Evo Morales
Evo Morales; drawing by David Levine

The altiplano of the Bolivian Andes is a great expanse of flat, dry land set 13,000 feet above sea level, and dotted only occasionally by a brown cluster of adobe houses or a white cluster of sheep. La Paz occupies a narrow, deep depression scooped out of this parched land, but at 12,000 feet above sea level it is still situated at a height hostile to trees. The embedded city, modest in all its proportions, and the jagged cliffs that surround it are uniformly the color of dust, and one is constantly aware of the absence of birds. Nevertheless, in the early hours of the day the snow-covered peak of the Illimani, the city’s sentinel, glistens brightly on the horizon, and the steep streets smell freshly scrubbed. This is when the cabinet members of the new Evo Morales government prefer to give interviews, and on one such bright morning in June I went to meet the Bolivian minister of justice.

The experience was in every way unfamiliar. The Justice Ministry seemed only partially, or indecisively, inhabited by its new team. The elevator was creaky, the hallways empty, and in the suite of offices presided over by the minister, the carpet was threadbare. The minister’s aides were unusually young, cordial, and unguarded, if a little at a loss, and they did not seem pressed for time. Amazingly, on arrival I was shown right in to the minister, who came out from behind a very large desk to greet me: a small, beautiful, dark-skinned woman of about forty, dressed in a thin sweater and a skirt made puffy, in traditional Andean style, by several layers of petticoats. Against the altiplano chill she wore an openwork shawl with little pom-poms, also in traditional style. Her hair hung over her shoulders in two black braids. She introduced herself smilingly in Quechua-accented Spanish as Casimira Rodrìguez, and it was clear that there had never been anyone remotely like her sitting behind that desk. After years of interviewing government officials in suits who had been carefully trained to lie and dissemble, it was an enormous relief to meet her.

The minister tried neither to glorify nor to distort the circumstances of her life, most of which has been spent working as a domestic employee, or organizing other domestics into a union. She was straightforward also about her five employers, the first of whom more or less kidnapped her from the Cochabamba countryside when she was thirteen, and imposed years of humiliating servitude on her. (Which I could easily visualize, having spent a week in my youth in La Paz as the guest of a kind and not at all wealthy family, who used to lock their fourteen-year-old servant in her room whenever we went out.) Eventually, she said, she ended up in the household of a scrupulous family of Methodists who paid her fair wages and compensation for overtime. “I still consider the wife my friend and my teacher,” Rodrìguez said. “She helped me develop as an organizer and as a person.” Soon, Rodrìguez was actively involved in a women’s group her employer belonged to, and reaching out to other domestic employees. Organizing domestics is a notoriously difficult task, because the women are so isolated in their individual workplaces and susceptible to intimidation, but eventually Rodrìguez became a founder and leader of the Federation of Domestic Workers, whose greatest triumph came in 2003 when the rights of domestics were incorporated into the labor legislation.

Given that she isn’t a lawyer, though, and that she is in charge of the dispensation of justice in her country, I asked her if she was familiar with its legal code, and the conversation became more strained. She said that she identified more with the traditional forms of community justice. Pressed on her qualifications, she answered that the current laws were made so that only lawyers could apply them. “The law hasn’t been very fair to the majority of the citizens of this country,” she said. “Many times we have even felt rage against the Western system of justice.” This was clear enough, but somewhat beside the point, it seemed to me: Unless the government was about to dispense with the entire Western legal system, shouldn’t someone in her position know how to use the current law?

Her principal goal, Minister Rodrìguez stated instead, was to create a parallel system within the ministry in which advisers could monitor and guide Indian communities—ayllus—in their application of traditional law. “It takes up fewer resources and is much less complicated,” she said. “In traditional justice people aren’t jailed. They’re sanctioned before the community, for example, and made to work for the injured party until the damage is restored.” As the interview was drawing to a close, I asked if I could go to an ayllu to see an instance of community justice at work, but Rodrìguez said there wouldn’t be any opportunities for such a visit at the moment.


I wondered what one should hope for from Casimira Rodrìguez. On the one hand, her presence behind that huge desk was in itself an achievement of the most luminous sort—enough, it was possible to think on leaving, to justify the ascent to power of Evo Morales, no matter what may happen next. On the other hand, only about a third of Bolivians still live in the sort of traditional rural ayllusin which institutionalized community justice could prove workable. But the need for justice is great and pressing everywhere in the country. In the lobby as I left, an old woman in traditional costume, so tiny that her head barely reached above the information counter, was weeping with what seemed to be a combination of frustration and physical exhaustion. “Why doesn’t anyone know how to help me?” she cried, and fumbled with a sheaf of tattered documents that looked like land titles. From inside an office a woman in Western dress came up to her with a cup of tea and two bread rolls, which, offered kindly, seemed like an insult under the circumstances.

