Evo Morales: Padlocked in the Palace
Evo Morales: Padlocked in the Palace

Evo Morales: Padlocked in the Palace

Shortly before 5am the military police huddled in the doorways of the Plaza Murillo begin to stir beneath their capes. The door of the presidential palace creaks open and the guards, in scarlet tunics and white webbing, begin a rigmarole of shuffling, stamping and saluting that is the changing of the guard. The police are muscular white guys in camo; the guards are willowy young indigenous kids – the regiment has always recruited from the ‘indios’ for ethnic novelty value. Now, as the MPs strut away, the guards smile nervously at each other from beneath their kepis: then they giggle. It’s still surreal to be guarding one of their own..
“Look,” Evo tells me, after striding into the palace shortly after, “sixty years ago, our grandparents didn’t even have the right to walk into the main square – not even in the gutter. And then we got into parliament – and now we’re here.”

He looks around apologetically at the long Rococo state room we’re meeting in at the ormolu chairs we’re sitting on. He’s installed a portrait of Che Guevara in the presidential suite but, apart from that, the palace remains as it was under his neo-liberal predecessors.
“ It’s been a great victory – now this is a stronghold for the indigenous people. And we’re not going to stop. The most important thing is the indigenous people are not vindictive by nature. We are not here to oppress anybody – but to join together and build Bolivia, with justice and equality.”
In truth, the Morales presidency is fast getting beyond the “peace, love and understanding” phase. The first indigenous leader to run a country in the Americas has been two months in office, but he does not feel like he’s in power – yet.
“How does it work now? I’ll tell you. You want to issue a decree to help the poor, the indigenous people, the popular movements, the workers… but there’s another law. Another padlock. It’s full of padlocks that mean you can’t transform things from the Palace…This is the problem I face, and it’s serious. I feel like a prisoner of the neo-liberal laws.”
For a man who rose to prominence as a union leader, and to office on the back economic grievances, economic policy has hardly figured in the first sixty days: instead, he’s used the parliamentary majority that came with his 54% landslide to push through a law calling a Constituent Assembly, and allowing regional referendums on autonomy.
“In last year’s election we only captured government – with the Constituent Assembly we want to capture political power. Who makes the decisions here – the poor and indigenous people or those families who’ve done so much damage to our country in the past? They discriminated against, marginalised, oppressed, hated and totally disregarded the indigenous people. It’s a political fight: it’s a fight for power”
If the economic conditions he’s inherited are relatively benign – “lucky” is the word he uses – that is because of Bolivia’s newfound hydrocarbon wealth. The trillion cubic foot gas field was discovered in the late-1990s and, originally, leased at what Morales sees as knock-down prices to the oil and gas corporations. He’s got a judge beavering a way to declare the original contracts illegal. In the meantime – during the uprising that eventually destroyed his predecessor Carlos Mesa – Morales forced through a law upping the tax on the gas companies from 18% to 50% (it’s nearer 70% once you’ve paid tax on the tax, says a gas industry insider). Within a year Bolivia’s current account has gone from the red to the black.
But here’s the problem. Most of the gas is in the Chaco region, administered from Bolivia’s second city, Santa Cruz. Since Santa Cruz does not have llamas, tourists and gap-year students in woolly hats, most outsiders don’t realise what a major chunk of the Bolivian economy it represents: 33% of GDP with 25% of the population. Santa Cruz is the traditional base of the right-wing parties; it’s the centre from which the US anti-drug operation is run; it’s where Repsol, Petrobras and British Gas are headquartered. Now Santa Cruz wants autonomy – and the right to all but 10% of the hydrocarbon revenues. Evo has called the Constituent Assembly to make sure it gets somewhat less: the wilder fringes of the political elite in Santa Cruz have recently threatened to “take up arms”. So can he engineer a compromise?
“I don’t know,” he sighs, “but we have achieved a huge step with the law convoking the Constituent Assembly. We have launched a parallel consultation on regional autonomy, which is also important. And it is progress. And we will carry on like this: the next thing being to nationalise the oil and gas.”
Evo’s administration is playing softly-softly with Washington, figuring President Bush wants a free trade deal more than he wants a confrontation over a part of Bolivia few outside have ever heard of. And Santa Cruz has its back against a wall: literally. It borders Argentina and Brazil – both with centre-left governments sympathetic to Morales.
But for all Morales’ emollient words, the situation has its own dynamic. In the week I talked to Morales he had been back and forth twice to Santa Cruz, to organise his own supporters. There’s a tussle over who controls the local trade union office; there’s the ongoing judicial investigation that has seen the bosses of Repsol arrested (and bailed) in connection with $9m oil smuggling allegations. Morales is unfazed by veiled threats of disinvestment:
“Of course, there could still be sabotage – we’ve just heard the news that some trans-national companies are putting two million dollars into a campaign to boycott my government: it doesn’t matter. We’re monitoring the problem.”
Meanwhile, Evo’s own mass base is restive. The miners of Huanuni, militancy buoyed by the rising international price of tin, had paralysed the southern quarter of the country with a series of roadblocks, enforced with dynamite. Their demand? Fifty-five extra teachers in their local schools. Morales’ response – to announce he would provide 3,000 extra teaching posts nationally, paid for by closing embassies and scrapping “decorative” civil service posts. He seems to sense there is only so long you can go on like this, but as the first indigenous leader in the continent, he has some unique cards to play, the first one being himself:
“Unity is important; so is organisation – and above all it’s important to be honest. I am here because of honesty. I have a lot of trouble understanding all the detail of finance and administration – but if you combine intellectual and professional capacity with a social conscience, you can change things: countries, structures, economic models, colonial states.”

