Bolivia: For the first time in 180 years, since independence from Spain, Bolivia has an indigenous president, an Aymara Indian, a former llama herder and coca farmer. Evo Morales' election heralds the entry of millions of Indians into visible space

El Alto, Bolivia (photo: Boerries Nehe)

Voyage to South America – Part 1

PUBLISHED IN |  Mar 30, 06

LA PAZ. The potholed asphalt road winds constantly upward outside La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. It’s hard to believe that we can climb any higher. At an elevation of 3,600 meters, La Paz is the world’s highest capital city. The air is thin, breathing is arduous, even the cigarettes almost go out by themselves.

The houses along the road have no plaster covering, only piles of bricks that create densely packed one-story homes. The view would be breathtaking if there were any breath left to take. Below, in the valley, lies La Paz. Above looms the chain of the Andes Mountains in hues of blue, brown and red, and some of the peaks are snowcapped even at the height of summer. The slopes of the hills are covered with shantytowns built in the past 20 years – their population is now comparable to that of the capital.

This is the road to Villa Fatima, a suburb of La Paz. It is named after the Virgin of Fatima, an apparition of the Virgin Mary to three Portuguese shepherd children from the village of Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. Here in Bolivia, Fatima is famous for its market of coca leaves, the largest in the vicinity of the capital.

The taxi groans its way up the ascents. Like all the cabbies of La Paz, Antonio drives until the last drop of gas. He never takes more than a dollar or two’s worth of gasoline. His fuel gauge never crosses the “red area.”

Indeed, to judge by his driving, the whole country is on the edge: no one uses windshield wipers, not even in driving rain. Drivers turn off their lights when they stop for a red light, if they decide to stop. Sometimes they also turn off the engine.

For home use

Coca leaves market, Bolivia (photo: Yan Boechat)

Coca leaves market, Bolivia (photo: Yan Boechat)

In the Villa Fatima market, the locals are in no hurry to trust the gringo visitor and refuse to talk or have their picture taken. Their lifeblood, the coca leaf, is already being subjected to a prodigious offensive by everyone who is trying to eradicate its end product, cocaine – especially the United States. The U.S., which is considered the biggest consumer of cocaine in the world, has decided to launch a campaign to stamp out coca cultivation in Bolivia and the neighboring countries.

Thus, instead of doing battle against the New York yuppies who sniff cocaine after – or during – their workday, the world’s only superpower is fighting hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers and their families in Bolivia, a country where the average annual per capita income is about $1,000.

The market is a two-story structure that looks very much like a school, but instead of students in empty classrooms there are Indian families from the more fertile areas of Bolivia, from the Yungas Valley or the Chapare region. The pattern repeats itself: at the head of each family stands an elderly woman dressed in traditional clothing and watching with deep concentration an old television set.

The program might be a local telenovela (Latin American soap opera) or a North American (as the United States is called here) series dubbed into Spanish. Around her are the younger members of the family, watching over large sacks, each of which contains 25 kilograms of dried coca leaves, at $5 a kilo.

These casually piled sacks are the nightmare of the United States, but in Bolivia they say that the use of coca leaves is a matter of tradition. Chewing them, brewing them, using them in medicines, potions and ointments is part of the Indian tradition, which long predates the Spanish conquest of the continent. Tea made of coca leaves is served in government ministries, and in every hotel you will find coca tea bags laid out alongside an apple brew or regular tea. The Bolivians say the crop is not grown for commercial purposes and that in any event the coca leaf is not addictive. The problem lies only in the cocaine that is produced from it, in an expensive chemical process which does not take place in Bolivia.

But the data show that most of the coca grown here is in fact earmarked for export. Since the 1970s, commercial quantities of coca have been grown in Bolivia, in part due to the collapse of the world tin market, in which the country played a major role. Tens of thousands of destitute workers migrated from the mining regions in the south of the country to the warm, moist areas east of La Paz and became growers of coca, which brings in revenues up to 10 times greater than other crops. According to United Nations estimates, Bolivia produced 36,000 tons of coca leaves in 2004, of which 25,000 tons were exported, mainly to Colombia, where they are processed into cocaine.

