Profile: Bolivia’s President Evo Morales

When Evo Morales was elected Bolivia's president in December 2005, it represented a radical change in the country's history. Mr. Morales, an Aymara Indian, became the first president to come from the country's indigenous majority. As a leader of a coca-growers union, he was also the first president to emerge from the social movements whose protests forced Bolivia's two previous presidents from office. Mr. Morales was elected on a promise to govern in favor of Bolivia's indigenous majority, who had suffered centuries of marginalization and discrimination. An avowed socialist, his political ideology combines standard left-wing ideas with an emphasis on traditional Andean values and social organization. A few months after taking office, he moved to put Bolivia's rich gas fields under state control, worrying foreign investors. He also pushed for constitutional reform. Amid protests and disputes, he won a victory in a referendum in August 2008 on whether he should stay in office, and then a few months later a referendum approved his plans for a new constitution. It came into force in February 2009 setting out the rights of the indigenous majority, granting more regional and local autonomy and redefining Bolivia as a "multi-ethnic and pluri-cultural" nation. It also set out moves for large-scale land reform, enshrined state control over key natural resources, and paved the way for Mr. Morales to seek re-election. Mr. Morales' left-wing policies have worried and in some cases antagonized many middle-class Bolivians who believe he is too radical. "I am a coca grower. I cultivate coca leaf, which is a natural product; I do not refine [it into] cocaine.” - Evo Morales His political base is among the indigenous population of Bolivia's western highlands, while opposition has been concentrated in the wealthy eastern lowland province of Santa Cruz, Bolivia's economic powerhouse. Regional leaders there led a campaign for greater autonomy, arguing that Mr. Morales's socialist policies were damaging the economy and threatening private property. In December 2009, Evo Morales was re-elected president with 64% of the vote, easily defeating his conservative opponent and gaining ground even in the opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz. He promised to increase the role of the state in the economy and accelerate the pace of change. In 2010 he nationalized energy-generating firms and reformed pensions, taking over private funds and extending the state pension to millions of poor Bolivians. At the end of the year he faced his first major political setback when he tried to end government fuel subsidies, pushing the price of petrol up by more than 70%. Violent protests erupted and trades unions announced strikes, leading Mr Morales to back down. Since coming to power, Evo Morales has forged close links with other left-wing Latin American leaders, particularly Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba. Relations with the U.S. have been strained. In 2008 he expelled the U.S. ambassador, Philip Goldberg, accusing him of conspiring against his government, and suspended operations of the US Drug Enforcement Administration in Bolivia. Like Mr. Chavez, he is an outspoken critic of what he sees as US "imperialism" in Latin America, and has cultivated ties with other foes of the U.S., such as Iran. He has also taken on an outspoken role in international climate negotiations, arguing from an indigenous perspective for greater respect for "Mother Earth." Although Mr. Morales' electoral triumph in 2005 catapulted him to international recognition, he had long been a controversial figure in Bolivian politics. As the leader of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) he played a central role in the violent demonstrations demanding the nationalization of the energy sector that led to the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in October 2003. His power base is in the coca-growing areas of central Bolivia and he remains the head of the biggest coca-growing union. Critics have long accused him of ties to drug trafficking because of his defense of coca cultivation. But he and his supporters stress the coca leaf is an intrinsic part of indigenous Andean culture, and not just the raw material for cocaine. Mr. Morales, who in his youth was a llama herder and trumpet player in a band, played a leading role in the indigenous struggle and the conflicts between coca farmers and U.S.-backed drug eradication programs.
2011-01-12 23:02:55