From a Tough Past to a Daunting Future in Impoverished Bolivia

Times Staff Writer

He was reared in an adobe hut with a thatched roof. Four of his siblings didn’t survive childhood. He only made it past a difficult birth because a traditional healer intervened.

As a boy, he herded his family’s llamas, kicked soccer balls on a dusty field and scavenged orange peels tossed by travelers in passing buses. “One of my great aspirations was to travel in one of those buses,” he says.

Today, Evo Morales crisscrosses Bolivia in a private plane and faces the daunting task of meeting the expectations he has raised among the country’s angry masses.


The 46-year-old former bricklayer, baker, sugar cane cutter and trumpet player in a traveling band is poised to be Bolivia’s next leader, the first Indian president in the nation’s history.

Unofficial returns show Morales with about 51% of the vote, which, if confirmed, would give the stocky, wide-grinned union man and his Movement to Socialism the largest vote margin of any Bolivian president since the country’s shaky return to democracy in 1982 after a series of military governments.

Heads of state can come and go quickly in Bolivia, where popular protests have chased out two presidents since 2003. Dozens of military coups mark the nation’s contentious history.

So already, some community leaders are talking about giving Morales 90 days from his Jan. 22 inauguration to make good on his many promises, among them nationalizing the oil and gas industries, convening a constitutional assembly and revamping the entire government and economic structure.

“This is not about one or three months,” Morales responded Monday, noting that foreign exploitation of Bolivia’s resources and people dates to the Spanish conquest. “One can’t erase a debt of 500 years in that time.”

Morales, an admirer of Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, also opposes U.S. anti-drug efforts. He has pledged to be a “nightmare” for U.S. policymakers.


In wind-swept hamlets on the barren Altiplano, the high-plains indigenous homeland where Morales was born, people speak bitterly about U.S.-backed “neoliberal” economic policies that, in their view, have brought even greater poverty to South America’s poorest nation. That theme was a mantra at every Morales campaign stop.

Whether Morales and his team of economic neophytes will come up with something better is an open question. He doesn’t face an easy path. His party is unlikely to have a majority in Congress. He is not especially popular in the relatively prosperous lowlands to the east, which include the city of Santa Cruz.

Morales said Monday that his government would respect private property, an apparent effort to reassure investors and property holders. He has said before that foreign investors would be welcome but that his administration would attempt to extract the best deals for Bolivia.

The U.S. Embassy appeared to recognize the inevitable. “We congratulate Evo Morales on his apparent victory,” it said Monday. “The quality of our relationship will depend on the policies of the new government on a wide range of issues, most importantly on strong respect for democratic institutions.”

Earlier in the day, Morales said Washington wasn’t among the many capitals that had been in contact to congratulate him. “I don’t expect anything from that government,” he snapped.

With so much anti-U.S. sentiment here, it was difficult for Morales’ chief rival, Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, a U.S.-educated former interim president, to make much headway. He was often accused of being Washington’s candidate. The early results showed him with about 31% of the vote, some 20 points behind Morales. The dejected candidate conceded and congratulated Morales.


Among its other challenges abroad, the Bush administration must now live with Morales as a head of state in South America’s fractious heartland. His rise has caused ripples in a region where left-of-center but generally pragmatic presidents have come to office in recent years, in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

“Did Evo Morales win in Bolivia or did Hugo Chavez open his first outlet ... in the Andean region?” asked the conservative Argentine daily La Nacion.

The lightning-rod issue in U.S.-Bolivian relations remains the cultivation of the coca leaf, the raw ingredient in cocaine. Washington views the coca-eradication program it backs here as a great success in reducing the flow of Bolivian cocaine to the United States. Once a major supplier to the U.S., Bolivia is now well behind Colombia and Peru, officials say.

Morales, who rose to national prominence as leader of the coca growers federation, based in the subtropical Chapare region, has already said he would seek to end the eradication effort and other legal restrictions on coca cultivation.

Morales spoke optimistically of a new “industrialization” of coca production for legal purposes, such as brewing tea, chewing and ceremonial uses. U.S. officials say the legally sanctioned coca leaf quota here already satisfies such uses.

In the lush Chapare, peasants are already relishing a return to the days of virtually unrestricted cultivation of the easy-to-grow leaf. They welcomed Morales as a returning hero when he came to vote at a battered school over the weekend, along with a pack of journalists. He played racquetball with some of his old friends.


“Coca plantations serve to sustain our families,” said Leandro Valencia, who explained that he was able to send his three children to study in La Paz with the proceeds from coca production. “That is why this is a historic day for the Chapare.”

Morales says he is against cocaine and has repeatedly denied links to traffickers, charges that got him temporarily thrown out of Congress in 2002.

Although they won’t say so in public, U.S. officials are concerned that Morales will open the country to unfettered coca production. Three years ago, when Morales first ran for president, his popularity soared after then-U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha warned that U.S. aid would probably decline if Morales was elected.

Morales thereafter referred in jest to the U.S. ambassador as “my campaign manager.”

But the coca issue, though high on the list of U.S. concerns, is only part of the broad, populist agenda that swept Morales to power. He successfully parlayed his humble origins and coca union activism into a national platform that tapped into Bolivians’ deep disgust with a political status quo long dominated by a white and mixed-race elite with close ties to Washington and multinational corporations..

“Evo is something new, not the same old corrupt leaders who have sold our patrimony,” said Vilma Lobos, a 21-year-old shopkeeper in La Paz, the administrative capital, expressing a common sentiment. “I think he will be able to keep his promises, unlike all the other politicians.”

Times researcher Andres D’Alessandro in Cochabamba province contributed to this report.