The large vote for Evo Morales, the socialist and indigenous candidate in the presidential election in Bolivia, and the expected ratification of his success by the congress, marks a new and fascinating moment in the unrolling of radical politics in Latin America. Morales is a charismatic figure who represents two important strands in Bolivia’s political traditions. An indigenous Aymara leader, he is also the spokesman for the country’s powerful socialist and nationalist current that surfaces regularly in each generation. Contrary to the accepted wisdom, the alliance between these traditions should provide his government with a degree of stability in the political conflicts that lie ahead. Yet, as a major grower of coca, the raw material of the cocaine so beloved by US citizens, Bolivia is inevitably affected by decisions taken beyond its borders.
Underlying the history of the country’s majority indigenous population is the harsh legacy of centuries of Spanish colonial rule as well as the bleak inheritance of the independent governments of the 19th century. These brought in fresh swathes of European settlers, who were provided with land, and reinforced the practice of Indian slavery and oppression. The struggle between the white settlers, particularly strong today in the eastern province of Santa Cruz, and the indigenous peoples concentrated in the western Andean plateau has formed the backdrop to the politics of the past two centuries.
Bolivia’s tradition of nationalistic leftism dates back to the aftermath of the Chaco war with Paraguay in the 1930s. This led to the nationalisation of oil (the first such initiative in Latin America), the emergence of several radical military governments, and a major revolution in 1952. These and subsequent upheavals often ended in violence and fierce repression. Among the dead heroes of Morales and his political party, the Movement to Socialism, are Gualberto Villaroel, the reformist military officer who was strung up on a lamp post outside the presidential palace in 1946, and the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, who was shot in eastern Bolivia in 1967, as well as Tupac Katari, the leader of the rebellion against Spain in 1780.
Where once political debates concerned the exploitation of labour, today they centre on the ownership and development of natural resources. Much of Morales’s support comes from those mobilised in the “water wars” of recent years, a successful battle in several cities against the privatisation of the water supply. Morales, famously, is a leader of the growers of coca, whose labour-intensive production provides employment for thousands of indigenous people displaced from the state tin mines. He plans to cease cooperation with the US in the eradication of the crop, arguing that it is the job of the Americans to tackle the problem of drug abuse at home.
Meanwhile, the heirs to the white settlers in Santa Cruz and Tarija have been seeking to control for themselves the exploitation of the fabulous deposits of oil and gas that ought to provide for the sustenance of the entire country. They fear the arrival of an indigenous government and threaten to declare independence if they do not get their way.
Yet Morales’s economic team has already planned for the renationalisation of these resources, and for fresh rules of engagement with foreign companies. Taking a leaf from the new book of Latin American politics written by Hugo Chávez, Morales will seek to copy the example of Venezuela’s reformed state oil company, which has secured advantageous deals with foreign companies without too much complaint.
Also following the Venezuelan example, he will concentrate in his first year on electing a constituent assembly and formulating a constitution that will recognise the preponderant role of the indigenous population in government. His relatively reformist programme ought to calm the fears of the white settlers and the US, and reassure indigenous voters, anxious for an immediate improvement in their condition, that a new future is within their grasp.
Yet the Morales programme, and his intention to deliver, has already led to the elaboration of many alarmist scenarios. Some see the oil-rich Santa Cruz province seceding from the republic and joining up with Brazil. Others envisage Chilean troops massed on the Andean frontier and waging war as they did in 1879. Still others talk of a US invasion from its new military base in Paraguay, evoking the prospect of another Chaco war.
The proponents of such drastic possibilities tend to ignore the practical problems of warfare in the Andes and the Amazon basin. They also skate over the fact that Morales is not alone. He joins a growing number of leftist governments in Latin America that are critical of the neoliberal economic recipes of the past 20 years and hostile to the hegemony of the US. Beyond them are the powerful indigenous movements of Ecuador and Peru, increasingly influential in politics. The US, already overstretched in other parts of the world, is now being openly challenged on its southern flank, an extraordinary and unprecedented development.
Richard Gott is the author of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution.