Evo Morales: ‘We are not a country of beggars any more’
Evo Morales polishes off another strip of chicharrón and licks his fingers. Latin America’s longest-ruling sitting president seems to be savouring not just the mountain of deep-fried pork in front of us, eaten in true campaign trail style with bare hands, but also the prospect of possible controversial fourth electoral victory on Sunday. We are sitting at a rusted metal table, ringfenced by guards, in a remote village in central Bolivia where the 59-year-old has just delivered a fiery speech. As is usual for these parts, the reception was warm. “People tell me, ‘Evo, if you do well, we’ll do well’,” he tells me.
Everybody, from voters to ministers to foes, calls him “Evo”. I have been with him since dawn, when he started his day in the capital, La Paz. We drove to nearby El Alto, where he addressed a group of youngsters from his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, before boarding the presidential jet to fly 200km south-east to Oruro. Then it was on by helicopter to the village of Caracollo, where he inaugurated a road and took the wheel of a Land Cruiser for two hours to test it himself. When we stopped at toll booths, he paid with money from his own pocket. Along the way, people gifted him ponchos, hats and garlands of flowers, potatoes and coca leaves. “Evo no se cansa,” or “Evo doesn’t get tired,” ran a campaign tune playing on his car’s radio. It’s true.
At almost every stop we made, people offered us bowls of quinoa with grated fresh cheese. “Fancy enough for lunch with a ‘gringo’ newspaper?” Morales quipped. “Quinoa is good, it will give you energy.” I wonder whether the peasant president is fully aware of the quinoa craze currently sweeping through the capitalist US and Europe.
It is just past 3pm before we finally stop for lunch, prepared at a campaign outpost under a blue tarpaulin. As she sees us coming, a Quechua woman dressed in a pink apron and a denim bucket hat pulls a dripping joint of pork from a deep aluminium pot and puts it on a plastic platter, excited to be able to serve food to “my brother president”.
“Eat, eat!” says Morales. “Let’s see if you can keep up, because we have yet another activity [to come]”. He chuckles at my exhaustion and points to the bleeding blisters on his feet, which have been exposed for most of the day in the stinging Andean cold: “I have to wear sandals because I have been around too much.” I feel self-conscious in my heavy Blundstone boots.
Morales is used to toiling. Aged five, he was already herding llamas on the chilly plateau in Orinoca, western Bolivia. He has been a trumpet player, a coca farmer and a combative trade unionist. In 2006, when he took office as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, it was a historic moment — in robes fit for an emperor, he received the chieftain’s staff in the pre-Inca ruins of Tiwanaku.
As a reporter, I have been following him ever since. Such has been his influence as president that many people from across the political spectrum describe him as Bolivia’s equivalent to Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — someone who “refounded” a nation. Morales is one of the survivors of Latin America’s “Pink Tide” of leftwing governments that dominated the region until five years ago, and just a few hours in his company are enough to show that his instincts as a populist remain sharp. But as he prepares to face the voters again on October 20, his aura of invincibility is beginning to fade, and increasing numbers of critics fear that their country may be tilting towards autocracy.
I am keen to find out what has changed since a conversation we had in 2014, soon after he won his third term, when he told me that he did not plan to find a way around constitutional limits to seek a fourth. Instead, he said, he would devote his time to his two passions outside politics, playing football and farming coca — cocaine’s raw material, but a mild and traditional Andean stimulant in its unprocessed form. Three years later, during an official visit by Equatorial Guinea’s ageing strongman Teodoro Obiang, it was reported in local media that Morales asked the coup leader turned four-decade president how to win elections with 90 per cent of the vote. “What did he tell you?” I ask. Morales deflects deftly: “I remember the question,” he says. “I don’t remember the answer.”
We attack the pork — crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, greasy and tasty throughout — and sip pineapple juice from big plastic cups. Behind us, supporters are chanting “Evo Forever!” It is a reference to the constitutional dispute in 2016, when Morales narrowly lost a referendum to allow him to stand for a fourth time. Undeterred, however, his party argued that term limits violated the American Convention on Human Rights. Bolivia’s constitutional court agreed. Many Bolivian voters, understandably, now feel cheated. Does he feel it is legitimate to run again? “This was not an invention of Bolivia, nor an invention of Evo,” he replies.
Although Morales tells me he is running again because it is a “request from the Bolivian people”, an increasing number of Bolivians do not want him in office for five more years. The latest polls suggest that he is ahead of his closest contender, yet it is unclear whether the margin will be large enough to prevent a run-off in December. Critics argue that his ego is becoming out of control — reflected in the construction of a new 25-storey presidential palace in La Paz and a museum in his birthplace to honour him. But he dismisses the idea that a cult of personality has grown up around his presidency. “I am still a humble man, nothing has changed, you can judge for yourself,” he says.
In 1994, while head of the coca leaf growers’ union, Morales was arrested by US-trained anti-drug agents. “F***ing Indian,” they yelled while beating him up. He once told me that, as a child, he learnt three basic Andean rules of life: ama sua (don’t steal), ama quella (don’t be lazy) and ama llulla (don’t lie), adding that in adulthood he learnt one more: ama llunk’u (don’t be servile). That is probably why he slams opponents as lapdogs of the “North American empire”. As always, his face stiffens when he speaks of the US. What does he think of Donald Trump? “He is more servile to capitalism than his predecessors,” Morales says. “Trump is harming his people and, more fundamentally, life and mankind.”
As Morales reprimands me for not eating as much as him, I turn to the economy, which is at the centre of his presidential campaign. Despite the usual problems that accompany long rule — growing corruption, inner circle sycophancy, ballooning debts and widening deficits — it has been reasonably well managed for much of his time in office. He understood, unlike Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, that healthy growth would give him valuable autonomy. “Without being an economist, I have learnt when to subsidise and when to lift the subsidy. We must also know when to regulate the price on basic services such as water and telecommunications. That is why we are doing better than our neighbours.”