In order to fight the cocaine trade, the United States launched a “war on drugs” back in the period of the Reagan presidency. Washington and La Paz offered $2,000 to every farmer who stopped growing coca. But the alternative crops that were suggested to them, such as bananas, were far less profitable and could not cover the losses. In addition, the United States decided to train and arm police forces to fight the recalcitrant farmers. The result was that dozens of people were killed, and a report by the organization Human Rights Watch stated that the governments of the United States and Bolivia were responsible for “serious human rights violations.”

According to estimates of the Bolivian government, the average yearly income of coca farmers fell from $2,700 in 1998 to $900 in 2002.

One of those whose life and livelihood are wholly dependent on coca is Elcides, 22, from the Yungas Valley. Every Monday, he makes the five-hour trip to the capital with two sacks of coca and comes here, to the Villa Fatima market, to sell his produce to whoever will buy it. “Our life is built on coca,” he explains. There is a heavy odor that recalls a dense orchard that has lain uncultivated for years. Next to him, atop a pile of sacks, another youngster dozes on a mattress. Time is in no rush here.

In the middle of the room are scales that have seen better days. Each family has 10 to 15 sacks, and a quick calculation shows that the total value of all the merchandise in the market at this moment is $100,000. This industry provides a livelihood to hundreds of thousands of people – growers, driers, packers, drivers and sellers, among others. Eradication of the crop would mean a death blow to all these people. “You can chew coca all day,” Elcidas says. “To wake up after sleep, not to fall asleep when you are tired, when you don’t feel well. All the time.” He strongly recommends coca tea, which should be steeped four or five minutes in boiling water, with at least two teaspoons of honey as a sweetener.

Red is beautiful

Evo Morales (photo: Periódico La Democracia)

Evo Morales (photo: Periódico La Democracia)

These Indians, many of them cocaleros – coca farmers – are now leading a great human revolution in Bolivia. For the first time in 180 years, since independence from Spain, Bolivia has an indigenous president, an Aymara Indian, a former llama herder and coca farmer himself. To understand the magnitude of this revolution, it is sufficient to look at La Paz or its suburbs on the slopes of the surrounding hills, which in time became the separate city of El Alto. About a million people live in El Alto, almost all of them Indians who migrated to the big city in search of a living. There are few paved roads there, and many of its homes are not hooked up to water, electricity or gas – this in a country which has the continent’s second largest natural gas reserves (after Venezuela). A working sewage system? Proper health services? Not here.

But the revolution of which Evo Morales’ election as president last December is the crowning symbol goes further, because it heralds the entry of millions of Indians into visible space, a place where they are no longer transparent and, accordingly, can no longer be ignored. Some 60 to 80 percent of Bolivia’s nine million inhabitants are Indians from various tribes. Yet in the whole city there is not one sign in a native language. Everything is in Spanish. Until the middle of the 20th century, Indians did not have the vote, and discrimination against them continues to this day.

“The situation in Bolivia recalls the situation in the southern United States before Martin Luther King,” says Luis Gomez, a social activist and a journalist for the Web site “Narco News” (, in an interview held in a La Paz cafe. “An Aymara man cannot marry a white woman. If an Indian dressed in traditional garb were to enter this cafe now, the waiters would probably not serve him and would finally hint to him that he is not welcome here. The whites still call the Indians, even the elderly, ‘children,’ as the whites called the blacks in the United States.”

However, Gomez says, in the past few years the Indians began to learn the rules of the game and to demand their rights. Above all they demanded that coca growing be legalized and that the rights of the citizens to the country?s natural resources, especially gas and water, be restored. In 2003, demonstrations by the Indians toppled the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who was derisively nicknamed “El Gringo,” because he studied in the United States and returned to Bolivia with a ?North American? accent. Hundreds died in the demonstrations.

Two years later, the government of President Carlos Mesa was also forced to resign, and afterward, the streets of La Paz were filled with armed soldiers and police at every corner. Social tensions continue to run high, but now a new tenant resides in the presidential palace in Plaza Murillo in the heart of the city.

The palace is ours

Presidential Palace, La Paz (photo: Phillie Casablanca)

Presidential Palace, La Paz (photo: Phillie Casablanca)

The presidential palace, a colonial structure in Italian Renaissance style, is adjacent on one side to the Cathedral of La Paz and on the other to the Parliament building. One hundred and eighty years after independence, the palace still looks like a foreign implant, as though remnants of the Spanish Conquest continue to dominate this Indian city. Nor does the European splendor suit President Evo Morales, who makes a point of never appearing in public in a suit.

