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Evo Morales: the Early Days

Evo Morales is just an inspirational symbol for his people? Think again. Bolivia’s first Indian president has shown political acuity in his early days in office, skillfully maneuvering and sticking to his radical program for transforming the country while keeping adversaries at home and abroad at bay.

On Feb. 6, just 15 days after his inauguration, Morales called for the mobilization of the country’s peasant organizations to shield his government against efforts by “some transnational corporations” to destabilize the country to stop the “nationalization” of energy resources. The plot, he said, had been detected by the armed forces.

A day after swearing in, Morales shook up the Bolivian high command by choosing a low-ranking general to head the military, effectively forcing higher-ranking generals to resign. The move was a key move, as the Bolivian armed forces have a long history of intervening in Bolivian politics.

Morales also called on peasant and other popular organizations to rally behind his call for the election of a constituent assembly in early July, to draft a new constituent for Bolivia. “The oligarchs,” he said, “should not be given time to breathe” as the country tries to reshape its basic institutions.

The election of the assembly must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Bolivian Congress. Morales’ political party, MAS, the Movement for Socialism, controls just over half of the seats, and there are signs that the opposition is trying to block the two-thirds vote. In an ultimatum, Morales told Congress it had “until the end of February, maximum the first week of March,” to give its seal of approval for the constituent assembly.

Five days earlier, before the leading labor federation in the city of Los Altos, Morales declared that “the force of the people” would be used to impose an assembly if Congress failed to act. For this, and to nationalize Bolivia’s energy resources, he suggested the formation of a “high command” comprised of government leaders and representatives of the country’s popular organizations “to undertake rapid and urgent decisions.”

“I know that sectors of the oligarchy and some transnationals are not going to accept our plans, but I am convinced the people want change,” he added.

While keeping the initiative, Morales is also holding out the olive branch to his opponents. Last week he went to Santa Cruz, the richest state, where many of the business and political leaders have called for regional independence. Speaking before business leaders, he declared: “This government guarantees the right to private investment. Everyone has the right to recuperate their investments and a profit. We only ask that these profits benefit the entrepreneurs and the Bolivian State.”

He also called for “national development” to reduce poverty and achieve faster economic and social growth. Morales pointed to ample export markets for the private sector that he had encountered in his trip abroad just before his inauguration. Japan wants sugar; China, soybeans; Venezuela, chicken meat and soybeans; Cuba, powered milk and soy oil; while African countries are interested in sugar.

At about the same time, Morales received a surprise call from U.S. President George Bush, who offered to help “bring a better life to Bolivians.” Morales responded by asking Bush to reduce U.S. trade barriers for Bolivian products and suggested that Bush come for a visit. Bush did not reply.

The White House may be speaking with a “forked tongue,” hoping to woo Morales with platitudinous comments while preparing to take a hard line if he adopts policies like those of another hemispheric leader, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, David Greenlee has expressed his “preoccupation” with Bolivia’s government policies, while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others at the Pentagon are talking about “security concerns” in Bolivia.

According to Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network based in Cochabamba, Bolivia, “We have heard that State Department representatives are looking unfavorably at Morales.” The immediate flashpoint in U.S.- Bolivian relations is coca leaf production, as the United States has no major investments in Bolivian natural gas, the country’s principal energy export.

Resigning just this past weekend as head of six federations of coca leaf growers, a position he held for more than a decade and a half, Morales made clear his opposition to narco-trafficking in cocaine. But he refused to back off from the right of Bolivian peasants to grow coca for domestic consumption, medicinal uses and even for export as an herb in tea and other products. Nor will he support “forced eradication,” the U.S. policy that has harassed Bolivia’s small growers for years. A national commission, formed before Morales election, is preparing a report on how Bolivia should produce and administer coca leaf production.

The U.S. at the end of February will issue its official report on countries that it believes don’t do enough to control the export of cocaine and other narcotics. Based on the report Washington can cut off bilateral aid and pressure other international agencies to end their support. On Feb. 8, the White House announced it would seek to cut military aid to Bolivia by 96 percent.

“This report,” says Ledebur “will determine the U.S. line, if it immediately becomes an implacable foe of Morales, or tries to pursue an accommodation with him.

ROGER BURBACH is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas, based in Berkeley, Calif. An updated Spanish edition of Burbach’s book, “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice,” has just been released in Santiago, Chile. Matthew Burbach helped prepare this report.

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ROGER BURBACH is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Pinochet Affair.

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