A Man For The People

Evo Morales is not a conventional politician. He's an Aymara Indian who grew up in the harsh southern highlands of Bolivia. The son of a llama shepherd, he didn't graduate from high school but instead worked as a trumpet player in a bar band when he was a teenager. Later, his family became coca farmers in Bolivia's Chapare region, and Morales used his natural charisma to become the leader of six coca-growing unions. That's an influential job in a nation where nearly 70 percent of the people are indigenous and mostly poor. The United States treated Morales as persona non grata in the 1990s, when he led coca farmers in sometimes violent challenges against U.S.-imposed coca-eradication programs. But today the 44-year-old indigenous leader is a congressman and president of the leftist Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party. More important, he's positioned himself as a serious contender for president when voting is held again in two years.

Morales's political rise represents yet another diplomatic headache for the United States in Latin America. Like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, who has endeared himself to his countrymen by talking tough to the International Monetary Fund, Morales frequently rails at the IMF and Washington for their "neoliberal" economic policies. Morales calls for a "fundamental redistribution of wealth." If elected, he tells NEWSWEEK, he vows to reverse many of the free-market reforms that his country has adopted. "Neoliberalism is the cause of [most] of the political confrontations in Bolivia and Latin America--and unless it is changed, there will be more confrontations," he says.

Despite such controversial rhetoric, Bolivian political analysts say that Morales has tempered his views. Seeking to widen his political base, Morales appears to be more supportive of Bolivia's political process than he's been in the past. Case in point: he played only a minor role in the violent populist uprising in October that hounded Bolivia's previous president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, out of office. Morales is frequently invited abroad to meet with foreign leaders and to speak to anti-globalization and other gatherings.

Politically independent President Carlos Mesa knows he can't effectively govern Bolivia without striking deals with MAS, the second largest party in the nation's Congress. He recently praised Morales for acting "responsibly." The two men's alliance of convenience was evident last week: according to press reports, Morales informed Mesa that MAS members had uncovered information of a coup plot against him. The president offered no details, but did dismiss his vice minister of Defense.

These days Morales says he favors nonviolent protest, but a favorite tactic of the cocaleros he leads--road blockades--sometimes leads to deadly clashes with Bolivian soldiers. And according to local residents in the Yungas region--a lush tropical area near La Paz where much of the nation's remaining coca is grown--many farmers are now heavily armed and prepared to fight Bolivian soldiers if they enter the area to eradicate the crop. Dozens of youths, led by the president of the local MAS party, recently destroyed the mayor's office in the Yungas village of Coripata with dynamite and gunfire. Several people trying to defend the premises were injured. One former MAS official tells NEWSWEEK that the action was taken to "intimidate local residents" into supporting MAS objectives, one of which is opposition to U.S.-supported "alternative development" projects. "I quit MAS because they want to do everything now with violence," he says.

Besides fighting to keep coca, which for centuries has been chewed or drunk as tea by Andean Indians for religious or medicinal purposes, Bolivia's labor unions and indigenous groups are demanding that Mesa change the nation's oil-and-gas law. Bolivia's chief export earner is natural gas, an industry now mostly controlled by foreign energy firms that pay the state 18 percent of their sales. The opposition wants to reinstate the former 50 percent royalty that Bolivia garnered before the 1996 gas law was passed. Populist groups have vowed to start another round of strikes and blockades on May 2 if the hydrocarbon law is not changed. Meantime, the IMF and World Bank have threatened to withdraw financial support from the country if the government, as planned, levies a new tax on energy companies operating in Bolivia. At his La Paz office, under a large banner that reads EVO PRESIDENTE, Morales is patiently waiting in the wings for his chance to run Bolivia. If that opportunity comes, he may find it easier to be a rabble-rouser than a president.