Latin America’s Indians on the Move … in Different Directions

Latin America’s estimated 60,000,000 indigenous peoples are on the move from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego, but in dramatically distinct directions.

While Mexico’s profoundly Mayan Zapatista Army of National Liberation launches a vehement anti-electoral campaign, dissing the political class, eschewing power, and seeking to build autonomous alliances down below, Evo Morales, a 46 year-old acculturated Quechua Indian farm leader, will take power from the top when he is sworn in as the first Indian president of majority-Indian Bolivia.

Evo, recently snapped wearing his ratty old alpaca sweater during an audience with the King of Spain to the enormous disdain of fashion-conscious diplomats everywhere, has also been photographed whispering in Fidel Castro’s ear, leading a “pollera”-wearing (Indian skirt) entourage of women leaders of his “cocalero” (coca-growers) federation through the streets of old Havana, and nuzzling Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez before a portrait of Simon Bolivar in Caracas–Chavez, Morales, and Castro have announced the formation of an anti-imperialist alliance that has Washington plotting counter-insurgency strategies.

Having won a smashing (52%) victory in December elections, Evo and his MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) Party prepare to take power in a country that has suffered nearly 200 coup d’etats in its 175-year history.

Although the affable, boyish Morales whose thick black locks appear permanently adorned with confetti these days, has seemingly risen to superstar echelons overnight, it is taken Evo a good decade of hard organizing to reach these lofty heights. In the spring of 2004, this reporter got a week-long look at Bolivia’s unlikely new president in interviews with Evo himself; his vice-president, the former Tupac Katari guerrillero Alvarro Garcia; MAS deputies; and leaders of the six coca-growing federations in the Amazon basin region of Chapare, south of Cochabamba where Morales has built a rock-solid base. The thumbnail portrait that emerged was one of a pragmatic and even opportunist politico with a wandering eye and a quick tongue. He energetically bashed the gringos to a gringo reporter, charging the U.S. with “poisoning” Bolivia with transgenic crops and vowing to shut down Washington’s embassy for meddling in Bolivian affairs, when he came to power.

Evo Morales is being touted as Latin America’s first Indian president since Mexico’s Benito Juarez in the mid-1800s but hyperbole seems to be far ahead of the facts here. In fact, Alejandro Toledo in next-door Peru is an acculturated Quechua (“cholo”) from Andean Ankash who was captured by the Peace Crops and brainwashed by the World Bank before being repatriated to serve their interests six years ago. Toledo will probably be succeeded by another Indian Ollanta Humala, a nationalist who is close to Chavez and Morales.

In a majority Indian country like Bolivia (between 60 and 85% depending on whose parameters you swallow) being an Indian is no big thing. Bolivians are more apt to identify themselves by their class or occupation–farmer, miner– than as Aymara, Quechua, or Amazonas.

Evo Morales concedes his own ties to “Indian-ness” are tenuous âo” when I was in Cochabamba, he was relearning Quechua in preparation for the presidential run. The lingua franca of the cocalero movement is Spanish.

A bright kid from the dirt-poor altiplano where the tin mines had all tapped out, Morales moved with his family down to the tropical Chapare in the mid-1970s. Growing coca leaf was the preferred mode of eking out a living for the new arrivals or “colonos.” By the early ’90s, Evo had risen from sports director of the cocalero federations to a tough energetic leader not afraid to defy the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s militarized coca eradication programs to uproot the sacred Inca plant. The federation’s chief weapon was multiple road blockades paralyzing transit on Bolivia’s key east-west highway that often brought them into conflict with the DEA-subsidized Bolivian military.

But the cocaleros’ epic struggle has less to do with the Incas than with defending the colonos’ hard-won land. Evo Morales’s interests have always been more agricultural than cultural. He is an Indian leader of a mestizo-ized campesino movement, the mirror-opposite of the Zapatistas’ Subcomandante Marcos, a mestizo mouthpiece for a profoundly Indian army. Despite their differences, Morales recently invited Marcos to his January 22nd inauguration.

