Bolivia's hero vows to break US shackles

18 December 2005 |

On the eve of polls that could give South America its first indigenous head of state, Evo Morales talks about his gas nationalisation plans

Alfonso Daniels
Sunday December 18, 2005
The Observer

On a barren landing strip in Bolivia's mining heartland of Oruro, hundreds of people, including miners carrying dynamite charges, stir at the sight of an approaching small plane. It's a stampede by the time it lands, as the crowds rush down the slope to greet an emerging heavy-built man. He is Evo Morales, a 46-year-old Aymara Indian, leading candidate in today's presidential elections and leader of a left-wing revolution that may soon engulf most of South America.

Morales is on the verge of becoming the first wholly Indian leader in Latin America. According to most polls, Morales's advantage over his closest rival, the former conservative President Jorge Quiroga, is at least five points. Despite having little chance of an absolute majority, forcing the newly elected rightist congress to choose the new President in January, congress is expected to nominate Morales if he wins the popular vote, due to fears of civil unrest, which has toppled two centre-right Presidents in two years.

Morales is riding a wave of anger from Bolivia's impoverished Indian majority who have not seen any benefits from years of free-market policies and the sale of the country's natural resources by a mostly white elite to huge multinationals.

In few places is the country's ingrained injustice as visible as in the arid region of Oruro, birthplace of the Bolivian trade union movement, whose tin mines have maintained the state for decades, while its inhabitants live in miserable mud huts. Morales was born there, before being forced by drought to move to the region of Chapare, where he later emerged as the leader of the coca farmers, launching his political career.

Morales's first stop in Oruro is Uncía. Jumping on a tractor and trundling slowly towards the main town square, he is followed by a long caravan of vehicles and by dynamite explosions in substitution for fireworks. Some 3,000 Indians listen intently and in a combative mood. 'We're determined to wrest control over our resources and our lives after the efforts to eliminate the Indians from the period of the Spanish colony. We will bury American imperialism!' declares Morales amid shouts of 'El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!' (The people united will never be defeated!)

'We're desperate. He's the only one who can change this terrible economic model,' says miner Juan Mamani, 45.

'On 18 December we'll crush the traitors who have sold our resources and lied to the people. Morales is our brother and we trust him, but he should beware of not delivering on his promises,' says another miner, dynamite strapped to his helmet.

To correct Bolivia's innumerable wrongs, Morales has pledged to secure indigenous rights by rewriting the constitution in an assembly to convene next summer. 'Indians actively took part in Bolivia's independence in 1825, but were excluded from its foundation, and since then have been second-class citizens. We were condemned to extinction but managed to organise ourselves,' Morales tells The Observer at 4am at the regional coca farmers' headquarters in Cochabamba.

Morales wants to nationalise Bolivia's huge gas reserves, the continent's second largest after Venezuela, currently in the hands of multinational companies. 'We will renegotiate all contracts - they are illegal, since congress has never ratified them,' he says. 'The state will recover the property of its natural resources, but we are open to foreign investment in exchange for a share of the business.'

But it is his intention to legalise coca, a religiously symbolic crop for Indians and the primary ingredient of cocaine, with the aim of industrialising productions so it can be made into food and medicinal products, that has caused the most international waves. Bolivia is the world's third-largest cocaine producer and Washington wants coca crops eradicated.

Most Bolivians feel that, however imperfect Morales and his MAS (Movement to Socialism) party may be, they remain their only hope. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Aymara Indian stronghold of Achacachi, north of La Paz. 'We don't trust Morales. He's surrounded by the same people who have ruined Bolivia and plays according to their rules,' says Eugenio Rojas, the mayor. 'Morales hasn't got Indian thoughts, he comes from a Marxist tradition. He simply wants to become President and we tell him to go ahead because there's no other choice.'

Here all decisions are taken communally, a process that takes time. This is why Rojas insists the social movements will take two to three years to judge whether Morales is delivering, before resorting to violence. If congress were to impose a right-wing government, despite Morales winning the popular vote, this period would shrink to a year. Some indigenous sectors may not be so lenient. In the nearby town of Warisata, the guide tells The Observer: 'If you're a MAS supporter, they'll kill you.'

Onlookers stare menacingly. 'We have to leave now! You're a gringuito [American-looking]. This could turn ugly,' the driver insists.

Given the state of Bolivia, the odds that Morales fails are five to one, a local politician tells me. The odds on others succeeding are far slimmer.