Evo Morales:

Portrait of Change

by | Oct 27, 2011

Photo of President Evo Morales interviewed by four reporters in his home. They are seated around a coffee table.

President Evo Morales talks to Raul Peñaranda (first to his left) and the Pagina Siete team in an English-language ReVista exclusive (flower vase digitally altered). Photo by José Luis Quintana

It was 4:45 a.m. in La Paz. Five men gathered at dawn at a lonely bus stop in a residential zone. They were wearing thick jackets to ward off the intense cold of the morning. They seemed nervous. Indeed, they were, because they were going to the presidential house. Four journalists (myself included) and one photographer, all from the Bolivian newspaper Página Siete, were preparing to interview President Evo Morales (with an English exclusive for ReVista).

The presidential residence was built in the mid-1970s under the unlikely supervision of Turkish architect Osman Birced; after just a few years in the country, he had carved out a niche in Bolivian architecture, polishing his Spanish and achieving great prestige. General Hugo Banzer’s government accepted the architect’s proposal to construct the residence in a modern style with straight lines, large areas for socializing and not a few triangular rooms. Birced’s wife, Füsum, an intelligent and intuitive woman with an ability to read fortunes from coffee dregs, suggested to her husband that the reception area be kept small so that visitors would not be intimidated. Whether or not this story is true, the fact is that the lobby is less than 240 square feet and serves as a gateway to rooms and salons with floors made of exquisite mahogany-mara, a type of semi-precious nearly extinct wood from the Amazon region. An elegant staircase leads to the second floor, more sunlit than the first.

Obviously, Birced had no way of knowing that three decades after the construction, its current resident—who, some believe, wishes to stay on for a longer term than was established in the original rental lease—would be an indigenous Bolivian man born into poverty. The architect could not have imagined that the present day resident—an adolescent at the time—was living in a remote corner of the Bolivian altiplano at an altitude of 13,000 feet in an adobe house no bigger than the modest lobby Birced had designed for the presidential residence.

Evo Morales was born to an Aymara household in October 1959 in Isallavi in the canton of Orinoca, in the middle of nowhere. Only sad and lonely vistas surround this wilderness in the Bolivian altiplano; off in the distance, the peaks of the Andean mountains are visible. Adobe houses with small windows fend off the cold in a zone where temperatures often fall to freezing. Residents survive on subsistence agriculture and husbandry, producing potatoes and alfalfa, and raising sheep and llamas. A few months back, some journalists had visited the Morales birthplace 220 miles from La Paz, traveling on dirt roads for much of the trip. The one-room house with a thatched roof and dirt floors had no electricity or running water, and Morales’ mother cooked using llama dung as fuel. Four of Morales’ seven siblings died because of lack of medical attention.

“The Karachullpa community, next to Isallavi, where I lived as a child, had almost nothing to eat in 1971 because there was a tremendous drought. I was 13 years old and I saw how they could only boil ankañoco, a root tuber from the t’ola bush of the altiplano. It hurt me to see this. ‘How are they going to get by just on this?’ I asked myself. When my father butchered a llama or a lamb, especially llama, families would just show up out of nowhere; my father gave them the feet, heads, tripe, something nutritious,” recounts the president, sprawled out on a stretcher while a Cuban doctor performs physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around his recently operated knee.

Evo continues: “It wasn’t going so good for us either. That year, we only had a sack of white corn, which was our breakfast, lunch and dinner. My mother toasted the corn, crushed it and boiled it with something like jerked beef or a bone; for lunch, we had the corn toasted or stewed and in the evening once again she toasted corn and served it with a bit of meat. The corn was running out. So my father took me out of school to accompany him as a muleteer going to Independencia in Ayopaya province, taking fifty male llamas to exchange for salt and meat.”