The criticism is aimed not only at his Venezuelan socialist ally Nicolás Maduro but also at the free-marketer Mauricio Macri in Argentina, with whom Morales gets along well “despite ideological differences”. Macri is wrestling with the familiar enemies of his country’s economy — devaluation and inflation — and may lose in elections on October 27. I tell Morales I was born in Buenos Aires, home to tens of thousands of Bolivian migrants. He laughs, saying many are coming back to Bolivia. Indigenous Bolivia has long been associated with poverty by Europe-centric Argentines. But the tide has turned, Morales says, and “we are doing better than them now”.
He is more isolated today than when he was being embraced by the likes of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. Yet he senses an opportunity in the humiliation of a market-friendly government next door and is waiting for the return of socialist allies in Argentina. His recipe for winning so many elections? “The economy comes first. Governments need to balance growth without neglecting the social and public investments,” he says.
I take another bite of pork and ask him about indigenous rights. Morales, an ethnic Aymara, has granted many rights to the Amerindian majority, bringing stability to a country long ruled by its white and mestizo inhabitants. Serfdom was only abolished in 1945 and until 1952 indigenous people were forbidden to enter the square outside the presidential palace. “There will be never full equality but there must be some equality,” he tells me.
Yet Morales is far from being a liberal. Critics say the MAS controls Congress and a small media empire, and holds sway over the courts. If he completes another term, he will have been president for 20 years. Maybe that is why he professes admiration for long-ruling autocrats and populists, including those he calls Bolivia’s new “friends” — Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping. “Bolivia is not alone,” he says, taking a sip of pineapple juice.
It may not be. But critics argue that he squandered the chance to become an Andean Nelson Mandela — a national leader who tried to unify a country divided by racism — turning instead into a Paul Kagame-like figure, building a thriving economy but at the expense of some democratic rights. Supporters counter that he ended five centuries of oppression against indigenous people. On the back of high commodity prices, he instituted public works and cash-transfer schemes that cut rates of poverty almost in half during his time in office. “Today, we have a state with dignity and identity,” he says. Then why does he have the right to be president again? Because “politics is not a profession, it is passion for the people,” he says.
That may explain why Morales admits to still feeling uncomfortable at summits. “I tell you, when there are summits of heads of state, there are preliminary meetings, we meet in a room, some presidents only speak about business, sometimes their own businesses, and not of their people. It’s odd.” Morales feels his policies of redistribution of key gas revenues and the renationalisation of the energy industry, among others, are having an echo in some corners of today’s Britain. “We are defending collective, not individual rights — on that we are ahead of the Europeans,” he said.
Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour leader, has said that one of the countries he most admires is Bolivia. “He is getting inspiration from our policies, with the proposed nationalisation of railways and energy, for example,” Morales says, laughing as my pen slips from my greasy fingers. “He will be welcomed here.” Morales adds that he would be willing to take Corbyn to Bolivia’s coca-growing region of the Chapare. “So you can teach him how to chew coca?” I ask. “That will be my pleasure — and his.” Later in the day, Morales teaches me how to properly chew the “sacred leaves”, neatly folding a few and placing them between his lower teeth and cheek.
Our focus is broken by the arrival of party members including the local female mayor, wearing the traditional Andean outfit of bowler hat and flouncy skirt. It transpires, to my surprise, that she has been waiting for us at her house with a feast of deep-fried cuy, or guinea pig. As we get up from the table, Morales asks one of his advisers for cash to pay the cook. I ask him to let me settle the bill according to Lunch with the FT custom — something his communications minister had warned me would be hard. “The Argentine-Gringo wants to pay, doña,” Morales laughs, and I slip her a Bs100 ($14) note. We hurry through a crowd of supporters to the mayor’s house.
You wanted to have lunch with me, now you have to eat again,” Morales says as we arrive. Full from the chicharrón, I can manage only a brittle drumstick. The president doesn’t even touch the local delicacy, getting lost instead in a story about how he angered Cuba’s Fidel Castro soon after winning his first election. Before embarking on a whirlwind tour of Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa in his trademark striped sweater — “the one I had handy” — he was called by the late Cuban leader. “Evo, you cannot fly on a commercial plane, I’ll send you my Russian-made one,” Castro said. Morales declined, worried about who would pay for the fuel. “I couldn’t accept it,” he said. Then Chávez called to insist, and he yielded to his mentors.
Today, he has more than enough means of transportation to criss-cross around. “We are not a country of beggars any more,” he tells me. His advisers say that, on average, the president goes to at least three Bolivian cities, towns or villages a day. “I feel I haven’t changed. I continue being with the people here and there. Although, before, I stayed up late, dancing, drinking beer, I don’t have the time now,” he says. (He tells me that once, as a youngster, he had to pawn his trumpet to pay for the beers he drunk during a long night out; as soon as he had earned some cash he came back for it.) Without breaking the tradition, then, we rush to the helicopter to fly to yet another campaign performance. As we jump in, Morales rubs his blisters and winces.
I remember him telling me that politics was “a science of sacrifice for the people”. The blisters seem to bear testimony to that. “My great desire”, he added, was to retire and return to an area not too far from here to “remember everything we had fought for”. I heard that five years ago. He now adds that he has yielded to the people’s “request” that he serve five more years in office. Is he convinced that the people are still with him? “I feel that, I could be wrong, but I am optimistic,” he replies. He may indeed win again. But his victory on Sunday is far from assured, the presidency a prize gripped as though with fingers greasy from deep-fried pork.