Bolivia: Race and Revolution

19 December 2005

Bolivia: Race and Revolution

By Gwynne Dyer

Bolivia has had more presidents by far than any other country in South America, mainly because so many of them were overthrown long before their terms ended. They were also all white, even though the majority of Bolivia’s population is “indigenous”, descended wholly or in part from the Indians whose ancestors already lived there as subjects of the Incan empire at the time of the Spanish conquest five centuries ago. So what are the odds that Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, will survive a full term of office?

Morales, who won an absolute majority of the votes in last Sunday’s presidential election, faces not only the usual hazards of life as the president of South America’s poorest country, but also the threat of American intervention to overthrow him. As a socialist whose declared goal is to “end the colonial state” and a leader of the coca farmers who promises to lift the ban on growing coca leaf, the crop from which cocaine is produced, he is deeply unpopular in Washington.

In the past, policies that are unpopular in the United States have proved to be bad for the president’s health in a number of Latin American countries. To those who argue that the Bush administration is too deeply mired in the war in Iraq to contemplate acting against Morales, the pessimists point out that the US found the time to organise the overthrow of the president in Chile in 1973 despite being neck-deep in the Vietnam war. The election of Morales, they fear, will finally focus Washington’s attention on how countries all over Latin America are rejecting US tutelage.

The main target of Washington’s wrath so far has been Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, has built an unassailable domestic base (he has won eleven elections and referendums in the past seven years) by spending a lot of the country’s oil revenues on the health and education of poor Venezuelans. He has built a close relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, whose regime has obsessed US administrations since the beginning of the 1960s, and he is now providing Venezuelan oil at a discount to other Caribbean and Central American countries (and even to poor Americans).

It is Chavez’s incendiary language that gets the headlines — last month he called President George W. Bush a “madman, a killer and a mass murderer” — but his aim is serious: to free all of Latin America from the grip of neo-liberal economic policies, indeed from American influence in general. Last July’s launch of Telesur, a new television network whose aim is to provide an alternative to US-based news and analysis for all Latin Americans, is a case in point. It is based in Caracas and 70 percent financed by Venezuela, but it is also backed by the governments of Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba and Brazil.

The larger reality is that while the Bush administration has been obsessed by its grandiose plans for reshaping the Middle East, the real transformation has been happening in America’s own “back yard”. Left-wing governments have come to power in Brazil and Argentina, the two biggest countries of South America, and in a number of smaller countries as well.

Like Chavez in Venezuela, they combine a commitment to the poor and a rejection of the project for a US-dominated “Free Trade Area of the Americas” with a pragmatic respect for the rules of the free market: no nationalisations (except for oil and gas) and more or less balanced budgets. With this month’s presidential election victories by Michelle Bachelet in Chile and now by Evo Morales in Bolivia, virtually all of South America except Colombia and Peru is now part of this nascent left-wing bloc.

But the continent is seeing more than just a comeback in modern dress by the traditional left. The Indians and part-Indians who form a downtrodden majority in most of the Andean countries are staging their own comeback. They mostly talk in terms of winning elections and re-writing constitutions, but they basically share the view of Antauro Humala, leader of the Etnocaceristas in Peru: “There are four races, black, white, yellow and copper. We are the copper people and I want us to be recognised as a race.”

Hugo Chavez’s Indian and black ancestry is written all over his face, and explains much of his popularity with the majority of mixed-race Venezuelans who felt excluded by the dominant white minority in that oil-rich country. Evo Morales is even more clearly a descendant of the Incas who ruled the central and southern Andes before the white conquerors and settlers arrived, and he wants the two-thirds of Bolivians who share his heritage to hold the power in their own country at last.

It will get very fraught in Bolivia when Morales starts re-writing the constitution to include the excluded, as he has already sworn to do, but the ethnic solidarity among Bolivian Indians that has helped him into power will also make it very hard for Washington to overthrow him. So long as he avoids the civil war that some of the more extreme members of the white minority may now try to provoke, he will probably manage to serve a full term in office. What he does with that term may change Bolivia beyond recognition.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“The larger…as well”; and “Hugo…last”)