Three years ago in Villa Tunari, a shabby little tropical town at the center of Bolivia's province of Chapare, the source and power of the ethnic revolution taking place in this Andean nation was on full view. Flood rains had churned up rivers, destroyed bridges, provoked landslides, and caused deaths in the region. An entire busload of the press corps, along with dozens of other buses and cars, was at that moment trapped ten miles away near the swollen Espíritu Santo River, between a tunnel that had been sealed by a sliding boulder and the nearest bridge, which had collapsed. What sort of human being would show up in this catastrophe to listen to a campaign speech and shout a few slogans?The answer was a crowd of several thousand descendants of Bolivia's earliest inhabitants: pueblos indígenas or originarios—first, or original, peoples, as they variously prefer to be called throughout the Americas. Many had forded swollen streams and walked miles to stand here on the outskirts of Villa Tunari, impervious to the hammering rain and the ankle-deep, sticky mud that sucked shoes and sandals off their feet.
A lucky few of us in the press had made it across the river by skidding in a 4x4 along the ruins of the bridge. By the time we arrived, people had been standing in the downpour for hours, wedged shoulder to shoulder and back to belly around a rickety podium, shivering under plastic capes or soaked to the bone, but until the rally ended at sunset, the crowd never thinned. The men and women in this audience had gathered here on a historic mission, after all: Following centuries of humiliation and in defiance of the law of probabilities, they were about to produce the next president of Bolivia from their midst.