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.)

Within months of arriving in the Chapare, Evo told me when I spoke to him briefly last November, he had become involved in the local coca growers’ union through his love of sports. Soon he was named union sports secretary. With unfortunate timing, the United States unleashed an antinarcotics operation on the farmers of the Chapare in 1986—this was Operation Blast Furnace—just as the first displaced miners began to arrive in the area. Black Hawk helicopters stuttered across the muggy skies, US-trained special forces confiscated passersby’s knapsacks and farmers’ savings and set their houses and crops on fire. Evo, under the tutorship of a leading Trotskyist organizer from the mines, leaped right to the front of the roadblocks and skirmishes, and then to the leadership of the union. “‘Chapareños, indios,'” they would shout at us,” says a woman who was on the roadblocks back then. “And Evo would say, ‘Yes we are indios, and we have hands and legs to defend ourselves with.’ He had no fear, and he spoke out.”

I met him in 1992, in a suffocating room at the federation headquarters in the Chapare. He said nothing memorable back then but I remembered him: a curiously langorous young man with a carved Aymara nose, slanted, very black eyes, and a shock of black hair across his brow. He appeared to be uninquisitive, but one sensed that there was a lot of diffuse energy flowing under his skin, and that he could focus it very quickly.

He and the Chapare federation of campesinoswere losing their decade-long roadblock war with Washington: by 1993, coca production represented less than 3 percent of the GDP, down from its all-time high of 12 percent in 1980, and the United States had shifted its antinarcotics operations almost entirely elsewhere. But that was not the end of Evo Morales, the cocaleros’ and colonos’ federations, or other movimientos populares. The MAS was still to come, and Evo’s first run for the presidency in the elections that Sánchez de Lozada won.

In February of 2003, five months after his inauguration, Sánchez de Lozada decreed a huge tax increase, and the country went haywire: there was a roadblock campaign and student protests, which turned bloody; the police mutinied for higher wages, the army was called in against them, and by the end thirty people were dead. In September, it seemed that everyone was out on the barricades—schoolteachers, bus drivers, retirees, and legions of poor peasants, some carrying old hunting rifles and shouting revolutionary slogans. Most prominent were the inhabitants of El Alto, an improvised township next to La Paz whose million or so highland migrants can, on a moment’s notice, shut down all access to the capital, including the airport, and who suffer continually from a near total lack of public services. The loyalties of the people in El Alto were divided between local political leaders like Abel Mamani, who is today the minister of waterworks, and a dour man called Felipe Quispe, founder of a fundamentalist indigenista guerrilla organization to which the current vice-president once belonged. On October 12 Sánchez de Lozada called out the army. By nightfall twenty people were dead in El Alto, and in La Paz twenty-one more were killed the following day. The country came to a standstill. On October 17, after fifteen months in power, Sánchez de Lozada fled Bolivia. The recognized leader of the guerra against him was Evo Morales.

The vice-president, Carlos Mesa, took office and was briefly both an ally of Evo and the most popular ruler Bolivia had ever had—according to polls that gave him 80-percent ratings—but twenty months later he, too, was gone, ousted by the gathered forces of the poor who were protesting against practically everything; an insufficiently radical nationalization of the gas industry, the chronic gas and water shortages in their homes, Mesa’s failure to convoke a constituent assembly; their miserable lives. Further protests blocked Mesa’s vice-president from a constitutionally mandated succession. In June of last year the quiet, retiring head of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodrìguez, was cornered into taking over the presidency, with a specific six-month mandate to call elections which nearly everybody knew would be won by the MAS and its candidate.

In the face of obstacles that included a near mutiny by the entire Congress and threats of secession from the rich, and politically conservative, tropical departamento of Santa Cruz, Rodrìguez made good his promise. On December 18 Evo Morales was elected with 53.7 percent of the ballots, nearly twice what pollsters and normally keen political observers I talked to back then had predicted. It was by far the largest vote—and the smallest rate of abstention—in Bolivia’s electoral history, and most of those ballots were cast by the part of the population that calls itself Aymara, or Quechua, many of whom had never bothered to vote before.


What the terms indìgena, or originario, or Quechua, Guaranì, or Aymara might mean in this fluid postmodern world is open to question. An estimated two thirds of those who identify themselves as Quechua or Aymara speak Spanish. Only women wear traditional ethnic costume anymore, and for the Aymara Indians its key component is actually a little bowler hat. And Sacarìas Flores’s flexible notion of Indianhood, compatible with his bubble jacket and Marxist beliefs, is presumably very different from that of Félix Patzi, one of the leading academic proponents of Indian identity, who is currently minister of education. I spent a long hour last year in Patzi’s shabby offices in La Paz, at a university so ramshackle and poor—it is the country’s principal institution of higher learning—that one could enter and lose all hope for the future of its students.

Patzi is a small, unsmiling, folded-in man who never seems to open out, but he did remark at some point that after graduating from this most threadbare of government universities he had somehow managed to get himself to Mexico’s National University. He must have been even too poor to live in one of the bohemian student lodgings in that neighborhood, because after I grilled him he finally said that he had shared a room with a relative in the backstreet vecindades of the market district behind the Mexico City Zócalo. He seemed to view Evo Morales as a compromised middle-of-the-road politician, and me with at least as much distrust, but he was willing to talk with me about what he meant by the term “Indian” and Indian politics.

Indian forms of political organization, he believed, will continue to be radically different from what white-skinned societies understand as party politics. The dynamic of social movements, he said, “obeys an ancestral communitary logic…in which individual awareness is not fundamental.”

He was referring to an often-noted indigenous approach to decision-making, in order to explain how so many thousands of people could be persuaded to take to the streets again and again. “That awareness might say ‘I don’t agree’ [with a given proposal],” Patzi went on, “but if the group consensus says that it has to be carried out, then the individual is morally obliged to participate.