The palace is a square structure with a large covered interior courtyard. It is easy to imagine a ball being held there for members of the white aristocracy, perhaps from the last century. Here, on the cream-colored marble floor, couples elegantly dance a waltz. And here, next to one of the impressive stone pillars, the city governor huddles with a general in dress uniform, its gilded buttons glittering. Overlooking the scene are huge portraits of the white generals who led the struggle for independence from Spain. A portrait of Simon Bolivar, for whom the country is named, shows the great leader in a grim mood. Only the two guards who stand by the flag remind the visitor that this is Bolivia: Not for a second do they stand straight.

Now, at any rate, the heroes have changed. One cool evening in March, Evo (as everyone calls the president) convened a press conference in order to sign a bill calling for the convocation of a new constituent assembly to draft a state constitution. The previous constitution was drawn up by Europeans in 1825, and the new president, who calls himself “Che Guevara without the bullets,” wants to include in the document specific articles about the status of the Indians and the rights of the citizens.

It’s enough to make you rub your eyes to believe it: the waltzing couples have now been replaced by short Indian women wearing the traditional dress of their tribes of origin. Until a few years ago this scene would have been impossible, but now the presidential palace is theirs. Miners in simple clothes and helmets replace splendiferous generals, and the “regular” politicians, those who wear suits and ties, are few and far between.

“The great day has arrived,” Morales, 47, declared emotionally, dressed in a blue sweat suit. Outside the palace, in the square, thousands hung on his every word. “We are now changing history, and the colonial and neoliberal model that did such great damage to the country … The time has come to restore the honor of Bolivia and to restore its natural resources. From now on, every citizen of Bolivia must mobilize in this democratic and cultural revolution.”

It is not difficult to understand why this man, with hair black as coal, enjoys such tremendous popularity in Bolivia and elsewhere. He won 54 percent of the vote in the December 2005 elections, which produced the highest voter turnout in the country’s history, and became known throughout the world as the first Indian president of Bolivia. His workday begins at 5 A.M.; on his first day in office he slashed his salary in half (to $1,800 a month), and above all, perhaps, his fame rests on the sweater he took with him on his first trip abroad. Day after day, he was photographed with the president of France, the prime minister of Spain and other leaders in the rough wool sweater, which, he later said, was simply the first sweater he found in his closet before heading for the winter cold in Europe.

His confidants tell of a man with a lust for life who loves power and knows how to use it. “He has very strong sex appeal,” one of them noted. “He loves power, loves to dance and is a great joke teller. He goes to parties in La Paz and makes a pass at whoever he can.” According to this source, Morales has seven children by a number of women and has never been married. In the past, he lived with a woman and they had two children together, but they separated a few years ago. Morales is quoted as saying that “it is easier to rule a country than to rule a woman.”

From bondage to the cabinet

Quechua woman, Bolivia (photo: César Angel)

Quechua woman, Bolivia (photo: César Angel)

Whatever the president’s attitude toward women, four of the ministries in his government have been entrusted to them. The most exciting story is that of Casimira Rodriguez, who went from servitude into the cabinet. At the age of 14, Rodriguez, an indigenous Bolivian, now 39, was taken from her village to Cochabamba, the country’s third largest city, to work for a white family. Her parents, members of the Quechua tribe, were promised that in return for her work the family would see to her needs and education. Instead, Rodriguez was held in conditions of near slavery. She was forced to work long hours, endured abuse of various kinds, and never went to school.

After two years she escaped from the family and joined the struggle for workers’ rights – and she is now justice minister of Bolivia. She always dresses in a lace blouse and a wide skirt, and two thick braids lie on her shoulders. It goes without saying that she is the first member of her tribe ever to serve as a cabinet minister.

“It was frightening,” Rodriguez told Haaretz of the moment when Morales informed her about the appointment. “I was very surprised, because Comrade Evo told me suddenly, ‘You are going to be justice minister.’ I felt that this was a hard decision. I felt fear, but also happiness. Many feelings at the same time. Afterward Evo told me it would not be so hard, so I decided to support the change that is taking place here, a change for which all Bolivians are fighting, for a different Bolivia.”

How did your family and friends react?

