, wasn't especially interested in politics at the time. But he was a decent soccer player, a forward, and he became a sporting official in San Francisco -- his first official office. Later, when soldiers came to Chapare to eradicate the coca plants, Morales became the leader of a movement. The soldiers would usually arrive in the morning, when local farmers would wake up to armed men standing in their huts. The soldiers had the farmers show them their fields and then the soldiers, many of them draftees enticed with extra pay, would pull out the coca plants and cut them to pieces with machetes.
The eradication program was part of Law 1008, enacted in the late 1980s. Bolivia had become Latin America's biggest coca producer, and the United States wanted to put a stop to cocaine production. The Americans promised the government general foreign aid if the Bolivians agreed to eradicate the coca farms and the Americans sent money and military training personnel to launch an all-out war on coca. The machinery of eradication had been put into place, but all it brought the country was poverty and violence, dead farmers and dead soldiers.
Getting used to governing
That was the beginning of Morales's rise to power. He became head of the coca farmers' union and organized a resistance and protest movement. He was often arrested and prohibited from speaking in public. On one occasion, the drug police beat him until they assumed he was dead, and then threw his limp body into the jungle. Morales became an enemy to the state -- and a martyr. It was a time in his life that shaped his view of the United States, and of the gringos who never brought his country anything good. In the end, the battle over coca resulted in a former coca farmer becoming Bolivia's president.
It isn't likely to be easy for Morales to switch gears, become more placid and go about the business of running the country. Ché Guevara, the father of all heroes, didn't remain Cuba's ministry of industry for long. He simply wasn't a politician and quickly became bored with the job. But now Morales has to be president, which involves setting policy and enduring an endless series of conference room discussions and meetings, all aimed at striking compromise agreements. Perhaps Morales's habit of wearing athletic shoes isn't such a bad idea, after all.
"Evo Morales is a fighting man, a ringleader," says Flavio Machicado, a former finance minister who spoke with Morales a few times before he became president. The country was paralyzed by strikes, strikes led by Morales and his MAS party. "He listened to what I was saying, but it didn't seem to get through to him. Either he wasn't interested or he didn't understand me," says Machicado, 68, a two-time veteran of the government, once in the early 1970s and then a decade later. At the time, Machicado wanted the government to embark on a belt-tightening and budget cleanup program. He was essentially the opposite of Evo Morales, an uncharismatic man who integrates himself into the tough cycle of governing. "Many consider Morales a socialist, but I don't think he knows what socialism is," says Machicado. "He lacks the necessary education and conviction. He's a socialist by hearsay. You must have heard the story about how he formed his party, the MAS?"
It's a story that many Bolivians probably know, and it isn't any great secret. In 1997, Morales wanted to register a political party for elections. It was originally called IPSP, or "Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People." But the election court rejected Morales's petition because he had overlooked a few formalities. He was later offered the name of a small party that had already been registered. The party, MAS, or Movimiento al Socialismo, was in fact a right-leaning party led by businessman and former military officer David Añez Pedraza. Morales and his people reached an agreement with MAS under which they assumed, or purchased, both the name and colors of the party. MAS is probably the first party with a socialist-sounding name and a blue-and-white flag.
But no one seems to mind. "Evo Presidente" is written in blue and white on countless buildings and walls throughout the country. And the name of the party is ultimately irrelevant. After all, the Bolivians really voted for Morales, not his party. Evo Morales has already turned into an enormous projection screen for a country's yearning for the good person, the noble Indian, the just socialist, the pugnacious anti-imperialist, or any of a number of other labels. After all, there are too few heroes around these days.
A budding hero?
The last hero was Ché, who, together with his revolutionaries, hoped to use Bolivia as the starting point to ignite a revolution on the entire continent. Loyola Guzmán, a woman with a severe, serious face and slightly graying hair sitting in the "House of Memory" in La Paz, fought with the Cuban hero. She was a 24-year-old student when she joined Comandante Guevara's army of liberation in January 1967. But her revolutionary career didn't last long; she was arrested in September, Ché Guevara was shot in October and Guzmán was then exiled to Chile in 1970 before later making her way to Cuba. When she returned to Bolivia, dictator Hugo Bánzer had just muscled his way into power and Guzmán was denied a work permit and ordered not to leave La Paz. To this day, she feels as though she were always fleeing from one thing or another.
The shelves at the "House of Memory" are lined with videocassettes and binders filled with witness testimony and information about those disappeared during the years of dictatorship. "The dictators extinguished an entire generation," Guzmán says. "Their absence was felt for many years in Latin America." Guzmán meets with family members of the disappeared once a week and the search for the remains of the 150 disappeared in Bolivia continues. Six of them were former comrades-in-arms of Ché Guevara.
Guzmán was pleased when Morales became president. "He isn't a socialist, but he does want change," she says. "Like so many others in Latin America, we have been trying to be a sovereign country since the 1960s. We don't want socialism here. We want dignity, equality and work." Her words make it sound as though she believed it were no longer possible to overcome capitalism, that Bolivia's only remaining option is to tame it. And Ché?
"I miss him," she says. "But we'll have new leaders. Evo is also a leader, in his own way. He wants what is right. But he needs training and good advisors."
A few days later, leader Morales gives a press conference to announce that the World Bank has agreed to forgive Bolivia foreign debt worth $1.5 billion -- unconditionally. "Of course, a bank is still a bank," says Morales. The president, says biographer and press secretary Alex Contreras, will be available for an interview in the evening. Late that evening, Morales sits in a room in the presidential palace filled with delicate rococo furniture from the colonial era, the windows framed in heavy, red satin drapes. Morales, wearing a brown leather jacket, sits on a gilded couch, but instead of relaxing he chooses to lean forward. He comes across as an actor or rock star who's been brought into an expensive hotel room to give an interview.
Evo Morales likes to talk. The only question is, what does it mean?
He says that he never imagined he would become so prominent and that he feels more like a ringleader than a president. He was shocked by European governments' guesthouses. "So many rooms, so many closets. What are they there for, who uses all of that?" he asks. He claims to be completely natural, a true native. "In Chile, people called out to me: 'Evo, please don't change.'" He says that he can't say whether he is a socialist, and that "only the people can decide that." Ché wanted a society with principles, and Morales says he wants the same thing. He begins work at 5 a.m., takes a 30-minute nap in the afternoon and watches the news between midnight and 1 a.m.
There are moments when one has the feeling that he isn't listening, at least not in this palace or on this couch. Here he comes across as a good and courageous farmer who somehow finds himself mixed up in the class struggle. But there is no turning back because Bolivians need him. And they have high hopes.
Alex Contreras, the biographer, enters the room and nods at the president. An Italian television crew is waiting. But it doesn't matter, because there really aren't any questions left to ask. Evo Morales stands up, a simple man wearing a brown leather jacket. Perhaps someone will remember him some day, after all. There are really only two options for heroes. They fall or they become immortal.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan