A New Bolivia?

Eight years later, Flores told me, he was elected national vice-president of the MAS. Last December his old comrade-in-struggle, Evo Morales, a radical coca farmer who is originally from the Aymara highlands, was elected president of Bolivia on the MAS ticket. The simple fact of his victory has brought about amazing changes: ministers chew coca leaf ceremoniously in Cabinet meetings; the minister of justice is a woman who until recently worked as a maid; the leader of the Senate is a rural schoolteacher. And Sacarìas Flores, who crisscrosses the land on party business every week and is theoretically a very powerful man, comes home to his fields to try to figure out how he will make a living in the future. Other revolutions in Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America have taken power in the name of the poor, other political parties have attracted a mass following, other native Americans—perhaps most notably Benito Juárez of Mexico in the 1850s—have become president, but nowhere else has a grass-roots party whose members are not only crushingly poor but overwhelmingly Indian taken charge of a government. It did not happen overnight.

Bolivia, a country with an area approximately twice the size of France, has barely nine million inhabitants, most of whom identify themselves as members of one of the pueblos originarios: the Aymara, Quechua, and Guaranì Indians, who are descendants of the great nations that inhabited the Andes and the jungle before the Conquest, and who were subsequently condemned to lives of odious isolation and unimaginable servitude. Serfdom was abolished at last in 1945, and during the revolution of 1952 latifundio land was distributed to the peasants in the Andes, but the average income for members of the pueblos is still well below a thousand dollars a year. Most other Bolivians are racially indistinguishable from the proclaimed pueblos originarios, and are almost as poor; these are the mestizos and urbanized Indians widely and sometimes insultingly called cholos, who in the Bolivian Andes throng the cities of La Paz, El Alto, Oruro, and Cochabamba, and in the tropics, Santa Cruz.

For its entire post-Conquest existence, Bolivia has survived through one principal export: first the silver from the mountain of Potosì that made the Spanish Golden Age possible; rubber from the Amazon region; then tin from the mines of Potosì and Oruro; coca paste for cocaine, briefly; and now gas from subterranean reserves that are estimated to be the second-largest in South America. The country’s dismal infrastructure has grown only in miserly response to the ruling greed of the moment, and so there is just one more or less serviceable road connecting the Andean altiplano, four thousand meters above sea level, with the valleys of Cochabamba, and with the sub-Amazonian departamentos of Santa Cruz and Beni. This fact goes a considerable way toward explaining how, in the course of Bolivia’s brief acquaintance with electoral democracy, people like Sacarìas Flores were able to topple one president after another and ultimately take power …

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