Axis of Evo: Bolivia's Model of Leftism

Article excerpt

Shortly after taking office as President of Bolivia in December 2005, Evo Morales went on a world tour with stops in Cuba, Venezuela, Spain, France, South Africa, and China. It may seem presumptuous for the new leader of a small, impoverished Andean country to begin his term in this fashion, yet Morales is anything but an arrogant politician. Consider his dress, for example: he is famous for the colorful striped sweater he wears in lieu of a suit, and for his visiting French president Jacques Chirac in the opulent Elysee Palace wearing jeans and a leather jacket. Why did Morales kick off his presidency like a rock star?

The answer is that Morales is more important for what he represents than for the position he holds, and he knows it. He is the leader of Bolivia's "Movement to Socialism," and could be the future of Latin American leftism. He has expressed admiration for Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, who, along with Morales, have been dubbed by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the "Latin American Axis of Evil." Yet Morales is more than just the newest iteration in the long line of leftist Latin American heads of state. He is also an Aymara, making him the first leader of Bolivia in over 500 years (since the Spanish conquest) to belong to this indigenous ethnic group that makes up more than 60 percent of the country's population. In short, he represents the fusion of traditional Latin American leftist politics with a broad indigenous movement. If this political formula is successful, it could serve as a model for other South American countries with large indigenous populations, such as Peru and Ecuador.

The US foreign policy establishment however, is not pleased with Morales' election. One of the key platforms of his campaign was to end the US-backed war on drugs in Bolivia. Coca, the plant used to make cocaine, is an important crop in Bolivia and is grown for use in teas and traditional medicines. Morales represented the Chapare region in Congress, which is home to a large number of coca growers and is the focus of most of the drug war's eradication efforts. Morales has long been the political voice of Bolivia's coca growers, and popular anger at the eradication policies pursued by previous governments was largely responsible for his emergence as a force in Bolivian politics. In the 2002 presidential election, this general discontent propelled him to a surprising second-place finish. …