“Evo is not an Indian–he’s a socialist,” observes Aymara peasant leader Felipe Quispe, “El Mallku” (The Condor.) Quispe who has tussled with Morales for years, dreams of restoring Inca glories by building a Tahuantinsuyo, a four nation (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Paraguay) majority-Indian population Andean federation.

Evo Morales’s installation as Bolivia’s first Indian president may well prove to be a classic case of not wishing for what you want least you get it. By stepping up from the moderately radical Left opposition of the MAS, Evo and his bookish veep Alvaro Garcia will soon find themselves enmeshed in a baffling tangle of “arrangements” with the usual suspects–the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, and the White House.

As leader of the cocaleros, Morales could not even obtain a U.S, passport because the La Paz embassy had him pegged as a “narco-terrorist.” Now he is holding cordial meetings at the embassy he once vowed to close with his old adversary U.S. ambassador David Greenlee, once in charge of DEA enforcement and eradication programs in that Andean republic. Although Greenlee insists that Morales comply with the DEA’s “Zero Coca” mandates, Evo can ill-afford to disaffect the cocalero federations that brought him to power.

Morales is similarly sandbagged by Bolivia’s other great resource – natural gas, the second most important reserves in the Americas. To his left, the Bolivian Workers’ Confederation (COB), historically the most militant such aggregation on the continent, and the municipal councils of El Alto, the ragged city of 700,000 Aymaras overlooking La Paz from whence the overthrow of two out of the three last Bolivian presidents was hatched, have given President Morales three months to nationalize the nation’s natural gas resources. Evo, instead, opts for a 50/50 split with transnational energy titans like Spain’s Repsol and the French Total and recently toured Europe to assure the CEOs that expropriation was not on his agenda.

Although Evo Morales and Mexico’s Zapatistas see taking power from dramatically different perspectives–the Zapatista rejection of taking state power is “absurd–how else can we change Bolivia” he told me two springs ago–both have initiated campaigns to write new anti-neo-liberal constitutions for their countries that would enshrine autonomy as a guiding principal of governance. The EZLN’s “Other Campaign” is directed at writing a new Mexican constitution and Morales too is pledged to call a constitutional convention later this year that will grant provincial autonomy. But autonomy in Bolivia is a two-edged sword. The wealthy, white province of Santa Cruz in the east has long been a seedbed of secessionist sentiments. With major oil and gas holdings in Santa Cruz and neighboring Tarija provinces, Morales cannot allow the local oligarchs a free hand

Strategically accessible from Paraguay where the U.S. has an airbase and ready strike force capability, Santa Cruz could also provide an open door to CIA sabotage, military incursion, and the capture of Evo Morales on drug trafficking charges a la Panama’s Manuel Noriega should Bolivia’s new president prove too troublesome for the Bush White House.

The January 22nd swearing in of Evo Morales is unquestionably a milestone for Latin America’s indigenous peoples but like Kirchner in Argentina and Lula in Brazil, breaking with the past may be a difficult task. Kirchner was just forced to pay off $10 billion USD to the World Bank for a debt accrued under a dictatorship that dumped the bodies of 30,000 disappeared Argentineans in the Rio Plata from airplanes. Lula, mired in corruption scandals and facing defeat in presidential elections this summer, recently caved in to the transnationals at the Hong Kong World Trade Organization ministerial meet.

All over Latin America, where the pendulum has swung from neo-liberalism to social democracy, the people are finding such changes to be disappointingly cosmetic. What with a dozen presidential and parliamentary elections on tap in Latin America in 2006, the debate between Evo’s taking power from the top down and the Zapatistas; efforts to build it from the ground up will have hefty resonance from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego this year.

JOHN ROSS is the author of three prize-winning volumes on the Zapatista rebellion and is working on a fourth “Making Another World Possible – Zapatista Chronicles 2000-2005.” Ross will speak on the Evo/Marcos divide Friday, February 10th at New College in San Francisco.


JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to