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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 themselves.

Flores seems to have a shifting opinion of whether he is an Indian or not, but his father, he says, was a miner and “completely Quechua.” His mother was a palliri, one of the women who pick through the rubble dumped at mine entrances for small nuggets that might contain residues of silver. His father died in Sacarìas’s arms when the boy was fourteen. “And the worst part is that it was just a kidney disease, and he could have been saved if we’d taken him to a hospital,” he said guiltily. “But we didn’t have money for the bus.” It was this event, he says, that confirmed him in the militant outlook of his ancestors.

The miners, having come under the influence of Trotskyism in the only country in Latin America in which this variant of Marxism was dominant, coalesced into a notably resistant and militant labor union, which survived the long string of military dictatorships that ended in the 1980s. In those days, the depleted tin mines of the highlands still provided the only source of Bolivia’s puny wealth, so that despite their abject living conditions the miners had some political power. But when international tin prices collapsed in 1985, the economy did too, and miners were the first victims. As a ghastly joke, people I know papered their closets or bathrooms with worthless Bolivian currency produced that memorable year, when the rate of inflation reached 24,000 percent. A millionaire who was raised in the United States, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, was appointed minister of planning in 1986—he would serve as president seven years later—and restored economic balance by, among other things, drastically reducing government spending, closing down much of the government’s mining operations, and firing 20,000 of its workers.

History, however, would eventually find a use for thousands of organized, militant, enraged miners, Flores among them, who were left unmoored, and joined the migrant stream to the jungles. The miners brought with them not only their formidable organizing skills but a form of protest that eventually would prove far more effective in their new home: the roadblock. Long ago, protesting miners had been able to stop traffic along the highway between Oruro and La Paz. Now they could set up blockades between La Paz and Cochabamba, an airy city that connects the Andes to the tropics, and strangle La Paz’s food supply. As the city of Santa Cruz grew, protesters were able to stop traffic between Santa Cruz and Beni, and have national impact.

Flores was reluctant to join the roadblocks at first, an older neighbor—also a former miner—told me. But then he took to them with a vengeance. As the twenty-first century dawned, the increasingly angry, increasingly powerful brigades of the poor discovered that with minimum planning or expense they could shut down the entire country, and they did so over and over again. In the year 2000, outraged over a government plan to privatize the Cochabamba water supply, the bloqueadores, or roadblockers, essentially destroyed his authority in the course of furious protests now celebrated in militant history as the Guerra del Agua, or Water War. The most active combatants in that war were the bloqueadores from the coca-growing region of the Chapare (on the highway between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz), whose leader was Evo Morales. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, running for the presidency once more in 2002, was startled to find that his main rival was Morales, a forty-three-year-old Aymara whom the State Department described as an “illegal coca agitator.” On election day Morales got only 20.9 percent of the vote, but this was hardly comforting; Sánchez de Lozada won with less than two points more. In Bolivia’s fragmented political party system, small percentages are the norm.

On the day I met Sacarìas Flores I asked him how the idea first came to the movimientos of forming an electoral party. We were sitting in a café in La Paz, where Flores had arrived carrying a hefty briefcase, wearing a cheap bubble jacket against the miserable altiplano cold, and surrounded by aides who every now and then produced a document for him to sign and stamp. “Our brother workers in the mines created a document back in 1946, called the Theses of Pulacayo,” he said, suddenly looking much less like a poor cholo and much more like a militant leader. “Up to then we had been protesting in order to get something concrete in return, but the theses talked about taking power. They called for the organizations of the pueblo to occupy every single political space available. We said to ourselves, ‘Why not take these beautiful theses of our compañeros and make them a reality?’ And we started organizing accordingly.”

The café was the same one in which years ago I had interviewed the legendary mining leader Juan Lechìn, and Flores took note of the coincidence with pleasure. I asked him why, of all the many grass-roots leaders the years of misery and turbulence in Bolivia had produced, it was not a campesinoor a miners’ union leader who emerged as the consensus choice to lead the party and run for president, but Evo Morales, a coca farmer who represented only a tiny sector of the population, “Because the cocaleros had a different struggle,” he answered. “In my district no one was bombarding my cows or eradicating my soybeans. They weren’t threatening our very livelihoods, so our farmers could choose whether or not to join the Federation or go on a roadblock. It made organizing very difficult. In the Chapare there was no choice; they had to fight. So the cocaleros would always arrive at our congresses as a tightly-knit, forceful body. Logically, Evo was elected as the leader.”


When Evo Morales was a little boy, his father, Dionisio, a bitterly poor farmer in the mean, windy highlands of Oruro, would gather his llama herd and set off with it and his oldest son for the markets of Cochabamba, where Señor Dionisio went to trade his potato crop and his animals. On the month-long journey the father and son would often walk along the paved highway, and every now and then a passenger bus would go rattling by and one of the passengers would fling out the sucked-out half of an orange. Evo would pick up the detritus of the exotic fruit and eat it, and he would think, “Someday I, too, will travel on a speeding bus, and I, too, will fling out oranges.”

Some might consider this anecdote humiliating and others might think it lacks evidence of early patriotic sentiment, but it does speak of dreams wildly fulfilled, and Evo—no one in Bolivia ever calls him anything else—likes to tell it to ambassadors and to audiences at rallies. His older sister, Esther, told me other stories in her working-class home in Oruro: how in 1979 Evo’s father heard that those of his neighbors who had migrated down to a strip of jungle between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz were doing rather well, and how he decided to try his luck in the Chapare too.

Tight-lipped strangers in flashy shirts were flying into airstrips hidden in the jungle there, and plying the adjacent riverways, offering laughably high prices for one of the Andes’ agricultural staples: coca leaf, as common as tea, but a little more powerful. Coca leaves, brewed or chewed, dull hunger, soothe aches, and leave one with a vaguely energized feeling, and for this small gift they are held to be sacred by the people of the Andes. It is not clear if Señor Dionisio understood that coca—which is a legal crop—was in demand for other purposes in the Chapare, but his son probably did and, like every other coca farmer in the region, considered the matter irrelevant. (The income of a campesino family in the highlands was likely to be a few hundred dollars, or none. In the Chapare the sum could be as high as $14,000 in a peak year.)

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