Bolivian indigenes' movement continues its rise as Evo Morales claims re-election as president
- Branko Brkic
- 07 Dec 2009 03:45 (South Africa)
Evo Morales is an Aymara Indian who is the country's first indigenous president. Think of him as something like an elected combination of Robin Hood, Geronimo, Ned Kelly, Chief Seattle – and Butch Cassidy.
As you’re reading this, Morales and a majority of the legislative candidates from his movement , are cruising to easy victories in the country's national elections. The door is wide open for Morales to continue his pro-indigene policies in one of South America's poorest nations, land-locked Bolivia. Supporters were comparing Morales to Pachakuti, the 15th century Incan leader and empire builder.
Although final tallies are not yet available, preliminary results show Morales has won about 63% of the vote, as opposed to about 23% for his opponent, former army officer Manfred Reyes Villa. Celebrations have already begun – even before the official results are known - in both the capital of La Paz and its twinned slum township, El Alto. Both urban areas are major Morales support hubs. Throughout the country, the voting generally proceeded without major difficulties, according to news reports. Foreign observers praised the election for its transparency and fairness.
As a pre-teen, Morales worked with his father herding llamas and was a teenaged sports organiser, as well as a trumpet player with a travelling band. While Morales has effectively built his popularity on a claim to be Bolivia's first Amerindian president, this claim has been challenged a number of times. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has said Morales is racially polarising an increasingly “mestizo” Latin America.
In the early 1980s, Morales joined a coca growers’ trade union and by 1985 was its general secretary - just as the Bolivian government began its efforts to eradicate coca production. In the course of his union career, he was nearly beaten to death by militia forces. Named an opponent of the war on drugs, Morales told reporters, "I am not a drug trafficker. I am a coca grower. I cultivate coca leaf, which is a natural product. I do not refine (it into) cocaine, and neither cocaine nor drugs have ever been part of the Andean culture."
Morales often appears in colourful versions of traditional garb and he claims an affinity to the iconic revolutionary, Che Guevara. He was the second-place candidate in the 2002 presidential election. He ran again in 2005 and after a hard-fought campaign, claimed a win on 18 December that year.
Over the past several years, Morales has frequently been compared to such populist-socialist leaders as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez or Brazil's Lula. One defining difference, of course, is Morales' ethnic base of power with the country's indigenous Indian population, rather than solely with an urban poor base of support. Most Latin American nations, save for Paraguay or Guatemala, do not have such a strongly defined indigenous population as a national majority.
Photo: Bolivia's President Evo Morales (R) greets supporters before voting in Villa 14 de Septiembre in the heart of the coca-growing Chapare region December 6, 2009. Morales, whose leftist economic policies have made him broadly popular with Bolivia's poor but angered business leaders, is expected to win re-election on Sunday, allowing him to expand state control over the economy. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
Bolivia was part of the core of the Inca empire that was, in turn, conquered by a small Spanish army in 1531-33 under Juan Pizarro. Bolivia's Potosi silver mines were the source of much of the Spanish empire's wealth, financing its European wars for hundreds of years. As silver production declined, tin mining became the next source of wealth for Bolivia, but, in common with many other primary commodity-producing nations, the resulting income from silver, tin, and more recently, oil remained tightly concentrated in the hands of a small group of interconnected families – mostly of Spanish immigrant origins from a colonial period that ended nearly 200 years ago. The country's indigenous Indian inhabitants were – and are – the majority of the country's population, but with far less than a proportionate share of the country's GDP. More than 30% of Bolivians still live on less than $2 a day.
Already celebrating Morales' presumed win, Eugenio Rojas, one of the leaders of the radical group, the Red Ponchos, was jubilant. “This revolution, this process of change, is unstoppable. This is the return of the Pachakuti for us, the indigenous majority of this country,” Rojas said. The Red Ponchos was formed by Aymara Indians on the high plains. Although Morales is now limited to a new five-year term of office, his strong victory will fuel debate over a constitutional amendment to remove term limits.
While Morales' popularity among the country's indigenous majority is strong, it is not unanimous. Rene Joaquino, also a Bolivian indigenous candidate whose vote total is in single-digit percentages, told the media, “No one knows what will happen if a government attains absolute power”. If Morales' Movement Toward Socialism actually gains a two-thirds majority in Bolivia's congress, it could pass measures to establish self-rule for the country's areas of major indigenous population concentration. Previously, it was opposed in the gas-rich areas of Tarija and Santa Cruz, but early results indicate more support for Morales in these once-rebellious lowlands, although Manfred Reyes Villa appears to have won the majority of votes there.
Nonetheless, with Morales' apparent major victory countrywide, it will be easier for him to redirect petroleum revenue throughout the country and government to increase social spending – a key objective of his government.
By J. Brooks Spector
Main photo: A Bolivian man votes in Huatajata, on the shores of Titicaca lake, some 80 km (50 miles) north of La Paz, December 6, 2009. President Evo Morales, whose leftist economic policies have made him broadly popular with Bolivia's poor but angered business leaders, is expected to win re-election on Sunday, allowing him to expand state control over the economy. REUTERS/David Mercado