For the past week Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales has been on a whirlwind tour of Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The trip could aptly be called “Where’s Evo,” referring not only to Morales’s travels, but to a trademark striped sweater now the subject of an international debate over manners and hidden messages.
The controversy started in Spain; the sweater had given no offense to Chávez or Castro, but left various members of Spanish press and society appalled after Morales met with King Juan Carlos in, gasp, a red and blue wool pullover. (It probably doesn’t help that Morales appears to be sticking his tongue out in some photos.)
Antonio Burgos of the newspaper “ABC” implied that even a Spanish doorman has better dress protocol and asked, “Is there no one who might lend Mr. Morales a dark suit in a pinch?” Like many indigenous Bolivian men Morales doesn’t wear suits on formal occasions and instead favors sweaters and leather jackets.
Burgos is condescending, but Jorge Berlanga’s article in “La Razón” goes much further. Berlanga’s commentary stinks of racism, comparing the president-elect to children on UNICEF postcards, a non sequitur akin to saying Nelson Mandela resembles someone out of a Sally Struthers commercial. It’s not Morales’ clean, new sweater that leads Berlanga to make this bizarre connection. It’s his being indigenous. Morales is not dressed at all like a child from a UNICEF card, but he is of the same color.
The sweater and Evo Morales are not without fans. In an article in “El País” published on January 9, Manuel Rivas said Morales’s sweater is a protest, metaphorically knit of “basic unsatisfied needs,” and suggested respect for the garment as a symbol of Bolivia’s want.
And in an ironic bit journalist Rosa Belmonte called the sweater a message and compared it to the uniform of les sans culottes of the French Revolution, poorly dressed volunteers whose lack of knee breeches stood for their struggle against the bourgeoisie.
But it’s not even a sweater. It’s a chompa, a hand knit indigenous pullover of alpaca wool considered appropriate and even refined in Bolivia, which is of course where Morales is from.
The debate over a sweater before Evo Morales has even taken office shows perhaps the central challenge to his presidency; everyone has something to opine about Morales and so little of it involves his political platform. According to publications such as the Spanish sources above, Morales is not only a boor but a renegade who may appropriate the Spanish petroleum giant Repsol. American publications including “The New York Times” and “The Wall Street Journal” have depicted Morales as the “second coming of of Che” (NYT) and the new threat to liberty in Latin America (WSJ).
Even a superficial reading of Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) politics shows that Morales is hardly another Che. MAS is frequently moderate. For example, the party wants to renegotiate contracts with transnational petroleum companies rather than the confiscation and nationalization pursued by radical social movements such as the Regional Workers Central (COR) or the neighborhood collective (FEJUVE) of El Alto, the indigenous city above La Paz. When protest by those movements resulted in the resignation of Carlos Mesa last June, Morales wasn’t even present. Radical social movements worry that Morales may ultimately fail them.
Both criticism and praise of Evo Morales’s wardrobe is smoke and mirrors. It’s likely he isn’t trying to insult kings and presidents, nor is he sending messages about poverty and revolution. Morales isn’t President Bush or President Zapatero; when he puts on a pullover it isn’t a PR move meant to reveal disregard or resolve, or even a regular guy. He’s long been the latter. He’s wearing his clothes. If only Morales’s politics were scrutinized as closely as his wardrobe.
ANNIE MURPHY is a freelance journalist living in La Paz. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org