A day with a hyperactive leftist leader, Bolivia’s Morales
Spending a whole day with Bolivian leftist president Evo Morales requires a great deal of stamina.
Morales, an Aymara Indian who has introduced a battery of controversial reforms to give Bolivian Indians more power and has put the state in the driving seat of the economy, is hyperactive, to say the least.
He tends to start the day meeting diplomats or government officials at about 6 a.m. and often wraps up after midnight.
In the three years I have been living in Bolivia he has not been on vacation, and it is not unusual for him to visit three or four far-away places in a day.
Today is one of those days.
Morales, who herded llamas as a child, lost four siblings to poverty and never finished high school, became the country’s first Indian president in early 2006. He is revered by poor Indians, who identify with his moving underdog story and are benefiting from heavy social spending.
But he is frowned upon by the middle classes who fear he may try to install a Cuban-style socialist regime in the country.
Critics see Morales, an ally of Venezuelan leftist President Hugo Chavez and Cuban revolution leader Fidel Castro, as a dangerous socialist.
The day we spent together, he was wearing jeans, a wrinkled short-sleeve shirt and unbranded sports shoes. He was good humored and cared little for protocol; addressing me as “comrade” or “brother” and once simply with a “What’s up, boss?”
“I don’t know how he does it. I can’t keep up sometimes. I’ve got soroche — high altitude syndrome,” said a close Morales’ aide, when I asked about the president’s hectic schedule, which often includes trips from the Andean plateau to the lowlands and back.
I met Morales, a clear favorite to win a presidential election in December, at a campaign rally at 7 a.m. in El Alto, a sprawling shantytown in the outskirts of La Paz.
“Evo governs and plays but does not get tired,” chanted hundreds of supporters while he played soccer after the rally.
Then we took a plane to the country’s constitutional capital, Sucre, to catch a helicopter to Tinguipaya, a tiny Quechua village of adobe houses in the central Potosi region, where no Bolivian president had ever visited before.
After a campaign event in Tinguipaya we flew to the southern town of Tarija, where he presided over an award ceremony for a soccer tournament, and then off to the northern town of Cobija.
On the plane Morales bragged about a penalty he scored in an impromptu kick about.
“I fooled the goalkeeper. Did you see?,” he said.
By 4 p.m. we had visited four places all over Bolivia — a country of 10 million that is roughly the size of France and Spain combined — traveling by car, plane and helicopter. At one point I tried to take a nap but Morales woke me up listening to loud Bolivian pop music on his cell phone.
At times during the day he looked over papers handed to him by a military officer and he also had private meetings with the defense minister and a governer during our travels.
Morales, a bachelor with a mop of thick black hair and copper skin, was going to turn 50 the day after our trip.
“How are you going to celebrate your birthday?” I asked.
“I can’t,” he said. “It’s forbidden. I’ve got to work. I have a meeting at 5 a.m. … you have to be there, let’s see whether you can keep up with me.”
“I don’t think I can. I’m already exhausted,” I told him.
Morales ate little during the morning and early afternoon, just drinking water and popping propolis lozenges, a health food made of resin from beehives. I told him I was hungry, that I could not believe he agreed to take us around for a day but failed to offer us food.
He called a flight attendant, who brought out a take-away plastic container with lukewarm chunks of beef and potatoes.
In no time Morales, Reuters’ photographer David Mercado, an army official and myself were all picking food from the container with our fingers. It was a working-class feast inside a presidential plane.
In Cobija Morales met government officials, dined with supporters and presided over a second sports ceremony.
After 14 hours of traveling throughout the country Morales, a keen soccer fan, was still going strong and decided to play soccer with a local team.
On the flight back to La Paz he finally dozed off for an hour or so. We arrived in El Alto after 1 a.m.
“Comrades, I see you at 5 a.m. at the presidential palace. Don’t let me down,” he said before waving goodbye.
(Photograph by David Mercado/REUTERS, October 25, 2009)