LA PAZ—Inside La Paz’s bullet-pocked National Congress building, the gloomy halls are filled with portraits of the great and good of European descent, reflecting who has ruled Latin America’s poorest and most racially polarised country since independence in 1825.
At the end of a corridor is a room full of images of Che Guevara. Among them hangs a poster with the slogan, “I’d rather be an illiterate Indian than a North American millionaire”.
Thirty-eight years after his death in the foothills of the Bolivian Andes, trying to spark a revolution, the Marxist soldier of fortune’s boast reverberates in the dilemma now facing the nation.
In an election yesterday, Bolivia chose an indigenous Aymara Indian and radical former coca farmer over a Harvard-educated, American-married member of the business elite.
The two leading presidential candidates, Evo Morales and Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga personified the bitter divide between the European-descended haves and the majority indigenous have-nots, in Bolivia and beyond.
Yesterday Quiroga conceded to Morales to become Bolivia’s first indigenous leader after Morales claimed about 50 per cent of the vote.
It means the nation will join Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and possibly Mexico next year in the rebirth of Latin American socialism, much to the chagrin of the United States.
Bolivia was in the vanguard of nations that set up neoliberal privatisation measures that swept Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s, known as the Washington consensus. These policies helped to control hyperinflation but failed to deliver prosperity to all but the business elite.
Bolivia contains a wealth of natural resources, yet an estimated two-thirds of Bolivians still live in poverty. Its majority indigenous population suffer disproportionately.
Anger and disbelief that energy wealth had failed to lift them out of poverty has brought the country to the edge of disintegration, with two Presidents forced out of office inside two years by mass social protests.
These demonstrations catapulted Morales, a trade unionist and campaigner for the legalisation of coca-leaf production, into the spotlight.
His commitment to nationalise the gas and oil industry, taking back control from the multinationals, has become a rallying point for the poor.
Such is the anti-American mood among Bolivians that a warning from the United States Embassy backfired. During the 2002 vote, they warned they would withdraw all aid from the country if Morales was elected, and that sent him surging in the polls.
Privately, Washington has labelled the 38-year-old a narco-terrorist, compared him to Fidel Castro and believes he may relaunch Che’s revolution.
The US State Department accused Morales of receiving cash and possibly arms from the hated Venezuelan left-wing leader Hugo Chavez. The tactics were echoed by the Quiroga camp as they tried to close the gap in the polls.
Fernando Messmere, a senior aide to Quiroga, says Morales’ black and white, belligerent style is a danger to the existence of Bolivia.
“His proposals divide Bolivia and isolate it,” he said. “He’ll turn Bolivia into a drugs paradise.”
He revels in his role as a White House hate figure but professes himself open to negotiation with the US on its policy to combat the cocaine trade.
Morales is as eloquent a defender of the coca growers of Chapare, which produces 90 per cent of the country’s coca yield. His family were victims of Bolivia’s first skirmishes with globalisation that caused closure of the tin mines in his native Oruro, and an enforced migration to the lowlands to farm llamas and later coca leaf.
However, he insists that demand for cocaine is cut before supply.
He said recently: “I’m willing to sign an agreement to combat narco-trafficking. If they cut demand we’ll cut supply but at the moment it’s not the traffickers in jail, it’s the farmers.”
Few observers, even within Bolivia, know how seriously to take his vow to depenalise coca leaf production. This has not stopped his US critics, foreign investors and multinationals from being terrified of the second plank of his campaign: to nationalise the hydrocarbon industry. The scaremongers expect him to expropriate oil and gas facilities within months of taking office. They claim this will land Bolivia in an international court battle with oil companies, drive out foreign investment and destroy the stricken economy.
But the reality is very different, says Carlos Villegas, Morales’ main economic adviser. “What we are talking about is changing the rules.
“Bolivia owns the hydrocarbons only while they’re in the ground; the minute they’re extracted they belong to the transnationals and they can price them as they see fit.”
HIGHS AND LOWS
POPULATION 9.4 million. Aymara, Quechua and Guarani Indians outnumber Bolivians of European descent by three to one. Spanish, Quechua and Aymara are the official languages.