One of the most significant events in 500 years of Latin American history will take place in Bolivia on Sunday when Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, is inducted as president. People of indigenous origin have, on occasion, risen to the top in Latin America. But Morales’s overwhelming election victory took place on a tide of indigenous mobilisation that is especially powerful in Andean countries; elections in Peru and Ecuador this year might also bring success to indigenous movements.
The Rebellion of the Hanged is one of B Traven’s novels of the Mexican jungle, written in 1936. In these stories the Indians turn slowly from rebellion to revolution, and something of that spirit infuses the new mood in Latin America. The heirs to pre-Columbian civilisations have conquered their distrust of white “democracy” and are again moving to the front of the historical stage. They do so as one of Kondratiev’s long economic waves has been sweeping through the continent like a tsunami. The terrible impact of neoliberal economics is reminiscent of the slump of the 30s that brought revolution to many countries of Latin America.
Morales’s victory is not just a symptom of economic breakdown and age-old repression. It also fulfils a prophecy made by Fidel Castro, who claimed the Andes would become the Americas’ Sierra Maestra – the Cuban mountains that harboured black and Indian rebels over the centuries, as well as Castro’s guerrilla band in the 50s. His prophecy exercised US governments in the 60s. Radical elected governments were destroyed by the armed forces – guardians of the white settler states – supported by Washington. Countries such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia were prevented from following anything that might have resembled the Cuban road.
Today the rules have changed. The cold war no longer provides an excuse for intervention, and the US is stretched in other parts of the world. The ballot box, for the first time in Latin America, has become the strategy of choice for revolutionaries and the poor majority. The result in Bolivia is a president who invokes the memory of the silver miners of Potosi and Che Guevara, who dreamed of a socialist commonwealth of Latin America. Castro’s prophecy looks close to fulfilment, and, in his 80th year, he will go to Bolivia to savour the moment.
Another historic presence will be the shadow of Simón Bolívar, the independence leader of the 19th century who also had faith in the ability of the Andean provinces to change Latin America. He drove the Spanish from the mountains, and finished his battles in the country that was given his name. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, mentor of Morales and largely responsible for channelling the new mood into revolutionary paths, will also be present this weekend.
The “axis of good” – as Morales terms it – of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, is a huge threat to US political, economic and cultural hegemony. It is also a challenge for Latin America’s traditional left, which has never had much success in coping with indigenous populations. Now the representative of Bolivia’s farmers, tin miners and coca growers of indigenous ancestry is to wear the presidential sash and seek their incorporation into political life. They will be joined by more overtly socialist groups that derive their legitimacy from half a century of union work – an alliance that will be at least as problematic for the president as US hostility and international companies seeking to exploit Bolivia’s oil and gas. These won’t be nationalised but will certainly have to pay higher royalties.
False dawns are common in Latin American history, but the strength of the radical tide suggests that this time it will not be dammed, still less reversed.