Bolivia on the Boil: ‘Evo Morales Is a Man of the Masses’

“Our (ex) president, Evo Morales, is a good man. He cares for the poor,” a Bolivian told Akhil Bakshi. 

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Image of Bolivian flag and ex-President Evo Morales, used for representational purposes.
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South America is in turmoil. With the ‘Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia —People's Army’ (FARC) announcing resumption of war against the Colombian state, violence (already plaguing the countryside) is expected to rise.

Caught in a downward economic spiral and a nasty power struggle between President Nicolás Maduro and the Opposition, four million Venezuelans have fled the country. Nationwide rioting and looting followed the Ecuador government’s decision to cut down on wasteful fuel subsidies. Peru is faced with political uncertainty after President Martin Vizcarra's decision to dissolve Congress, provoking rebellious lawmakers to suspend him and appoint another leader.

Much of Chile has been under curfew since mid-October, as protesters indulge in arson and looting following the right-wing government’s decision to raise metro fares by four cents.

For fanning public discontent against growing poverty and inequality, the right-wingers are pointing towards Foro de São Paulo (FSP), or the São Paulo Forum, a conference of about 120 leftist political parties and organisations from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Evo Morales — ‘The Darling of the Poor’

Amidst this chaos, Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, faced with violent protests and mounting evidence of rigging election results to steal a fourth consecutive term, resigned on 10 November, along with the vice-president and the presidents of the senate and the lower house, leaving the country leaderless. A stalwart leftist, he blames his ouster on a right-wing ‘conspiracy’.

Whatever the truth, Evo Morales has been the darling of the poor masses.

A few years ago, when Morales was still in his third term, I was travelling from La Paz to the pre-historic Tiwanaku. Cramped in the rear seat of a beat-up minibus, I struck up a conversation with Phillipe, a young evangelist Brazilian pastor and his Bolivian wife, on pre-Hispanic religious traditions. Alesa, a ‘cholita’ of humble, rural background, was sharing our seat and following our banter. When Alesa, a highlander like Evo Morales, found out that Phillipe’s Bolivian wife was from Santa Cruz, she shouted: “Racist people!” In Bolivia, the people of the Andean highlands and the plains have been involved, since ages, in a continuing cultural and political scrimmage.

‘Evo Morales Is a Good Man, But They Won’t Let Him Perform’

As we got out of El Alto, the road was blocked by protesters demanding better schooling. The minibus took a detour though fields and sandy tracks, dipping into drains and streams, blowing clouds of dust into our lungs.

“Rascals,” screamed Alesa. “This is just the way of some vested interests to divert the attention of the government — so that it cannot work. Our president, Evo Morales, is a good man. He cares for the poor. But these people will not let him perform.”

“Have you ever met the president?” I asked her.

“Our president is a man of the masses. He is always meeting people. He came twice to my village. And both times he shook my hand.”

She continued lambasting the president’s opponents. “Our president is doing good work, but people take advantage of the situation by demanding more. Some people make fun of him because he can’t speak good Spanish. He is Ayemara — most Bolivians have some Ayemara or Quechua connection. Obviously, he has some Ayemara influence in his speech. He does not pronounce Spanish very well, as in Ayemara they have only three vowels – while in Spanish there are five vowels. So, the elite consider him as illiterate. But most Bolivians speak like him — so they identify with him. He never wears a tie and speaks in simple language. The vice-president speaks in a sophisticated language that the common folk cannot relate to.”

Evo Morales Took On the US Whenever There Was a Chance

Evo Morales’s story is indeed an inspiring one. A llama and sheep herder, a coca farmer, from the most modest background, he rose through sheer hard work to become the undisputed leader of his country, and the first indigenous head of state to be elected in South America. Having felt the pains of deprivation himself, he introduced progressive policies and measures that substantially raised the living standards of the poor. Uncourted and outcast by the rich city-slickers, and snubbed by Uncle Sam for his socialist, leftist policies, he stood up for the coca farmers, saying that consumption of coca leaves — not cocaine — was a part of ancient Bolivian tradition.

The US government could not force them to eradicate coca cultivation and take away the livelihood of the poor cultivators. Instead, they should check their own growing demand for cocaine. While addressing public meetings, he would wear garlands of coca leaves and have the leaves sprouting out of his hat.

Evo took on America at every opportunity. He even offered refuge to Snowden, the American whistle-blower.

Once, the Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian authorities, under American pressure, denied Evo’s plane access over their air space, thinking he had Snowden on board. “And why not? Why should we not offer asylum to Snowden for speaking the truth,” the English-speaking waiter in Hotel Rosario had asked me. “Has America not given asylum to our former president — I do not even want to utter the name of that b*st**d from my mouth. He, who looted this country and killed hundreds of innocent civilians to protect American interests! And now lives comfortably in Virginia with his billions!”

Will there be a ‘Hole in the Cloud’ in Mexico, for Morales?

Evo Morales has a reputation for being flirtatious. But women invariably decline his proposals, telling him that “either they’re going to throw you in jail or take you to the cemetery — and I don’t want to be a widow or to suffer,” he revealed in an interview.

As we stepped out of the overflowing bus, Jenny, my guide, pointed to the hole in the sky – a huge eye-shaped gap in the clouds.

“That is a welcome eye. Every spiritual place you go to – you are either welcome or not welcome. When you are not welcome, the weather is hot or rainy and it is difficult to walk. When you are welcome, you see a big cloud with a hole,” she explained. For the time being, Evo Morales is not welcome in Bolivia. Perhaps there will be a hole in the cloud in Mexico – where he has been offered political asylum.

(Akhil Bakshi, an author and explorer, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Explorers Club USA, and Editor of ‘Indian Mountaineer’. His latest book is Arctic to Antarctic: A Journey Across the Americas. He tweets @AkhilBakshi1. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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