(above) Supporters of President Evo Morales at a campaign rally on Thursday in El Alto, Bolivia. Mr. Morales's political dominance has earned him some unexpected rivals.

In Bolivia, a Force for Change Endures
December 5, 2009 - New York Times


LA PAZ, Bolivia — The slogans and posters of Che Guevara notwithstanding, this is not Havana circa 1969, nor Managua, 1979. Instead, the fervor in the offices of the Deputy Ministry of Decolonization could only be felt in the Bolivia of President Evo Morales, who seems to be sailing toward a victory in an election on Sunday.

The writing on the wall here, literally, is in two indigenous languages — Quechua and Aymara — unmistakable signs of the political movement that has shaken the institutions of this impoverished nation.

"Jisk'a Achasiw Tuq Saykat Taqi Jach'a P'iqincha," says the greeting at the office of Monica Rey, who explains that it is Aymara for the new unit she leads, the Directorate for the Struggle Against Racism.

"We are in the process of conquering our country's minds, and even more challenging, its fears," said Ms. Rey, listing a variety of new projects, including changing the portraits on Bolivia's currency from the white men who long ruled the country to indigenous heroes like Túpac Katari and Bartolina Sisa, leaders of an 18th-century revolt against Spanish rule.

With a sharply weakened opposition and his visceral connection to the indigenous majority — who make up more than 60 percent of the population — Mr. Morales, 50, is arguably the nation's strongest leader in decades.

He easily won a constitutional overhaul this year allowing him to run for another five-year term. Now polls here show him and his supporters far ahead as Bolivians prepare to vote on Sunday. He is within grasp of solid legislative majorities that would allow him to mold the nation further as its first indigenous president.

But that same dominance has earned him some unexpected rivals, beyond the opposition he faces from traditional elites in the rebellious eastern lowlands. His broadening influence also feels oppressive to an array of indigenous politicians struggling to emerge from his shadow.

"This government exists to spend money on Evo's campaigns at the expense of the rest of us," said Felipe Quispe, 67, an Aymara Indian who entered politics after leading a guerrilla insurgency in the 1980s and being imprisoned in the 1990s. "Evo is an Indian dressed in fancy clothing, surrounded by white men and mestizos."

The iconic Mr. Quispe, who commands a radical party with a small percentage of voters, said the Aymaras, about a quarter of Bolivia's population of 9.8 million, should reject the very idea of Bolivia to form a homeland with Aymara-speaking people from Peru's high plains. "We must de-Bolivianize ourselves," he said.

Ricardo Calla, an anthropologist and the minister of indigenous affairs in a previous administration, said that just as Mr. Quispe stood to the left of the president, other indigenous politicians had emerged across the ideological spectrum, suggesting a more varied political class than presented by state media here.

In the center, for instance, is Savina Cuéllar, a provincial governor in southern Bolivia. To the right is Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, a former vice president whose home was attacked by a pro-Morales mob this year. Still further to the right is Fernando Untoja, an Aymara intellectual running for Congress on the ticket of Manfred Reyes Villa, a former army captain trailing far behind Mr. Morales in second place.
"Evo himself," said Mr. Calla, the anthropologist, "could be considered the authoritarian left." Contributing to this classification, he argued, was Mr. Morales's resistance to cooperating with other parties, threats to jail opponents and the celebration of his administration in government-paid advertising. Mr. Calla called the government's exuberance over Mr. Morales's achievements "a cult of personality" in the making.

Cambio, a state-controlled daily newspaper à la Granma in Cuba, created by Mr. Morales this year, offers an example of this fanfare. Its lead article last Sunday described Puerto Evo Morales, a pioneer settlement in the north. A comic-book insert, "Evo: From the People for the People," championed Mr. Morales's rise from poverty.

There are concrete reasons for Mr. Morales's popularity. The foremost may be the sustained growth of Bolivia's landlocked economy, drawing plaudits from economists impressed with its accumulation of more than $7 billion in hard-currency reserves, even though the country is still plagued by persistent levels of extreme poverty.

Despite the financial crisis and a drop in natural gas export revenues, Bolivia's economy is estimated to have grown as much as 4 percent this year, one of the highest rates in the region, helped by stimulus spending on welfare programs for children, pregnant women and the elderly.

"Even the I.M.F. is happy with Bolivia's economy; imagine the irony of that," said Gonzalo Chávez, a Harvard-educated economist here, referring to Mr. Morales's often pointed criticism of Washington's multilateral institutions, like the International Monetary Fund.

Still, Washington's tense diplomatic relationship with Mr. Morales might be the worst in the hemisphere, except for the one with Cuba, even with the new administration. The United States Embassy here remains ambassador-less since the expulsion last year of Philip S. Goldberg, and joint antidrug operations were curtailed after Mr. Morales accused the Drug Enforcement Administration of spying on him.

He spent much of his time at a news conference here with foreign journalists this week criticizing the Obama administration's military agreement with Colombia and its support for the presidential election in Honduras. And he seemed skeptical of reconciliation, saying a meeting with President Obama would be "desirable but not decisive."

Mr. Morales's imprint on society is evident in the town of Warisata, where another experiment, the Indigenous University Túpac Katari, unfolds among the nation's high plains.

The campus, with its stunning view of the snow-capped peak Illampu, emphasizes instruction in Aymara and echoes the sentiments of Mr. Morales's party, the Movement Toward Socialism. Posted on a door, a note says that it is compulsory for academic and administrative staff members to attend a crash course on "Capital" by Karl Marx; sanctions loom if they do not attend.

"What was brought by the European invasion and the colonial system?" asked David Quispe, 37, who teaches a course on the Andean worldview.

"The capitalist and racist exploitation!" a group of students answers in unison, grasping their textbook, "Indian Thesis" by Fausto Reinaga.

"Here young Indians are used to being silent," Mr. Quispe said after class. "This is their time to start talking."