“My mother told me that my choice must be to cope with whatever will happen with me. The family and friends were very happy, but also very worried. Especially my brother: when he heard about it, he did not know whether to jump for joy or burst into tears. He knew I was about to assume a great deal of responsibility. It is incomprehensible, suddenly to reach this status. My brothers looked at me and said, ‘This is the minister?'”

What is it like to walk into offices which not long ago were barred to Indians?

“From the outside I always thought these buildings were monstrosities. But on my first day of work a great many people were waiting for me. I went up in the elevator and I did not understand why there were so many people in the office. It was very impressive. They were waiting for me with floral wreaths. It was a bombshell of an experience.”

What did you learn from your personal experience as a politician?

“To listen to people and to lose my fear. In the past I defended many workers, many comrades who suffered discrimination, and thus I became a protector of the workers. I learned to be brave and to try to overcome the discrimination and all the things that stand in the way of the workers. The battle for human dignity helped me lose all forms of fear and to gain hope.”

In Latin America it is very common for wealthy families to have servants at home. Do you intend to eliminate this custom?

“It is very difficult to imagine a situation in which the domestic workers [the term Rodriguez uses instead of servants] will disappear, because this is a need of many people – of the families that employ them, but also of the

workers themselves. Because of the poverty, and in light of the dreams that domestic workers usually have of becoming independent, the first work they are capable of doing is this. Regrettably, the workers experience a discriminatory attitude and many violations of their human rights.

“The families need domestic workers because the Latin American woman is incapable of getting along without them. The domestic worker plays the role of the woman in the family and replaces the mother, so that the woman can go out to work and increase the family?s income. People often threaten us by saying that if we insist on our rights they will not employ us. But I think the families have learned that the domestic worker is very helpful and makes things much easier.”

As justice minister, what will you try to change?

“The poor people suffer greatly from injustice. I will try to see to it that their rights are preserved, I will try to listen to those who have the least, I will try to create a situation in which the most important thing is justice and not the place of residence, justice which will be equal for all and will not be decided according to who has more money or prettier words.”

Know the enemy

La Paz (photo: Edwin Vladimir Velasquez Marca)

La Paz (photo: Edwin Vladimir Velasquez Marca)

Whether Rodriguez succeeds in her ministerial post or not, one thing is clear: the mission facing her and President Morales is very complex. Bolivia, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (only Haiti is more impoverished) is divided between rich and poor, between mountain people and plains people, between whites and Indians, and sometimes between different groups of Indians as well. The direction Morales will choose to follow is not yet clear: Will he be “Che Guevara without bullets,? clamp down on the international gas mining companies and bring about a genuine change in the living conditions of millions of people who earn less than $2 a day ?(this is the minimum wage in Bolivia, which is not always adhered to?)? Or will he compromise and moderate his ambitions?

According to Gomez, the mandate Morales received is conditional. Gomez, who was born in Mexico but views himself as belonging to the Aymara and who is familiar with their demands, says, “The Aymara will support Evo as long as he meets his commitments to them, as long as he suits their interests. They have become very sophisticated voters. You have to understand that the Aymara were vanquished for 500 years by the white man for one reason only: the white man knew how to kill better, he had better weapons and ammunition. But now the Aymara are learning the methods of the white man, learning how to use computers, how to deal with the bureaucracy and with the white system of justice.”

“The goal of the Aymara is to defeat the white man, not to destroy him. They have time, they are waiting.” Like David Grossman’s description of the Palestinians in “Yellow Wind,” Gomez describes the Aymaras’ different attitude toward the concept of time. “The Aymara know that the land is theirs. The natural resources are theirs. Now it is only a matter of time before we regain control of them.”

The question of when is of no importance, he says, whether it happens in this generation or the next. But victory is certain.

“And maybe we are on the verge of the fourth world war, as in the analysis of Subcomandante Marcos [the leader of the Zapatistas in southern Mexico]. The third was the Cold War. The fourth will be the war against neoliberalism. The fact is that the economic system has not changed in the world. Not in South America, either. Now we have a human awakening, of the people, not of leaders who come from above. Bolivia will then be at the forefront. The fact is that we succeeded in kicking out two presidents, we succeeded in expelling a Western water company from Cochabamba [the Bechtel Corporation]. Maybe the war will actually start here.”