A Native Speaker

On the ballot, he is listed as Sixto Jumpiri, one more candidate in the Bolivian national elections later this month. But to the Aymara and Quechua Indians of the Bolivian highlands, he is better known as Apu Mallku, or Supreme Leader. Not long ago, that millennial honorific might have sounded quaint. Today, traditional leaders like Jumpiri command a new brand of respect--and clout. The Apu Mallku's mandate is to oversee the vast network of ayllus, an ancient Andean system of governing councils that predates even the Inca empire. In the impoverished and neglected Bolivian countryside, the ayllus have made a comeback, their principles of communal cooperation and self-governance filling a void left by a fumbling state.

But Jumpiri, who dons a white-feathered cowboy hat and a traditional rainbow-colored poncho when he visits his constituents, wants more than respect in the highlands. He is demanding a stake in national power. That's why he is running for Congress on the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS in Spanish) ticket, a broad coalition of leftist unions and indigenous groups led by Evo Morales, a charismatic congressman and coca-farming leader who may be on the verge of becoming Bolivia's first-ever indigenous president. "This country has always been run by the white European minority," Jumpiri says. "With Evo, we have a chance to make a change."

The change is already underway. Across Latin America, indigenous movements are surging in tandem with the more widespread rejection of neoliberal economic policies. Already among the region's poorest citizens, plagued by continuing discrimination and attacks on their land rights, indigenous communities have led the region in the backlash against globalization. This is not just a cultural revival but a vibrant, sometimes explosive, outpouring of civic and political activism that is wielding greater influence over the region's affairs, challenging centuries-old political arrangements, and helping to reshape the way Latin Americans see themselves. Since 2000, indigenous uprisings have been instrumental in toppling four presidents in Ecuador and Bolivia, two of them in the past year alone. A quieter upheaval is taking hold in places like Colombia, Venezuela and Guatemala, where burnished faces are gaining visibility in federal and local governments that were once as white as the Andean slopes.

Until now, the most celebrated symbol of Latin American indigenous assertion has been Sub-Commandante Marcos, the shadowy, balaclava-clad Zapatista guerrilla who sparked a revolt in rural Mexico in 1994. But no one represents the new activism better than Morales, an Aymara Indian and longtime farmer of coca, the waxy-leafed plant from which cocaine is made. Morales parlayed his cachet as a "cocalero" leader into national headlines in 2002, narrowly losing the Bolivian presidency. He's since broadened his agenda to include changing Bolivia's neoliberal economic model and boosting indigenous participation in politics.

If Morales wins the Dec. 18 election (he holds a slim lead, favored by a third of the electorate), he will become the first full-blooded Indian president of a Latin American nation since Mexico's Benito Juarez, who served two four-year terms in the mid-1800s. Already the stocky, jet-haired man whom Bolivians know as "Evo" is becoming an international icon. "Morales will inspire indigenous people everywhere," says Alvaro Bello, a social anthropologist and --indigenous expert with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America. If elected, says Bello, "he will have broken 500 years of indigenous exclusion."

His victory remains in question, but the exclusion is not. A World Bank study released last month on indigenous peoples in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru found that poverty rates remain dismally unchanged. Overall, indigenous people are 13 to 30 percent more likely to be poorer than non-Indians. In Mexico, they earned barely a quarter the wages of their fair-skinned compatriots in 2002--down from a third in 1989. The study shows that even educated Indians earn "considerably less" than their nonindigenous counterparts. "We can't come out and say it with economic models," says Gillette Hall, a coauthor of the bank's study, "but most people would say that's probably due to discrimination."

Not all the news is so grim. In Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities has its own party, the Pachakutik (the Quechua word for "reawakening"), which in 2002 was a leading partner in a coalition that elected president Lucio Gutierrez. Two indigenous leaders subsequently were appointed to the cabinet. (They later bolted, and indigenous protesters helped force Gutierrez out of office in April for agreeing to policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund.) Indigenous parties have also emerged in Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Guyana, Mexico and Nicaragua. In southern Chile, more than a dozen towns are now in the hands of Mapuche mayors. In Colombia and Venezuela, where they make up only a fraction of the total population, native peoples have elected governors and snatched legislative seats from older, traditional parties. In many places voters see indigenous candidates as more committed to reform.

Indigenous power is hardly risk-free. The election of Alejandro Toledo as president of Peru in 2001 was hailed as a watershed for native Latin Americans. Toledo, a "mestizo," deliberately played the ethnic card to garner votes. Now his constituents are feeling betrayed. Promised constitutional reforms to better the lot of indigenous people, such as strengthening land rights, have never materialized. A quota law requiring political parties to reserve at least 15 percent of their slates for local officials has failed to elect new leaders. Currently, there is only one Indian in Peru's 120-member Congress.

It's little wonder so many native Latin Americans have their eyes on Bolivia, where 36 distinct native American groups make up 70 percent of the national population--the largest indigenous majority in the hemisphere. It was only in 1952 that Indians won the right to vote and to go to school. Even today, racism persists in the highest tiers of society, business and politics. "Bolivia almost has an apartheid system. Not legal, but in practice it's about the same," says Alvaro Garcia, a sociologist and Morales's running mate on the MAS slate.

In 1995, a determined group of Quechua and Aymara coca growers set out to change the rules. Under Morales's leadership they founded MAS, and seven years later saw the charismatic cocalero come within 42,000 votes of winning the presidency. He got a serendipitous lift from former U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha, who caused national outrage when he declared that Washington might cut off Bolivian aid if Morales won. And the loser proved he had extraordinary coattails. About 30 percent of Bolivia's 154 seats in Congress went to indigenous candidates in 2002. Polls show that the proportion could rise to at least 40 percent in this year's balloting.

But Morales aims to shake up much more than Congress. His ardent defense of Bolivian coca farmers--whose illegal harvests join Colombia's and Peru's in providing the raw material for the cocaine trade--and his cordial relations with the Yankee-bashing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have already rattled Washington. Morales is unapologetic on both counts. He scoffs at suggestions he is being bankrolled by Chavez as "ridiculous." And while most Bolivians denounce the drug trade, coca is the "sacred leaf" to the indigenous population, used in their religious ceremonies since 3000 B.C. Many of them see Morales's steely defense of the crop as a courageous stand for national sovereignty.

The country's investors may not be so impressed. Although Morales vows he will not expropriate foreign assets, he says he will levy a 50 percent royalty on the vital natural-gas industry and enforce a tighter rein over all business transactions. He has little doubt about how to use that windfall. "For Bolivia's indigenous-peoples majority, who have been abandoned, forgotten, abused, we will give them the power to change this country," says the candidate.

If, as is likely, none of the candidates wins an outright majority of the popular vote, the decision falls to the national Congress, where former president Jorge Quiroga's Podemos party is expected to take the majority of seats. Mindful perhaps of the fate of two previous presidents, who were brought to their knees by indigenous protests, Quiroga has publicly stated he would not accept the presidency if he loses the popular vote. That alone speaks volumes about the changes Latin American politics has undergone. Whatever the outcome of the Bolivian elections, the indigenous juggernaut has made its presence felt.