The incorporation of community justice into the legal system was a campaign promise of Evo Morales, who is, like his minister, an unsettling mix of daring and insecurity. A former coca farmer who rose to national prominence in the 1980s as the leader of a combative federation of cocaleros, he is barely schooled, fearless in the face of danger, evidently committed to the cause of poor Bolivians like himself, and often startling in social situations. When I was reintroduced to him last November—I had met him briefly years ago—the first thing he said, with a rakish grin, was “I’m a little bachelor with no commitments; tell that to your women readers.” But when I prefaced a question by noting that he was the all but certain winner in the following month’s elections, he ducked his head and mumbled an abashed thanks, as if a compliment had just been paid him.

As a politician, Morales moves fast: in his first six months in power he has decreed a far-reaching land reform, overhauled the allocation of resources and profits for the gas industry, set a salary limit of $1,900 a month for all government workers including himself, and held elections for delegates to the constitutional convention, which began deliberating this August and in which the party he founded, the Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS, won a healthy majority. Even before his inauguration on January 22, he embarked on an ambitious tour around the world, in which he asked his fellow heads of state for direct economic assistance, or the cancellation of at least part of Bolivia’s choking foreign debt. Sometimes he came away with empty pockets and sometimes he didn’t, but in his thin sweaters and cheap sport slacks—the poor man’s native costume worldwide, one could say—he became an internationally recognized figure, something of an achievement for the president of a country with a population of barely nine million and a GDP of $8.5 billion.

Morales has traded in his old striped sweaters for couture leather jackets trimmed with Indian embroidery—they are much more elegant than the fussy suits and long strips of cloth roped around the neck of the Western business costume—but he remains defensive even in social settings in which he is evidently the top-ranking person. At press conferences he often turns to his vice-president, Álvaro Garcìa Linera, for questions having to do with hard facts or statistics. This year a friend of mine, traveling with a favorably disposed international delegation, watched President Morales take laborious notes of their meeting in a ledger book, as though he were still an embattled coca federation leader, besieged by cheats. After a multitudinous campaign rally in his home district of the Chapare, a month before the presidential elections last December, the press was invited to join him at a MAS party. We watched him eat and drink with good cheer among his followers and dance the night away to huaynomusic, but the next morning, true to habit, he fled from reporters who had made the long, exhausting overland journey in the hope of an interview promised and canceled many times over.

In front of an audience of ordinary Bolivians, though, like the impoverished Aymara and Quechua workers and farmers who are his natural constituency, Morales is invariably forceful and relaxed, even at moments of great tension. “Let this be a warning,” he shouted into a microphone one night at a campaign rally. “Because with a lot of patience, very respectfully, we have been refraining the people’s movement of Bolivia from expressing its anger.” This was during a terrible week for him last November when it appeared that Congress would succeed in canceling an election that Morales was sure to win, and when, as a result, Bolivia’s future looked utterly uncertain. “If the elections are suspended, if they succeed in ‘blocking the roadblockers,’ they will be blocking the pueblo, and risking an enormous reaction,” Morales proclaimed.


The rally took place in the city of Cochabamba, capital of the eponymous departamento that is Morales’s home ground; this is where the coca-growing region of the Chapare is located and where Morales got his political start. In recent years the President has lived in Cochabamba City, in a cramped house, poorly furnished, that he still considers his home. Cochabamba is also where the movimientos populares carried out the first of the three guerras, or roadblock wars, that over a period of six years brought Bolivia to a complete political stalemate and, by forcing the resignation of two presidents in a row, cleared the way for Morales’s ascent to power.1 The street we were standing on that night was dark, littered with garbage, and riddled with potholes—a typical urban shantytown—but Morales and his entourage were welcomed in aristocratic Indian style, with ceremonial greetings, great wreaths of flowers and fruit, and also by the singular Andean way of expressing political enthusiasm: the candidate talked for about twenty minutes and was interrupted only by occasional weak cheers, but then, when he stepped down from the podium, the silent crush of people trying to touch him was so great that for a panicky second I was lifted bodily off the muddy ground.

Then there was a brief press conference. Surrounded by stolid aides who were talking on their cell phones, monitoring behind-the-scenes dealmaking that would eventually guarantee the elections, Evo Morales seemed to occupy a thin space between the great political disorder he and his followers had created and the complete future breakdown of all order. “It’s because of the MAS that here in Bolivia we haven’t seen a Shining Path or a FARC—the Peruvian and Colombian guerrilla organizations,” Morales said. “We are a democratic movement.”

