Jubenal Quispe, YES Magazine, Summer 2007 edition
New President, New Power
Juan Evo Morales Ayma was born on October 26th, 1959, in the rural community of Orinoca, in the province of Sud Carangas, Oruro, in the midst of uncertainty and misery. He was born under the polleras (traditional skirts) of his mother by the light of a kerosene lamp. Of the seven children born to his mother, only three survived. This is the reality in extremely impoverished areas with few health services: death is a constant companion.
Evo recalls: “When I was four or five years old, my father, who was a sugar cane worker, took me with him to harvest cane in Argentina. There was no work to be found, so we walked for four or five days. There was nothing to eat except toasted macaroni with tea. That’s when I got my first job selling popsicles and earned a little money to help my family.”
“I first became acquainted with school in the middle of the Galilea sugar cane fields, in Jujuy (Argentina), but because I spoke only Aymara (an indigenous Andean language) and barely understood Spanish, I sat and watched, but was finally forced to quit school.”
This is how life was for Evo Morales, today the president of Bolivia, and this helps explain his sensitivity to the poor and excluded of his country. Indigenous children, like Evo and his brothers and sisters, continue to be born in poverty and continue to die before their time. Some years later, back in his home community, Evo began to herd llamas and accompanied his father on trips from the high plains, the Altiplano, to the valleys to barter agricultural products.
“We walked for days behind the llamas. I always remember the huge buses that roared down the highways, full of people who threw orange and banana peels out the windows. I gathered up those peels to eat them.”
Evo began to explore and cultivate his leadership abilities. Those who knew him then remember him as a restless youth, playing soccer and organizing tournaments among the various rural villages. To pay for his high school studies, he worked as a bricklayer, a baker, and a trumpet player.
Then in the 1980s, Evo Morales was forced to abandon the bone-chilling high-altitude existence of the Altiplano due to an acute drought. He moved down to the Chapare, a tropical region of Cochabamba Department, where he worked in the sweltering coca fields. Here is where he began his life as a union leader and a political leader.
He began as secretary of sports of the syndicate of San Francisco, a union of coca growers, and then in 1996 was elected head of the six coca grower federations of the Chapare. One year later, he was elected to the National Congress, and from that post he proclaimed to the world, “Coca is not cocaine!” He defended this sacred leaf until its meaning was restored as a symbol of the dignity and sovereignty of the people of Bolivia.
From that point, he was branded by the U.S. government.
Evo recalls: “I went through a difficult time in 1997 in Eterazama (a community in the Chapare), when a helicopter of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency strafed us, and five persons were killed in minutes. Then in the headquarters of the Human Rights office in Villa Tunari in 2000, there was a failed attempt to shoot me, but the bullet only grazed me.”
In 2002, under pressure from the U.S. Embassy, the National Congress expelled Evo for having defended the right of the people to resist “militarily,” in the name of democracy, a bloody massacre of civilians by the government. (Years later, this expulsion was found by the Constitutional Tribunal to have been unconstitutional). As he left the chambers of Congress, he pronounced, “I’m being thrown out, but I shall return!”
Galvanizing Social Movements
Evo’s speeches on national dignity and sovereignty, in the face of the continuous exploitation of Bolivia’s natural resources, brought together the social, indigenous, rural, and worker movements of Bolivia.
These were further fortified with support from professional sectors as well as leftist intellectuals and businesspeople who were dissatisfied with the failure of the neoliberal economic system. Thus many sectors were united, shirts and ties and ponchos, polleras and pants, Indians and mestizos, leftists and Christians, united in a single goal—to build a sovereign, multicultural Bolivia with dignity, so that all could live well together.
In the general elections of 2002, the MAS party (“Movement Towards Socialism”) won a surprising second place, with Evo as their presidential candidate. Then in 2005, Juan Evo Morales Ayma was elected president of Bolivia by a vote of 53.7 percent, with 84.5 percent of the electorate voting.
This was, and continues to be, the hardest blow dealt to the traditional political organizations, the kleptocrats of the country. They find it difficult to accept that an Indian (for them, the scum of the country) has conquered them politically, even when they had the open support of the U.S. government.
This blow hurts all the more as the victories continue to add up, not only in the political arena, but morally and intellectually as well. The opposition, allied with the mass media, and thus with a kind of monopoly on official discourse and official culture, cannot reverse the popularity of Morales, because he governs by obeying the will of the social movements.
On an economic level, the government of Evo Morales is teaching a lesson to all of his predecessors. In 2006, Bolivia’s economy ended the year with a record surplus. With the nationalization of the gas and oil industries, Bolivia now receives hundreds of millions in additional revenue that Morales is putting to work to help the poor.
With the cooperation of Venezuela and Cuba, he commenced an all-out attack on illiteracy and health deficits, motivated by his own personal experience of the darkness of illiteracy and ill health. Those who have lost their eyesight due to cataracts are receiving vision-restoring surgeries. The homeless are beginning to receive houses. Families with young children in school receive direct assistance from the government.
With his austere lifestyle, Morales has by force of example made public administration into a form of service, and led the initiative to lower the salaries of government functionaries by 50 percent.
Now that he has been elected president, life has changed for the indigenous people of Bolivia. Our renewed awareness and pride in our indigenous and intercultural identity is irreversible. This is invaluable psychological capital for the sustainable development of Bolivia, together with the work ethic and discipline he imparts by example.
Now our Evo has moved beyond just a national symbol, to being an example throughout the region and around the world. The unfounded accusations that he was a communist, terrorist, or a narco-terrorist have been left behind. The empire of the North could not face down an Aymara Indian who came into the world under the skirts of his mother, to show the world that another Bolivia, another world, is possible.
In this short, 14-month process of historic change there have been political errors. And there are still many dreams to be realized, among them, rewriting the Bolivian Constitution, applying the agrarian reform laws that have already passed, continuing the struggle against poverty, illiteracy and corruption, and reversing the exploitation of Bolivia’s natural resources through the application of a sustainable national mining policy, and much more. All this so that all of us can live well.
Jubenal Quispe is a lawyer, theologian, and writer in Spanish and Quechua (an indigenous language). He is a university lecturer and researcher at the Maryknoll Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Translated by Julia Dunsmore.
Quotes attributed to Evo Morales come from Pablo Stefanoni and Hervé Do Alto’s book La revolución de Evo Morales: de la Coca al Palacio, La Paz: CI Capital Intelectual (2006/08)
First published at YES Magazine