Controversial President Focus Of Bolivian Elections

Bolivia's President Evo Morales has nationalized natural gas reserves, ushered in a new constitution and redistributed land to his nation's poor, indigenous majority. He also kicked out the U.S. ambassador as well as U.S. drug enforcement authorities. Like him or loathe him, Bolivia's first indigenous president has made headlines. Sunday, Bolivians will decide whether to re-elect him. He's widely expected to win, but what he'll do during his next term remains uncertain.

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Bolivia's President Evo Morales has nationalized natural gas reserves, ushered in a new constitution and redistributed land to his nation's poor indigenous majorities. He's also kicked out the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Bolivia's first indigenous president has made headlines, and tomorrow Bolivians will decide whether to re-elect Mr. Morales. He's widely expected to win.

Annie Murphy reports.

ANNIE MURPHY: It's election season in Bolivia, where politics happen in the street.

(Soundbite of march)

MURPHY: These marchers are out to support current President Evo Morales, a popular and controversial cocoa farmer who became Bolivia's first indigenous president four years ago. Claudia Benevente(ph) is a Bolivian political analyst. She says the last four years haven't been a smooth ride.

Ms. CLAUDIA BENEVENTE (Political Analyst): (Through translator) Evo has generated a lot of turbulence. Of course it's been a shock, not only for elites but for people from the middle class as well. They see Indians in street clothes walking across the red carpets of the foreign ministry and they ask, what's happening?

MURPHY: Morales has enormous support across the country, and the opposition is weak. His strongest challenger is Manfred Reyes, a former governor known mostly for his good looks, whose nickname is Sweetie.

Nelly Costillo(ph) hasn't decided who she's voting for, but it won't be for Morales. She's a retired nurse who runs a laundromat. Nelly says Morales has done little for middle-class people like her.

Ms. NELLY COSTILLO (Retired Nurse): (Through translator) Professionals are leaving. The country doesn't hold anything for them. I have a daughter in Mexico who studied psychology there and she hasn't been able to return to Bolivia because there isn't any work.

MURPHY: Evo Morales has also been criticized for his close ties to Venezuela and Cuba. In September 2008, he threw out the U.S. ambassador and later the DEA, and some Americans wondered if Morales had become a puppet of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. But according to analyst Claudia Benevente, Morales has close relations with all of Latin America's growing left. Still, Morales's greatest impact has been at home.

Ms. BENEVENTE: (Through translator) I think whether or not you agree with Evo Morales as a figure, with the first indigenous president on the continent, we came into existence. Before, CNN never ran news about us Bolivians. No one talked about us, no one even knew where we were. Bolivia was on another planet.

MURPHY: And Bolivia has a long way to go. Many people here still live below the poverty line, like those in the city of El Alto. Over 90 percent of the people here are Aymara immigrants, people from the countryside whose lives look a lot like Morales did before he was president.

(Soundbite of hammering)

MURPHY: We're inside the El Alto Fairgrounds on a bright, cool morning. A crew of men is setting up a rollercoaster and stray dogs are curled up in the sun. In a nearby storage area, about 200 women are here to receive a stipend for newborns. The stipend is funded by the state-run gas sector. All the women are pregnant or carrying babies in colorful slings.

Inez Mamani(ph) is 41. The baby on her back is two months old and Inez has five other children.

Ms. INEZ MAMANI: (Through translator) With my other children, there wasn't a program like this. It was sad the way we raised them. Now they have milk, clothing, diapers, and it's great that the government helps us. Before, natural resources were privately owned and there wasn't this sort of support.

MURPHY: Many Bolivians, like Inez, also believe that in coming years Bolivia's vast lithium reserves should fund similar programs. Abrenda Gao(ph) is a law student and an indigenous activist here in El Alto. He supports Morales but he says stipends bankrolled by Bolivia's natural riches are just a start.

Mr. ABRENDA GAO (Activist): (Through translator) The stipends are just a quick fix. They just give back to the people what was already theirs. Being Aymara is more than just walking around in a poncho and a pair of sandals. Just because someone is Aymara doesn't mean they shouldn't know how to navigate the Internet or own a laptop. A developed country has to have the best in education and technology.

MURPHY: And it seems likely that as of Sunday, Evo Morales will have five more years in office to see if he can actually deliver that.

From La Paz, Bolivia, I'm Annie Murphy for NPR News.

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