Some of the events that he has most recounted without a doubt marked his life: that he slept on the road, that it rained, that he had little food, that he chewed orange peels thrown out the window by bus passengers. In this way he traveled an entire month at his father’s side, perhaps feeling he was an adult already, perhaps imagining that it would be better to have an adolescence that did not require him to travel on foot thirty days without shelter.

Even for experienced journalists, it’s unusual to interview a president. And even less likely to begin a dialogue at five in the morning while the leader is undergoing physical therapy, still wearing the Bolivian football team shorts he used the previous evening in a friendly soccer match. If there is one person who does not conform to any molds or preconceptions, that is Evo Morales. As Morales is hyperactive, he did not obey the surgeon’s mandate to keep off his feet and within a short period he was back to business as usual—including playing soccer and frontón (a game similar to Basque pelota). Morales already had a serious relapse at the beginning of the year because he didn’t heed his doctors and most likely will have more in the future.

“In 1965, the economic situation was very bad. At that time it was the custom to travel to the sugar harvest in Jujuy, in the north of Argentina. One took the train to the border and then to La Quiaca, and then go further south.” Morales traveled there with his father, his brother Hugo and his sister Esther, the oldest one, “who took care of us and cooked for us.” Evo was six. “I was a closed-off Aymara; I didn’t know any Spanish,” he says. He arrived at a camp of sugar harvesters near Jujuy, where the workers were required to send their children to school. “The professor didn’t understand anything I said, and I couldn’t understand her,” he recalls. “She called me Evito, Evito, and then she sat by my side.” It was his first contact with Spanish, the language he would speak for the rest of his life. He lost his fluency in Aymara over the years because when the family arrived in Chapare in 1980, Aymara speakers and Quechua speakers were fighting over which language to use; everyone ended up speaking Spanish.

Asked whether he now considers himself a socialist, Morales replies, “I understand by socialism that there is equality in the society and to achieve this, one needs to have state participation in production. And there is another important point—education and health care must be universal—even if some sectors oppose that.” Like everyone, Evo is more than one person at the same time. He is the charismatic leader ready to recognize some of his errors; and he is also the stubborn leader with fixed ideas who does not allow his adversaries to get in his way—sometimes taking advantage of his full power to do so. He genuinely represents the aspirations of indigenous Bolivians—a symbol of indigenous leadership both in the country and abroad. Yet he is also capable of bashing people with the strongest verbal abuse. He accused his former ally and possible opposition presidential candidate Juan Del Granado of being corrupt and declared that his political party was “garbage,” not that long after he had praised Del Granado, saying that he would “like to clone him.” Evo is the person who has most democratized—de facto—Bolivian society, spurring an important change in elites. Yet he is the person who often pays no heed to the constitution and bends the rules to get rid of opponents. Finally, he is the president who for five years was careful to talk cautiously about Chile, Bolivia’s permanent regional rival, but doesn’t pause for a minute to scorn and insult the representatives of the U.S. government and embassy.

One of Evo’s targets is, in fact, the U.S. government, which exercised tremendous power in Bolivia for the last half century before he took power. The U.S. embassy exercised veto power over cabinet appointments, administered landing strips where Bolivian authorities could not arrive without prior permission, met with senators at the embassy to coordinate approval of laws, convoked authorities to scold them, decided military operations and anti-drug laws; some ambassadors even chewed out presidents in public. Ambassador Robert Gelbard, for example, criticized then-President Jaime Paz Zamora for his “coca leaf is not cocaine” campaign. Ambassador Donna Hrinak said that Bolivians, under Hugo Banzer’s second government, “didn’t have the balls” to confront corrupt drug judges.

“Bolivia is going to have bilateral relations with everyone,” asserts Evo, when we moved to a bigger room to continue the interview after his therapy. “Fortunately, we have broken with the dominance of the United States. In the first visits by the ambassador or some U.S. congressmen, they told me, ‘No, no, you can’t have relations with Cuba; that’s risky, and not with Venezuela or Iran either.’ They all told me that.”

“But I told them, ‘No, we are a culture of dialogue, and we are going to have relations with everyone—including you.’”

