A day with a hyperactive leftist leader, Bolivia’s Morales

October 29, 2009

    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)

8 comments

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Morales was and is a narco-thug. That is how he ran his coca syndicate and his corrupt mimisters run the government that way. There is no transparancy on how our budget is spent.

Posted by Stella | Report as abusive

Is there a valid reason why you won’t print my comments??

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

Morales is a decent man who has brought his country and the majority of the population(indian) to a decent level but more to be done. I remember the indian maid in our guest house packing her child on her back by bus to her hometown to vote for Morales(a two day trip) He has the support of Bolivians.

Posted by g frame | Report as abusive

Yes G frame, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say in my last 3 posts..

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

Michael Levine is a 25-year veteran of the DEA turned best-selling author and journalist.

“On July 17, 1980, drug traffickers actually took control of a nation. Bolivia at the time [was] the source of virtually 100% of the cocaine entering the US. CIA-recruited mercenaries and drug traffickers unseated Bolivia’s democratically elected president, a leftist whom the US government didn’t want in power. Immediately after the coup, cocaine production increased massively, until it soon outstripped supply. This was the true beginning of the (US) crack “plague.” “

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

Morales is doing the best he can for his people..let him reach his goals in peace and in love for the basic human rights of indigenous cultures. the only thugs are the ones coming into a country and demanding… First look at your own, indigenous cultures do not consume your fabricated drugs, you do…. Educate your own to stop…leave south america in the hands of indigenous cultures.. Stop your power and control addictions

Posted by intiraymi | Report as abusive

Stella, your kind of people are the reason why Bolivia has always been on the losing end of history. Evo would not have become a politician had it not been for his fight against the abuses of US drug policies toward Bolivia. You prefer to call Evo a narco-thug because you do not have the spine to question why a foreign country would come and tell the Bolivian government what to do, demand total immunity for their agents, and abuse its people…..instead of them abusing and punishing their own addicts. The only solution to get rid of narco-thugs is to squash addiction. Besides, if Evo was a real narco-thug he would already have 5 houses in Florida. Do your research!….JUST SAY NO

Posted by Jaime | Report as abusive

A great story — with all the political infighting in Bolivia, it’s easy to forget about Morales’ beginnings and thus the enormity of his achievements, whether we decide we like him or not.

Posted by Ruxandra Guidi | Report as abusive