The former cocalero spent most of the twenty years of his rowdy public life organizing marches and roadblocks and calling for the overthrow of every elected government he has confronted (Bolivia’s experience of modern electoral democracy dates only from 1982). The idea that the man who commanded so many guerras against the establishment would see himself as the peaceful alternative to terror moves many of his opponents to hilarity, but in Morales’s terms he is not making an outrageous or contradictory claim. It’s just that politics, for someone who has lived the life of Evo Morales, or the life of the Quechua and Aymara poor who follow him, is a rough game. After all, it took the native majorities of Bolivia 450 years to abolish the legal serfdom known as pongueaje and acquire suffrage, twenty years more to obtain elected representatives in Congress, and a grand total of five hundred years to elect their own president. They did not do so daintily.

The crucial question now is whether the government Morales has put together can govern, or remain cohesive, when it is such a mixture of grassroots organizers like himself and his justice minister, middle-class, left-wing academics in his economic cabinet, and Indian nativists like his foreign minister (who famously declared that he had not read a book in twenty years because he found greater wisdom in reading the coca leaves).

How, for example, will the additional income provided by the new natural gas wealth be spent? This year, gas sales will deliver $820 million into the nation’s coffers, but by the time municipalities, universities, and the state energy company all receive their mandatory percentage, $300 million will be left for public investment. What shall Bolivia do with its widow’s mite? If it starts with education, it must begin by teaching at least half a million adults how to read. If it wants to develop tourism—and there is some spectacular, untouched scenery in the country—it must add to the barely four thousand kilometers of paved highway in a country twice the size of France. If poor Bolivians are to be made healthy, or provided with the barest social services—electricity, adequate schools, drinking water—an efficient delivery system must be devised for a rural population density of less than eight people per square kilometer. This would be a daunting task with the most lavish budget, even if it were possible to prevent the ingrained practice of government corruption from milking Bolivia’s earnings dry. In his first six months in office, Morales has already fired a vice-minister, an ambassador, the head of the highway department, and dozens of lesser bureaucrats accused of stealing, but still I heard detailed accusations in La Paz involving huge graft at high levels.

One person who thinks that the new government is doing a fairly decent job of playing the poor hand it has been dealt is Joseph Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University and a former chief economist at the World Bank, who in 2001 won the Nobel Prize in economics. Stiglitz and his wife first visited Bolivia four years ago, and returned in May. “Morales’s election was such a big thing,” he said in a recent phone conversation, “that we decided to make the effort to go down there and take a look.” He spent one day of the visit listening to Powerpoint presentations by members of Morales’s economic team, most of whom are academics who at some point have studied abroad. He found his interlocutors thoughtful and impressive, he said.

In May, Evo Morales decreed the nationalization of the energy industry, claiming all gas and other energy resources both below and above ground as the property of the state. In practical terms, this means that the four principal energy companies from Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and France must negotiate entirely new contracts with the Bolivian state energy company. The Bolivian government is demanding that the previous mode of profit-sharing be precisely reversed, from 18 percent in royalties to Bolivia and the rest of the take to the companies, to an 82 percent share for Bolivia—in the form of taxes and royalty earnings—and the rest for the energy companies. (By way of comparison, Norway imposes 78 percent taxes on its offshore oil.)

An agreement has not yet been reached with any of the major oil companies, and negotiations have been tense. In July, Stiglitz, who has written about energy resources and how they are used, did not seem to find the policy startling or irrational, even though it has enraged the representatives of the companies that have invested in Bolivia’s tempting deposits of natural gas.

“It’s not only that [Bolivians] were getting merely 18 percent in royalties, but that those royalties were based on prices that were totally artificial,” he said. “Even when the price of oil was $20, their royalties for gas were based on a sale price that was the equivalent of little more than $6 a barrel.” Last year, when the international price of oil was hovering around $70 a barrel, the oil companies agreed to pay Bolivia more for its gas, but the sum was far from proportional to the increase in their profits.

The price of gas is generally indirectly linked to that of oil, but Bolivia is landlocked and lacks a pipeline to an ocean port. “That’s why [the oil companies] could have gotten away with prices that were so outrageously low,” Stiglitz said. “Bolivia had no natural outlet. But once [South American energy-producing countries] are able to place liquid natural gas at any single exit point on the continent they’ll be linked to global energy prices.” With the recent agreement among the countries of the Mercosur trade region to build an oil pipeline from Venezuela to Argentina, he went on, “what you’re creating is a Latin American energy market. They’re not quite there yet, but when the oil pipeline is in place, Venezuelans will have a choice of sending their stuff in a pipeline to us or to the rest of Latin America.”