Yet Evo has argued with the U.S. government in what might be called an extreme fashion. If previous presidents were submissive, he is hostile. He has insulted U.S. ambassadors and USAID in a persistent and often unfair way, even expelling Ambassador Philip Goldberg. One of the main points of contention is Bolivian drug policy, which emphasizes voluntary eradication, social control and action against drug trafficking rather than coca crops. The U.S. government considers it insufficient, though the United Nations and the European Union are less critical. At the time of this interview, Bolivia was hammering out an anti-drug agreement.

“Nothing happens; nothing advances,” Evo frets. “The foreign minister is very disillusioned. Obama’s discourse is that we are all partners; he talks about mutual respect, but in reality, he doesn’t want that.”

Since there wasn’t a secondary school in his locality, Evo’s father sent him to Oruro, capital of the department by the same name, to finish his high school studies. He worked as a bricklayer and a baker. He also played trumpet in one of Oruro’s legendary musical bands. And finally, he returned, once again, to the altiplano.

Little later, escaping from a new drought at home, he arrived in Chapare in 1980 at 21. He adapted quickly to the tropical climate and geography, bought a small plot of land and planted coca and some citrus. His situation was modest but not miserable, and he was even able to hire some workers. He was a wellknown soccer player. “First they named me secretary of sports for the union, my first position in the San Francisco Union in 1980. My nickname was ‘soccer kid,’ until later it became ‘Compañero Evo.’”

Morales adopted a vague leftist and populist ideology criticizing “North American imperialism.” In his day-today life, he had to deal with U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents directing anti-coca police and Army operations. The experience clarified for him whom he saw as the principal enemy: the U.S. government and the political parties that represented the Bolivian elite. On at least two occasions he was brutally beaten, and he was arrested dozens of times. Those years led him to develop a stance advocating the need to nationalize the country’s primary natural resources in order to distribute their profits to the most needy sectors of society. Later, when he achieved the presidency, he also adopted an “indigenist” discourse that placed a high value on Bolivian indigenous roots and on indigenous culture in general. Many people accuse him of embracing this stance out of pure demagoguery.

“I believe that you journalists have given me the title of ‘Indigenous President.’ I never thought of myself as an indigenous leader, but I understood that I was the first president that came out of the labor movement; this term ‘first indigenous president’ comes from commentators…. Later, thinking that I come from ayllu in Orinoca, where there are communitarian lands, where to this date there is no private property; then, I do come from that movement. In Orinoca, there is no union; there is an ayllu. In the time of the Democratic Popular Union (UDP, 1982- 1985), they wanted to haveayllus instead of unions. I come from the ayllus.”

Since 1988, Morales has been the most important social leader in Bolivia. After he was elected to parliament in 1997, his international image began to grow and he became the darling of the antiglobalization groups and leftist nongovernmental organizations. This past January, he completed five years in office with countless challenges still facing him. His popularity has declined; the social movements that were loyal to him have distanced themselves from his administration and he has lost the aura of a “different” type of leader. An important factor was the gasolinazo, an aborted gasoline price increase in January.

“It wasn’t the technocrats or the Vice President that were responsible,” he declares. “I am the responsible one. I don’t like anyone else to take the blame.”

“I’m not interested in a positive or negative image,” he adds. “I am only interested in the truth. And the truth is that the economy of fuel subsidies needs to be fixed.”

But his approval has been dropping at the polls. Until very recently, it seemed likely that he would push through a constitutional change so he could run for a third term in 2015. Today that seems a remote possibility.

Fall 2011Volume XI, Number 1

Raúl Peñaranda U. is a journalist who was a 2008 Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Editor-in-chief of Página Siete in Bolivia, he has worked as a correspondent for AP and ANSA. He founded the Bolivian weeklies Nueva Economía and La Época, both of which are still in existence. He was managing editor of Última Hora and editorial page editor of La Razón.

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