A ray of hope to some, a new thorn to others

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2006, 12:00am

In the globalised world, nations are supposed to play by the rules: US-style capitalism, open trade with others and like-minded politics. Bolivia's President Evo Morales wants none of it - which is why concern is rife in Washington that a new revolution that will undercut its widely-accepted principles is brewing

Mr Morales is overtly anti-American, having branded US President George W. Bush a terrorist and frequently citing the US leader's policies as being imperialistic. He contends that capitalism is a global blight.

'The worst enemy of humanity is capitalism,' Mr Morales said in a speech in Mexico in October 2003. 'That is what provokes uprisings like our own, a rebellion against a system, against a neo-liberal model, which is the representation of a savage capitalism. If the entire world doesn't acknowledge this reality, that the national states are not providing even minimally for health, education and nourishment, then each day the most fundamental human rights are being violated.'

Such views are not new; they are the guiding principles of communism, particularly Cuba's President Fidel Castro, the US' arch-nemesis and the Bolivian leader's self-declared hero. The ideas have also been warmly embraced by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, who has likewise built a formidable hate relationship with Mr Bush.

With the world's biggest communist nations, China and Vietnam, turning to market capitalism, the collapse of the Soviet Union and global free trade being seen as the way forward among western nations, Dr Castro has been widely viewed as an anachronism. But as the negotiations over the Doha round of World Trade Organisation talks drag on towards a mid-year deadline that seems unlikely to be met because a few dozen developing nations see free trade as one-sided, there has been a subtle shift towards alternatives. The Castro model of socialism is one of them.

Mr Morales is the charismatic new purveyor of those values. He has not been shy about bucking global trends, nor upsetting traditional allies - facts which have observers like the US even more worried about what is happening on their doorstep.

Proving he is more than rhetoric, this week he went ahead with one of his election promises, signing a decree that Bolivia's natural gas reserves were to be nationalised to boost government revenue and help eradicate poverty. Bolivia has Latin America's second-largest natural gas reserves after Venezuela, all in the hands of foreign firms such as Spain's Repsol, which owns 35 per cent, and Brazil's Petrobras, which has 17.5 per cent.

Under the new law, any contract giving foreign companies ownership rights to oil and gas will be cancelled, although assets will not be confiscated. Firms have been threatened with eviction unless they sign contracts within six months surrendering control of natural gas production and giving Bolivia's cash-strapped state oil company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos a majority stake in operations.

The move sent instant shockwaves around the world's energy markets, particularly in neighbouring Brazil, which gets 70 per cent of its natural gas from Bolivia. Brazilians were especially surprised because in January, Mr Morales had met leftist President Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva and described him as 'comrade and brother'. They had agreed to work together on a programme of co-operation to end poverty.

Mr da Silva joined the Brazilian leader, Mr Chavez and Argentina's President Nestor Kircher in an emergency meeting in the Argentine city of Puerto Igazu on Thursday to discuss concerns. Mr Morales was told by his Latin American counterparts that they would respect his decision and negotiate new natural gas prices.

The Bolivian leader has seemingly made a career of ruffling official feathers. Nationalising the country's natural resources, from gas to forests, has been a long-time objective. He made it a pillar of his bid for the presidency in 2002, finishing a surprising second and becoming an instant celebrity on the South American continent. He led violent protests the following year against the pro-foreign investment economic policies of then president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, forcing him to resign. Mr Sanchez de Lozada's successor, Carlos Mesa, quit last June after 80,000 protesters headed by Mr Morales surrounded the presidential palace and congress calling for nationalisation of the gas industry and greater government representation for indigenous people, who comprise two-thirds of Bolivia's population.

Claiming to be Latin America's first indigenous Indian leader since the invasion by Spanish Conquistadors 450 years ago, Mr Morales has made much of his roots. He has blamed rampant corruption on the camaraderie of the Spanish-descended political elite and said that with constitutional change and indigenous rule, his nation and the continent will be revitalised.

But it is a more traditional feature of Bolivian Indian culture, the coca plant, that first won him fame - and continues to pit him against the US. Coca leaves are considered sacred by the Quechua and Aymara tribes, the latter of which Mr Morales was born into on October 26, 1959, in the Andean highland department of Oruro. The leaves are considered a daily dietary supplement, either chewed or made into a tea. But they can also be processed into cocaine and American authorities claim that Bolivia is a major source of the drug in the US.

The US has taken a tough stand against cocaine-producing nations, insisting that they destroy coca plantations. Disregarding peasants' protests that the policy is wrecking livelihoods and ignoring culture, it has insisted that Bolivia's government use military force to carry out its wishes.

A llama herder, trumpet player in a band, then a coca farmer, Mr Morales quickly rose to the forefront of the fight against the US policy, fronting the cocalero movement, a loose federation of coca farmers. 'I am not a drug trafficker,' he once said. 'I am a coca grower. I cultivate coca leaf, which is a natural product. I do not refine [it into] cocaine, and neither cocaine nor drugs have ever been part of the Andean culture.'

His argument is that the US should tackle its cocaine problem by targeting consumers, not eradicating coca plantations. The issue led him to politics and eventual leadership of the party - the Movement for Socialism - and his winning of a seat in Congress.

He was removed from Congress in January 2002 after being charged with terrorism following anti-coca eradication riots and although the accusation was never proved, opted not to reclaim his seat. Instead, he ran for the presidency, and capitalising on anti-US sentiment, his party won 20.94 per cent of the vote, just a few points behind the winning political group. Heartened, he pushed indigenous issues through protests and gained in popularity. When he again ran for president last December, he took 53.9 per cent of the vote.

Mr Morales' response to victory was to tour nations he perceived as friendly to build ties. New Latin American leaders had for decades made the US the traditional first port of call when travelling overseas; the new Bolivian leader opted for anti-American rhetoric and instead went to Cuba, where he received a red-carpet welcome from Dr Castro. There, the two signed a co-operation agreement in which Cuba will give Bolivia help with health and education.

In a speech in Havana, Mr Morales described Dr Castro and Mr Chavez as 'the commanders of the forces for the liberation of the Americas and the world'.

Days later, the Bolivian leader was in Venezuela, referring to the US-driven Free Trade Area of the Americas as 'an agreement to legalise the colonisation of the Americas'. With Mr Morales by his side, Mr Chavez referred to Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela as an 'axis of good' in perceived contrast to the 'axis of evil' comprising the US and its allies.

Then he was off to Spain, France, the European Union's headquarters in Brussels, China, South Africa and Brazil, striking deals and making potential friends.

Inaugurated in January, Mr Morales has shown himself to be an unconventional leader in many other ways. At the ceremony, he wore a white shirt without a tie and mismatching jacket. He rarely wears a suit, and unmarried, he has chosen his sister as the first lady. He has raised the minimum wage by 50 per cent and cut his own salary by 57 per cent.

Given the waves Mr Morales has made in the short time he has been in office, the anti-American, anti-free trade storm he is part of is guaranteed to continue blowing. Some hope it will grow to be a force to be reckoned with.