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has already moved to incorporate Bolivia into what he clearly hopes will be a South American energy pool—perhaps one in which his own influence will be dominant. In one deal signed recently, Venezuela agreed to provide Bolivia with 200 million barrels of diesel oil a year, since Bolivia cannot refine crude oil into diesel fuel. The Bolivian government will deposit payments for the fuel, on easy credit terms, into a new regional development bank, which in turn will finance small industry and agricultural exports, like soybeans, that Venezuela will purchase from Bolivia. Small wonder that relations between the two governments are friendly.

Evo Morales’s intense relationship with Chávez goes beyond diplomacy or trade deals, though, and seems to feed on his insecurities. In the course of his political career a number of older men in powerful positions have felt that they had influence over him, but no one has flaunted that influence so much, or had as much, as Chávez (certainly not Fidel Castro, Morales’s other idol). Chávez’s ascendancy over Morales begins to be felt in ways large and small. Morales—who by all accounts has never been a presumptuous man—recently granted the status of “national monument” to his native village of Isallavi, in the sort of display of self-aggrandizement that Chávez observers are familiar with. More consequentially, every government official I talked to but one volunteered the thought that the new constitution should allow the president to be reelected, Chávez style, “three or four times.”

At the end of a whirlwind visit to Bolivia in June, and one day after his scheduled departure, Chávez surprised Bolivians by broadcasting his trademark all-day Aló Presidente television program from the pre-Hispanic ruins of Tiwanako, where he stunned many by hinting repeatedly that this or that article in the Venezuelan constitution, which was rewritten under his supervision in 1999, might serve as a template for Bolivia’s new charter.

I asked Vice President Álvaro Garcìa Linera whether Chávez had expansionist ambitions in Bolivia. He smiled and said merely that there was a natural solidarity between small countries in the face of greater powers. Even in an interview in the national palace at seven in the morning, the dapper, slender Garcìa Linera, forty-three, gives the air of a boulevardier holding forth at a café table. But even though he is lily-white, and, as he puts it, a member of the same social class as that sector of Bolivian society which in general despises Evo Morales, he was, for a few years, a militant in a fundamentalist Indian-rights guerrilla organization. Accused of bombing power lines, he served five years in jail before returning to his books and his life as a university professor. Nothing about him betrays his difficult and dogmatic past: unlike his boss, he is smiling and relaxed even in the face of hostile questioning. In last year’s vice-presidential debates he was asked by the moderators—one suspects that this was not a neutral question—whether he had ever engaged in “homosexual relations.” “Not yet,” he answered nonchalantly. The nation gasped.

In the palace, I asked him whether the expropriation of fallow land decreed in March would not lead to a confrontation with big landholders in the tropical region of Santa Cruz, where anti-Morales sentiment is most extreme. “We have carried out the most difficult of a series of reforms in this first stage—gas and land—and now we must let things settle and consolidate,” he said. “But we will be extremely careful in Santa Cruz. We have won one battle, which is that no one has come out and defended the concept of latifundio as such, but we…have to take care that we don’t provoke violence, that the reforms are not primarily a question of police or military intervention but of legal process.” Perhaps, but Stiglitz, on his trip to Bolivia, had suggested a different approach toward land reform to the members of the government economic team: instead of expropriating without compensation, the government might consider taxing unused land severely as a disincentive to own any.

In a country as drastically and unevenly divided between rich and poor, white and Indian, tropical and Andean, for and against him, Evo Morales could choose to govern through incentives and disincentives, like the one suggested by Stiglitz, or gamble on confrontations that might allow the government to push through more drastic reforms—although it is impossible to say which option has a greater chance of success, given the high rate of failure of every type of government throughout Bolivian history.2

Before his election, I asked Morales how, in view of his years of fighting radical battles in favor of one sector of society, he would unite Bolivians from different social classes and with different political opinions, and he gave the same answer he would give days later at a press conference. “What’s going to bring unity won’t be a coalition cabinet,” he said. “We’ll create unity by fighting corruption, promoting austerity within the government, defending our energy resources, and with a constitutional assembly, because without a new constitution our government would simply be in charge of applying the laws of the neoliberal system.” In other words, he was choosing the second option, and relying on the overwhelmingly Indian majority of the poor, whose support brought him to power, to reshape Bolivia, and doing so with the purpose of remaining in power long enough to abolish “the neoliberal system.” But even the next election is always a dangerously long time away. Morales’s failure to arrive at an agreement with the energy companies threatens to undermine both the economy and his international standing. In addition, he has faced two serious protests, one by policemen who successfully demanded better pay and benefits, and another, still unresolved, by schoolteachers who balk at Education Minister Félix Patzi’s proposed set of reforms, including one that would ban the teaching of Catholicism in Catholic schools, and another mandating the teaching of the indigenous cosmovisión—or religious outlook—in all schools.