“The term ‘ethnic’ refers to a racial description,” he added. “It includes culture and language. But no one has touched the concept as a project for [creating a new] civilization.” When you look at it from this perspective, he concluded with a triumphant note, “then we’re talking about a societal project that can be applied universally.”

During his presidential campaign, and particularly since taking office, Evo Morales has stressed the Indianness of his government, despite his skill in soccer, his Marxist political background, and the fact that, unlike his parents, he is hardly fluent in Aymara. His account—the series of battles and triumphs that for him mark the road to electoral victory—is different from that of the indigenista movements. Roberto Choque Canqui, an Indian historian, told me a different story from the one Sacarìas Flores tells, and it begins with his father, a pongo, or serf, expelled from his master’s hacienda and left landless for participating in one of the innumerable Indian uprisings that dot the history of Bolivia like flare signals.

Choque mentioned some key points in the Indian narrative: the Chaco war of 1932 between Bolivia and Paraguay, in which peasants like his father were drafted and died wholesale, and which gave the survivors a national vision and a sense of entitlement to match their long-burning fury. “And they came back from the war knowing how to handle a weapon,” Choque said. “And often, they kept the gun.” There was the Revolution of 1952, led by Victor Paz Estenssoro, and the land reform, universal suffrage, and mandatory education laws that came out of it. As a university student Choque Canqui participated in a back-to-the-roots movement named after Tupac Katari, an eighteenth-century Indian leader who rebelled and was punished by being torn apart by horses. The Katarista movement had many offshoots, including the Indian-supremacist guerrilla group led by Felipe Quispe, and also Indian rights’ organizations that led nationwide marches in 1992, during the commemoration of Columbus’s tragic arrival in the Americas. This seems to have been the defining moment at which the current generation of Indian activists realized how powerful their movement could be.

Whatever questions about his ethnic identity someone like Sacarìas Flores or even Félix Patzi himself might have, there was no doubt at all about the Indianness of the guests at a picnic in the highland village of Jesús de Machaca, some twenty kilometers south of the shores of Lake Titicaca, in full and splendid view of the looming snow-covered peaks of the Andes. The land was drab and flat all the way to the horizon, and I understood then what Sacarìas Flores had meant when he said that before he migrated to Santa Cruz he had only the barest familiarity with a tree. But there was color everywhere in the gorgeous red llama-wool ponchos and brightly striped caps and carrying-bundles of the mallkus, or village elders, and their wives, the mallku taykas. Silver ornaments and scepters glittered in the sun. The church, a massive structure, was being reconsecrated in commemoration of its first three hundred years, and local authorities from all around Jesús de Machaca district had come in for the event, wearing their finest ceremonial dress.

During Mass, a chorus of Aymara women sang in startling voices that sounded like nothing so much as the highly stylized mewing of kittens. There was also a performance by the symphony orchestra of El Alto (Gershwin and Vivaldi were on the program, and attendance was scant) and lunch. The mallku taykas laid two long parallel strips of plastic on the ground, and then the villagers emptied a few sacks of party treats onto this tablecloth: a river of boiled potatoes of every possible description. There were blue, yellow, and cream-colored harvest potatoes, the frozen brown potatoes called chuños, and brackish dehydrated tuntas—a delicacy. Because it was a major feast, a couple of bricks of fresh cheese were also produced, and a townie in trousers with bleached hair arrived with a sack of roast chicken. The villagers crouched along the strips of plastic and ate parsimoniously.

It was the quietest party I have ever attended, even though there was a considerable amount of drinking. The villagers talked even less with me than they did with one another: introduced to one group of mallkus by a cheerful Jesuit, Xavier Albó, who has worked in the region for decades, I was merely asked in rudimentary Spanish what presents I had brought them. They turned away when I confessed I had none. Backward, I thought to myself, annoyed. Hopelessly isolated. But eventually a mallku did chat with me briefly, perhaps because he had been celebrating so enthusiastically that he no longer cared who he talked to, and in answer to my question he said that he and everyone else in Jesús de Machaca had voted for Evo Morales. Neatly bypassing the question of whether he considered the President to be an Indian or not, he said that what the community expected from the MAS government was money for education and to develop tourism in the area. Then he volunteered that the male mallkus and the female taykas in this district ruled with equal authority, and that in fact they had recently rewritten their laws to that effect. “Gender equality, that’s what we’re interested in,” he said, before vanishing like the Cheshire Cat.

Education, tourism, a new status for women within the most traditional of Indian organizations—the community ayllu. What the inhabitants of Jesús de Machaca were demanding from Evo Morales were the things that can provide them with access to a modern society—the same demand one hears from the colonos and coca growers, the miners, schoolteachers, and university students who made possible Evo Morales’s rise to power. But if he is to escape the fate of his predecessors, the new president of Bolivia must also deal with a number of issues for which his long political struggle has not necessarily prepared him.

Having reorganized the nationalized gas industry so that Bolivia gets a fair share of the profits, Morales must deal equitably with Brazil and Argentina, major clients for Bolivia’s rich deposits. He must prevent the rebellious eastern half of the country, where gas and agricultural wealth are concentrated, from risking a declaration of independence. He must maintain friendly relations with Venezuela, whose oil and aid he needs, while maintaining a civil relationship with Europe and the United States; and in order to do this, he must keep excess coca cultivation from resurging in his home district of the Chapare. After failing to win a two-thirds majority in elections on July 2 for a constituent assembly, he must deal with the opposition diplomatically. And he must accomplish all this while bringing Bolivia out of the poverty it has been mired in for centuries. Whether and how he can do this will be the subject of a future article.

—July 12, 2006

This Issue

August 10, 2006