That position that has visceral support in a place like El Alto, the shanty-city of a million Aymara people, which dominates the high plain above La Paz. There the talking point is not whether Evo should nationalise the gas and neutralise the opposition – but what they will do to him if he fails. Stern “revolutionary indianist” youths there give street meetings about the “great Pachakuti (liberation) that is yet to come” – and call for the replacement of both capitalism and socialism with the “Ayllu economy”, based on communal property and clan loyalty. They will tolerate Evo, one tells me, for a year or two – though they will never move against him if it weakens the united front against “the whites”.

Morales, for now, is more than capable of meeting the wave of rising indigenous cultural consciousness with concrete reforms. He tells me:

“Yesterday in Camiri we launched a literacy campaign, to promote better living standards. The first Aymara, the first Quechuas who wanted to learn to read and write were punished brutally: those who learned to read, they put their eyes out; those who learned to write, they chopped their hands off, so they would never learn again. The first people who taught literacy were imprisoned, expelled, placed in isolation – some even by the Catholic Church. This is the history of the literacy campaign.”

But soon the crunch will come: the form, and costs, of nationalisation for the hydrocarbon industry must be concretised. Santa Cruz must be allowed to emit its cry of pain when its autonomy project is neutered. Trade deals must be signed with a wider world than left-wing Venezuela and Cuba. Above all the Constitution will be altered fundamentally, and no-one knows how the middle class will react to that.

When you see the Morales regime up close, its weakness in statecraft looms as the most pressing problem. Many of Evo’s ministers are social movement leaders with little experience running a bureaucracy. Behind the cabinet stands a smaller camarilla, including Marxist vice-president Alvaro Garcia-Linera, the prime minister Juan Ramon Quintana plus, it is said, one or two journalists with links to the anti-globalisation movement. They meet, ponder, and then Evo decides.

When I ask him how he plans to avoid the fate of Salvador Allende, the left-wing Chilean president overthrown by General Pinochet in 1973, he rocks back in his chair and asks my translator to repeat the question. “How can you use all this, the palace, the existing machinery of state, that was put in place under the neo-liberal regimes that came before?”

“But that’s just it,” he says. The Constituent Assembly is the key. It’s the crucial factor in designing the new structure of the state, so as to do away with the old colonial state, and with the old neo-liberal model – and above all to engage the effective participation of the people.”

For now he’s opted to co-exist with the Bolivian military who have, in the past, intervened to terminate civilian. On the big national day of mourning for Bolivia’s loss of its Pacific littoral, he made a speech flanked by braid-encrusted generals. For good measure, he made sure ten thousand Aymara activists marched down from El Alto to join in the parade: army sharpshooters on the roofs glanced nervously as street-sellers and tin-miners let off firecrackers within yards of their hero.

But the message when the military are out of earshot is different. I see him meet and greet indigenist leaders in Santa Cruz; he is handed a ceremonial bow and arrow and tells them:

“I still don’t feel like the President yet, perhaps my problem is that I feel more a union leader than a president. When they talk to me about protocol, I don’t understand what that is. You have to walk like this, you have to talk like this, they tell me. Well maybe I will need to learn that in order to behave properly in other countries but we don’t need all that here.

Relations with the IMF and World Bank are seen by many outside the country as symbolic. Bolivia is due for big debt write-offs under the process started at Gleneagles – and some advisers are urging Morales to hasten the end of financial dependence on the Bank by taking out a credit line with cash-rich Venezuela. But the president is ready for rapprochement with the Washington-based institutions, if the terms are right, and is certainly not using the fire-breathing language of the anti-globalisers:

“I’ve been impressed with the World Bank people who’ve visited us so far – when they’ve shown their solidarity and support. But I say to them: if you impose projects that are alien and foreign to us, there is no way we’ll co-operate. They should back our own initiatives, the ones put forward by local people. The same goes for the IMF.”

How it all pans out now depends on whether he can keep the younger, liberal sections of the middle class onside. Those who backed him last December did so more as a rejection of the failure of their fathers’ generation than an positive endorsement of his Movement Towards Socialism. And talk of replacing democracy with “consensus” has some of them wondering nervously if Evo could go the way of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

“We hope the delegates to the Constituent Assembly will represent not only the indigenous people and popular movements but patriotic professionals, intellectuals and business people. If these patriotic sections take part we’ll succeed,” he tells me.

If he does not succeed, the frictions apparent in that early morning changeover at the palace gate – between the new regime and remnants of the old – could develop into an uglier conflict.