Monday, November 21, 2005

Guevara Redux?

This Sunday's NY Times Magazine contained a very lengthy profile of Evo Morales, the man expected to win the Dec 18 presidential elections in Bolivia. Here are a few highlights:
Morales is the first full-blooded Aymara, Bolivia's dominant ethnic group, to make a serious run for the presidency, which is in itself testimony to the extraordinary marginalization that Bolivian citizens of pure Indian descent, who make up more than half of the population, have endured since 1825, when an independent Bolivia was established.
[...]How seriously to take Morales's tough talk about drug "depenalization" and nationalization of natural resources - oil, gas and the mines - is the great question in Bolivian politics today. Many Bolivian observers say they believe that MAS is nowhere near as radical as its rhetoric makes it appear. They note that conservative opponents of Brazil's current leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also predicted disaster were he to be elected, but that in office Lula has proved to be a moderate social democrat. And MAS's program is certainly much more moderate than many of its supporters would like. Washington, however, is not reassured. Administration officials are reluctant to speak on the record about Morales (the State Department and Pentagon press offices did not reply to repeated requests for an interview), but in private they link him both to narco-trafficking and to the two most militant Latin American leaders: Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's leftist populist military strongman, and Fidel Castro.
Chávez? Castro? Uh oh...just add "bin Laden" and you got yerself a Washington-hat-trick!

[click "Read on, MacDuff!" to continue reading]

Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington, and one of the shrewdest and most experienced American observers of Latin America, told me that he has been struck by the depth of conviction in Washington that Morales is dangerous. "People talk about him as if he were the Osama bin Laden of Latin America," Shifter told me, adding that, after a recent lecture Shifter gave at a military institution, two American officers came up to him and said that Morales "was a terrorist, a murderer, the worst thing ever." Shifter replied that he had seen no evidence of this. "They told me: 'You should. We have classified information: this guy is the worst thing to happen in Latin America in a long time."' In Shifter's view, there is now a tremendous sense of hysteria about Morales within the administration and especially at the Pentagon.
But Morales is only a part of the incredible groundswell of anti-globalization sentiment in Latin America:
The left is undergoing an extraordinary rebirth throughout the continent; Castro's survival, Chávez's rise, the prospect that the next president of Mexico will be Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist mayor of Mexico City, and the stunning trajectory of Morales himself all testify to that fact. Pardo-Maurer is right that Morales's success reflects both Bolivia's current dire economic conditions and the perception of the indigenous majority that it is finally their time to come to power. But it is also a product of the wider popular mood in Bolivia and, for that matter, in much of contemporary Latin America.
[...] Many Bolivians, and certainly almost all MAS supporters, are more than prepared to blame the Americans for much of what went wrong during what Roberto Fernandez Téran, the economist from the University of San Símon, described to me as "the lost decade of the 1980's and the disappointments of the 1990's." A joke you hear often in Bolivia these days sarcastically describes the country's political system as a coalition between the government, the international financial institutions, multinational corporations and la embajada - the U.S. Embassy. But while it would be unwise to underestimate the force of knee-jerk anti-Americanism in Latin America, the ubiquitousness of leftist sentiments in Bolivia today has more to do, as Joseph Stiglitz points out, with the complete failure of neoliberalism to improve people's lives in any practical sense. It is almost a syllogism: many Bolivians believe (and the economic statistics bear them out) that the demands by international lending institutions that governments cut budgets to the bone and privatize state-owned assets made people's lives worse, not better; the Bolivians believe, also not wrongly, that the U.S. wields extraordinary influence on international financial institutions; and from these conclusions, the appeal of an anti-American, anti-globalization politics becomes almost irresistible to large numbers of people.

On pinning Bolivia's hopes & dreams on Morales:
Even without apparent resources, MAS is surging, and the most recent polls put Morales ahead of his two principal rivals. Yet many Bolivians, including some who are sympathetic to MAS, say privately that Morales remains something of an unknown quantity. Shifter suggested to me that Morales is "still a work in progress," and a number of well-informed Bolivians I met agreed. The problem, of course, is that given the severity of the Bolivian crisis, the militancy of so much of the population and the impossibly high level of expectations that a MAS government would engender among Bolivia's poor and its long-marginalized indigenous populations, there is very little time.


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