In a town square set amid the rolling green highlands of the department of Cochabamba, where campesinos scrape out a living growing bananas, peppers and corn they sell for a pittance at the local market, Bolivia’s president-elect, Evo Morales, last November offered a reason for hope. “You, the people who grow our food, deserve more respect,” the charismatic candidate told hundreds of Quechua farmers in the town of Cliza, as community leaders showered Morales with confetti and draped wreaths of locally grown produce and flowers around his neck. “And you deserve the help of the government,” he told the rapt crowd. “We will nationalize all of Bolivia’s natural resources,” he promised. “We will recuperate what is ours. We cannot give away what was given to us by Pachamama [Mother Earth].”
On its face, Morales’s stunning December triumph would seem to be a huge victory for Bolivia’s growing leftist and indigenous movement. In a country where more than 65 percent of the population proclaims itself indigenous, Morales is the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s 180-year history and the first leader to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote. That hands him a powerful mandate to join the growing number of Latin American nations that appear to be turning away from neoliberal economics to forge a path of their own.
The symbolic value of the election results cannot be overstated, in a country where symbols represent the intensifying passions of people mobilized to end what they see as 500 years of state oppression. Thus the wiphala–the checkered rainbow flag of indigenous resistance–flew from every Morales campaign vehicle; technocratic economic policy proposals about how the nation should manage its natural-gas industry became symbols of Bolivian “independence” and “self-governance”; and politicians called for the defense of Pachamama as they pressed their home-grown solutions for this cash-poor but resource-rich country and urged the rejection of the North American capitalistas.
Massive support for that rejection fueled widespread protests this past summer, when hundreds of thousands of Bolivians filled the streets of El Alto and La Paz, blocking roads, burning tires and throwing dynamite until then-President Carlos Mesa finally resigned–making him the second president forced out of office in as many years. (President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was forced to flee in October 2003 after his army killed more than sixty protesters; he’s now living comfortably just outside Washington, DC.) So for the popular former leader of the coca growers’ union to have won the presidency by an overwhelming and closely monitored vote suggests the vitality of Bolivian democracy and the evolution of a new Latin American consensus.
But the question remains: Will Evo, as Bolivians fondly call him, be able to live up to his promises? The political, economic and legal pressure on developing countries to satisfy the interests of multinational investors–as well as opposition from the Bolivian Congress–could well undermine the real value of this historic democratic victory.