A leader who has never been moderate in his verbal attacks or tactics cannot expect to be judged moderately. Someone with Evo Morales’s political skills must know that the same people who have unlimited faith in him today have unlimited expectations which he cannot possibly hope to meet by tomorrow, and he may have had the opportunity to reflect that his grassroots supporters have by now become expert at overthrowing presidents.

Nowhere are poor Bolivians as skilled at this as in El Alto, a shantytown of one million people that overlooks La Paz from the heights of the altiplano. El Alto is now the second-largest city in Bolivia, although barely thirty years ago it was just a splotch of muddy streets around the airport that services the capital.3 Because Bolivia’s central highway passes through the middle of their city, and because the airport is there, alteños were able to stage what amounted to a three-week-long siege of the capital last year, forcing the resignation of President Carlos Mesa—who a few months earlier had been as popular as Morales is now. The general assumption is that El Alto is a stronghold for Morales and the MAS, but this may be an oversimplification. Many alteños, newly arrived from the countryside, survive on one or two dollars a day and support Morales, but many others, employed in the factories and maquiladoras that spread out for a few miles into the rural altiplano, make up a labor elite, and belong to a union whose El Alto branch favors the conservative opposition.

And then there are the grassroots movements themselves. One day in June I paid a visit to the El Alto branch of the Federation of Neighborhood Councils, known by its initials in Spanish as the Fejuve, which commanded the siege of La Paz last year. The local Fejuve headquarters sits at the summit of a short, curving road leading up from the capital, and in addition to the insane jumble of taxi-vans and buses and market stalls that clog the streets and sidewalks around it, a protest march of one sort or another is usually blocking traffic, because alteños suffer from a chronic lack of virtually all public services, particularly water and cooking gas, and frequently obtain temporary relief by marching.

On this particular morning, it was the El Alto sanitation workers who were scrambling into marching formation and roaring into fuzzy loudspeakers, demanding better wages from the municipal government. The noise coming through the windows of the barren Fejuve offices made it difficult to talk with Marcial Vargas, a swarthy man with a degree in adult education who makes his living as a welder, and serves as the Fejuve education secretary in El Alto. He was in a tremendous hurry, signing and stamping documents and transferring sheafs of paper from one folder into another, but I was grateful for the five minutes he spent with me, particularly because I wanted to ask him about Abel Mamani, the man who was in charge of the El Alto Fejuve during last year’s strike and is now minister of water. When I met Mamani in November, he struck me as one of the movimientos populares’ most able politicians, and I had imagined that he would be something of a local hero, but it turned out that Vargas loathed him. “We sent a communiqué to the Morales government,” he said. “We made it clear that he is not our representative. He did not ask El Alto for permission to be minister; he appointed himself.”

But perhaps Mamani’s lack of attention to the traditional consensus forms of decision-making in the Andes was not the only problem. Vargas—who acknowledged a little reluctantly that he is an old classmate and comrade-in-struggle of Mamani’s—didn’t seem to think much of the MAS government as a whole, although he made some effort to parry the question. “The Fejuve has always been an institution that contests the government, whether it’s left-wing or right-wing,” he said dryly. “Because in El Alto our needs grow, and it’s our obligation to fight so that we obtain some relief. We’ve sent a list of our demands to the current government, and we’re giving them time to attend to it. If they do so, there will be no need for more roadblocks or marches.”

Secretary Vargas cut our conversation short: he had an appointment at the mayor’s office with European NGO representatives who could perhaps be convinced to allocate a little money to El Alto. But he was also eager to leave before the demonstrators outside sequestered him in the building. Already, the sanitation workers were lining up fully loaded garbage trucks on the avenue and setting off booming rockets—or perhaps they were dynamite sticks, such as the desperate miners use when they march. The last members of the Fejuve rushed down the stairs and slipped through the building’s gates before padlocks were fastened. Vargas vanished with them into the crowd. It was only ten o’clock in the morning, but it was already getting late.

—August 23, 2006
This is the second of two articles.

This Issue

September 21, 2006