email a friend iconprinter friendly iconBolivia's Brink
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The candidate was Evo Morales, who was elected in December 2005 and, in one of the most unstable of all Latin American countries, remains in power two and a half years later. His rule has been fraught with difficulties: Bolivia, geographically divided between the prosperous tropical lowlands and the impoverished Altiplano, is now more politically divided between these regions than ever before. An autonomist movement in the eastern, whiter half of the country threatens the stability of his government. But it is worth remembering how improbable Morales's rise seemed even on the day of the rally in Villa Tunari, only weeks before the election. In the administrative capital, La Paz, the light-skinned, business-suited men of influence I had talked to a few days before the rally were contemplating this possibility with a mixture of contempt and disbelief. An Indian president? He could never be elected. Or: He will be elected, but he will never last.

On the podium, men wearing garlands made of flowers and the leaves of the coca plant gave speeches in languages I could not understand: the Quechua and Aymara of the Inca Empire, still more familiar than Spanish to virtually everyone in the audience. The candidate, whose broad, hatchet-nosed face peered out above the garlands of coca, fruit, and harvest vegetables around his neck, stepped forward and began his speech in heavily accented Spanish. "We are Aymara, Quechua, Guaraní—the legitimate proprietors of this noble Bolivian land!" he cried, to long cheers and applause. Noisemakers crackled. Somewhere, someone beat a deep-toned bombo drum. A president whose Spanish is not native? Impossible.

The men and women next to me turned aside whenever I attempted conversation. They smelled of soaked wool and smoke. Most of the women wore flat-brimmed straw hats over their long black braids, Quechua style, and they flaunted brightly colored, above-the-knee velvet skirts worn over many short petticoats. The Aymara women, who in general have more imposing figures and broader faces, were dressed in longer skirts and embroidered shawls, topped by bowler hats. The men, dressed in faded and mended polyester shirts and slacks, each had a big bump protruding from one side of his face—the wad of coca leaves that native people throughout the Andean region keep constantly tucked in their mouths.

The crowd answered an exhortation by the candidate by chanting, waving their fists in the air, stomping, rattling their flags. "This effort of yours has not been in vain," Morales declaimed, and they applauded the next president of Bolivia, and themselves. They had been fighting together ever since he was a poor farmer like them, a producer of the age-old crop of coca and the leader of a long, rough battle against the forces of the United States' war on drugs, centered in this very region. They had fought stubbornly and mostly without weapons in endless confrontations with army troops and antidrug police—largely by refusing to budge, just as they were now showing their support in the downpour.

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