On tour with Bolivia's president

Lola Almudevar, Sucre

The helicopter touches down on the bare plains of the Chuquisaca region in southern Bolivia and a casually clad man steps out into the dust.

There is nothing for miles, just vast open space, dotted with dusty brick houses.

In the distance, the villagers of Chuqui Chuqui run with banners and coloured flags to meet the new arrival.

Police try to ward off the crowds as he pushes through to the stage. But everyone wants to shake his hand. They shower him in confetti and chant "Evo Evo Evo."

This is Evo Morales - an Aymara Indian and the first indigenous president of Bolivia. But for these villagers he is more than that. They are hoping he is their saviour.

By the time President Morales addresses the people he is weighed down by gifts: garlands of flowers, a traditional poncho and hand-stitched bag.

It is an uncomfortable get-up and the flowers make him sneeze, but Mr Morales is at home with this crowd.

Trademark slogan

These people are among thousands, mainly from indigenous backgrounds, who gave Mr Morales 54% of the vote and brought him to power 18 months ago.

It was the biggest show of support for any presidential candidate since Bolivia began moves towards democracy in the mid-1980s.

"'I am like you," cries Morales. "I never thought I'd be president. Maybe leader of a union but never President of the Republic. I am from a poor background, parents who had very little economically. But here I am and every day I meet ministers and we get a little further."

But Mr Morales still has a long way to go. Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America.

On day two, he is in Lajastambo, a ramshackle village where people have no access to safe drinking water and no light.

On every leg of this tour you see posters with the trademark slogan: "Bolivia deserves, Evo delivers". President Morales wants to convince people that that is true.

Communication is key. He needs people on side if his radical programme of nationalisation and redistribution is to succeed.

It is a year since Morales put the energy industry under state control; a policy which he says has made Bolivia richer. Now he plans to go further.

"Until we have recovered every national resource and renationalised every company that was privatised the fight goes on. But we have to be organised. We have to mobilise," he warns agricultural workers at a football stadium in Sucre, Bolivia's official capital.

"No more land will be sold. Land will be returned to poor farmers who can work it and profit from it."

These farmers are the beneficiaries of 30 tractors, paid for by Venezuela.

As the day draws to an end, Mr Morales exits the stadium at the helm of a tractor, with streams of Bolivia's once marginalised masses running at its wheels.


But away from the excitement, there are new groups waiting nervously to see what Mr Morales does next.

In the space of one week, he spoke out against the Church, branded the Supreme Court corrupt, and described journalists as enemies.

Attacks like these worry Mariela Salazar, a qualified lawyer who cannot find work in her profession.

"I don't think he's helping Bolivia," she says anxiously. "I don't even think he's helping people from his own side because he isn't prepared and he doesn't have a realistic work policy. All he's done is create enemies for Bolivia. He's all talk."

Mariela feels the middle class is being excluded, a concern shared by civil society groups.

She agrees with critics who accuse Mr Morales of drifting towards totalitarianism and dancing to the anti-American tune of Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez.

On his third day in Chuquisaca, Mr Morales is dressed in a suit to mark the anniversary of the first uprising against Spanish colonial rule. The cry for freedom came from here in Sucre in 1809 and gave rise to the push for independence across Latin America.

It is one of the most important dates in the Bolivian calendar and should be a proud day for Mr Morales, but the president appears on edge.

Surrounded by the clergy and Bolivia's elite, he searches for a familiar face in the crowd.

Heavy burden

The band plays and the parade marches on in stiff ceremony. Mr Morales waves as his eyes meet with worn-faced farmers in caps, wide-rimmed hats and coloured shawls.

They all feel they know him.

"Evo Morales has always been with us in our fight," says Galixto Garvaso, a lorry driver who has travelled seven hours to be here.

"Before indigenous people had no rights. Now institutions that were closed to us are open doors. That's because of Mr Morales, because he's one of us."

Perhaps that is why the president seems uncomfortable with his celebrity status.

He has come a long way since his youth herding llamas in the Bolivian mountains.

But when the crowds disperse and he leaves for his next destination he carries with him the heavy burden of their hopes and dreams.

First published at BBC News

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

RIGHT ON....what is said about EVO: Here in Bolivia, we say "once an Indian you will always be an indian even if you put silk on his body"- This isn't the best way of thinking, but an Indian in our socioty is considered to be the lowest and ignorant Morales takes orders from Chavez of Venezuela and this is dangerious, makes us feel uncomfratable Cuba is also mixed in all of this. Venezuela and Cuba must leave Bolivia. USA doesn't do a great job either. That is why we are in this mess. We would respect Morales if, it was his own. I believe the Vice President Lineras is a person that should be looked at more. He also seems to be the power behind the throne.